Rob Trask is a finalist in the Guardian International Development Journalism Competition and is visiting Malawi with Progressio to write about the role of faith in responding to HIV.
Within ten minutes of boarding my flight to Malawi I realised I was way out of my depth. I was on my way to the capital, Lilongwe (via Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and had wound up in a conversation with two guys in the seats next to me about politics. Maybe I should have stuck to football. One was an Ethiopian surveyor, the other a Somalian hospital porter - both were born in Africa - both were forced to move to London to find work - both had ideas, innovations and offered potential solutions to the specific problems facing their countries. Robin, who was originally from Addis Ababa, talked eleoquently about the great strides that had been taken to add accountability to its politics and reduce corruption recently and was clearly proud of the progress Ethiopia was making.
Herein I learnt my first lessons of the trip. One, that books are no substitute for experience. And two, that the sheer enormity of the continent emphasises that the different needs of each country (and each community within each country!) will not be met with broad brush 'African' policy. The needs of the 85 million Ethiopians, for example, will be very different to the 10 million Somalians. And the needs of the 85 million Ethiopians will differ from community to community. Africa is a patchwork quilt, and each patch within it is unique.
I am here to write my submission for the final of the Guardian's Journalism competition. Lis, my accomplice from the London office of Progressio, together with Godwin and Thomas from the office here in Malawi, are going to show me the work which is delivered on the ground by Progressio everyday in Malawi. They have arranged a variety of interviews and meetings for me along the way to help me put together my final feature.
It's been a long trip and I feel like I haven't slept in days - I'm off to bed.
I met with the ICS group this afternoon. They are volunteers (aged 18-25) interested in understanding more about international development who come out to Malawi (and other destinations) for 10 weeks at a time, to work with Progressio's partner organisations. The clever bit for me,is that when they return, they are required as part of the scheme to use the experience to inspire social action on global issues back in the UK. Be this lobbying an MP or just presenting your findings to friends and family - it means the experience doesn't stop when you board the flight home. The group were still bursting with energy and enthusiasm after eight weeks work and I was impressed most by their passion: for the people they met, the projects they worked on, for Progressio's work, and for Malawi as a prospect. Perhaps this is something more than the ordinary gap year scheme?
We also managed to have a quick look around Lilongwe too and one initial observation I have made is the huge Chinese presence you hear about in the media is evident everywhere you look. From the Chinese menu at the hotel restaurant, to the five star Chinese built hotel in the city centre. I had heard reports that all Chinese businesses were being forced back into the cities in an attempt to protect local small-scale businesses from competition from foreign traders. I'm not sure what has come of this but it's certainly an interesting time. The Chinese are huge investors in Malawi and so the international relationship is no doubt a delicate one to balance.
In other news I have just found out that Malawi lost 2-0 to Ghana in the first leg of the AFCON qualifier. We had listened to most of the game on the radio but I still had no idea of the final score. Fingers crossed the Flames can turn it around in the second leg...
Photo: The international language of football: a match organised as part of an HIV awareness-raising programme by Progressio ICS volunteers in Malawi in 2011.