Matt Corr’s Malawian Diary – A bittersweet farewell

Matt Corr’s Malawian Diary

Part 7 – A bittersweet farewell to Masalani…and the strangest football match ever played!

Dawn has broken over a dark, cloudy Kabula Lodge on Monday morning.

By 7am, the volunteers are enjoying breakfast and the stunning views over the valley to the south-west of Blantyre, ahead of our final working day in Malawi.

The craic, as always, is in full flow but it masks a certain apprehension. I sense a different edge in the atmosphere this morning. Today will be our farewell visit to Masalani, a final chance to see the kids and indeed some of the adults who have made such a huge impression on us in such a short time.

First task is to load the suitcases packed with clothes, gifts and educational aids on to the bus, but there is soon another metaphorical cloud on the horizon. Word has come through that an aeroplane carrying the Malawian Vice-President Saulos Chilima and nine other passengers has gone missing, somewhere between Lilongwe Airport and its destination, Mzuzu in the far north of the country.

Perhaps ironically, Chilima was making the trip to represent the government at the funeral of the recently deceased cabinet minister, Ralph Kasambara, who had been prayed for at the church service we attended 24 hours earlier. Our host Ozzie speaks highly of Saulos, and hopefully there will be a more positive update over the course of day.

Before we head for Masalani there is a planned stop-off at the local Mary’s Meals HQ. They were the partners for Celtic FC Foundation in the 67 Kitchens project, and they do incredible work in the area, with over one million children fed daily in Malawi alone. Mary’s Meals was formerly known as Scottish International Relief, which was established in 1992 by Magnus and Fergus MacFarlane-Barrow, two brothers from Dalmally, Argyll and Bute, initially to provide aid during the Bosnian War.

A decade later, Magnus visited Malawi and set up Mary’s Meals to deliver a feeding programme which would encourage children to attend school, and thus benefit from some sort of education. One struggles to think what the situation here would be like without such support and without people like the MacFarlane-Barrow siblings.

Mary’s Meals HQ in Blantyre, Malawi

By 9.30, we have arrived at Masalani Primary School, our first visit here. The change of venue is due to the fact that examinations are currently ongoing at the Secondary school where we have spent much of our time on this trip. Our hosts are planning some kind of ceremony, but no-one is quite sure what the next few hours will bring.

As always, as we alight the bus, we are met by hordes of curious but smiling schoolchildren. By this time any inhibitions we felt on day one have long since gone. You just go with the flow. I have managed to pretty much get by for the past week using a couple of Malawian Chichewa phrases, “Muli bwanji?” – how are you? – and “Zikomo” – thank you, or indeed just about any situation where you don’t have a third word!

Of course, the kids are not used to hearing the Chichewa language spoken with a Billy Connolly accent, so I suspect that often I am being asked to repeat it just to give them a laugh. I had that experience many times in my working life in parts of England and Wales with Manweb, so as Tom Jones would say, it’s not unusual.

The primary school blocks are arranged around a large piece of barren earth, with goalposts made from tree branches at either end. The slope from north to south would give Sherpa Tensing sleepless nights but the good news soon reaches us that a football match has been arranged between the pupils and teachers and their male guests, whilst the ladies will be on netball duty elsewhere. This should be interesting.

On come the teams. Over the horizon appear a group of senior pupils, half wearing green kits and half wearing blue. There are five of us Volunteers on the green side, with the rest of our team and the entire opposition made up of pupils and teachers.

They all look like they should be playing for Brazil as they line up on the halfway line for kick-off, athletic and pacey, and I can only imagine what the silky winger is thinking as he eyes up the bald, overweight geriatric full-back who will be his opponent this morning. Christmas has come early for him.

The game is underway, and this has to be one of the most surreal experiences of my life on a football pitch. I am playing on the right side of a flat back four, with Lewis and Ross central and Finn on the left. My brother Robert is up front.

The touchlines are marked out by a line of either trees or people, the latter of which are kept back by an overly fussy teacher or parent brandishing a brush made of twigs. The ball seems to have a mind of its own and combined with the surface is presenting a few problems over and above the obvious.

Crowds line the touchline

But perhaps most tellingly is how serious this is being taken. We are desperate to win, a first for Celtic in Africa. I have two tactics, clearing the ball into the trees on the odd occasion when I can actually make contact or stepping out and raising one hand when I can’t. Thankfully, Ozzie is the referee and, presumably through a sense of sympathy, his whistle tends to follow our claims.

We reach half-time still level against Masalani’s finest, and the match is still goalless and in its final stages when we have our “And Smith must score” moment. The ball is played down the hill from the left across the goal, and with tomorrow’s headlines being written, Robert times his run perfectly to meet it under the crossbar, then holds his head as his touch carries it over to safety. In that moment, history has beckoned then departed. There is no away win for the Volunteers in Africa. Robert is inconsolable but thankfully his teammates are with him.

“I think the ball took a bad bounce.”
“No, that didn’t happen, mate.”
“Can’t believe that the crossbar was lower at that point.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“I think I was worried I might hit the spectators behind the goal.”
“There weren’t any.”

Just to twist the knife, Sarah has been watching from the sidelines, and she has captured that exact moment on video, which will be getting shared on the bus home later to much laughter.

