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Thursday, August 11, 2011

First Week Report

So I've been here for almost a week now, having left Ireland last Thursday and arrived in Lilongwe on Friday morning.  The week has flown for me and I know Ruth can barely believe that she has been here for three. Lilongwe life runs at a different pace to Dublin, with most employment starting between 7.30 and 8am (a far cry from Irish court starting times) and finishing before sundown so it is safe to get home. Most places, bar restaurants and pubs close before 7 and it seems it’s not unusual to be in bed for 10pm. Certainly a change for me, given I used to lecture until that exact time 4 nights a week until a few weeks ago and it is taking some getting used to. House hunting, phone unblocking and generally getting to grips with every day life has also been time consuming but we’ve been very fortunate to meet some very lovely and helpful locals and expats who have guided us on our way. 

We've had a pretty busy lead in week, with Ruth and myself meeting with the Legal Aid Bureau to discuss the role we will be taking within the organisation and how we would undertake our work and the work we will be doing with other partners. It was a very positive meeting and I know we are both very excited to start proper as Legal Aid advocates next Monday. We've also been drafting up letters, reports, minutes, amending MOU's and reading up on the myriad of legislation, case law and reports in respect of the Criminal Justice system in Malawi. While it’s been a lot to take in, it’s all very exciting. We've also had a few meetings rearranged and difficulties tracking down others but this is something we are just going to have to get used to.

Other matters which may effect the work we will be doing include fuel shortages and political turmoil. On Monday the Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM) announced a 10% cut in the value of the Malawian currency (The Kwacha).  The RBM is currently maintaining the line that the devaluation is not due to international pressure, specifically pressure from the IMF to ‘ease the exchange rate’, and was independently made by the state. The recent cut in foreign aid has resulted in a lack of foreign exchange (ForEx) and rising fuel prices. The U.K. withdrew aid worth $550 million for Malawi in June after the government deported a British envoy who criticized President Mutharika in a leaked memorandum. The kwacha will now sell for about 165 to the US$ from the previous of 152 although this is still significantly short of the value that is available on the black market.  Malawi’s central bank governor has urged businesses not to raise prices after the devaluation and has said exporters must deposit their foreign exchange in banks in the country and that tourists must pay their bills in foreign exchange.  It will be interesting to see how this affects the ongoing worry of the fuel shortage. 

Malawi has been gripped by an acute fuel shortage that has paralyzed the operations of different sectors of the economy. This is evidenced by the scarcity of diesel, petrol and paraffin and the massively long fuel queues running along the road by every fuel station when they get fuel in. The major reason why Malawi is having this fuel shortage problem is shortage of foreign exchange capital to buy fuel energy imported through neighbouring countries. Just getting access to a fuel pump can be a difficulty at the moment and with only 3,000 kwacha  (€13) worth of fuel available at the pump per car you wont be traveling very far.

In addition the political situation is tumultuous with another set of anti-government protests upcoming on the 17th August. Two days of mass protests rocked the country in July in one of the largest protests in the nation's history and most businesses will shut down on at least the 17th. The U.S. has also suspended a $350 million aid accord to improve electricity supplies after the July protests on Human Rights grounds.

We also spent a morning visiting the Cara Malawi funded project in Kaphuka, a village about 2 hours south-east of Lilongwe.  Cara Malawi's work has transformed the village.  In April 2008 Cara Malawi partnered with Irish Aid for its project to supply electricity to three points in Kaphuka the Health Centre, the School and the Maize Mill .With the help of Cara Malawi a Maize Mill has been built and, when the electricity is installed, it will transform the lives of women and children of the village, as the pounding of maize (the staple diet) is an arduous task. It will also create employment opportunities for the villagers. The electricity installation is currently in progress and should be working by the end of September.

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