It’s Raining Elephants and Cows

The Rains are here. The meteorological tyranny of the last few months, everyday being hotter and drier than the last, suddenly ended with the most cathartic tropical storm at about 10pm last night. This was no Mancunian fine yet permeating drizzle. Nor the ‘oop Mam Tor in October blatter. This was the super size in water delivery solutions – the whole of the sky released an ocean of water in one go and let it free-fall onto the baked earth. This is a photo of the storm and of us the following morning, it was still raining. Most of our road is missing, and quite a lot of other people’s walls are not where they had left them the night before.

malawi storm

Lightening in the dead of night, over Blantyre

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Lyra and Luka playing in the rain in our front yard. That is one of the infamous ‘Matola Taxis’ parked behind them.

malawi rain

Grace, Lyra, Luka and me, all very wet.

In Malawi most bricks are made by shaping natural clay into tablets, stacking them all together in an elongated pyramidal shape and then setting a fire in the inside. When I first saw these curious structures at a distance, being a recovering archaeologist I thought that they were some kind of religious earthworks. Crumbling fragments of the hopes and dreams of a long-dead civilisation. Then I saw one on fire, and I worked it out. I don’t have a photo as I’m mortified by taking photographs of strangers, so here is one of my sketches.

sketch of a brick kiln

A Malawian brick kiln, two ladies and a tasty-bok.

The kilns are interesting and eye-catching but I don’t think that they produce very strong bricks. I guess the heat doesn’t fire the tablet evenly, leading to one side becoming more porous than the other*. As a result, most of the carpentry shop next to our house is now in the Naperi river.

Nonetheless, everyone agrees the storm is worth the destruction and celebrates the coming of the Rains. The Rains are the end of the ‘hungry time’, between the reaping of the last crops and before the new growth can begin. It feels like the earth has suddenly opened its eyes and sat straight up, awake and refreshed. As Betjeman said, “The earth exhales”.**

Lyra slept through the immense din of rain drops as big as gobstoppers falling on the tin roof. The lightening lit up the whole sky and thunder pummeled our ears, but she slept on. Jody and Nonna were a little nervous (shit scared) but I loved it. I am frightened of centipedes (q.v.), stairs without backs, and diagrams of the human central nervous system, but I’m not frightened of storms. My atavistic defences are overrun by the excitement of natures’ tantrums; there is something so ferocious and vital about a tropical storm, especially if it’s over the sea. It turns me on, ‘look at the pressure front on that mother’ I think. I’m obviously in the running for a Darwin award sometime soon.

In More Tales of Malawi Water, we went to the mountains this weekend and swam in the most amazing waterfall.  Blantyre is on the Shire (she-ree) plateaux, ringed by hills like Sheffield. Part of this plateaux is the mountain range of Mulanje, a huge volcanic rock that seems pulled from the earth into this towering, sheer sided giant, wreathed in grey clouds. It is said (my source for this is a pizza menu, so I’m not very confident of this fact) that Tolkein based the Shire on the plateaux and Mordor on the mountain. This photo doesn’t really do it justice, but my damn camera broke as we approached, so I’ll just have to go back and take some more pictures for you all.

mount mulanje

Mount Mulanje, approaching from Satemwe

In more personal news, we are all well, I’m still not a full Weeb, but I’m much better. Lyra is having a lovely time, especially since Nonna is here. This is her and her friend Luka playing ‘mummies and daddies’ with their babies in chatenges (wrap slings).

lyra and luka with babies 1

Mummy Lyra with baby Benjamin and Daddy Luka with baby Nyah.

*I am talking out of my bottom here, if you have any actual facts about brick making, please share.

**In the interests of accuracy I should point out that he was talking about bombing Slough, not about a tropical storm, but the line always caught my imagination.

The African Offside Trap

I keep meaning to blog about working on the labour ward here in Blantyre, but in the true style of one unwilling to face the still-parsing traumatic observations of the last month, I’m going to talk about football instead.

I am feeling much better and have been going to the gym again. I like the College of Medicine Sports Centre, it is wonderfully reliable in that all of the machines are equally broken – they all work a little bit. Maybe if you put an arm on one machine and a buttock on another, you might get some exercise. So mostly I run the track, do the occasional aerobics class and sometimes go and look at the cute men in the weights room lift some weights.

