The shelves of the weaving centre in Bangwe are filled with spools of brightly-colored yarns, making a colourful backdrop to what would otherwise be a dreary scene: rows of weavers sit silently at their looms, staring blankly ahead as they mechanically work the spools into tightly-woven fabric.
Their expressionless faces seem eerily robotic. Then I learn that, as most of the weavers here are blind, their eyes simply focus unseeingly on whatever lies ahead. The Bangwe workshop, where about 100 visually-impaired weavers are employed, is one of many centres in Malawi where people with physical impairments are trained and employed in various artisanal crafts.
First established over thirty years ago by missionaries, this centre and others like it offer opportunity where before there had only been charity. Now government-run through the Malawi Council for the Handicapped (MACOHA), the centres employ hundreds of disabled people throughout the country.
“These people were begging on the streets,” says Henderson Nyondo, the Bangwe centre’s acting manager. “So the idea was, why don’t we take them, train them and give them something to do?”
Without the centres, people living with disabilities in Malawi would be faced with virtually no options to support themselves. Making a living in Malawi is hard enough, even for those who don’t face the added burden of disability-based discrimination. The MACOHA production centres work to narrow the inequalities that would otherwise leave people with any kind of disability clinging to the bottom rungs of the social ladder.
Still, considering the general impoverishment of the average Malawian, even achieving a standard of living equal to the non-disabled majority means a threadbare existence. In Bangwe, the weavers earn 13,000 kwacha (about 90 CAD) monthly – a meager wage, but one that is actually higher than the Malawian average.
Thirty-three year-old weaver Andrew Chitenje lost his eyesight when he was a child as a result of measles. Before he began working at the Bangwe centre in 2005, he was eking out a living by hawking charcoal on the streets. Few people were willing to take on a blind man.
“Before I came here, it was difficult to feed myself,” he says. “When I wanted to work, others would say, ‘He is a blind man. How can he do this kind of work?’ Even in some other organizations, they won’t allow me to work.”
The MACOHA program offered Chitenje valued training at a specific craft, which is hard to come by, even for Malawians without a disability. Now skilled as a weaver, Chitenje has been able to reclaim his sense of social worth.
“I just want to show to the country that a disabled man can bring a good thing to the world,” he says.
Chitenje is bringing revenue not just to himself but his country. The Bangwe centre is a self-sustaining enterprise, bringing in about 25 million kwacha annually, which allows the centre to break even. The economic benefit of the factory, however, extends beyond only helping people with disabilities. All the fabric used in the products is spun from locally-grown cotton. The MACOHA production centres are thus a valuable support to Malawian cotton farmers, addressing one of the fundamental problems in the development of African economies: raw commodities are exported – without added value – to foreign markets, where they are then processed and often resold to African consumers at inflated prices.
The weavers here might not see the broader benefits of the handbags and floor mats they mechanically turn out each day. For his part, Chitenje is simply happy that he has a job, a pension, and a secure food supply. But in having been given an opportunity to realize his innate ability to support himself, Chitenje is actually benefiting the national economy, showing how development can be achieved simply by giving people born into difficult circumstances a chance to work for themselves.