Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Day of Protest

I have lived in Malawi for 5 year now, and not once have I ever known the people to rise up in angry protest. Sure, there are editorials written, the occasional march held, but generally Malawians have always seemed a peaceful lot. They take pride in the fact that Malawi, a rarity in sub-Saharan Africa, has never experienced true violent conflict.

So when I was told by the organization that I work for that all transportation within the country would be suspended today, due to planned protests over the ongoing fuel crisis and other governance issues, I was a little skeptical.

It all seemed like a big over-reaction. A coworker stopped by my desk yesterday to make sure I knew to be careful getting to and from work. “It might be quieter where you are, because of the presidential house being there,” he speculated (I live across the street from a guest house where dignitaries are housed during official visits). “But then again, that might be where they launch the counter-attack.”

Excuse me?! Counter-attack? Those are words I never thought I would hear in Malawi.

Still, I wasn’t really concerned. After all, I was told to stay home on the day of the presidential election as well (I didn’t), and that ended up being the quietest, most peaceful day I have ever experienced in Africa.

But today feels different.

I happen to also live very close to a police station. When I got up this morning, I could hear them practicing - the occasional test message over a bullhorn, short blasts of sirens punctuating the usual morning calm. It was like they were just warming up for the mayhem to come.

I arrived at the office; still more quiet. But people seem on edge. There is a constant background chatter of radios quietly tuned to the news, and when I go in to the staff break room, people look up at me as if I have interrupted some important discussion. Everything is closed in town, and all the usual meetings and work trips postponed. Many of my co-workers just stayed home, and other organizations didn’t even bother opening.

Occasionally I ask for updates – a government office has been burned in Mzuzu, I’m told; the streets around the market are chaos, tear gas has been released. I made my first-ever foray to Twitter today, looking for news, and was surprised to hear numerous reports of looting and fires, although not violence, thank goodness. It’s hard to sort out the facts from the rumors. But what seems to be clear is that some important corner has been turned here in Malawi.

Most likely things will return to business as usual tomorrow, as the damage is assessed and people get back to their usual lives of just trying to survive in a country where there are few jobs, and wages are low, but costs are high. But the seed has been planted. People will wake up, remember that they took the chance to speak out, that they raised their voices against the problems they have seen, and realize that the world did not fall apart. And just maybe they’ll decide to do it again. We’ll see.