Over the last few months one of the trainers has been organising a football match on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Those who know me will have heard my tirades against football, but you may not appreciate that this is nothing to do with the actual game. I despise drunken groups of men sexually harassing me. Because of course, shouting ‘Oi love give us one!! hur hur hur!’ will endear me to their laddish yet refreshingly honest embrace of mainstream masculinity and will charm me into ripping my clothes off. I find the disruption to public transport ludicrously annoying. I abhor the violence and loath the implicit regional jingoism. I also hate the bastardly awful tuneless songs. Bear in mind that I have lived within half a mile of Old Trafford, Highbury and ‘The Den’ in my life, which probably goes some way to explaining my ire. When we lived near Millwall I used to keep a head trauma kit by the front door (pen-light, dressings, gloves, antiseptic spray and a can of Special Brew). Occasionally I feel left out, but then I remember that I would rather eat an ear than have some pot-bellied nylon t’shirted testicle think it is acceptable to pinch my bum and smirk.

However, I have always loved playing football, it is a beautiful, graceful and exciting game (unless anyone in the crowd is going ‘hur hur hur!’). I used to play as a child, though I wasn’t allowed to trial for the school team because of my potential to one day grow breasts and multitask. I played for university too, being the small, fast and usually hung-over centre forward for Newnham Twos. But then you get a busy job, have kids, and next thing you know you get out of breath lifting the wine glass. Since we’ve been here, however, I’ve been enjoying getting fit again, so I was really excited when they invited me to play last month.

At first it was all very uncomfortable. Unlike playing on a mixed team in the UK, with guys who are programmed from their first day of school never to pass to a girl’, the men here were gentleman like and courteous. Unfortunately. Every time I went to tackle someone, and usually I had no hope as they are mostly much better than me and all about a foot taller, they would politely tap the ball to me and stand out of my way with an encouraging smile. This is chivalry, but also it is the natural Malawian deference and kindliness; it is more important to be polite than it is to win. Things quickly got better though, after I scored a goal and did my ‘Snoopy dance’*. Strangely, they then seemed to loose some deference (respect).

So yesterday, still a bit pale and about 10kg lighter than I was before the sepsis, I played once more and it was brilliant! Genorino, who is really good, has taken me under his wing (literally, I don’t reach up to his armpit) and let me play on his team. For the first time in a decade I felt again like I could fly. I also realised that I am feeling at home and becoming less of a stranger in this hot and peaceful land; more in tune with the local emotions and behaviours. I scored a goal and instead of the idiotic victory dance, I spent ten minutes stubbornly insisting, against all the kind reassurances of the other team, that I had, in fact, been offside.


Lyra and I lying in hammocks by Lake Malawi, just to cheer all you freezing people up.

*Head back, twirling round, flapping paws and grinning. Usually very sweaty by this point. V sophisticated and sexy.


Last week I nearly died. So I hope the delay in blogging will be forgiven by my three avid readers and fans and I’ll tell you all about starting work at the hospital in a few days. What made me sick wasn’t Ebola, nor an exotic something which an episode of House would be based around, although like Hugh Laurie I did get given a lot of Tramadol. It wasn’t even something gross and tropical, such as a leg-worm you can wind on a stick like candy floss. It was common or garden septic shock. We still don’t know what the bacteria was, the labs here are slow.  But the unnamed pathogen won the fight against my immune system, taking advantage of its naivety as a stranger to these spirited African strains, fumbling for its Lonely Planet Guide Book to Nasty Bugs, to ask for “some more please T cells thank you” whilst the bacteria danced happy reproductive swirls throughout my increasingly depleted circulation.

I suspect that whatever it was got into me when I was cleaning down the labour ward here, drenched in filthy water, trying to scrub bodily fluids in a range of attractive pastel colours off the rusty bedsteads with Vim powder. What our maternity wing in Blantyre really needs is not just more midwives and doctors, we have those and for the most part they are excellent clinicians. What we need are more HCA’s, cleaners and someone to get the damn autoclave to work.

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A labour room.

