Matt Corr’s Malawian Diary – A wonderful sight in the Masalani classrooms

Matt Corr’s Malawian Diary

Epilogue: A wonderful sight as the Masalani classrooms are finally up and running

6am, Tuesday. The long journey home starts here.

It was a quiet, contemplative group of volunteers who dined for the final time at Kabula Lodge last night after the events of the day at the two Masalani schools. On our return from there, we had packed our bags for the journey home. Contents would include some gifts handed to us on the bus from Masalani by Dezie, our Classroom for Malawi representative on this trip.

Thoughtful to a fault, Dezie’s gift pack reflects some of the great Malawian products, such as gin, tea, coffee and…er….hot sauce. The last item raises a laugh on the bus, as it has been pretty much the staple diet of Finn, our Finsbury Park-based volunteer, who despite claiming it to be too strong, still managed to have it with every meal, as far as I could tell. One of those in-jokes or anecdotes where you had to be there and living in the moment perhaps.

Dezie had also produced some woven place mats in green and white for each of us, which was a lovely touch, so that can go into the rucksack with the gin, sauce and, of course, our honorary chieftain headgear from yesterday’s ceremony at Masalani.

Dezie’s gifts

The luggage is loaded on to the bus in the normal fashion – through an open window towards the rear and stacked up on the back row – and we’re good to go. It is time for farewells to the staff at the Lodge, including matriarch Miss Alice, who without any kind of notice still manages to come up with a packed lunch for the travelling party for the long trip to the Malawian capital city Lilongwe, where we will pick up our first flight later this afternoon. Alice and her team at Kabula Lodge have been a great help to us and it has been a privilege to stay there.

Luggage is stored at the back of the bus

It’s a long way to Lilongwe. Estimates for this 350km journey range from four to five hours, but it could really be anything, so we are keen to get on the road. By 8.30am we’re leaving the outskirts of Blantyre behind for the last time and hitting the main road north, the M1.

Leaving Blantyre behind

This is undoubtedly the quietest journey so far as the volunteers process their individual thoughts. The M1 is a long way removed from a motorway. The route follows a pattern of stunning landscapes straight out of spaghetti westerns interspersed with tiny villages bustling with folk trading everything you could think of, from the banned charcoal to bricks, beautifully carved doors and pillars, motorcycles…and mice! That last one is an eye-opener, as youngsters approach the paused bus at the roadside offering what look like tiny kebabs on a stick.

“They’re mice,” says Celtic Ozzie in response to the question. “People eat them here.”

Two hours in and we are approaching a major intersection. This is Chingeni Toll Plaza, where the M1 and M3 converge for the road north to Lilongwe. Hopefully, the road will be better from now on, as time is marching on and we are only around a third of the way to the airport.

Chingeni Toll Plaza

One of the villages we pass through is Ntcheu, and Ozzie advises that this is the homeland of the ancient warriors of the same name who are infamous in Malawian circles. Their basic MO was to kill all of the menfolk of the village they were attacking before taking the women and animals and moving on. Memo to self. No nights out on the beer here. Ntcheu will be relevant again for very different reasons later today.

Just north of Ntcheu, the M1 road actually becomes the western border between Malawi and Mozambique. I say western, as everything south of Lilongwe in Malawi is surrounded by the huge nation of Mozambique on all three sides.

North of the capital, Zambia is the neighbour on the west with Tanzania taking over to the north and east. Mozambique to me means one thing, well two really, Eusebio and Mario Coluna, the star player and captain respectively of that wonderful Benfica side of the 1960s, who like Jock Stein’s Celtic occupied a seat at Europe’s top table.

Celtic did get the better of the Portuguese champions in our only meeting back then, albeit on the toss of a coin on the Road to Milan in November 1969, but the Lisbon outfit could boast two wins and three defeats from five European Cup final appearances that decade and the Eagles were the team who finally broke Real Madrid’s five-year monopoly of the fledgling competition back in 1961.

At that time, Mozambique was a Portuguese colony, and so promising young players like Eusebio and Coluna would be snapped up by its major clubs then represent Portugal at international level. A later check confirms that both footballers were born in the capital city of Maputo, in the extreme south of the country near the border with South Africa, so sadly ‘Eusebio’s hoose’ is hundreds of miles from where we are currently.

Life on the border with Mozambique

In more recent times, of course, Mozambique endured a horrific civil war. Ozzie tells us that many Mozambicans came to Malawi as refugees and stayed on beyond the war, so are fully integrated into the country. There is no visible border point as we pass through the villages of Lizulu and Dedza, and the presence of the occasional Mozambique flag is the only indication that there is another country on the other side of the bus window.

Shortly afterwards, there is a surreal moment, as Ozzie turns around to announce to the team that the Malawian Vice-President’s plane has been found, but any immediate thoughts of relief are quickly removed as he adds that there are no survivors. God rest them.

