Diary of an MSP
Alex Fergusson

Malawi

I have just returned from a visit to Malawi, under the auspices of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and thought that my diary column this month would be just that: extracts from my second visit to that wonderful country.

Fri/Sat:

Flew to Amsterdam and then to Nairobi before the connecting flight to Lilongwe. Dropped colleague (Sarah Boyack, a Labour MSP from Edinburgh) at hotel, had a quick bite of lunch before Fergus (parliamentary official) and I were driven almost five hours north of Mzuzu, Checked in to hotel at 6.30pm and collapsed!

Sunday:

10 Malawi MPs and 10 Scottish MSPs are “paired”, and I am to spend the day with Hon Rev Prof David Mphande, who was elected to represent the constituency of Nakota Bay South East in 2009. We left the hotel at 7.30am and followed him to Bandawe Mission for the two-hour church service which was partly in celebration of the life of David Livingstone, the 200th anniversary of whose birth was on March 19. Frankly, I could have stayed all day, such was the hypnotic enthusiasm of the packed congregation, and the singing was out of this world.

Later, we toured the Mission, which includes a primary and secondary school, a special school for the deaf and a medical clinic about the size of a small bungalow, which caters for 15,000 people with only the most basic of medicines. The secondary boarding school was a real eye-opener. Each “bedroom” has four single bunks and sleeps ten – two in each bunk and two on mattresses on the floor – but the education it delivers is of high quality and in huge demand.

After lunch at his house, David took us on a tour of the constituency, looking at various projects, including an orphanage, a primary school, a nursery, a knitting social enterprise for disabled women, a potential rice-growing enterprise, a typical village (where David was born), rivers that need bridges and bridges that need mending. It was a fascinating insight into the challenges that these invariably happy people face.

David wakes every morning to a queue of constituents at his door, almost all of whom want money – be it for funerals, outstanding bills or just food. One of his colleagues later told me: “If you don’t give them money, you are not a properly functioning MP.” Good grief. Long, long day which included at least seven impromptu speeches.

Monday:

Drove the five hours back to Lilongwe for a depressing briefing from the deputy high commissioner on the general situation in Malawi. Pretty gloomy from both the economic and political perspectives. I was feeling pretty rough, with a filthy cough, so had an early night.

Tuesday:

Up to the parliament for a meeting with the deputy speakers. The speaker was in the Caymen Islands for a CPA speakers conference. Why did no-one ever tell me about that event when I was PO?! We then met up with an organisation called Theatre for Change, and they took us out in the afternoon to witness one of their productions. In any available space near a market or other suitably busy area, they enact a play showing a prostitute’s experience with an abusive client. The story is real, and the experience all too common. The audience is then invited to participate, the idea being to give all sides involved a better idea of people’s rights under the law and an insight into the importance of sexual health.

Total change of mindset in the evening when we hosted a reception at the high commissioner’s house for a David Livingstone memorial celebration. We were still in Theatre for Change mode, and my mind wasn’t properly engaged, but I hope it didn’t show too much. Still not feeling 100%, so straight to bed on return.

Wednesday:

Now the serious stuff – delivering the Technical Assistance Programme session on budget and legislative scrutiny that we had been asked to do by the CPA. This involved an all-day session with the members of the Budget and Finance Committee and the chairs of other committees. Help! We had been nervous about it, but, after our official colleague had delivered an hour-long presentation on how we do these things in Scotland, we had a debate, series of workshops and a round-up session that could happily have gone on much longer.

The upshot was a series of actions that would a. try to give the parliament a more meaningful role in budgetary scrutiny and b. ensure senior officials and politicians didn’t disappear from such sessions as soon as they could, which they had!

We worked well as a team and the three of us seemed to have complementary skills and experiences. Returned to hotel happy and content!

Thursday

An all-day session with the women’s caucus of MPs – 43 of them of whom only four had been incumbents at the 2009 election. So the theme was two-fold: how do you get more women into parliament and how do you keep them there? A Scottish government-sponsored programme – the Active Learning Partnership – has been working on this for three years, and this event was the culmination. Sarah gave a presentation on Labour’s 50/50 campaign for the first Scottish Parliament (and impending resumption of it in 2010) and I spoke of the need for some level of protection from your party if you are the incumbent – they currently get none.

In the afternoon, we visited the remarkable Charity Salima. Please “Google” her and see for yourself what an extraordinary woman this is. For me, this was the experience of the week and I will not forget it.

Fri/Sat:

Home. after 29 hours of interminable waiting in airports between flights getting onto a plane in 25 degrees in Lilongwe and getting off at -1 degree in Edinburgh.

This trip has cost the CPA a lot of money. Is it worth it? That’s not for me to answer but, if it has made even the smallest difference to the confidence of one MP in Malawi in holding their government to account, or helped one woman MP Get re-elected, or made one school child in a 10-bed bunk room feel a little special, or just said to Malawi “Scotland does care about you”, then I have to think that it was worth every penny.

Happy Easter.