I was ok in the evening, a little blurred vision but I thought I was just over-tired, maybe a touch of migraine. I developed a fever overnight and woke up dizzy, but apart from the ever-present hypochondriac ‘maybe I’ve got malaria’ worry, I was sure it was just a cold. Three hours later I was unconscious in the Mission hospital with a blood pressure of 75/40mmHg. I tell you this mostly because I’m now well enough to dramatise and hope for your sympathy – the only good bit about being sick is that people tell you that they love you and bring you tasty things. I feel very far away from Nonna’s aubergines today. But also because it again reminded me of how lucky I am to be me. We have health insurance, a car and a lot of medical knowledge between us, although not, I must say, evenly distributed. I still can’t remember which side of the heart is the red bit and which is the blue bit.  It only took Jody half an hour to get back from work, when I found I couldn’t stand up and called him, and another 15mins for him to get my delirious tiny self to the hospital. If I’d been 999 out of a 1000 women in Malawi, I wouldn’t have reached the main road.

I would really like to say that such an extreme experience, certainly the closest I have ever been to non-existence, gave me some fresh perspective on life. I felt really terrified being incapable and with Lyra, but that was fear of leaving her alone and scared, and Jody turned up soon enough. But otherwise it all felt really prosaic; painful but really ordinary.

Other times I have ‘narrowly avoided catastrophe’ have all been much more tenuous and with surpassing dramatic narrative. Hungover and sleeping through my alarm, thus being late for the meeting that would have seen me at Kings Cross Underground just before nine o’clock on 7th July. Being chased across a river by comically mustachioed Mexican malditos with rifles so old-fashioned, a musket would be an upgrade. One May Week long ago, missing my footing and dangling off the guttering of Trinity College with a pair of heels over my shoulder, trying to impress the (turns out un-impressible) long-haired ponce I had a crush on. However, this time, after the very unglamorous reality of a shot over the bows of mortality, I don’t feel invigorated. The constant ache for my mum, Bridges, Chanje, Jaymi, Dave and the rest of the people I love is intensified, but I knew how important you all were to me anyway. Maybe I’ll have an epiphany or similar insight into the meaning of existence when the headache and nausea go away.

One unexpected dramatic twist though, was my attending doctor. When Jody and I were both still medical/midwifery students, we paid the university fees of a young medical student in Blantyre. This was through a very small project set up by Malcolm Molyneux, a principled physician who has spent his life working to improve health care in Malawi and who was an inspiration Jody. It wasn’t that much each month, but still we struggled to make the payment sometimes, living in London on a leaky boat and not having much of an income.  This was a decade ago, and I thought for sure we’d never meet him – most qualified doctors here leave for South Africa where there is a better quality of life for their families and where they can practice medicine with more resources and support. But James stayed, and happened to be the Consultant on call at a small Adventist Hospital here when I was brought in. He realised who Jody was, despite my feminist refusal to ever take his surname, and hugged him when they met. Back then I’d imagine him sometimes when dreaming of Africa, as a student doctor working on sunlit but bare wards, in a city of noise and heat. I would Imagine him treating patients in a similar states of collapse, being quick and definitive with the instructions to “put Ringers up and start the antibiotics stat,” and thereby saving their lives.

No One Here But Us Bipeds

Leaving behind the context in which you understood yourself inevitably leads to new discoveries about who you really are. The things that are fundamentally important to you are more visible without the coating of things you enjoyed (mostly vices) and the lifestyle preferences that you had (vices and Buffy). Further, you encounter that which bring out your darkness, the ‘you’ that exists without the cytoplasm of control, the membrane which keeps you looking a normal shape with all the inside bits inside. You find out what makes you collapse on the bathroom floor and howl.

I feel threatened just by how visible I am here. There are very few white people and although nearly everyone is extravagantly kind and courteous, I do feel like I’ve accidentally gone out naked, or wearing Lyra’s bunny ears (again). Of course, when people get to know you, superficial differences recede, and I am happier just for having a few friends and knowing enough people to say hello to, in the gym, the local Superette, and around our little part of town called New Naperi. I made friends with an incredibly old lady called Doris, who had a sign in her garden saying she would like empty bottles to put her homemade beer in*. Her house is on the way to Lyra’s nursery, down a little loop of a road that cuts out the scary-no-pavement-highway, so we pass by most days. We met her when Lyra, Luka and I turned up with a wheelbarrow full of wine bottles, left by the previous residents.  Apart from the fact that she now thinks I am an alcoholic, we get on very well, and I look forward to passing her gate and exchanging pleasantries with her every morning.


