Student - February 25, 2010

Punched and plundered in Malawi

Third year student of international land and water management Diederick Koetsier (20) encountered both generosity and hostility during his internship in Malawi. He had helped to construct and renovate irrigation systems for the local farming community.

'My aim was to learn more about irrigation. I designed small irrigation systems and supervised the farmers during the construction. By helping to build these systems, the farmers also learned how to maintain them. This was the government's task in the past, but it does not give enough funds or attention nowadays.  In any case, the farmers seem to manage very well on their own.
People in Malawi can speak English quite well. This applies to those who have completed secondary school, but most farmers do not fall into this category. Most of them communicated with me through an interpreter. Being white, I was treated differently: they behaved very submissively, ran to get me a chair while they sat on the floor themselves. They also imagined whites to be weak physically. So we started out by thanking them for the chairs and sat on the ground as well. That narrowed the distance between us. I also learnt to say several sentences in their dialect, to their delight.
The father of the family where I was a guest owned a piece of land outside his village. We spoke to the local chief of that area in a shabby building. He was a friend of the family and was pleased that I had gone along. He wanted me to go back again some time and offered me a piece of land forty by sixty metres big. Land is not that scarce in Malawi. I signed on a piece of paper and that piece of land was mine. Later, I took a look at that land. It's an uncultivated piece of land at the foot of a hill, full of trees and has a stream flowing through it. If I should return, I'd build a holiday house there.
Not every encounter with the inhabitants was as positive. A taxi ride with three other passengers which seemed to last ages in fact took us to a small alley. I was given a few hard punches and had my money and bank pass taken from me. We then drove to a bank. After realizing that my withdrawal limit was 500 euros, they gave me another round of hard punches. Subsequently, they dropped me off with a little food and money.
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