Monday, 27 November 2017

U.A.E. – Comparing the incomparable

November 23-26

Hello everyone!

Like the children we work with, the majority of teachers are always striving to develop their skills to make a positive difference to their charges. Sometimes this involves scouring the internet; other times it involves going to teacher conferences in the Middle East. Not that often, admittedly, but an opportunity that I’ll happily grasp.

The Dubai Fountain, viewed from floor 124 of the Burj Khalifa

Burj Khalifa...or giant laser??
 Being on a ‘business trip’ of sorts doesn’t mean that fun is restricted, however. Indeed, the way our flights worked meant that we had two full days to explore Dubai and experience this city-state’s glitz and glamour. And it’s appalling driving…

The yachts docked in Dubai Marina

I’ve been to this emirate before, in 2012. The blogs about it can be found around here. What I was particularly keen to do was compare it to my current home of Malawi. Malawi, which often can’t power the fridge in my house, let alone do this to its buildings…

If only they could keep my milk cold...

Putting this on my head was an
interesting - and fruitless - selling method

The change of pace is frightening. Dubai is whizzing down an eight-lane highway in a Ferrari while Malawi is plodding along on foot. So many new skyscrapers have shot up since I last laid flip-flop on the Arabian sand. So many more are being built, the cranes illuminating the sky like elongated fingernails.

Malawi's main motorway is one lane in each direction

The cranes on the left are working on new structures
on the Palm Jumeirah, Dubai's largest man-made island
These are tall but shrivel in comparison to the largest building of all (for now): the Burj Khalifa. 828 metres tall. That’s taller than the highest point of Belgium, Senegal and Uruguay. Almost 200 metres taller than the next largest completed building, in Shanghai. Oh, and about 792 metres taller than Malawi’s tallest building, Kangombe House.

A model which is not 828m tall

Don't underestimate how hard it is to fit
the entire Burj Khalifa into one shot
Going up the Burj Khalifa generally needs to be booked in advance, which is why we didn’t rise up to the clouds five years ago. This time, I was prepared…

You can’t go to the very top – there’s no way of doing that, short of being an urban climber. There are two options, both of which take you higher than any structure outside of Asia apart from One World Trade Center in New York. You can go to floor 124 or floor 148 of the Burj Khalifa.

Just look at the shadow it casts!

The temperature difference between the top
and bottom is normally about 6'C

At 455 metres tall, the 124th floor seems plenty high enough. We timed our ascent so that we could witness the sunset.

The northeastern side of the city
Very impressive it was, too, though the pollution haze which lingers around Dubai made the Sun disappear before sinking into the Arabian Gulf.

At one point you are almost looking down on the Sun

Pondering life - or why they need so many
 - as the Sun sets to the west
Soon, as dusk turned to darkness, the landscape transformed in a way unimaginable in Malawi. It was as if someone had found the magical switch that turns on all of the Christmas lights. Dubai was illuminated once more – just this time, the light was coming from the buildings, rather than the Sun.

The green lights belong to Dubai Mall, the largest mall
in the world by total area

Lights of many colours radiate in the
gathering darkness
Pretty much directly below the Burj Khalifa is a body of water which does its best to be an eastern version of the Bellagio in Las Vegas. From 455 metres above, it’s a very different perspective to that on ground level. I found it fascinating that the water seemed to hardly rise at all, simply because of the extraordinary height from which we were witnessing the show.

The water rises to a height of 150 metres - half the height
of the Shard in London

On the ground, it’s accompanied by music (we were told it can range from traditional Arabian music to…Enrique Iglesias). Up on floor 124, the water spurts seem to sway and soar in silence, like dancers from a faraway planet.

6,600 lights are used in each show, which lasts between
five and ten minutes

Shows are every 30 minutes, starting at 6pm
 The tower and water show are merely two examples of Dubai’s opulence and extravagance. Its other icon is the Burj Al-Arab, the infamous ‘seven-star hotel’. You can only enter if you book a room (over $2000 a night), go to a supposedly sub-par restaurant or have possibly the world’s most expensive afternoon tea.

Roger Federer often plays exhibition tennis
on the helipad of the hotel

The nearby public beach provides great
views for sunset
The marina area seems transformed from the last time I came to Dubai, almost a city in its own right due to the sheer number of cloud-piercing towers which dominate the small beaches below. Once again, at night it’s transformed into a festival of lights.

The marina isn't actually on the sea - it's behind
the skyscrapers

The Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR) consists of over
40 towers and 6000 apartments 
Dubai’s marina comes complete with a large shopping mall, featuring stores which one would only imagine seeing in the UK.

Mum's favourite!

The number of shopping malls is simply staggering. How they all survive, let alone thrive, is beyond me. Maybe events such as Black Friday (yes, that happens here too) contribute to people making their bags and cases overflow with just about anything you can imagine. The fact that the prices are often sky-high in the first place seems to be ignored.

But if you don't need it, it's not a bargain

Flags were draped across the Mall of the
Emirates in preparation for National Day, on
December 2nd
The malls themselves are about so much more than shopping, though. Ever seen a shark on the second floor of Gateway Mall in Lilongwe? Or penguins in the Trafford Centre in Manchester? I wasn’t overly impressed with the fact that the owners have trapped creatures from faraway lands into a zoo-like existence in the desert. I also seemed to be in the minority.