Game over, now we have a bit of culture to enjoy. Some drummers are seated on the pitch and are quickly surrounded by the children as the rhythm builds up. An adult is encouraging us to join in the dance, so despite the fact I have two left legs, well, when in Malawi… Round we go, making it up as we go along and desperately hoping Lewis is taking a break from his constant filming duties. The trancelike procession goes around and around to the beat for what feels like forever, as the locals wonder what on earth we are doing to their traditional dance. But we’re giving it everything anyway.

Finally, the dancing is over, and we are invited to take our seats under a canopy for the formal farewell ceremony, which commences with the Malawian national anthem.

Our old teacher friend from the welcome party back at Masalani on Tuesday is once again on Master of Ceremonies duty, and he takes us through the process as a circle of pupils and adults forms in the background.

The true spirit of Malawi as the Warm Heart of Africa is once again on show, as despite the fact that most folk here have very little, a number of them have made gifts for the volunteers. James is presented with a t-shirt for each of his children, Finn receives a beautiful leather belt and Emma a large straw hat, which will come in handy in the midday African sun. Then the headmaster announces that all of the visiting party will be given the honorary title of chief, and one by one we are invited up to have a wreath made of animal hair placed on our heads.

James is presented with gifts for his children
Chief Robert
Chiefs Steph and Matt
A ceremonial handover to Chief Ross

Ross makes a formal response thanking our hosts for everything they have done for us over the past week, and then it is time for a demonstration of a tribal dance which is something else. Half a dozen or so young male dancers with painted faces enter the makeshift arena as the drums beat once more, the highlight being when a tiny dancer (sorry, Elton!) makes an appearance in the traditional manner – via motorcycle! He is a wee star as he mimics his elder colleagues and introduces a feel good element to what is turning into a highly emotional day.

But the real pull on our heartstrings has still to come. Next up, it is time to deliver the gifts we brought from home. The pupils are asked to go to specific classrooms, and room by room the large suitcases are dragged across the earth and bundled into them.

The contrast between the classroom blocks we have been working on at the Secondary School nearby and this could not be more stark, dark and basic. But incredibly, the human spirit within each of these kids soars above all of that.

They are lined around the walls of each room, silent and patient, awaiting the gift of a football jersey, which the volunteers are now handing over. A few in this corner. Some to the left. No-one is jostling for position, even as you run out of your bundle next to a child.

One by one, Celtic tops are handed over and immediately pulled on to huge smiles. The body language of some of the volunteers suggests that I am not the only one feeling hugely uncomfortable about all of this. It is quite heartbreaking to see what such a minimal gesture means here.

After a few blocks, I take the coward’s way out, and rather than handing jerseys out I’m on the floor, looking for sizes as some of the kids and then the teachers ask for swaps. Most fancy the Hoops, so we’re rummaging through the suitcases trying to find something which works so that at least all have a jersey which fits. Finally, all the classes and all the teachers have been looked after. Ross explains to the assembly of staff what is in the remaining suitcases, and then we take our leave of Masalani Primary School. It has been the most moving and surreal of mornings, from the football match, the dancing, the chief’s headgear and now this. We pile on to the bus, time to gather our thoughts for the short trip to the Secondary School.

It’s a strange feeling to be back at the school which now feels like home. We have some kit for the painters who have worked alongside us for the past week, and that gesture goes down well.

The classrooms are looking great, and some desks have already been moved into one.

There is time for a rather special photograph, as my brother has brought over a flag which is present at our family reunions back home, currently on hold following the deaths of some of the folk who are part of that tradition. The flag is hoisted over the library block to be shared with the family and a promise has been honoured.

It is then time for farewells, and wherever you look there are hugs as final exchanges take place.

But there is one more giant tug at our hearts before we board the bus. Goodbyes have been said and we are all heading back up to the compound where the bus awaits, pursued by a posse of children. Then, from nowhere, a hand is clasped, and then another, and suddenly there is a silent procession of volunteers and kids moving slowly through the school grounds. There are no words that I have to sum up that feeling, even now.

We’re back on the bus as we leave Masalani for the final time, and the now customary chase of kids follows the vehicle up the dirt track and towards the village. As always, one child outruns the others, and our final image is of a small, smiling girl in a blue dress thrilled that she has beaten the rest as we turn onto the road. It is an image which says it all about the spirit of Malawi and the sheer will and strength of its people to survive and prosper despite the most extreme and difficult of contexts.

I’ve been blown away by the generosity of those who have already supported our efforts by donating to the various Just Giving pages of the volunteers.

These funds can make a real difference to some of the most vulnerable and isolated people I have ever met.

We are their voice.

If you have a friend or relative on the trip, then please do what you can to raise awareness of their efforts and donate if, what and when you can. You will find these pages at ‘Celtic’s Malawi Adventure 2024 – JustGiving.’

Matt’s own Just Giving page is ‘Matt Corr is fundraising for Celtic FC Foundation’ – click HERE to donate

Hail Hail!

Matt Corr with the Celtic FC Foundation volunteers in Malawi

Follow Matt on Twitter/X @Boola_vogue


About Author

Having retired from his day job Matt Corr can usually be found working as a Tour Guide at Celtic Park, or if there is a Marathon on anywhere in the world from as far away as Tokyo or New York, Matt will be running for the Celtic Foundation. On a European away-day, he's there writing his Diary for The Celtic Star and he's currently completing his first Celtic book with another two planned.

Comments are closed.