An accidental discovery from the gentleman who walked us up Hastings Banda’s clock tower. And then an invitation yesterday from Fishani who lives 400 yards away. The ‘soft opening’ of the new national sports arena was on the public holiday (Jan 2nd).
In 2012 the Chinese signed an agreement to build the new state-of-the-art 40,000 seat Bingu National Stadium. This was part of Chinese “stadium diplomacy”, a 45-year policy that has seen seemingly every country in Africa get a nice new shiny stadium funded by the Chinese. In return the chinese get access to the highest circles of government. The stadium has not been universally popular, surprising for such a football loving country (Bingu Stadium a meaningless project?). The funds are not a donation but a loan which the country now has to carry on its back.
The Bingu stadium construction suffered the expected delays and cost overruns but has been ready for over 2 years. But has remained unused. The incoming government (president is the brother of former president Bingu) didn’t have the money to finish the construction (e.g. for floodlights and a main pipe from the toilets to the sewage) or manage it and there were no private companies willing to buy it. Once those problems were resolved (with more help from the Chinese) the stadium failed the safety inspection as there were no evacuation routes.
There has been many proposed opening dates but all have come and gone. But the opening is now set for January 28, 2017 (apparently China vs. Malawi). But today was a test run for the stadium with the second leg of the Be Forward Wanderers vs. Nyasa Big Bullets challenge cup when the considerable prize was a team bus. Although the Wanderers are a Lilongwe team and the Bullets are based in Blantyre, the Bullets play in red so there was only one choice (Fishani’s team too). So off we went, parking at Fishani’s house and then a 5-minute walk via shortcut through people’s gardens.
An enjoyable game in a stadium designed to make the crowd sound twice as big as it was so the atmosphere was great and consistent with football matches I’ve seen all around the world. What provided the hilarity was the rain. I never realized until today was how much Malawians hate the rain. Only 50% of the fans were covered (including us) so they were crammed into those seats leaving only the most optimistic souls in the uncovered seats. When the rains came there was almost a stampede to get fully under the roof. We watched children get knocked over like skittles (and get back up unfazed) by grown men avoiding the downpour. And the heavens opened just as the Wanderers won and paraded around the track in their new bus.
And it rained and rained. It was quite a scene. So a short walk to Fishani’s which he really needed talking into. So we ran, slipping on the muddy short cut and, soaked, drove home in typical post match traffic (with no sign of any evacuation route either).
I had an eye on the clock for the 7pm United game and went off to the Africana bar. The coach, for the Wanderers, Jack Chamangwana was there.
Jack is a Malawi celebrity and a very nice chap. He is the ex-manager of the Kaizer Chiefs and is the only manager to have taken Malawi to the African Cup of Nations. The Sir Alf Ramsey of Malawi. I returned home to an unimpressed Natalia.