Lyra Lizard and Luka Lizard

Another locus of familiarity was climbing Mount Soche yesterday, which was a refreshingly Yorkshire-like thing to do. Pottering up a hill with some shortcake biscuits and admiring the view, before retracing our steps and eating a massive Sunday lunch. Though the lunch was tasty-bok and rice rather than beef and puds.


On top of Mount Soche


The view from Mount Soche, looking North.

It is not just by my appearance that makes me stand out here. Manners are culturally proscribed and subtly nuanced; classical anthropology would describe them as the outward performance of an internal knowledge system. For instance, picking up a passing child who is totally unknown to you and kissing him/her is normal in Malawi. It makes my heart stop every time someone does this to Lyra and she gets absolutely furious at the invasion of her personal space. I have now learnt the perfect Chichewa for “I’m really sorry my daughter bit you, would you like some Germolene for that?”. But the very notion of personal space is not universal, and nor is the expectation that a small child will have strong feelings about what it will permit; both of these things are singularly European, rooted in our reverence for the ‘individual’.

I have also discovered that being satirical because someone is blindly following a protocol, despite the ironic consequences of their actions, is really rude in Malawi. Though this is still obligatory in Hoxton.  I know this because you can’t leave a shop here without having your receipt stamped. They don’t check your bags, they don’t look at the receipt, and they don’t have any in-store security, but you can’t leave without that stamp. So, after 45 minutes of trying to find some cream crackers, whilst your child is screaming because the lady behind us asked her if she was a fairy and it should be obvious to anyone that she is in fact a ‘pirate-fairy-baby-cat’, and just as you have remembered the essential thing that you came in for and it is now too late to go back and get, you have to stand in line to have a rubber stamp applied to your receipt, for absolutely no purpose. This causes a confused scrimmage at the exit through which the shoptlifters can blithely carry out crates of beer. I have failed to be anything other than sarcastic about this and every weekend I leave the store in the certain knowledge that I am a massive bitch.

Even the Malawian fauna is challengingly different. Thus, two nights ago I was sitting on the bathroom floor, clutching a can of Doom**, weeping uncontrollably and making that funny sound between mooing and screaming that only the truly terrified can create.  I have always known that I’m a bit funny about things with more than eight legs. Up to and including eight is fine, I am the honorary Holberry Gardens ‘creature’ catcher, and have often chuckled smugly to myself whilst carrying a pretty spider on my arm out from Jaymi’s house, as she stood on a chair and gibbered. There is also the drunken ‘chasing the frog’ game that we play every August, when the neighbours pond spawn has hatched and the little slippery hoppers get into the front room. Here too, I’ll happily fence cockroaches the size of tuppeny bits with my fish slice, for the last of the pancake batter.

But not centipedes. Or millipedes. They were always dealt with by a swift trowel to the middle and then hastily buried with a vow never to dig there again. But in Sheffield, they were tiny and only in the garden. In Sheffield, they weren’t 8 inches long and in my bed.  A whisper away from my face. I don’t know if they bite but my god, I have never, ever felt so physically afraid. In order to prove (to myself) that I am not a massive Jessie, may I put on record that I’ve jumped out of a plane, been chased through a rainforest by bandits with rifles, dealt with massive haemorrhages at homebirths, piloted solo a small leaky narrow boat down the Thames in flood, and faced a line of riot police whilst handcuffed to a man in a tiger suit. The latter was during my activist/Greenpeace days and not an advert for ‘New Militant Frosties!’.

None of these experiences even come close to how I felt on Saturday evening, sharing my pillow with so many legs. Jody well meaningly suggested we buy me a toy horrorpede in order to ‘get me used to them’. I, very unwellmeaningly, told him where to stuff his can of Doom.


Some of the fauna is brilliant, we met this gentleman on the way down Soche.

*The local brew has the consistency and taste of porridge. Because it’s made from fermented porridge.

