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January 8, 2018

A decade of Malawi-China ties: A photographic review of China’s presence in Malawi

By Andrew Mtupanyama, first published in The Nation on Sunday (Malawi) on 10 December 2017.

Note: In 2017 Nation Publications Limited (NPL) journalist Andrew Mtupanyama travelled around Malawi to compile a detailed visual picture of China's major infrastructural projects to enable readers to see the real appearance of the projects close up. He also aimed to capture the impact the projects have had on local communities and economic opportunities they have created. He visited the following Chinese-funded projects in Malawi:

  • Karonga-Chitipa Road in Northern Malawi
  • Malawi University of Science and Technology (Must) in Thyolo District in Southern Malawi
  • Umodzi Park (including Bingu International Convention Centre, Presidential Villas and the President’s Hotel) in Lilongwe City in Central Malawi
  • Chinese Village in Lilongwe City in Central Malawi Parliament Building in Lilongwe City in Central Malawi
    Bingu National Stadium in Lilongwe City in Central Malaw

Connecting Karonga and Chitipa

Ten years ago, Malawi terminated its 41-year-old ties with Taiwan in preference for China. For critics, government was flirting with a red dragon coming to devour jobs, land and business opportunities meant for locals. But the shift has opened a new chapter for Malawians in Chitipa. A decade ago, people in the northern border district used to spend over five hours travelling on the 103-kilometre rocky, hilly road winding trickily between their remote setting and the lakeshore town of Karonga where they used to buy basic needs. During the rainy season, the trip could take no less than a day. Not any longer. The uncertainties have ceased since China pumped a $70 million grant for construction of the Karonga-Chitipa tarmac linking Malawi with neighbouring Zambia in 2008. It takes less than 90 minutes to complete the trip on the tarmac named Bingu Highway after former President Bingu wa Mutharika who sealed the Malawi-China diplomatic deal. It is shorter, smoother and wider—cutting the time people need to travel, do business and access vital services.

Setting the pace for science and technology

When Bingu wa Mutharika came to power in 2004, he announced a dream to build a university strictly for science and technology. In his reasoning, Malawi would leap like the Asian Tigers—Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan—if every Malawian child got a life-changing shot at science and innovation. The dream came true in 2011, when government obtained an $80 million loan from the Export Import Bank of China to construct the Malawi University for Science and Technology (Must) at the president’s Ndata Farm in Thyolo. The public university, which endured a slow start and struggles with safe water as the land remained in private hands, was one of his pet projects. Buried next to Must on April 23 2012, Mutharika envisioned the university churning out innovative human resource and technologies to boost the ailing economy by turning raw materials into value-added products.

Lilongwe’s five-star sparkle

Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, sits on a sprawling plain with skyscrapers dwarfing modest buildings that pave the streets where hotels of international standard are few and far apart. At the City Centre, where highrise buildings are clustered, the Five-Star President Walmont Hotel at Umodzi Park tower point into the sky, proclaiming China’s standing in a league of Malawi’s diplomatic allies. The lofty hotel is part of the Umodzi Park, which also houses the Bingu International Convention Centre where SADC Heads of State met in 2013.

Legislating in comfort

A borrowed chamber. Aromas of meals being prepared. Clash of kitchen utensils next door. No peace of mind. Parliament is supposed to be a house of honour, but the Hansard has it that 193 legislators found themselves working like strangers sitting in a president’s home after relocating from the Old Parliament Building in Zomba in 1994. Not anymore. The lawmakers, who took refuge at Kamuzu Palace in Lilongwe, now have a permanent home at the Parliament Building constructed with funding from China. The complex represents Malawi’s diplomatic transition from Taipei to Beijing—for the Chinese took over the project in 2009, a year after Malawi cut ties with Taiwan. In their exquisite and spacious setting, members of Parliament no longer worry about the likelihood of “being disturbed” by the nice aroma from a nearby kitchen.

Bingu Stadium: Malawi’s sports nest

After close to five decades of use, the country’s antiquated soccer mecca, Kamuzu Stadium in Blantyre, lies in disuse. It has been deserted and discarded as a death trap likely to ruin the face of the beautiful game in case of a stampede. ‘Cordon-off some terraces in the stadium condemned by Fifa’, the world football governing body did not bring any joy to the soccer fanatics. But they weep no more. The Flames, the national football team, has found a new home at Bingu National Stadium in Lilongwe, a symbol of Malawi’s friendship with China. Construction of the sports arena was received with great anticipation and excitement, save for political swerves that saw government changing plans to build the facility in Blantyre much to the chagrin of Malawians in the capital. The plans were aborted, making Lilongwe the capital of the country’s football. Local giants and visiting national teams now play on the pristine pitch surrounded by colourful state-of-the-art stands that offer spectators memorable experiences in the interiors of this wonder.

Images by Andrew Mtupanyama.

This work was produced as a result of a grant provided by the Africa-China Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand.

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