Commonwealth Day 2006

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:41 pm on 16th March 2006.

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Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour 5:41 pm, 16th March 2006

It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate. Without a doubt, the Commonwealth is a tremendous institution. The Commonwealth, through its many facets, brings together people from all corners of the globe. I am proud of the distinct and respected role that Scotland plays in the Commonwealth and I am equally proud of our long-standing relationship with Malawi. I am privileged to have visited the country twice. As I watch the Commonwealth games in the days ahead. I will be cheering just as loudly for the Malawian athletes as I will for our Scottish competitors. It will be a case of divided loyalties in my household if Malawi and Scotland end up competing head-to-head for a gold medal.

Malawi is a bit like that; it attracts loyalty. It got to us in simple ways, but mainly through the warmth and friendliness of its people. It is for good reason that Malawi is called the warm heart of Africa. It got to us for another reason, which is that it cannot be right in the 21st century that people in Malawi have to live in abject poverty when people in countries such as Scotland live in relative wealth. I believe that there is much that we can do about that.

As I said, I have made two visits to Malawi. In the course of our most recent visit, which was so ably arranged by Roy Devon and Margaret Neal, we again travelled the length and breadth of the country. I ventured south, to the very hot Chikwana district, to see at first hand the work that Tracy Morse and her team are doing. I saw the challenges that they face in tackling terrible diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS. We saw mums who had walked great distances to have their babies in the hospital. We also saw children, some of whom were younger than my own two boys. Sadly, as we debate the issue today, I know that it is unlikely that those children in Chikwana are alive today. Visiting that district hospital was a harrowing experience; it was an experience that changed people We also visited a village where we met the local people and the chief to discuss their needs. They told us that their primary need was for a borehole that would provide a clean and safe freshwater supply. They said that a borehole would not only provide clean water, it would free the village girls from having to walk miles to collect it; they would instead be able to attend school.

Their next priority need was for a bicycle ambulance, which is a bicycle and trailer that can be used to take people to hospital. The village did not have an ambulance, but the villagers wanted to be able to get people to hospital in a better way and more quickly. The cost of a bicycle ambulance is about £100.

The final need that the villagers told us about was for a medical box. I was a bit surprised when they told us that, as I did not know what it was. On further discussion, it transpired that a medical box was a box in which medicines were made available locally—medicines such as paracetamol that we take for granted in our homes, never mind at local level.

One of the projects that the Executive is supporting focuses on the villages in Malawi. It offers training to local people, initially women. If I learned one thing from my visits to Malawi, it is that changing the lives of the women of Malawi is the thing that will change the country for the better. When women begin to take charge of their lives, tackle some of the existing gender violence issues and begin to get involved in developing their country, Malawi will have turned a corner in its development. Those women will be able to educate others on hygiene, lifestyle, sexual practice and disease prevention and they will be able to get some of the materials that we talked about.

However, the real difference will be community involvement, which is key in education as well as in health. Two Scots—Tina Dean, who is one of my constituents, and Janet Chesney, who is one of Sylvia Jackson's constituents—are involved in community development through education. We visited an AIDS project at Paradiso House, where I was given a foundation stone to lay for the new building by children aged seven, eight and nine who have AIDS and will die because they cannot get access to the medicine and support that we take for granted. That had a huge impact on me. The project is trying to help people to get access to the medicine and support that they need.

I am passionate about Malawi—I have got the bug, like many members and people in the gallery today. The Scottish Parliament cross-party group on Malawi is essential, because it keeps a focus on Malawi in the Parliament and builds links in Scotland. I hope that colleagues in Malawi will establish a cross-party group in Malawi's Parliament with which we will be able to liaise. Our relationship with Malawi is not a fly-by-night or short-term relationship; it must be long and sustained if it is to make a difference to people in Scotland and Malawi.

When we went to Malawi we met a number of people whose love and respect for Scotland made them proud to describe themselves as black Scots. Likewise, I would be proud in time to be known as a white Malawian.