Among people who care to be remembered, there can’t be many who would settle for being remembered for what was said to them as opposed to what they said themselves. David Livingstone went through hell before arriving at Lake Tanganyika in October 1871, but his stories about that journey would never enter the language the way Stanley’s would, when he caught up with him at Ujiji.

Fourteen years earlier Livingstone had given a lecture at Cambridge. ‘I go back to Africa,’ he said, ‘to try to make an open path for commerce and Christianity.’ When I arrived at my hotel in Blantyre, southern Malawi,* there were signs that commerce was forging ahead rather faster than Christianity, but that was before I reached my room and switched on the television, where the Christian Channel appeared to be playing round the clock from America. ‘Every penny will go to send the Gospel out,’ said an elderly white man trapped in hairspray and gold rings. ‘I’m gonna ask you to join with me to send the Gospel out. And if God opens up more satellites and cable companies in Africa then we will be there.’ The man smiled a velvet smile and stroked his appalling tie. ‘Hundreds of thousands of people,’ he said, ‘called the prayerline last year and gave their hearts to Jesus. In places you never heard of. I’m not a preacher, I’m a businessman, but it’s what we do together that gets it done for Jesus.’

It’s the rainy season in Malawi, the trees are military green, but the fields beyond Blantyre continue to be parched. ‘We’ve got used to drought,’ said Kwa, a young linguist who wants to write novels. ‘This year is no different: we have less water than the crops need.’ As we drove over the sticky tarmac roads leading out of the city, it was hard to think of this country as having once been the domain of Hastings Banda, the ‘life president’ forced out in 1994. Banda had rules against many things (miniskirts, dissent, the music of Simon and Garfunkel) and he found favour in many quarters – in apartheid South Africa, for instance, and with Margaret Thatcher, who once spoke of his ‘wise leadership’ – but his influence seemed bleached out by many things, not least the glare of American television, which continued to play in my mind as we reached the dusty roads. Mega-Bite Take Away, said a sign by the edge of town. Chicago Nite Club. Krazy Kool Beverages Ltd.

The children were playing skittles with nine bottles of sand. Most of them were three or four years old. All were orphans. Some of them stayed inside the classroom shed, tottering from wall to mat to doorway, covering their eyes against the throb of the sun that poured through the glassless windows. When I looked in on them they froze with shyness. A little girl was struggling with a scarf and a rag doll, trying to bind the doll to her back, as mothers do. I went over to help her and she accepted help, but then she began tugging at the hairs on my arm, smiling at first and then seeming worried, as if it were occurring to her that non-rag dolls showed a failure of compliance. Above her head there was a long list pinned to the wall, headed ‘Orphans’, and a group of names jumped out at me: Junior Dula, Eliza Arabi, Happy Nyalugwe and Innocent Medsoni. The little girl lost interest in my arm and led me by the index finger to a group of drawings lying on the floor. Most of them were drawn in ash or in charcoal, but some incorporated images and words stripped from foreign newspapers. ‘They are making portraits of their mothers,’ said a young woman who worked as a volunteer. ‘And sometimes they make a portrait of their house.’

Of the 42 million people in the world who are HIV positive, 70 per cent live south of the Sahara. Twenty million people have died of Aids, leaving 15 million orphans, 80 per cent of them in Africa. In Malawi, 14 per cent of the population has the virus. At the Namasimba Child Care Centre, I watched as the little girl with the rag doll ate her porridge: the community-based centre gives the orphans two meals a day, along with maths and English. Her name is Agnes Bwanali, aged three. Her mother died of Aids in July 2004 and her father disappeared, but is also thought to have died. Her mother’s sister had a daughter too: this is her cousin Irene Foster, aged four, and she sat next to Agnes eating porridge the day I visited Namasimba. Of the two parentless girls, only one of them is HIV positive: Agnes, trusting and slightly sad in her purple dress, and coughing.

The sun was cooking the dirt outside in the yard. The men always stand at a distance, but six women were bent with knives around a wicker basket, gutting fish from Lake Malawi, washing them in brown water. I guess there were about a hundred fish – there were 80 orphans – and a million flies. I asked the chief fishmongering lady how much the fish cost. ‘One thousand kwacha,’ she said. (About eight dollars.)

‘And what is it?’

‘It is protein,’ she said at first. ‘Small fish. Chomba.’

There are always kiosks by the road in African countries, selling a stack of bananas, a row of tomatoes, a tin of cashews, small fish. In Malawi you also see bags of charcoal for several kwacha. I watched the women kindling the fire and gossiping while the Aids orphans knocked down the sand-skittles or ran past guiding rubber tyres with sticks. Everybody was busy and yet everybody was watching. You knew which children had grandmothers: their hair was done and the dresses they wore were clean.

One of the men, wearing a football top and carrying a long wooden staff, came up to me as I leaned against a baobab tree. The tree was spongy, a source of calcium for elephants in time of drought. The man wanted to ask me if I believed in God. ‘He is the truth, the way and the light,’ he said. He seemed pretty drunk or maybe crazy and kept laughing under his chants. ‘If you look at the word “Jesus” and examine it from the ancient Greek,’ he said, ‘you will see that it means “health”. God is the enemy of poverty and death.’

