By Max Lawson

Head of Inequality Policy at Oxfam International & EQUALS Podcast co-host

Over twenty years ago, I went to live in Malawi.  I ended up there because I formed a strong friendship with a Malawian called Stuart Ligomeka during my postgraduate studies.  We were about the same age, but he was already a District Commissioner and had secured a scholarship to study in the UK.  He had married his university sweetheart, Doreen and they had already had two kids.  She had stayed behind in Malawi during his studies, while Stuart also worked three jobs as well as doing his masters to save as much money as possible.

We were very close during my two and a half years in that wonderful country, hanging out with not just Stuart and Doreen but also their other friends, young Malawian couples like them in their first houses and first jobs. Making their way in the world.  They were fun times. They were so kind to me, so helpful, such good friends.

Doreen, Stuart and the boys in the early 2000’s

I contrived to visit on average once a year since then, and each time I have stayed with them. Doreen had gone on to become the IT manager for the National Aids Commission, and Stuart had risen to be Principal Secretary, the highest rank in the Civil Service.  Both remain strongly committed to the development of their country.

Like many in their generation, both had done well at school which had enabled them to attend university for free.  This is no longer possible sadly.  Doreen’s father, who she really looked up to, had been a District Commissioner too, so Stuart joked that Doreen was the posh one and had married a poor man as he came from a humbler background. Her father was involved in the building of Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe, in the seventies.  Lilongwe was built by South Africans as a reward to the Malawian Dictator, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, for his support of the Apartheid regime.  It is to this day a very strange city, laid out like a South African city with white, Indian areas and then township areas all with seemingly random numbers.  We lived in Area 25 near the airport, and Stuart and Doreen live Area 47. Doreen said she had once seen a map that explained all these numbers which remain the names of these places today, but that logic is lost to history.

Malawi’s former dictator, Hastings Banda

Doreen and Stuart have three sons.  The third was named Mwayi, which means luck in Chichewa, because Doreen came very close to dying giving birth to him. They are all now in their late teens and early twenties and are fine young men. Also like any African family of reasonable means, ever since I have known them they have also always had a series of relatives living with them and have paid for them to get through school.  Most recently they adopted a young girl Favour, the daughter of a distant relation whose parents had died. 

Over the years, I got to know Doreen very well during my many visits. She was always calm, a kind person, who spoke quietly.  She was also highly intelligent, and very funny indeed.  Unlike Stuart, who gets his UK politics from Sky news, she had more sympathy with my left of centre views and we enjoyed ribbing Stuart about it together. Only then invariably they would join forces to berate me for my atheism and ask when I was going to finally settle down and have children.

Doreen fondly remembered the time of Banda, as many Malawians did. With open eyes, seeing the downside of the dictatorship, but also with the nostalgia of times past.  She remembered being bussed with many other young schoolgirls to dance on the roadside when Banda passed by, often waiting for hours.  She said it was actually great fun as you got to skip school and hang out with your friends.

On my last visit I went with my wife and our two young boys for the first time which was lovely, and whilst my wife was working, the boys and I travelled with Doreen about 100 miles out of Lilongwe to visit her elderly mother in their home village.  I remember the trip very fondly and Doreen was happy to indulge my many questions about the past in Malawi. We ate fresh mangoes with her mother and got caught in a sudden rainstorm.

Me with Doreen’s mother

Last week I got a WhatsApp Message from Stuart to say that Doreen had been diagnosed with Covid-19 and had been admitted to hospital with lower-than-normal oxygen levels in her blood, but she felt fine.  Two days later I asked Stuart how she was getting on, and he replied that her oxygen levels had fallen further and she was now in a critical condition.  A few hours later she died.

It is hard honestly to express how overwhelmed I feel about this.  It is so sad. It is heart-breaking for Stuart, losing his soulmate. For their kids, losing their mum. For everyone who knew and loved Doreen.  It seems so unfair and so huge. This is such a horrible disease.

Unlike rich nations like the UK, Malawi is no stranger to death.  I lived there during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, before drugs were available, still priced out of reach by merciless pharmaceutical companies.  We lost many friends and colleagues, in the prime of life.  Now it feels like history is cruelly repeating itself.

Perhaps if Doreen and Stuart lived in the UK, Doreen would be alive now.  She did have access to the best care available in Malawi, but even that is limited.  In the UK she would have had access to world class medical care, free of charge.  Maybe that would have made a difference, we will probably never know. What we do know though is in just a few months’ time, if Doreen lived in the UK, she would have been vaccinated against this cruel new disease.  She would have lived. 

We also know that unless things change, it will be years before most Malawians have the same hope, the same freedom from fear that vaccination brings.  That this true for all but the richest countries.  Many more people will die as a result.  Many more families will be left without their mothers, their fathers. It makes me want to fight even harder until every single person is safe from this illness.

For now though, I have lost a good friend and the world is an emptier and sadder place.