Dezie has previously explained that following death, Malawians with the financial means have basically two options, one being to pay for burial in a cemetery and the second being to return to your home village where you will be laid to rest in the grounds of the traditional family home. In the case of Saulos Klaus Chilima, the late Vice President of Malawi, that place will be in the aforementioned Ntcheu.

Saulos Chilima will have a state funeral at the Bingu National football Station in Lilongwe six days later, and spookily enough, by 1.45pm we are passing that stadium en route to the airport. And in another curious co-incidence, as we are doing so, it later transpires that FIFA President Gianni Infantino was arriving there as part of a planned visit during which he was due to meet up with Chilima. A link to that visit is attached below.

Approaching the national stadium
Passing the national stadium

More than six hours after leaving Kabula Lodge, we finally arrive at the Kamuzu International Airport on the outskirts of Lilongwe, where 24 hours earlier the Malawian Vice-President and nine other good people left to pay their respects to a former colleague on what would prove to be their own final journey. It is the weirdest of feelings, but we have no time to dwell on it as the pressure is now on to get the group through security in time for the scheduled 4pm departure to Addis Ababa.That means it is a rushed farewell to Ozzie rather than a proper chance to say goodbye, which is a real shame, as he has been an absolute star throughout our stay. I have never met anyone quite like this extraordinary man, our Malawian Fixer, or the big, sexy, handsome beast as James usually refers to him!

Thankfully, all goes to plan and later that evening, the team of Celtic FC Foundation volunteers are gathered around a table as a group for the final time in a bar at Bole International Airport in the Ethiopian capital. We pitched camp here awaiting our call to board at midnight. Some go shopping, others sip coffee and a few of us are taking in the Portugal v Ireland match on a TV above the bar, where Cristiano Ronaldo is up against Celtic’s own Liam Scales. Even in Ethiopia there is a Hoops connection, and as the king of bad puns I am delighted that the ice-cold beer I have just been served is called Walia. So, in Glasgow parlance, I am having ‘aswallyawalia.’ I’ll get my coat.

Fancy a ‘swallyawalia’?

8am, Wednesday. The baggage carousel at Heathrow Airport. It’s been an uneventful overnight flight from Ethiopia and more than 24 hours after we left our Malawian base, we have covered over 6,000 miles, with around 400 to go for most of us. That will exclude Finn and Karen, who at this point have to say their goodbyes as they head to their homes in London and Leicester. Always a sad moment as the team breaks up and tired as we are, we all feel that.

A time for farewells at Heathrow

The remainder of the team board the coach for the journey north, next stop being Preston where we have to say cheerio to Frank and James. And then there were eight, the remaining volunteers heading for Glasgow and Celtic Park on the final leg of our journey.

It’s 5pm before we reach a sunny Paradise, and a lovely welcome from family, friends and Celtic FC Foundation Executives. I’m not one for goodbyes to be honest, I find them overly sad, so after a few hugs and handshakes it’s as quick as I can get into the car to be driven home by my wife. Emotions are all over the place and there is so much to process over the coming days and weeks, but first…food, a shower and sleep.

This has been the most incredible experience and I am honoured to have shared it with such a selfless, kind whilst hugely likeable and humorous group of people. In such circumstances, you see folk at their rawest and their best, and I am proud to have been with them. We have laughed, drank and cried together and a bond has been made which will long outlast the trip.

But for all that, there is another, overwhelming emotion. That of feeling helpless and a bit useless, of wanting to do more. The sheer scale of the challenge. Where do you start to do what it takes to address a situation where children and families are living in such basic circumstances. I am not naïve enough to think I can solve it, far from it, but I can help…by scratching at the surface…and so can you, by supporting those charities who are doing such wonderful things to make a difference, school by school, village by village. It has to start somewhere.

Friday, 2pm. A buzz on my mobile phone as I pull some thoughts together for sharing in my Malawian diary. It’s a photo from Celtic FC Foundation Lead, Ross, on our group WhatsApp. Not just any photo. Dezie from Classrooms for Malawi has been to Masalani and has sent us an image of students taking lessons in their new classroom block. It is the most thoughtful thing to do and provides a huge lift to the team, as can be gauged by the comments.

“Aww, that’s amazing to see!”
“Aww, I love this!”
“Brilliant. It’s great to see it up and running.”
“That’s what it’s all about. Beautiful to see.”
“Brilliant. Classroom looks so good.”

And then, of course, the humour kicks in…

“Whoever painted those windows is an absolute genius.”
“Blackboard looks good too!”

That pretty much sums up how it felt to be part of this team of Celtic FC Foundation volunteers in Malawi, in the summer of 2024. We will always have Masalani.

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

Over £12,000 has been raised so far.

Quite incredible.

Please continue to raise awareness of this situation 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.

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