'Managers, who for years had been singing the praises of Malawi as a place to live, started talking about getting out as soon as possible'

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'Managers, who for years had been singing the praises of Malawi as a place to live, started talking about getting out as soon as possible'


Frank remembers leaving Malawi for the last time.


Frank Gaynor


Trinity College Dublin




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Frank Gaynor

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Work and Employment


Life Story

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Malawi, Africa

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With the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War some of Malawi's main donors began to talk about Good Governance and Human Rights. However, the catalyst for protest and change came from a somewhat unexpected source. In early March 1992, on our way home from Blantyre, we called to see the Irish Holy Ghost priests at Tunga parish, near Thyolo. There Fr. Shay Foley gave us a copy of the Lenten Pastoral Letter, 'Living Our Faith', which was prepared by the Catholic Bishops in Malawi, and would be read in all Catholic churches in Malawi the following Sunday, 8 March. Shay asked us to keep the letter to ourselves until after Sunday mass. The Letter ran to a number of pages; Shay planned to read the first half on the 8th of March and the second half on the 15th of March. Events moved so fast that he had to cancel the reading for March 15th. In an open democratic country the Letter could have gone unnoticed. It called on the government to respect human rights and freedom of speech. It was the first public expression of dissent within Malawi since 1964. It had an immediate explosive effect. Within four days the ruling Malawi Congress Party held an emergency meeting at which the Letter was declared seditious. The bishops were summoned to Blantyre and interrogated. Senior MCP figures called for the bishops to be executed. The British High Commission and the US Embassy let it be known that they were there to protect the bishops. After a few tense days the bishops were allowed to go back to their dioceses. Among the team of bishops was an Irish Kiltegan priest, Monsignor John Roche, who was acting bishop of Mzuzu diocese. We decided to travel north during the week before Easter and spend a couple of nights on Nyika Plateau. On our way we called to see John Roche in Mzuzu. He talked about how it was necessary for him to take precautions as he moved around, and be alert to the possibility that he might be ambushed. He later joined us for a meal in the hotel where we were staying for the night, but did not eat, possibly because he was afraid of being poisoned. We enjoyed our couple of nights on Nyika Plateau, in Nyika National Park. The Plateau is a great granite dome with rolling grasslands that are rich in wildflowers, including over 200 types of orchids. It is unlike other parts of Africa. Nyika National Park is Malawi's largest Park with an area of 3,200 sq km. It has a good variety of wildlife including antelope, zebra and leopard. We saw antelope and zebra. We were back in Mzuzu for Easter Sunday, and were surprised by the huge crowd that gathered for mass. We soon learned that John Roche had been taken from a church, during the Good Friday ceremonies, and driven to the Zambian border. In 1983 three cabinet ministers argued in favour of having a multiparty government. This did not go down well with President Banda. The three ministers were rounded up and interrogated in a back room at Zomba Parliament buildings. An MP, who was unfortunate enough to enter that room, and saw what was going on, was also detained. The four men were bundled into a Peugeot 604 and driven to Thambani in Mwanza District. There they died. An official statement said that they died in a road accident. Later it emerged that they had been brutally murdered. With this sad event in mind, when John Roche was bundled into a car on Good Friday, 18 April 1992, some nuns and priests quickly organised a convoy of vehicles to follow the car. They waited at the border until John Roche was safely on Zambian soil. On the 28th of April Chancellor College, which is part of the University, was closed by the government following student protests. Another Irish Kiltegan priest, Pat O'Malley, bravely led the students on some of their protest marches. The unrest soon spread to Blantyre and to some tea estates in Mulanje. Most institutions in Malawi, including the tea estates, operated a style of management that was similar to the autocratic rule of the government. The tea estate managers were happy to continue under Banda; they did not welcome change. When I asked one manager about the three ministers who had died in 1983, while we were in Swaziland, he said they were troublemakers and that Banda was right to get them out of the way. When junior managers asked for a pay increase the estate manager reminded them that they had been given good perks, like access to a lakeside cottage for family holidays. They said they were not interested in the lakeside cottage; they wanted more money. Managers, who for years had been singing the praises of Malawi as a place to live, started talking about getting out as soon as possible. I was told that the students I was trying to teach were OK, but the lot they had to work with on the estates were completely different. The drift towards a multiparty system of government continued, and the level of violence remained lower than anticipated. In 1994 Malawi's first multiparty government took office with Bakili Muluzi as President. In 1992 ODA decided to bring the Key Post Teacher scheme to an end. I observed the closing down procedure with interest, and I have seen it repeated a number of times since. First, Head Office decides to close down the scheme/programme. Next, a consultant is engaged to write an evaluation report. This report invariably recommends that the scheme/programme be closed down. Head Office then proceeds with the closure, and waves the evaluation report recommendations at anyone who opposes the move. As my contract came to an end in September 1992 I unexpectedly got word from ODA offering me a place on a training course in Walsall, near Birmingham. This resulted in a hasty exit from Malawi for me; Monica followed a few days later.


Irish Research Council for Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences (IRCHSS)

Research Coordinator/P.I.

Dr Kathleen McTiernan (Trinity College Dublin)

Senior Research Associate

Dr Deirdre O'Donnell (Trinity College Dublin)


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