Blantyre Market rebuilds with bricks (and a note on negativity)

After a fire destroyed much of Blantyre Market on September 19, merchants tirelessly worked together to see that it was business as usual within a matter of weeks. Photo by Travis Lupick.

Hammers banged overhead as Blantyre Market merchants described ongoing reconstruction efforts. A fire gutted the commercial district on September 19 and three weeks later, shopkeepers continued the struggle to rebuild the foundation of their livelihoods.

“As you may see, most of us are now using brick material to reconstruct the shop buildings because we agreed that this may reduce the speed at which possible fires can spread,” said Raphael Nameta, the owner of an electronics shop. “But not all merchants can afford concrete – some are again using wood, and some have still not found the resources to rebuild their shops due to economic hardships.”

Nameta explained that some merchants are assisting one another by pooling money for shared walls and the like in an effort to move forward from this devastating event. But there was no centralized decision to rebuild the market with materials stronger (and more expensive) than wood, he noted. Cooperative efforts materialized naturally.

Despite such camaraderie, it’s been tough, Nameta continued. Very few merchants had their properties insured and it is estimated that millions of kwacha (the Malawian currency, currently pegged at 165MWK to one US dollar) was lost.

Nameta went on to express concern for the economic hardships that families are experiencing on account of reconstruction costs. “I’ve had to sell maize to keep my four children in their private schools,” he explained, adding that the educations of two nephews he and his wife also care for are now in jeopardy.

Similarly, Rodson Mitulo, the owner of a hardware store, said that although he has rebuilt his stall and is once again open for business, everything was paid for out of his own pocket – and the burden on his family has been significant.

Shortly after the fire, President Bingu wa Mutharika visited the market –then, largely nothing more than a massive pile of rubble. He promised shopkeepers that the government would provide financial assistance.

But nearly a month later, merchants reported that no money has come.

And so it has been a difficult few weeks for those affected by the fire. But the community banded together, the site of the fire was cleared of wreckage, and after a lot of hard work, it’s all but business as usual at Blantyre Market. A palpable feeling of optimism has returned to the city centre.

Back at the electronics shop, Nameta expressed optimism for the market’s future. “Many people have lost a lot of money,” he said. “But they have taken it upon themselves to rebuild their livelihoods, and things will get better.”

This simple story of perseverance, self-reliance, and, ultimately, success, isn’t the kind of thing you read about in international newspapers. There’s nothing here from the popular satirical essay, “How to write about Africa.” And that’s probably why you see so few articles like it.

Having freelanced from Africa for four months now, it’s been painfully confirmed that good news does not sell.

In fact, from a country as small and resource-poor as Malawi, barely any sort of story is easy to see published.

Nationwide riots back in July created a brief period during which it was easy enough to circulate accounts of the violence that left 20 people dead. But with each month that’s since passed without major incident, it seems it has grown increasingly difficult to attract the attention of editors with stories from this sleepy southern African country.

When a second set of nationwide demonstrations scheduled for August 17 passed without incident, the joke going around the Daily Times newsroom was one about how many international news organisations paid for journalists’ flights into Malawi, only to have the day pass without a single dead body on which to file a story. ‘All those poor publishers, their money spent in vain,’ we laughed.

This is of course not to say that an international media outlet is wrong to take a story on violence in a normally-peaceful state such as Malawi. But it does offer a partial (though admittedly, inadequate)   explanation for why readers in Canada were able to learn of a suspicious fire destroying a market in Malawi, but never about the positive epilogue that ended that story.

Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick