Tag Archives: travel

Irish Aid Blog Post 4 – Sally Hayden in Malawi

On my way to the airport my Malawian taxi driver asked me what kind of music I listen to. He added, cheerily, “My favourite type of music is blues music… Like Westlife!” Then he pulled out his Coast to Coast CD. After we ruminated over the chances of the band staging a reunion some day, I asked him whether, given their huge following, they had ever played a concert here. “Of course not,” he said. “Malawi is too poor for Westlife.”

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Malawi is a country of over 16 million people. The official languages are English and Chichewa. The average life expectancy is 54 for women, 52 for men. Formerly called Nyasaland, next year Malawi will celebrate 50 years of independence. One in seven Malawians have HIV or AIDS, though very few people talk about it.

There are no Twitter trends for Malawi. Neither are there, less surprisingly, for North Korea, though let’s not get sidetracked. When you enter Malawi into the Twitter trend search engine, it will ask you whether you meant Lusaka.

Malawians have a positive but somewhat cynical sense of humour. In some parts of the country ‘Osama bread’ has been renamed ‘Obama bread’. Kupinga ndale, the Chichewa for ‘practicing politics’, translates directly as ‘to throw an obstacle in the path that your fellow may stumble’. My taxi driver told me that this is representative of the fact that African politics is largely smoke and mirrors.

Some common Malawian names include Gift, Blessings, and Precious. Less common but still in circulation are Limited, Funny, and Omnipotent. Whilst on a tour of his factory last week, I discussed acute malnutrition with a man called Happy.

The colours in Malawi are red-tinged. The roads are dusty. Many times I thought I was getting a tan, only to have it wash off. The sounds when you’re falling asleep are of insects, howling dogs, and distant voices.

Malawians don’t eat out. A friend called Elias told me “In Malawian culture if you want to try Indian food you find an Indian woman and get her to invite you to her house”.  Several people spoke to me of poverty with the same breath they used to offer me food.

Expats in Malawi talk about how difficult they find returning to their “real lives” abroad. Their friends complain about low wages, or hospital queues, or a single power cut. They find that actively forcing themselves to empathise with people’s complaints creates a disconnect, a situation where they begin to resent their home countries, and the people who live in them.

I told Malawian friends that Irish people often get depressed. “But why?” they asked. “Maybe it’s the weather”, I said, and tried to explain a month of grey skies.

I’ve learnt a lot about poverty on this trip, but I still can’t comprehend it. Poverty isn’t tangible, it’s a series of omissions. It’s a lack of security, a lack of entertainment, a lack of opportunity. It’s a lady who has sat on her porch every day for two years because she broke her leg and her local hospital couldn’t fix it…

Read more at SimonCumbersMediaFund.ie.

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Irish Aid Blog Post 3 – Sally Hayden in Malawi

In a small brick church with a roof of straw and plastic bags a preacher speaks of heaven as being a country free from sickness and corruption. 200 metres down the road a woman sits for twelve hours in the same spot every day, hammering stones into chippings, which she sells to buy food for her grandchildren. Their parents died from Aids, and her husband is long deceased. When I ask her what the biggest problem in her life is at the moment she says “Young people. They’re not as respectful as we were when I was young.”

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In a local bar a government official’s son boasts about how expensive his car is. Later that night a white South African asks me whether I want to join his group, the “white people group”, because I might be “scared of all the blacks”.

In the market a dreadlocked man wearing an ‘Eat Pray Love’ t-shirt tells me that Irish people would make great Rastafarians. At a lodge a few miles away someone from England explains how he came here to volunteer organising soccer matches in an orphanage and was hired as the coach of the national football team, aged just 17.

At a public debate on corruption Victor Charles Banda from the Anti-Corruption Bureau proclaims “What I have seen is such that our government system is completely corrupt. When 10% of the population are getting richer abnormally and you are walking barefoot you should be worried.”

Mother’s Day in Malawi is a national holiday. 1 in 36 women die in childbirth here, compared with 1 in 8,100 in Ireland. A fourteen year old whose mother died in May tells me that poverty is the feeling of embarrassment when she’s talking to someone who has everything, and she hasn’t even got shoes.

When kind, tambourine-wielding Bishop E. I. Lazaro says “I hope we are of the same family because in heaven there is no skin colour”, I think it would be nice if everyone lived by those sentiments. It would be nice if the officials at the immigration office didn’t expect me to skip the queue, or if the bar down the road didn’t only turn on football matches for white people.

When I came to Malawi I brought a suitcase full of old leggings, runners, and large-sized men’s t-shirts, which I would like to believe says more about my prejudices than my terrible fashion sense. People make fun of Westerners in Africa for leaving all their good clothes at home and dressing like they’re going on safari. While packing I didn’t consider that I might end up dancing in a night club with beautiful girls in heels, or driving through Lilongwe in a convertible with a best-selling hip hop artist.

It’s hard to describe the things that exist and don’t exist in a developing country.

There isn’t an organised infrastructure. Complex improvement plans are in place, but there are several, they’re NGOs and they’re competing against each other. There isn’t transparency. It is estimated that 30% of the national budget is lost through fraud…

Read more at SimonCumbersMediaFund.ie.

Irish Aid Blog Post 1 – Sally Hayden in Malawi

One of my new friends here has joked that there should be a video game called ‘Driving in Malawi’. You would spend your time dodging goats and chickens, and on either side of the road would be smoking trenches, the kind that replace footpaths, and double up as a means of waste disposal.

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Malawi is incredible. This was a country that I couldn’t even begin to imagine, that barely gets a mention in histories of the continent. 694 pages of the tiny-fonted tome that is ‘The Scramble for Africa’ sees one passing acknowledgement, on page 678.

Since I arrived in the 17th least developed country in the world, two weeks after handing in my master’s thesis and completely alone, everyone has been so helpful. A presidential candidate took me to lunch, and then helped me move my luggage between accommodations, a broadcast journalist offered to share sources, and is bringing me to see his newsroom. Malawi’s biggest music festival, ‘City of Stars’, offered me a press pass. I am particularly excited to see the ‘Malawi Mouse Boys’, a four-piece band that divides their time between singing gospel music, and catching and barbequing mice, which they then sell to people on kebab sticks.

I’m talking to everyone, and learning everything from cultural niceties to political secrets. In Malawi “you’re looking really fat today” is a compliment, and calling something “Chinese” is an insult. Meanwhile, the country is still reeling from last week’s assassination attempt on government budget director Paul Mphwiyo, and fingers are pointing in all directions.

Politics dominates the discussion in all sectors of society, and the word ‘corruption’ permeates. When invisible, it is a noun to be resigned to, an immeasurable drain on development. When visible, it is a matter for huge condemnation…

Read more at SimonCumbersMediaFund.ie.

Like A Bird

Like A Bird

Wallis Bird discusses condoms, coke and travelling, and reassures Sally Hayden that she’s not ALWAYS happy.

Wallis Bird is hyper. “Too much coke”, she declares. “Coca cola that is!”

This Meath-born Wexford-bred ball of energy has just turned thirty. A modern-day nomad, she is permanently in flight. Her wandering lifestyle is reminiscent of Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air, encased in the paradox that change can be similarity. “I think the constant thing is that you always keep moving, that’s the only thing that has really been solid in my life since I was a child.” Bird is just back from Holland, a “really cool country, very open-minded system and beautiful landscape”, flying in to support Rodrigo y Gabriela in the UK before coming over to Ireland.

Though she mentions a home she seems, somewhat admirably, to lack the standard human feelings of attachment. “It’s kind of part of the game to be on the road really… It’s kind of incredible to be able to get out of a train or get out of a bus in a different country every day, in a different town, different currency, different language, you know it’s incredible. Travelling around, seeing all of this different culture, yeah I mean, what’s not to love?”

But at least she has an entourage. “Ah yeah, I have my person who lifts me up stairs and who drinks my tea and makes sure it’s stirred! No, I think it’s just us the band, and a tour manager. Entourage, like people hang around that make us look cool? No. We always pick up a few people along the way, but it’s not really an entourage. We just kind of hang around, do our own thing, play the gigs, meet people after the show, party and go on to the next one. I suppose it’s a temporary entourage all the time, yes.”

Signing with Island Records six years ago brought her to London, for better and for worse. “The scene is excellent, it’s kind of the epicentre of the music business as such, but that doesn’t mean that it’s anywhere better than anywhere else, I prefer jamming at house parties as opposed to big serious gigs or going around and networking, all of that shite that comes with London.”

Three albums down, she describes her music as “the basic rhythms of a nation”; a genre-neutral nation that is. “I would describe it as a healthy mixture of many, many different styles ranging from rock to jazz to reggae even. It’s, oh fuck, you explain it for me, you’re better, you’re the journalist. It’s very style-blind.”

Musicians overcoming adversity seems to be par on course with the emphasis on today’s X-factor sob-stories, but Bird is an authentic example. At just 16 months old she was in a lawnmower accident, which led to five of her fingers being chopped off. Four were sewn back on, and as a result the originally-left handed songstress plays a right-handed guitar upside-down. “Because I wasn’t allowed to do it after the accident, you know you have to rest your hand. That made me want to do everything double the amount more… It shaped me as a person, definitely. I work harder at a lot of stuff based on the fact that I grew up just wanting to prove people wrong.”

She’s also one of a rare breed of musicians that will unashamedly reference their ego. “Mostly my success is quite simplified down to just wanting to just play music for the rest of my life and live my life by that. That would be the only success that I wish really to have, but you know because of my ego I like to have that massaged every now and again, so I suppose I’m probably like most musicians in that way.”

Bird’s glee radiates from her music and her voice. It is infectious and undeniable. If there’s a secret to eternal happiness, Otwo believes she’s the keeper. “I do of course have a lot of sadness and elements of deep-rooted depression, I think everybody does, to be able to allow myself to get down and low, but I tend to work myself out of it, and I think the positivity is just the allowing to allow myself to feel any way that I want to feel, and I think that’s where I get my energy to be positive.”

Her life advice to students is to let loose, get practical experience and “always have condoms. Yes, always have condoms, that’s handy.”

And with such a pun-friendly moniker, Otwo asks her can she bear the the inevitable associated quips. “Do you know what, out of all the interviews that I’ve had there haven’t been as many as I thought there would be. I think people might have found that a little bit too lazy or something. But no, it’s cute. Like a lot of people call me Birdy Bird. I’m sure for the release of the record there might be quite a few ‘this bird will fly’ or something to that effect.”

“Birds tend to sing to themselves and enjoy their own life, don’t they, and share it with us a little bit. That’s alright.”

Originally published in the University Observer in March 2012

The Lion, the Sheep and the Kiwi

“Now when I feel an earthquake I pause in bed to guess its ranking on the Richter scale and then fall back asleep”.

Aristotle claimed that everything we see is an imperfect replica of a better version in a more perfect world. This is how Ireland compares to New Zealand. In our antipodean equivalent every colour and contrast is enhanced. Visualise higher mountains, bluer skies, countless waterfalls – though existing in a landscape that’s strangely reminiscent of home.

Cinematically this country has worked as a canvas for Narnia, Middle Earth and Mordor. And business keeps booming, with Tintin, Avatar and Yogi Bear all recently calling it home thanks to the “Jackson Effect”. Far from claiming indie-style that you had heard of this island-duo before they were famous, embrace your inner hobbit. There’s nothing like cruising over New Zealand mountain roads with the Lord of the Rings soundtrack blaring.

The population’s identity is hard to place. Unlike their Aussie counterparts, New Zealand for the most part accepted their indigenous, and the Maori culture is revered, respected, and used to inspire fear in less worthy sporting opponents (Haka anyone?). However the historic British influence has not vanished completely. The South Island still boasts towns named Cromwell and Middlemarch, and discovering that locals had stayed up until 3am to watch William and Kate’s nuptials was certainly no surprise.

Yet your trip may start with a reminder of the fragility of nature. Christchurch is a broken city in the middle of paradise. The series of earthquakes have obliterated its heart, leaving only a shell of suburbs and memories. The city centre has been destroyed, and the locals pause while answering requests for directions to recall what still exists and what doesn’t. Surrounding rubble makes lingering houses appear prominent and guilty. But the unshakeable Kiwi sense of humour lives on, and to the unsuspecting tourist little the population say straight-faced should be unquestionably believed.

The South Island is easily navigated. A functioning car and a group of people who you can put up with for long periods of time are the dream. Leave a week to see everything, or an eternity to take it all in.

Franz Joseph should be your next destination. There is nothing cooler than trekking on a 12km long glacier. Above you on either side is rainforest, shot down the middle with a broad frozen cascade. Spikes and waterproofs are provided. As you ascend your able guide will hack steps for the less capable walkers, and possibly a table and chairs for lunch.

After the steady silence of ice, prepare for a shock. Queenstown is to an adrenaline junkie what a backstreet alley is to the real deal, and hearts in this town beat faster than anywhere else in the world. Whoosh through the air upside-down on the world’s largest swing. Go skydiving and bungee jumping all in one day, and spend the night celebrating your survival. And if fear has you reverting to your childhood, get the gondola up to Bob’s Peak and go luging.

Dunedin hosts a beautiful university, and more importantly Baldwin Street, the steepest street in the world. San Francisco forgotten, this climb will have you crawling up and rolling back down.

Rangitata, close by, is where the backpacker’s rite of passage, that ever revered “white-water rafting”, is waiting to initiate you. The Rangitata hostel is also in the running for the record number of tourists that can be fit in one room. Each bunk bed is three stories high.

Milford Sound is highly publicised but unforgettable cruising spot and Mount Iron in Wanaka is another hike worth sweating for. Meanwhile Puzzling World is a shrine to the bizarre, and offers both a maze and a monetary prize to any psychic who can locate a hidden item, a challenge which six “professionals” have failed so far.

Supernatural activities aside, the allure of New Zealand at its base qualities is undeniable. The effect of your surroundings will alter even the most hardened urbanists, and soon you’ll find yourselves irresistibly drawn to previously unappreciated amusements like hiking, scenic cycling and bird watching. Aristotle said that personal beauty is a greater recommendation than any letter of reference. So ignore this article and seize any chance to see for yourself.