Book Review: Spirit of Malawi by Susan Dalgety

In the Preface to Spirit of Malawi, Susan Dalgety states her ‘ambition [was] to write a book that captured the essence of contemporary Malawi through the stories of its people.’ She achieves this, and more.

Susan Dalgety, a Scottish journalist and local politician, clearly loves Malawi, which she has visited many times since 2005. She interviewed a wide range of Malawians of different ages and backgrounds, from village chiefs and small farmers to government ministers, from a taxi driver and hospital porter to a fashion designer and social media professional. She writes in a clear accessible style and with a journalist’s eye for a good story.

There are five sections: ‘The cycle of life’ (possibly my favourite section covering birth, health, early and teenage years, adulthood, family life and growing old); ‘All in a day’s work’; ‘The people’s culture’; ‘A young democracy’; and finally ‘Whither Malawi?’ There are several pages of Susan’s own colour photographs, all featuring people at work, school and play.

I didn’t find many gaps. Maybe the book could have covered music and musicians a little more. Music is everywhere in Malawi: from traditional dances and drumming to the creative improvisation of instruments (amateur recordings of musicians who create their own instruments make up the most listened-to programmes on Malawi radio) to the many live bands that do the urban music circuit.

This is an unsentimental book which charts people’s daily frustrations and worries and the curse of corruption that affects most levels of life now. It demonstrates stark inequalities in income, education and life chances, which in some ways are worse now than in the aftermath of colonialism. But it also captures the spirit, hard work and entrepreneurialism of ordinary people, and larger successes, for example in fighting AIDS. Above all, it’s a hopeful book.

I’d recommend this book to anyone looking for an up-to-date understanding of Malawi.

Jean Bareham lives in Edinburgh. She worked in Malawi as a VSO Training Librarian at Chancellor College, Zomba from 1978 – 1980, and has visited several times since, the last as a tourist in 2017.