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Of Dogs and Tears

Problems of Conscience, Malawi 21 January 1996
Our eleventh day in Malawi. This follows on from Zomba to Lilongwe. Barbie and Ken turn up at the house thus throwing Penny into a state of remorse; we learn about what a hornets’ nest Penny and John entered when they came here and how their dream of doing a little good for the world is inevitably going to be shattered. And we take the dogs for a walk.
Today is our slob-out day. It starts off well, with an idea to go to a German restaurant for lunch, if the road is passable. But the restaurant turns out to be closed for January.
We are sitting on the khonde thinking of alternatives when the gate is opened by the guard (white men do not, as a rule, open their own gate) and in comes an SOS vehicle delivering Barbie and Ken. All smiles, they have got the job. They regale their story to Penny and John. How they got to Harare but found no one to meet them. They had no money but managed to talk someone into letting them use the telephone and eventually got collected and taken to the SOS Children’s Village. The following day they were flown to Gaberone for a meeting with the SOS Africa boss who offered them the job and lent them a vehicle to drive back to South Africa for a few days. Then back to Gaberone, then Harare, then Lilongwe, still with no money. Barbie’s greatest delight in this episode is to have been treated to an evening drinking Southern Comfort.
John eventually got them up to the SOS Village, avoiding laying on any lunch, getting away solely with a glass of ‘celebratory’ whisky.
Then Penny cracked. She feels like Judas, selling her SOS children into the hands of these fascist racists. Barbie still has Penny’s dress, that Penny had lent her to go to her interview. When she gets it back, Penny will burn it.
Why has Reiner, their boss, fallen for these charlatans? Barbie has already says she wants the dogs to be disposed of as they will not match her poodle. Penny is distraught.
But perhaps Reiner is right. We hear more of the story of SOS Lilongwe.
SOS Children’s Village built their Lilongwe village at a most insensitive moment, at a time when aid to Malawi had been stopped, partly under the influence from the Catholic Church in Malawi, in order to force the president, Hastings Banda, to declare democratic elections. The driver for this was the desire to see redistributed some of the money that Banda was spending on lavish palaces for himself and academies based upon Eton College for the sons of his elite.
Then in comes SOS and builds a village for orphans. Mrs Banda, the president’s wife, organises a great opening ceremony, publicised to the world, paying anyone who will turn up a kwatcha each to wave a flag. Penny and John walk into this from the UK to set up the first SOS Children’s Village in Malawi, all unknowing and innocent.
Penny and John’s job, having got the building erected and equipped, is to take in orphans, that is what SOS Children’s Villages are there for. They are aware that they need to be very careful not to be accused of child stealing. They want court orders if at all possible.
The Malawian social services are however unwilling to cooperate. Take-on of children is slow, too slow for the authority in Innsbruck’s performance measurement statistics. (SOS Children’s Villages headquarters is in Innsbruck).
Then as people see the village taking shape and social services see the conditions there, seeming like a holiday camp compared to what large numbers of Malawian people endure, they begin sending along ‘orphans’, all of whom are, what a coincidence!, related to people who work in Malawi social services.
Is this an issue in Harare or Gaberone? Probably, who cares? The numbers are up and philanthropically-inclined folk in Reykjavic or Oslo can feel righteous and involved. Who cares? Penny and John do, But Barbie and Ken quite probably won’t even notice that the orphans have surprisingly well-connected parents lurking away somewhere, after all they’re black aren’t they? They need caring for then. So Reiner is probably right, and this too explains John’s phlegmatic approach when Barbie and Ken first appeared on the scene. This is Africa. Please don’t rock the boat.
Penny and John have to walk away from it. It was a grand mission but too naïve and doomed, we now see, to failure. [Next political . . .]
And the dogs will have to die too, be put down, because they might upset Barbie’s poodle and so be put out on the street, so it is kinder if they are destroyed. But maybe some of the other Brits in Lilongwe might take them, look after them.
Einstein and me
We take the dogs for a walk to see whether any of the neighbours might take them in. African dogs are not taken for walks and it takes these three a while to get used to it. A few choking attempts and barking and getting tied up around people’s legs but they get the hang remarkably quickly. In an extraordinarily short time they are on the leash like it is their favourite way of passing the day.
As a rule, Africans are rather scared of dogs and the people in the street stare at us and keep a very wary distance, as if we were the local leather-stud set taking our rottweilers out – or our pit-bulls, which indeed one of them is. We pick up rocks to throw at any wandering dogs that come our way, but none do, or perhaps they have more sense than to attack a pit-bull, or perhaps it is just chance.
The neighbours say: put them down. It’s kinder that way. They then regale Penny with who has gone off with whom – the ex-pat community of Lilongwe, it’s just like home.
Not a jolly day. A day of tears.
The story continues with To Mzuzu on the Bus.


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