originally published April 11, 2014
Every so often a story wanders down the legal footpath, leaving in its wake the floral stench of incalculable weirdness. In the case of the 2011 Air Fouling Legislation in the tiny southern African country of Malawi, the scent is remarkably different. This is the smell of post-legume discipline and puckered determination. This is the smell of one nation doing its best to think green, to live clean and to do right by its citizenry.
This is Malawi telling people: thou shalt not fart.
Well, not really. But for a brief period this was the government’s message, and it was this message that scooted around the globe and lit up the grins of news editors everywhere. It might have all stemmed from an understanding, and deeper still from a genuine desire for a nation’s self-improvement, but it was one of the first pebbles in an eventual landslide that would throw the country into chaos and prematurely end the lives of several people.
I’m sure the backstory to the violent 2011 protests in Malawi can be traced much further than an anti-farting legislation. But this all happened right at the soil level, where the roots become the tree. It’s a strange tale with a downright cheek-clenching twist.
Malawi in 2011 was not about to challenge Disneyland’s claim to being the happiest place on earth. There were fuel shortages, electricity shortages, corruption, nepotism, a controversial new national flag and a general distrust of democratically-elected President Bingu wa Mutharika. The press was struggling with partial suppression, and the tenuous thread of democracy that was holding the country together was beginning to fray from the constant pull of the people’s discontent.
The Malawi government had re-introduced the concept of ‘local courts’, a leftover from the British colonial days that had tribal chiefs take care of the low-end nuisance laws, like trespassing and defamation. It was through these local courts that Penal Code 198 emerged, declaring: “Any person who vitiates the atmosphere in any place so as to make it noxious to the public to the health of persons in general dwelling or carrying on business in the neighborhood or passing along a public way shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.”
So how does one vitiate the atmosphere?
Well that’s the real question isn’t it? The bill’s intent was to regulate air pollution, but the wording really leaves the door open a little. The back door in particular. Some Malawian media outlets were wondering if the wording of this bill meant that farting was about to become illegal. I don’t believe flatulence is ever “noxious to the public to the health of persons” – it’s not like it will make you sick. It might spoil the enjoyment of a parade or something momentarily, but it’s not necessarily bad for you. But when Minister for Justice George Chaponda got asked on Capital Radio Malawi about the so-called fart ban, he agreed that yes, this bill does suggest that letting loose a public braaap would be illegal. And dammit, it should be.
George – who was no backwoods slouch; the guy graduated from Yale Law – kept going. “Would you be happy to see people farting anyhow?” he asked the radio show’s host. “Just go to the toilet when you feel like farting.” He attributed the free-flapping ways of modern Malawians to the lax atmosphere in the country since achieving democracy 16 years earlier. Back when the dictatorship reigned, he argued, people were too afraid of the consequences of public tootage. Now it was squeakers and squawkers everywhere – pure chaos. This bill would take care of that.
The story was picked up by Reuters and went old-school-news-media viral. The British tabloids dished out a heap of laughs and some unfortunate puns, with the Daily Mirror declaring that wayward flatulence is “causing a stink”, and the Daily Mail postulating on the nefarious ‘criminals’ who will be quick to blame someone else for their dastardly misdeeds. Chances are, whatever your preferred news source might be it probably ran a blurb about the bill in whatever their “lighter side of the news” section is called.
While the rest of the world was chortling at the Malawi justice system, Solicitor General Anthony Kamanga was loudly insistent that the bill applied to industrial air pollution, not to personal cheese-cutting. George Chapondra recanted his comments, claiming he hadn’t read the bill before discussing it on the radio. I’m guessing very few news outlets around the world ran the correction – it kind of takes the steam out of the joke.
President Mutharika’s administration was more than a little displeased with their nation’s press for having allowed this story to burp out past their borders. The press was similarly upset over the restricted press coverage that Mutharika had imposed during his second term in charge. They tried to agree upon some sort of deal – the press wanting unrestricted freedom and the government not wanting to see any more stories that could destroy Malawi’s image and credibility.
This was when any and all hell proceeded to break loose. The fart law story had appeared and receded in February. By July the government was so fed up over public protests and the visible discontent of the people that they banned protests completely and clamped down harder on the press. They even tried to intimidate the people, sending the DPP Youth Cadets (that’s a young off-shoot program of the Democratic People’s Party – the guys in charge) to drive around Blantyre, the largest city in Malawi, waving machetes and lighting news vans on fire. It’s like they were inviting things to turn ugly.
And turn ugly they did.
A huge coalition of 80 groups, from NGOs to student groups, decided that July 20 was going to be their national day of flipping the metaphorical bird at Mutharika and his government. Wearing red – the color of their cause and emblematic of the old-style flag they didn’t want to give up – the protestors took to the streets in Blantyre, Mzuzu and in the capital, Lilongwe. What began as a peaceful one-day demonstration turned into four days of violence, 275 arrests, 98 serious injuries and 19 deaths.
President Mutharika claimed the protesters were being led by Satan. Callista Mutharika, the first lady, believed the NGO’s behind the protests were being funded by Western powers who aimed to promote homosexuality. Sounds about right – if you can’t find a way to blame the Jews, blame the gays.
Mutharika fired his entire cabinet in August and hurried along the retirement of the head of Malawi’s army, trying to shift the blame for the country’s mess. He had the courtesy to die of a heart attack the following year, and things cooled down a bit when Joyce Banda, Mutharika’s vice-president who had become his political enemy throughout the government’s downward spiral of corruption over the previous few years, took over. Life in Malawi is not ideal, but it’s a hell of a lot more peaceful than it was three years ago.
Also, you can fart up a storm if you want to. It’s totally legal.