If Americans have heard of Malawi at all, it’s likely because singer and actress Madonna adopted four of her six children from there. Or perhaps they’ve seen The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, a 2019 Netflix movie directed by and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as William Kamkwamba, a 13-year-old engineering genius who’s determined to save his family and village from famine.
Other than that, few people know much about this obscure, landlocked African nation that’s home to 20 million inhabitants. Perhaps it’s because Malawi is also one of the poorest countries on Earth, ranking 169th out of 191 jurisdictions in the 2022 Human Development Index, a list compiled annually by the United Nations Development Program.
But that’s five places better than last year’s index, which put Malawi in 174th place out of 189 countries. While its per-capita purchasing power rose from $1,080 to $1,466, life expectancy at birth dropped from 64.9 years to 62.9, and average years of schooling fell from 6.1 to 4.5—largely a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping Africa and the world.
Esme Jynet Chombo is Malawi’s ambassador to the United States. Like Madonna, she’s a firm believer in adoption; five of her six children are not biologically hers. Chombo, 68, arrived here this past January and immediately discovered that being an ambassador is nothing like her previous 30-year career in Malawi’s judicial system.
“It’s a different world altogether,” she told us. “A judge is supposed to be conservative, but as a diplomat, I’m learning to be a lobbyist, to lobby for my country and to lobby for women. It’s a big shift.”
Chombo is one of 37 women ambassadors currently serving in Washington; 11 of them are from Africa. As such, she spoke to us on the sidelines of an Oct. 26 conference on global women’s health organized by The Washington Diplomat and Hologic, a Massachusetts-based medical technology company focused primarily on women’s health.
In the 2021 Hologic Global Women’s Health Index, Malawi ranks 105th among 122 countries included in the survey. Taiwan ranked the highest for the second year in a row, with a score of 70 out of 100, while Afghanistan ranked dead last, scoring only 22.
Tropical cyclones devastate Malawi’s economy
“My personal view is that from what I have seen, when a government changes, women’s issues are not always highlighted. We seem to be going backwards and forwards,” said Chombo, who is also Malawi’s non-resident ambassador to Canada and Mexico. “This has not been very good, although the present administration now is doing everything it can to uplift women’s issues.”
Chombo said that of Malawi’s 20 ambassadors serving overseas, eight are women. In addition, close to 40 women are in key decision-making positions in government, including the inspector-general of police and the secretary to President Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera.
Known as Nyasaland until independence in 1964, Malawi is bordered by Zambia to the west, Tanzania to the north and northeast, and Mozambique to the east, south and southwest. Roughly the size of Pennsylvania, Malawi was visited during the 17th century by Portuguese explorers who began slave trading—an industry that flourished between 1790 and 1860.
Malawi’s capital is Lilongwe, and its second-largest city, Blantyre—where Chombo was born and raised—is named after the Scottish birthplace of explorer, missionary and anti-slavery campaigner David Livingstone. Lake Malawi, the world’s fourth-largest freshwater lake by volume, takes up one-fifth of the country’s area.
Largely agricultural, tobacco accounts for nearly 70% of Malawi’s exports, followed by tea (9%) and smaller amounts of soya, peanuts, maize and beans. Yet the country’s economy has been devastated by two recent cyclones that wiped away almost one-third of Malawi’s infrastructure.
“We lost 130 megawatts from the national grid. As I’m speaking now, Malawi is in almost total darkness. The situation is very serious,” Chombo said, estimating damage to power utilities at around $120 million. “We asked the Millennium Challenge Corp. for assistance to rebuild the energy sector but they said no, they’re not going to help us again.”
The year’s first cyclone, Ana, struck in January, followed by Gombe, in March. As with previous natural disasters, the government declared a national emergency, and foreign aid came pouring in. Yet in the long term, little has changed since independence. Even today, more than 40% of Malawi’s national budget is funded by foreign assistance, and the country has at least 700 NGOs registered to receive money from overseas.
“If we don’t have enough energy, we cannot commercialize our agriculture, or go into value-added crops or mining,” Chombo said, noting that Malawi has abundant deposits of an oxide mineral known as rutile, as well as highly sought-after rare earth minerals “that even America needs for its electric batteries.”
COVID-19, cholera and gay rights
Despite dire predictions of millions of Africans dying from COVID-19, that didn’t happen. In fact, Malawi fared relatively well, with only 2,683 deaths officially reported as of Oct. 30 since the start of the pandemic nearly three years ago. Nor is Malawi worried about the Ebola virus, which this year is plaguing the East African nation of Uganda, way to the north.
“Whether you believe it or not, Africans have to go out daily to work. They have to fend for themselves,” Chombo said. “During the pandemic, our people were out in the open, getting fresh air and exercising. They got infected but it didn’t stay in their systems. What we have learned is that the more you breathe in fresh air outdoors, the more your lungs are able to respond to the infection.”
What really concerns her people, the ambassador said, are malaria and cholera—the latter sparked by contaminated floodwaters in the wake of the two cyclones that struck Malawi earlier this year. So far, 120 people have died of cholera, she said, with the disease present in 22 of the country’s 29 districts.
Before wrapping up, we asked Chombo about gay rights in Malawi, where—as in many other predominantly Christian countries in Africa—homosexuality is illegal. In 2009, two young men were arrested for celebrating their engagement ahead of a planned wedding and charged with “unnatural offenses” and “indecent practices between males” under sections 153 and 156 of Malawi’s Criminal Code.
Their 14-year jail sentence was “one of the longest sentences for consensual same-sex conduct anywhere in the world in recent memory,” according to Human Rights Watch, though the two men were later pardoned by Malawi’s then-president, Bingu wa Mutharika. One year ago, the country’s first gay pride march took place in Lilongwe, and was attended by hundreds of people.
Malawi does have a death penalty, but only for murder, not homosexuality, said Chombo. And in any event, she said “it’s only on paper,” since no executions have been carried out since 1994.
“No one has been persecuted for being LGBTQ+. They have the right to march, and to practice what they believe in,” the ambassador told us. “We know they’re there. It may not be legalized yet but they’re not being persecuted like in Uganda—and otherwise no one is stopping them.”