**Southern Africa’s favorite Pyrethroid.

Africa Calling

I don’t think of myself as a technophobe, I’m probably a bit out of date but I get the basics and after an adult life of exclusively dating (and finally marrying) geeks, I can even stop my eyes from glazing over when someone mentions Linux. But I have always hated phones; their limitations don’t make up for their convenience in my emotive world. Hearing Chanje’s voice makes the fact that I am not with her worse, not better. Though, as she has previously texted me in the kitchen from my attic bedroom to bring her wine, this does not always apply. I don’t mind other people’s phones, if my companion starts tapping away, shoulders rounded and thumbs angled, I think, ‘oh good, I can daydream for a bit.’ This last especially so since I had Lyra – daydream time is a precious commodity once you (mistakenly) teach your child the power of speech. What I find intrusive is what they do to my own concentration, taking me out of the conversation, thought (nap) or work (nap) I was in the middle of, and forcing me to engage with something else, even if I don’t answer the call. Thus, I hate my phone ringing and this is never a reflection on the caller. I suppose I am a very ‘here and now’ kind of person.

In the UK, we have very prescriptive mores about phone use. One would never take a call in a job interview, or during sex for instance (well, excepting rule 34 and by mutual consent). Further, every couple of months, when there isn’t enough exploding in the world news or national commentary on random acts of jingoistic ball kicking, a journalist trots out with the story ‘children now spend 97 hours a day on screens and are resultingly less intelligent than demented gerbils’.  I refer the reader to for perspective on this one.

The culture of phones here is very different. The mobile phone has revolutionised life in Sub-Saharan Africa. The difficulties most people here face are not because of their poverty, but because of the last 500 years of poverty and exploitationWhen Iceland went bankrupt in 2008, after a century of prosperity, I’m betting that they still had gloves in the hospitals, roads that stayed where you put them, and lattes. In Malawi, there was little infrastructure to enable other services and industries to develop. There are very few landlines here, one train track (riding the family of tasty-boks that live on the sidings would be quicker) and only enough electricity generation capacity to keep us lit up for about half the week. Though if you go a couple of miles down the road to Sunnyside, where the Vice President lives, the power mysteriously stays on. But mobile phones are a paradigmatically different technology from the infrastructure of the age of industry. Masts cost little to erect, don’t require much more than a dirt track you can get a jeep down, and handsets are now very cheap.

Mobile phones have made everything possible. You can do your banking with them which is a very good thing, as the cash machines never work and nowhere takes cards. Even if you don’t have a bank account, you can pay other people, pay utility bills, buy things in shops, get public health advice, order a matola-taxi or even, if you still have the energy, call people.  It is democratising, to the point that even if you are not on the grid, you can still pop down the local shop and charge your phone at “God is Hope Barbers and Battery Charge”. People can run businesses with a reliable way of contacting and billing their customers and suppliers and you can always make sure your family is safe.

So mobiles have been a massive boon to the Malawian economy. But being English, with the rule-bound, polite to the point of inanity personality that such an origin entails, I find the way people use phones here a little unsettling.  My dislike of the invasion of my whimsical musings seems churlish compared to what some Malawians will stop or drop to get the phone. It is normal to answer the phone whilst driving, and then suddenly break whilst in the fast lane of the only dual carriage way to find a pen. Or stop the car in the middle of a roundabout to text (this is not hyperbole).  At least he stopped, I guess.

When I was being interviewed by the Senior Nurse at the council, she answered her phone part way through and had a fun chat with someone for over ten minutes, twirling her hair round a pencil, then digging in her desk draw to find a cake recipe. But the most astounding one by far was yesterday at the College of Medicine Sports Centre. The very lovely gym teacher who, whilst leading a ‘cool down’ after circuit training, managed to get his phone out of his hip pocket whilst holding his left foot in his right hand behind his back and continued to demonstrate stretches to the class whilst talking.  I laughed so much I fell over, foot still in hand. Then the whole class erupted at the picture of me, laid on the floor, crying with hilarity. So finally, the amused instructor had say he’d call his wife back as he couldn’t hear her over the noise of everyone laughing at the prone white-girl, with her mad hair sticking out, laughing at him.


