Malawi: First Thoughts

To understand any place, you have to leave it. It’s only with a comparative perspective that you recognize the significance of things you take for granted on the one hand, or the things you lament daily on the other. That’s how I’ve felt, anyway, during this past year of working on my dissertation, based in Uganda and working briefly in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Burkina Faso, and now, Malawi.

I flew into Kamuzu International Airport in Lilongwe yesterday afternoon. From Kampala it’s a short trip, feeling much like the journey from San Francisco to Chicago, and making intra-continental travel seem easier than it normally does.

There are no immigration forms to fill upon arrival in Lilongwe (at least the day I arrived), but they do check for your Yellow Fever card. How did Yellow Fever, a relatively uncommon disease, become the single most common (only?) vaccination required worldwide? I was thankful I had remembered my aptly colored yellow Yellow Fever card, but others who didn’t have one seemed to get through just fine. While the card is ostensibly a requirement in lots of countries, apart from Malawi I can only ever remember being checked in Nigeria.

At the immigration counter, I was not asked what I would be doing in Malawi, or how long I would be staying. There were no forms to fill out, no visa fees to pay. My fingers were scanned, photo taken, and off I went. I bought a SIM card at the airport, no registration required, and got cash from the ATM. The road from Kamuzu to Lilongwe was practically deserted; a few homes dotted the otherwise empty roadside. The road was smooth, the air hot, the ground dry. I wasn’t sure we had arrived in Lilongwe proper until I started to recognize the names of lodges I had seen in guidebooks. By contrast, coming from Entebbe you may think you’ve reached Kampala, only to find yourself snaking slowly through the city limits an hour later.

The quiet and winding streets of the Lilongwe, lined with trees, remind me of Kigali, as does the relative absence of people. While Kampala, Lagos, Nairobi, and Accra are churning, bustling, and often overwhelming, Lilongwe has a distinctly understated presence.

Uganda’s economy is nearly five times the size of Malawi, Kenya and Ghana about twice that of Uganda, and Nigeria far bigger than all four combined. The largest bill you can get in Malawi $2.50, Uganda, $20, Kenya $11, Nigeria $6, Ghana $23. As you can see, there is no relationship between bill and economy size (or GDP per capita, for that matter), which makes spending and taking out money much easier in Uganda and Ghana than in Malawi or Nigeria. In both Nigeria and Malawi (yes, with my limited experience of one day in the latter),  ATMs appear to be frequently running out of money, and sometimes with very long queues. I’m no economist, but something about tiny bills seems very inefficient. Is there an upside? Any work on the politics of moneymaking, literally?

Finally, although I generally dislike the tradition (requirement?) of adorning the walls of every establishment with presidents’ photos, it is a welcome change to see — for once if not for long — a woman in the frame.

That’s all for today. More comparative musings soon.

Update: Relatedly, though I don’t fully agree: “Africa? Why there’s no such place” h/t to my partner in crime.

Endangered books

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Jinja archives, Jinja, Uganda (2013)

My research of late has explored the responses of Muslim elites and communities to the arrival of missionaries and colonial administrators across Uganda. Sources primarily comprise of missionary accounts, official documents of the colonial administration, manuscripts and books by Ugandan intellectuals and scholars, and work by non-Ugandan anthropologists, most of whom were most active between the 1960s and 1980s.

The best and most detailed accounts tend to be authored by Ugandans, often those who played active roles in shaping the course of the country’s history. Unfortunately, these works are also the most difficult to find. Makerere University Libraries are perhaps the best resource, but you must have university affiliation to use the libraries and you cannot check out or, understandably, copy the books. Thus, many of Uganda’s most precious historical works are quietly locked away from the public.

I’ve identified a class of what I will call “endangered books”. These are books (or theses, etc.) that are now out of print or have never been published, and are virtually impossible to access or acquire without affiliation to a university with a very good library. Many of the authors have passed on, and are not able to lobby for the protection of their hard work. I don’t imagine there is a huge market for many of these books, yet unless steps are taken to republish them, a fire or two is capable of wiping out their existence.

I’m keeping a running list of these works below as I come across them. Hopefully I can convince a publisher to take interest in making sure these treasures do not fall victim to the decay currently facing many archives across Africa (see Jinja archives above). Please feel free to submit your own.

Endangered books:

UGANDA

Y.K. Lubogo. 1960. The History of Busoga. Jinja, Uganda: East Africa Literature Bureau.
Dan Mudoola. 1974. Chiefs and Political Action, The Case of Busoga: 1900-1968. PhD thesis, Makerere University

NIGERIA

Wahab Oladejo Adigun Nasiru. 1977. Islamic Learning Among the Yoruba, 1896-1963. PhD Thesis in the department of Arabic and Islamic Studies, University of Ibadan

Tracking violence in Nigeria

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On Tuesday, Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in three northeastern states, Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa. Raids by the Nigerian army have started in Borno, targeting Boko Haram. Boko Haram has killed over 1000 people since launching their insurgency in 2009, but as the figure above shows, the Nigerian army has been complicit in many killings as well. The Council on Foreign Relations has a security tracker for Nigeria with more information here.

Goodluck on Friday the 13th

It seems Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan has some good luck on this Friday the 13th — he will be allowed to contest in the January 2011 presidential elections. BBC reports that he has not yet announced whether he will indeed run for president, but I for one would be shocked if he did not. After all, wouldn’t you if you had just bought 3 new jets? I somehow can’t shake my skepticism of leaders who wear the same head attire everyday. From Mobutu to Museveni to Goodluck, why can’t these guys part with their headgear?