That is a shark, and there were scuba divers in the aquarium

The penguins are found in Ski Dubai, an indoor ski slope in
the Mall of the Emirates with a temperature of -6'C
One thing I was impressed with was the medical care. Well, eventually. I went for a pre-arranged consultation at 9am and was told at 8:45am that the doctor was in surgery until 2pm. Anyway, an ear infection which I’ve had to suffer through for over three months in Malawi, having been given incorrect information and treatements along the way, was cured in 15 minutes in Dubai.

Where I received microsuction, which sounded like
someone fiddling with the radio dial and never finding the channel

One way that Malawi trumps Dubai, hands down, is with price. £11 for a beer reflects the relatively dry nature of the UAE (you can drink in hotels and other specific places). As mentioned before, regular shopping prices are prohibitively expensive, aside from the local souks.

Beer at the Black Tap, a delicious
burger restaurant
Inside the local souks - though still aimed
at tourists, the prices were more reasonable

The other thing that comes at a high price, but is certainly worth it, is the variety and quality of food. Western chains in Malawi are restricted to KFC and Mugg & Bean. Dubai had…everything.

Sunday roast and Guinness at The Space, a restaurant in
Dubai Marina owned by Simon Rimmer

Key lime cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory:
Best. Lunch. Ever. 

Lilongwe and Dubai are incomparable. They are polar opposites, humility and basic servicing of needs pitted against seemingly unlimited wealth and a culture of getting anything you want. Dubai was fun, and productive from a teaching perspective, but I’m more than happy to be returning to the Warm Heart of Africa.

Love you all


Sunday, 5 November 2017

Malawi – Raving amongst the refugees

November 4

Hello everyone!

There are an estimated 7.6 billion people living on Earth at the moment. Most people are happy – or safe – where they live. Others, however, are not welcome in their own country. Fearing persecution and death for a variety of reasons, they are forced to flee to faraway lands, often with their bodies and hearts as their only possession. These are the refugees of our world.

Refugees at Dzaleka camp (picture from
Tumaini Facebook website)
According to UNHCR statistics, there are 65.6 million refugees across the globe. That is equivalent to the population of the United Kingdom. Malawi hosts some of them, which itself is interesting as there is no war-struck country on its border (though many refugees have recently come from Mozambique, their civil war ended in 1992 – 25 years ago). I know that many refugees find themselves in countries far away from conflict – note the influx into Europe since the start of the Syrian Civil War – but for some reason, possibly the poverty which affects so much of the native population, I didn’t expect refugees to find themselves in Malawi. Particularly 30,000.

Dancers performing at Tumaini Festival

Refugees are from countries as far away as the DRC, Somalia and Burundi. It shows the lengths people are willing to travel in order to secure their safety and push for a better life.

The camp has had global funding

Two camps cater for the refugees in Malawi. The larger one, Dzaleka, is about 50 km north of Lilongwe. Originally built for 9,000 inhabitants, its current population is more than treble this. Many head towards South Africa but others are stuck. Malawi is poor enough as it is; tending to the needs of refugees requires external support.

One way of raising money is by holding an annual festival called Tumaini, designed to celebrate the diversity of the refugees in the camp and people from the wider region. It’s also a useful way of attracting visitors and much-needed donations, which links to the meaning of the Swahili word: hope.

There is a wide variety of performances across the two stages and other open spaces. We arrived quite late so missed many acts, but what we saw was eclectic and had a positive vibe.

A Japanese band performing on the main stage

I particularly enjoyed watching the dancing groups contort themselves and leap into positions I could only dream of doing. They were incredibly popular, with the crush of the crowd reminiscent of large European musical festivals, all desperate to get a glimpse.

A local dance troupe strutting their stuff

I found it interesting just walking around the camp, seeing what it consisted of. Bakeries, bars, schools and basketball courts have been built. Whether this adds a sliver of normality to the lives of those who live here, I don’t know.

The camp bakery

Some of the main buildings in Dzaleka

I’m not sure how the people who live in Dzaleka every day felt about this event. It could be construed as an opportunity to raise money and demonstrate their talents; conversely, it struck me as a possible invasion of their privacy and a tokenistic gesture, appearing for a few hours and high-fiving children who I never got to know and will most likely never see again.

A panorama of Tumaini Festival

Many of the children seemed thrilled at the attention and enjoyed interacting with the many muzungu visitors. The boy below was an incredible dancer.

A little boy busting a move

What I’m sure is appreciated is the money raised, which will hopefully be distributed throughout this and the more southern Luwani camp. Combating malaria, water shortages and diminishing food packets is the basic requirement.

Selling their artistic products raises some money (picture from 
Tumaini Facebook website)

The vast majority of people who read this have been born into and lived through relative peace and safety. We’re lucky. Some of the atrocities a lot of these people have lived through must be harrowing and torturous, both physically and mentally. I cannot imagine how I would react in their shoes. I’ve moved around the world of my own volition; the people who live here move for survival.

Whilst in Malawi, I certainly feel the urge to help and definitely need to do something over the next few years to give opportunities to people like those residing in Dzaleka so that they have a better chance of a better life. To give them ‘tumaini’.

Performers at Tumaini Festival (picture from 
Tumaini Facebook website)

The Sun setting on Tumaini

Love you all