Sunday, May 9
Lilongwe, Malawi - Chipata, Zambia
A million ants have decided to make my room home. The expression ‘ants in your pants’ now has new meaning for me.
It is time to leave Malawi and head west. Malawi has been an excellent experience. Tomorrow Bjorn and I are due to appear in both ‘The Nation’ and ‘Malawi Daily Times’ newspapers. We have enjoyed national coverage on TV, radio and in the papers, and yesterday’s trip to the refugee camp will stay in the memory for many years to come.
I part With 100 dollars in return for two Zambian visas at the Mchinji border post, Bjorn Exchanges his remaining Malawian Kwacha and we are on our way to Chipata, the first sizeable town after the border.
The town feels noticeably more affluent than much of Malawi and our night’s accommodation is the most expensive to date. I guess that is a sign that we are edging ever closer to South Africa.
We watch Chelsea annihilate Wigan 8-0 to win the Premier League in our local bar together with some good humoured Zambians.
Saturday, May 8
Dzaleka Refugee Camp, Malawi
It is a one hour drive from the capital to the Dzaleka Refugee Camp. Soon the new road, which is being being built by (guess who?) the Chinese, will no longer necessitate the land cruisers currently needed to negotiate the tough terrain.
11,000 refugees from DRC, Rwanda, Burundi and a number of other African countries reside here.
The main purpose of our visit is to meet the members of an incredible football team. The team is called the ‘Dzaleka Leopards Football Team’.
Last year the Leopards entered the region’s premier league. Despite playing on a pitch that would be deemed unplayable in Europe, having almost no resources and struggling to find a dozen pairs of football boots, this team of young men, with seemingly little hope in life, managed to finish third in the league. Their third-placed finish guaranteed promotion to the advanced league.
If they are promoted from this next tier of Malawian football then this team of refugees will compete in the country’s Super League.
It is one of the greatest football stories I have personally ever come across. We meet the lads, discuss their ambitions for the future and discover that enemies have become brothers:
“Congolese and Rwandans might well kill each other in other circumstances. Here Burundians, Rwandans, Congolese and other nationalities are all brothers in the same team. We are friends, team mates and brothers.”
Religion gives many hope and happiness. It also leads to war and suppression. The beauty of football is that it unites billions across the globe. I do not mean this as an atheist statement, because it is not, but to me there is only one true world religion. That world religion is football.
We ask the lads whether they dare dream of one day playing in the top tier; of playing international football? They all answer in the affirmative. We discuss creating a club crest, logo, motto and unique kit. The boys love our interest. Can you help the Dzaleka Leopards? Can you provide them with a kit, boots and training equipment?
It might not seem important on the surface of things but this team unites an entire refugee camp of 11,000 individuals. It gives everyone who lives here hope. It says: I can dream; I can achieve.
Together with the support of the Red Cross, the UNHCR and the members of this camp the Leopards go from strength to strength. There are now seven teams here; the stars of the camp train the youngsters.
And now the football is being used to promote positive and educational messages such as “Youths against the spread of HIV/AIDS.” within the camp.
If you believe in fairytales then believe in the Dzaleka Leopards. They might possibly be the best refugee football team in the world.
Bjorn and I were honoured to spend the day with them and to participate in a penalty shoot out competition in front of hundreds. I am delighted to say I slotted my first penalty away in the bottom corner, sending the keeper the wrong way. Bodes well for England v Germany in the semi finals of this year’s World Cup finals.
Friday, May 7
We pass the brand new Chinese-built parliament building due for completion any time soon. It is rather reminiscent of the kinds of impressive but rather monstrous constructions that you find in Astana, Kazakhstan. Lilongwe itself resembles a giant, slightly unkempt park or wood with embassies, lodges, residential compounds, banks and NGOs. From the capital’s rooftops huge, oddly-shaped mountains,
that puts one in mind of Ayres Rock, soar out of the almost flat horizon.
At 10am, Malawi’s lone state television channel, MNC, the country’s leading newspapers (The Nation and the Malawi Daily Times) and the top independent radio channel, Zodiac, arrive for a press conference arranged by the Lilongwe UNHCR and run by Bjorn and I.
Bjorn is a very good public speaker. All those present seem to enjoy the presentation and by the end of it we have appeared on Malawian State TV in front of 4 million, and another significant share of the country’s 14 million population will have heard our message through the papers and radio.
What else can I tell you about Lilongwe? The country has been independent since 1964. An obvious British-influence still remains. In 1989 it was home to more refugees than anywhere else on earth: 1.2 million were guests of the Malawian government as a result of the civil war in Mozambique at that time.
Supermarket prices here are absurd - often 2-3 times the prices of goods in the UK. The biggest bank note in general circulation is the 5000 kwacha, worth slightly more than 2 pounds.
After the press conference and several hours of blogging and press communication to Europe and South Africa we return home to Kuka Lodge for an evening of home comforts. The excellent local support of the UNHCR has enabled us to make the most of our visit to Lilongwe.
This is the first Internet we have found for several days. We are in Tukuyu, Tanzania - up in the very wet southern Highlands. I have updated a couple of days stories but will give a more detailed update from Malawi.
We expect to be in Malawi by this afternoon(Saturday, May 1) and hope to have more Internet in the next day or two.
Tuesday, April 27
Testing African Time to its very limits we schedule meetings with the UNHCR, Simba Football Club, the Tanzanian Football Federation, The ITV television channel and the Guardian and Citizen newspapers.
Our early morning meeting with the UNHCR was straight forward and ran on time, although I reckon I managed to upset a senior member of staff there. You see, I cannot understand why, after 10 months on the road, Bjorn is not receiving better support from the UNHCR. Not only is he working free-of-charge for the organisation, but he has also spent thousands of pounds of his own money and will be away from his family for almost a year. I told the UNHCR representative in Dar es Salaam that I cannot understand why they knew next to nothing about his trip before our arrival and also offered next to no support in the country until we were leaving. The same story has been repeated in respect to the UNHCR in nearly every country Bjorn has visited.
We were told that we need to communicate more with the Head Office in Geneva. I do not agree. Geneva needs to communicate more with us…and with every other regional office in southern and eastern Africa. To date, this project has spread the word to more than 80 million people worldwide. It is time the UNHCR woke up and started helping us more.
My message is: when we get to Malawi we want the UNHCR to organise a press conference with all the national press and the country’s main football clubs. We want transport around the city, a simple bed to be provided and good internet access. I do not think it is too much to ask for.