(not that it’s relevant to the story, but this was the view from my porch yesterday evening. mmmmm)

P.S. I would be very grateful if some of you regular readers, and I know you’re there because I’ve just figured out where the metrics are on WP, would be very kind and make me feel loved by following the blog. I promise not to spam and not to post more than twice a week. It’s just that the ‘9’ followers is a little sad, especially when you know that two of those is my mum, who keeps forgetting her email password and making herself another account. It’s just over here at the top (mum) ——->

The Greyhound Bus

I had to go to Lilongwe this week. Lilongwe has been the capital city since 1975 when the ‘president for life’ Banda made it so. Presumably because it was because he dreamed it was destined, or it looked nicer than Zomba as a backdrop to his ‘approachable yet poignant pose’ or some such mad-dictator logic. Hastings Banda was one of the fathers of Malawian independence and quite forward thinking about some things, like women’s rights, education and having roads. But, like most men who remain in power for too long, he got more paranoid and murderous as the years wore on, descending into the kind of ‘I’m going to ban songs that annoy me’* megalomania that led to the disappearance of about 6,000 people. I find it difficult to have a conversation about politics with a Malawian, despite the democracy and free press of today, because the habit of fear is ingrained. This makes me further appreciate growing in a country in which, despite having to put up with the likes of Thatcher and Cameron, I can call them a cabal of underdone reptilian anal glands as loudly as I want.

Lilongwe itself was dull – I’m sure it’s a lovely city, full of life and colour, but all I saw was the bus stop and the inside of the Nurses and Midwives Council of Malawi. In the UK, you fill out a form, send it to the NMC, and then they register you. To be fair, they usually take >8 weeks to do this, but you can occupy yourself with whatever you want during this time – eating coal and selling homemade matches to feed your family for instance.  However, in Malawi, things are done with style. Rubber stamped, paper heavy, dance of bureaucracy gone insane style. In this, my first of at least three visits, I spent nearly 6 hours in the building, in order to hand in a form and pay a KW20,000 fee (about £30). Having the form accepted was merely a matter of a chat about my life, my intentions in Malawi, my favourite Archangel, and ‘my goodness aren’t you a little hot sat in this windowless office in 35°C heat, wearing a heavy polyester midwives uniform for over two hours.’

After this is was off to pay, to the clerk’s office. At one barred window-counter, set at about 160cm high which meant I had to jump with every other word, I told them I wanted to give them my fee. I went to another, identical counter to give them my address in staccato hops, then to another counter to hand over the bouncing cash. Then back to the first counter for my stamped and signed receipt in triplicate. It got even more exciting when I tried to buy The Nursing Code for Malawi, which involved giving the KW800 to the young man at counter one, receiving a receipt, and being told to proceed to (ominous voice),’ROOM 37′. In Room 37, I handed the chit to an older, more resigned looking man. He smiled sadly at me, handed me an empty mug and then disappeared for 45 minutes. On a brief trip to the toilet I peered in at the room opposite, where he sat, knee-deep in a deluge of paper that was spewing out of a gigantic cupboard, rocking quietly.

So that was my first, surreal, visit to Lilongwe. Getting there, however, was a refreshingly expedient experience. I decided not to drive, knowing my immense skill at getting lost in a street I have lived in for years, let alone a strange new country with no road markings. There are few road signs in Malawi because people pinch them for roofing, which leads to the local councils drilling holes in them to ‘prevent’ this**, leaving them looking like they have suffered heavy shot-gun fire.

So I took the bus. The Axa Blantyre-Lilongwe Express, Executive Class (Unlike Delux class, some of the windows open and you get a warm Sprite). The driver, showing great determination and vim, stopped for nothing. The body count was a sandy-coloured mongrel, a little Shar-Pei looking thing, numerous chickens and a goat. In justice to him, he did bib his horn for the goat, they are quite valuable. I was surprised about how upset a 18 tonne bus hitting a small dog at 70mph made me feel, and not just the bump/crunch and the splatter. Squeamishness is not a trait compatible with someone who regularly washes amniotic fluid out of her bra. Neither am I a huge animal rights person. It’s not that creatures are off my love list, just that for me, they come under ‘people’, and I’m not through all of them yet. Also, I will quite happily eat anything dead that can be grilled or cooked in a sauce. In my life I’ve been fond of a couple of dogs, but really, rabies aside, I don’t know what to say to a creature with such an enthusiastic attitude to its own faeces.

