When Richard Curtis asked me to go to Malawi to see the work that Comic Relief funds there, I don’t mind admitting I thought long and hard before saying yes.
The pitfalls, it seemed to me, were many and various, with my ignorance lurking within all of them. The language, the culture, the history of the place and its people made me fear slipping into dreaded patronisation.
As well as assuring me that I’d find my own way through these hazards, Richard also said, in that gentle way of his, that as the current Doctor Who it was essentially my duty to show people what their extraordinary generosity can achieve.
So I was on my way to south-west Africa, a journey that brought exotic names into view on airport departure boards, names like Addis Ababa, Khartoum, Harare and Lusaka – but I was headed for an altogether more familiar-sounding destination, Blantyre. The South Lanarkshire town and birthplace of Victorian missionary David Livingstone also gave its name to Malawi’s second city, home to more than a million people, including me for this week.
Braving the heat
For all the place’s Scottish connections, my classically blue Glaswegian skin required some serious sun cream before I could brave the unforgiving heat on the first morning. Once we were on the road, we headed for Ndirande, the country’s largest slum – or informal settlement, as they are referred to now.
No matter what you call it, there’s no disputing that this is an incredibly poor neighbourhood and one that suffers dreadfully from cholera outbreaks because of the chronic lack of sanitation, and a river that does a very good impression of an open sewer. The condition, which leads to an agonising death as severe prolonged diarrhoea takes hold, is a particular menace. Without toilets, cholera spreads and spreads at a fearful rate. But much like the dire problems inherent in the slums and tenements across British cities less than a century ago, they can be addressed and rectified, no matter how hopeless the situation looks on first inspection.
The Comic Relief-funded C-Code project was set up in Ndirande last year and is helping to regenerate the area, starting with the toilets. Without a sewer system in the area, the project is instead installing composted toilets, which leave no waste and require no piping. As these new facilities are rolled out across the area, this simple and sustainable solution could begin to fight the preventable scourge of cholera – which would leave the second preventable killer in the area to be tackled: malaria.