‘But poverty and death are here,’ I said.

‘Yes, I think so,’ he said. ‘But that is all witchcraft, you see. It’s not what you think.’ The man stood up and shook himself out; he thought there might be some porridge going in the Care Centre. ‘I walk like Moses,’ he said, his shadow and the shadow of his staff lengthening over the yard.

In the afternoon, the youngest children at Namasimba had fallen asleep on the concrete floor. I went inside and lifted Agnes Bwanali onto a mat. I noticed a book lying beside her curled shape, Lassie and the Cub Scout by Florence Michelson – all the books from the reading corner seemed to be in English. I read the book while Agnes slept and thought of the different ways of having or not having a childhood. ‘The ranger smiled as he brushed snow from his jacket,’ the book said. ‘Now Lassie greeted Danny with a friendly bark.’

I met with Eneles Bwanali, Agnes’s older sister, and, at the age of 14, the head of their household. She looked after the two babies, Agnes and Irene, as well as three younger brothers. I asked her what time she got up in the morning. ‘Five,’ she said. ‘Our village is three kilometres away from here and I have to walk the children all the way, then go to school myself. I have to take turns carrying them on my back; it’s too far for them to walk.’

‘What happens in the evening?’

‘We walk back,’ she said. ‘I have to wash them and wash the clothes. I have to find food and cook it – usually maize, or nsima. If there is no food we have to go and ask someone; but I also do piecework in the evening, fetching water for other families, and if I make enough trips I can have 50 kwacha, which will buy enough small fish for the family.’

She found it hard to think of things to say about her mother. After a while, she looked into a heap of red bricks – the Centre is being forced to extend – and told me her mother always had plenty of food and was good at sweeping. When I asked about her own future, Eneles smiled. ‘If I complete my education,’ she said, ‘I want to become a nurse. Nursing is a good job.’

That evening, I went to the Bwanalis’ house. Vehicles cannot go beyond a certain point in the dirt-track; it is both rocky and swampy underfoot. Beside a borehole a dog lay with its ribs lightly pulsing. The hut had a dilapidated grass roof and stood at the edge of a vegetable garden. There were little piles of pumpkin seeds lying on the ground and a chicken walked proudly past us with her six chicks. Clement, Stanley and Precious – the boys – appeared to find it natural that the burden of care should fall on their sister. Clement clearly had a problem with his eyes. They were swollen and red. He said he had gone to the village to see a doctor and the doctor had said he had a disease but didn’t explain it properly to him. To one side, I asked one of the Unicef workers if Clement had Aids. ‘Possibly,’ he said. ‘He hasn’t been tested yet. Some orphans are on drugs and doing fine, and others are in the dark. There is still a social stigma around HIV and many will avoid the test if they can.’ But that may change: Unicef are soon to encourage community groups to tie family relief payments to recipients’ willingness to go to school and also to be tested for HIV.

A fire was burning and red ants were running up the bark of the logs. Agnes and Irene were playing on the steps of the house, and trying to scoop the remains out of a pumpkin half that was left on the ground. Agnes is given the drugs to combat the virus at the Namasimba Care Centre. If she doesn’t go, she doesn’t get the drugs. So her sister is responsible not only for the style of her life but for her health and whether or not she survives. I asked Clement if he knew any other countries in the world. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘America, China, Argentina.’ Then he told me he had been trying to fix a radio so that he could listen to news about football from across the world. ‘I have been following David Beckham since he played for the team with black and white stripes,’ he said, puzzlingly.

Next to the gutted radio, there was a crucifix made of twisted wire and straightened-out ring-pulls. The Bwanalis informed me with great deliberateness that they were of the Church of Christ. As Clement was telling me how they ate the mangoes too soon, when they were green, from the tree behind me, I noticed the faded words on his T-shirt: San Francisco.

‘We need more rain for the crops,’ Precious said.

‘The great worry is the girl,’ the project leader from Namasimba told me. ‘She is so young. The boys will go eventually and she will be left with Agnes and Irene to bring up on her own. Men tend to come along and exploit a situation like this – they will promise her money. Very soon. They will try to sleep with her and perhaps marry her. They may claim this house. We are trying to create a system of community protection for them but it isn’t easy. It’s not far from being an orphan to becoming a maker of orphans. That’s how it works with this disease.’

Agnes waved from the steps of the house and rubbed the pumpkin seeds from her small hands. That’s how I last saw her, as the vehicle climbed out of the township. There would be other houses and other voices, communities in Zomba and Ndirande, campaigns to protect children and feed them and keep them alive, but I woke in the night under a mosquito net and saw lightning crack in the Zomba mountains to bleach the dark room where I slept. And for a second I thought I saw Agnes standing at the foot of the bed in her purple dress, ready for another day of small fish and American snow, the several wonders that hold back disaster.

‘The strangest disease I have seen in this country,’ Livingstone wrote in his Last Journals, ‘seems really to be broken-heartedness.’ When the lightning flashed again, I could see rain coming like a swarm of insects from the direction of the mountains. It was soon running on the windows and I hoped it would be running down the leaves in the Bwanali garden.

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