So to my surprise the untimely but mercifully quick death of this little dog, really affected me. I found myself shaking and crying into my tepid soda. It took me a while to realise, but it is because I feel so vulnerable here too. I am so grateful that I am treated with such friendliness and welcome by most Malawians, made more miraculous to me because after two years visiting pregnant women in Yarl’s Wood, I know damn well how little succour immigrants get in the UK. But still I feel alone and far too visible. And I miss the thing that grounded me, that made me turn my gaze outwards and my heart upwards; I miss my friends.

Phoebe and ChanjePhoebe and Dave

And now with permission: The Picol!

nicol lyra train 1

* Apparently he banned ‘Cecilia’ by Paul Simon, after a rocky love affair with a woman named Cecilia.

**You just need to nick two and make sure the holes don’t line up.

Stars in Their Pies

In many ways, living in Malawi is not that dissimilar to living in Sheffield. Apart from the added 20°C, life is human. We get up, run around the house naked and shouting, find clothes, eat breakfast (toast for Lyra, omelet and chilli sauce for me). I go to work, come home for tea, chase Lyra wet from the bath and naked and shouting with pyjamas, and sometimes we see our friends.

What is different, is what happens when normal life is interrupted. If Bevan’s welfare state was a safety net big enough to catch the country, woven from the dreams of socialists, then the Tories welfare state is a slightly deflated old bouncy castle that smells of cat wee. With deformed and laughing gargoyles on the flaccid battlements. But either way, it is still a soft landing. Here, there is just a big canyon with lightning blasted twisted trees at the bottom. Yesterday, as I was watching the oven burn it occurred to me that if I couldn’t put it out then that was that, the house was going to explode. There is no fire-brigade or ambulance service here.  Still, with my well thought out n1 trial, I have conclusively proved that the oven cannot reach the required temperature (warm, warm, warm, warm, on fire, wet) to bake bread.

Similarly, when we were at the Lake, I watched the local kids playing by the shore, swimming, diving splashing and laughing. It looked like a magical childhood. But look for a little longer and you notice that about 1 in 10 of them have swollen and distended abdomens, which can be a sign of being very unwell due to a high parasitic load. I don’t know why some people can keep their parasites under disciplined control and others develop organ damage, but most of the Lake kids will be fine. Some will not. And being western, and being a clinician, and being a bloody interfering liberal activist, I thought, shouldn’t we be doing something for them?

I investigated a little and In fact there are many good programs, both NGO and local, to try to combat Schistosomiasis and other charming parasites (don’t go there, don’t google it). But again the problem is systemic; we are never going to stop people swimming in the Lake, but without an overarching responsiblity for sewerage, without raising living standards enough to provide domestic washing and cooking facilities for families, without functioning primary care, we will never interrupt the life cycle of this flukey little trematode.


(You get there with good intentions, hot and dusty from the long drive, then you see this….. and figure, what’s peeing blood in two months compared to not going for a swim right now. Pass the Praziquantel.)


(The Lake of Stars Malawian Arts and Music Festival, photo’s by Lyra Pallotti)

So, finally, the Lake of Stars Festival, which was immense. Apart from a little tango with the police due to a slightly dented bumper, and an ‘excess of chocolate pancake’ induced Lyra vomiting incident whilst in the sling, it was a really relaxing weekend. There was some great Malawian music, I liked the all female soul-funk “Daughters Band”. There was a large Scottish contingent too (Stanley Odd and others) and I enjoyed eating breakfast on the beach listening to some proper Glaswegian accents debating the quality of the pies. I even saw some people I knew from Knockengorroch, but was too covered in vomit to say hello. There was children’s theatre and acrobatics, and best of all, the whole thing was on the beach. Swimming, music, a few beers and definitely no more chocolate pancakes ever. La Dolce Vita.


(Phoebe and Lyra watching some improv theatre at Lake of Stars. Wherever I go I cannot escape postmodernist self-expression. At least there was no one smashing a double bass and sobbing this time. Dave Murray-Rust, you know what you did.)