Here in Malawi, I have a wide verandah which faces east. I take my coffee there just after sunrise. The sun, filtered by jacaranda trees, warms the porch cooled by a night at high altitude. This is my eleventh trip to Africa and nearly every morning has been beautiful. I only remember one less-than-stellar morning in Africa. It was in Egypt toward the end of a two-day sandstorm. But Egypt is not really Africa, is it? The Arab countries north of the Sahara really don’t belong to the rest of the continent.
On this trip I’m in the heart of Africa. They call Malawi the warm heart of Africa due to the friendliness of the people. And why wouldn’t you be in a good mood when the temperature is never too hot or cold and ripe fruit is ready to pick all year round. Yet wherever you go, tall walls and strong gates surround all but the poorest huts. In the towns, the walls are topped with shards of glass embedded in concrete. For some compounds the shards are replaced with several strands of electric wire.
I hate looking at those shards of glass because of the dark side of society they point to. Every family has stories of robbers breaking into their houses. Providing security for homes and businesses is a growth industry. Unfortunately, you don’t need those shards to experience this dark side. Any drive anywhere in the country means being stopped several times by police looking for an excuse to fine you. Always remember to take a few thousand kwacha with you. They can always find something to fine you for, if they want to. Luckily, three thousand kwacha (less than $5) is usually enough to get you back on the road. Somehow, though, we were lucky and never fined on this visit.
In many developing countries, the best way to become rich is to become a mayor or policeman. The opportunities for graft and bribes are many. No one likes all this graft, corruption and robbery, but it’s a fact of life, so you deal with it. It’s just a cost of doing business.
Remembering how we still leave the keys in our cars and the doors unlocked in rural America, I can’t help but wonder what it would take to bring such peace and security to poor countries such as Malawi. Then I remember that much of America has problems with bribery and theft. I’m just lucky to live in a rural area where crime and corruption seldom come.
I come to Africa to help people make their farms, businesses and communities more resilient. I help them add value to the commodities they produce, form cooperatives, market their new products. I wish I knew how to help them reduce corruption and crime.
I marvel at how little I need to worry about crime in my little corner of the world. I can hardly imagine what it must be like to live with the memory and fear of violent crime. Yet people seem to live happy lives despite the regular visits of crime. It’s a mystery to me.
I’ve completed my training here and left my hosts very happy with the marketing plan they requested. We had fascinating conversations behind the high walls of their compound. I just wish I could leave them with the lack of crime where I live in Arkansas.
Having experienced very little violence in my life, it’s hard to imagine not having a peaceful life far from crime.
If you live in one of the fortunate low crime areas of the world, be grateful. And, if you want to do something really useful, figure out why the crime is so low there. Then maybe we can help the high crime areas. And then maybe we can build resilient, prosperous societies on that foundation.
In a couple of days, I’ll be back home where we don’t need guards and high walls. And I’ll be grateful and wishing I knew why.