What I see is deceptively peaceful: the green rolling fields of the Chitakale tea estate, set to the majestic backdrop of Malawi’s highest peak, Mount Mulanje. The scene hardly looks like a site of conflict. It is hard for me to fathom that it is here that a bitter land dispute between Chitakale Plantations Company Ltd. and local orphan care centre, Friends of Mulanje Orphans (FOMO), has played out. Both sides are alleging wrongdoing, though the case reeks of a land grab on the part of Chitakale more than anything else, as shown in court records. Caught in the middle are the 5,500 children without parents who rely on FOMO for basic needs like food, clothing and schooling. In Malawi, even this small grassy knoll can prove vital to survival.
“Land is life,” says FOMO founder Mary Woodworth. “There is no social security here. The only security is land. If someone gets that land, it’s as good as killing you.”
In an interview at the FOMO office in the Mulanje district, Woodworth gave me an account of the acrimonious land dispute that has resulted in criminal charges against her and five of her supporters. Woodworth denies the charges, alleging the case against her has been fabricated by a corrupt police force. Her charges should be taken seriously, considering the events that led to the stand-off between tea estate workers and FOMO supporters on July 4.
FOMO was established by Woodworth, a Malawi native with British citizenship, in 2000. Returning to Malawi upon her father’s death, she was shocked to see children–hungry and unkempt–running through her home village.
“I asked why there were so many children here and was told they are orphans. They are trying to fend for themselves…I asked, ‘Where are their extended families?’ As was my experience in this area, your aunt and uncle are also your guardians. Why are they not helping them? They said that they cannot help themselves.”
Orphans in Mulanje are often taken in by extended family. But in a country where 70 per cent of the population live on less than 1$ a day, caring for the children of deceased family can prove an impossible burden. Many Malawi orphans might have a roof over their head but they are in essence left to fend for themselves.
“When I saw these people suffering and orphans with nowhere to go, I came back to try to put something back in the country that I came from,” says Woodworth. “I cannot turn my back on them.”
Initially a bank account where Woodworth deposited personal funds, FOMO has grown into a registered NGO with thirteen care centres that are now run by Mulanje volunteers. The small patch of disputed land, which Woodworth says has been in her family for generations, was used to grow crops for the centres – until 2008, when Chitakale tea estate came under the ownership of Leston Mulli as a subsidiary of Mulli Brothers Limited. Mulli is one of Malawi’s wealthiest businessmen with close ties to government.
According to court records, tea workers invaded the land following Mulli Bros. purchase of the Chitakale estate, destroying the crops that had been supplying FOMO with food and constructing a bamboo fence to keep out FOMO workers. The ensuing battle over the land resulted in three civil proceedings, up to Malawi’s Supreme Court. Every level of the judiciary decided in favour of FOMO. The final Supreme Court ruling is unwavering in its condemnation of Mulli Bros., stating that its actions constituted “the taking of the Law into the Plaintiff’s own hands…the Plaintiff occasioned to the Defendants untold loss and misery.” The ruling even recommends that Woodworth turn around and countersue Mulli Bros. Ltd. for trespassing on the land.
I spoke to Chitakale’s manager, Frank Chisesa. He claims he cannot speak about the land dispute (which has now been
settled by the Supreme Court) because of the upcoming criminal trial (yet to be heard). Leston Mulli refused all interview requests.
Regardless, nothing can undermine the fact that the Supreme Court ruling is decidedly in favour of Woodworth. Which is why I was so puzzled to hear that trespassing is among the criminal charges Woodworth is now facing. Why did police arrest Woodworth for trespassing, but neglect to assist in removing tea workers illegally occupying the land, as stated in the Supreme Court ruling, throughout the two years of civil proceedings?
Woodworth has concluded that Mulli money was behind her arrest.
“If we go to Mulanje police to ask them for their assistance, they ignore us. Even through all this, although we won at the Supreme Court, they ignore us. But when Mulli said “jump” to the police force, they just jumped.”
These are heavy charges that are still being investigated. My visit to the Mulanje police headquarters was brief: no comment, as the trial is pending. Nothing as yet can be proven.
Nonetheless, you don’t have to be a lawyer to see the failed logic in the criminal proceedings. How could Woodworth trespass on what had been legally decided as her property? How come police never assisted Woodworth and FOMO when tea workers first invaded the land, to which Mulli Bros. never had any legitimate claim? But few people here seem to be asking these questions–at least, not openly.
In Mulanje, my inquiries into the role of Mulli Bros. generally result in silent nods and averted eyes. There is a common acknowledgement and common acquiescence to the truth of the land dispute and the power of Mulli Bros. Ltd.
As a British citizen, Woodworth enjoys rights not afforded to most of her Malawian compatriots, and stands a chance of prevailing in her battle with Mulli Bros., though she will still have to face the arduous process of a criminal trial. Those who stand to suffer most as a result of the unlawful actions of Mulli Bros. are the 5,500 children registered with FOMO, who cannot escape destitution without help. The peacefulness of the Mulanje scenery masks a hard reality where anyone’s property rights can be trampled for the right price.
“If I turn my back on them, what then? Before, they were treated as nothing. Now, they are human beings,” says Woodworth. “In Malawi, this is what poor people are going through, and I am crying for them.”