Author Archives: Angela Pereira

About Angela Pereira

Angela Pereira’s current position at the Malawi Institute of Journalism in Blantyre marries her longtime passion for media, international development and social justice. While earning a Bachelor of Journalism at Carleton University, she interned at print and online publications including the Ottawa Citizen and University Affairs Magazine. But she never managed to remain on Canadian soil for long; she travelled to Central America with Development and Peace, a Canadian NGO, and was a journalism intern in Botswana. Upon graduation, she worked for Canada's International Development Research Centre as a writer and media relations assistant. This is Pereira’s second time in Malawi, where she worked for a year as a media and communications advisor for a local HIV/AIDS organization from 2009 to 2010.

Talent Show for Human Rights

jhr chapter members kick off the talent show at the Malawi Institute of Journalism. Photo by Katie Lin.

In front of the Malawi Institute of Journalism (MIJ), two parents prevent their child from going to school.

While the child is consumed in tears, a human rights activist intervenes and tells the parents that the child has a right to be educated and that children are supposed to be protected everywhere, starting in their homes.

But the situation is hypothetical and the people are actors:student performers from the jhr student chapter at MIJ.  Formed in 2010, it is one of jhr’s first African student chapters.

On February 19th they hosted a talent show on campus to raise money for the chapter’s secondary school outreach programs and to educate their fellow students on human rights.

“It reached out to the people of MIJ,” says Sahiba Kour, the chapter’s president. “Now they know who we are and that we are working on human rights on campus. They came and supported that work, which meant a lot to us.”

Students performed skits about child rights and women's rights. Photo by Katie Lin.

The talent show attracted students from outside MIJ and attracted media attention, including that of the national newspaper The Daily Times. Various media outlets supported the event by providing judges and local businesses donated prizes.

Students displayed their dancing, singing, and rapping skills, with popular student rapper Red Eye winning first prize.

But human rights did not sit backstage. In addition to the play on children’s rights, students recited human rights-related poetry, and used a creative method to get their fellow students thinking about gender sensitivity. Males from the audience were called on stage and dressed up as women, while women from the audience cat-called them.

“We wanted to insult them the way some men insult ladies on the road or their homes.  We wanted them to understand how we feel so they can reform themselves,” says Kour.

Now that the event is over, jhr chapter members are looking forward to starting their outreach projects.

According to Chance Mfune, the chapter’s vice-president of promotions, “We want to introduce human rights clubs in secondary schools so that students can start knowing about human rights at a tender age.  We want them to know they have rights that should be promoted at all times.”

Deforestation on Malawi’s Mulanje mountain

Mulanje Blog

Malawi's Mulanje mountain, southern Africa's second tallest peak, is being stripped of trees for charcoal. Photo by Angela Pereira.

“Why am I doing this again?” I ask myself as I stand at the bottom of Malawi’s Mulanje mountain, staring up at my pinprick destination point.

With its tallest peak thrusting 3,000 metres above sea level, Mulanje is the second highest mountain in southern Africa.

And it certainly feels like it as I struggle up one of its many trails. About three hours into my sweat-drenched ascent through tropical forests, the hiker in front of me does a sideways duck.

I mimic his action while swiveling my head to see the obstruction. To my surprise, it’s not a jutting tree branch, but a six foot-long saw balancing on the shoulder of a Malawian man nimbly jogging down the mountain.

“We could have had our heads chopped off,” I grumble as I stare back at the saw bouncing down the trail.

Potential decapitation aside, the saw points to a bigger challenge on Mulanje: tree conservation.

The beauty of hiking Mulanje lies not in conquering its heights, but in getting lost in its 640,000 hectare expanse. Its dense forests, ranging from rainforest to alpine, house so many plants and animals that it’s one of few International Biosphere Reserves south of the Equator.

But in its foothills, space is tight. Surrounding districts have a high population density of 185 people per square kilometer, which puts pressure on the mountain’s resources. And while most locals are subsistence farmers, selling firewood to the nearby city of Blantyre is an important way for some to supplement their incomes. They earn an average of CAD $0.71 to CAD $2.14 per log sold.

According to a study by the Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust (MMCT) and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), demand for Mulanje firewood and charcoal grows alongside Blantyre’s population. And as firewood becomes harder to find, sellers push deeper and deeper into the forest reserve.

While climbing Mulanje, it’s common to be passed by people coming down the mountain with timber on their heads. Some of the collection is legal. Some is not.

Deforestation has ripple effects. According to a recent blog by the Adventist Development Relief Agency in Malawi, deforestation is causing floods and soil erosion in communities surrounding Mulanje, further threatening livelihoods.

Many projects are underway to try and sustain both Mulanje’s environment and communities.

For example, one project encourages people to switch from cooking on open fireplaces to cooking on energy-saving stoves which produce more heat using less wood.

USAID recently granted US $3 million to increase community involvement in protecting Mulanje’s resources while also providing locals with income generating opportunities.

As our group continues lumbering up Mulanje’s back, the saw prompts us to shake our heads at illegal deforestation as we discuss the ‘obvious’ importance of maintaining Mulanje’s ecology and beauty, at least one reason for which could be maintaining tourism in the area.

It’s easy talk for us. After all, we’re the ones choosing to use our free time and disposable income to climb a mountain just for fun.

For those hiking into Mulanje’s depths with saws on their shoulders or wood on their heads, life choices are a little different.

Donated dress and a struggling industry

In Malawi, imported Western clothes are edging out local retailers and fabric sellers. Photo by Angela Pereira.

By Angela Pereira

It’s Saturday morning in Blantyre and I’m on a treasure hunt.

At the city market, I meticulously pick through a mound of wrinkly clothes, searching for my ‘treasure’—maybe a Guess? t-shirt or Zara jeans for which I can haggle. It’s one of my favourite weekend pastimes and judging from the four Malawian women purposefully searching around me, I’m not alone.

In Malawi, as in most of the developing world, donated Western clothing has become standard, supplanting local garments and hobbling the country’s textile industry.

Second-hand attire is cheaper than local garments, undoubtedly filling a need in a country where one-third of the population lives on less than $1 a day.

“They are the clothes I can afford,” says 22-year-old Chance Mfune. She explains that a used suit at the market would cost less than 500 MWK ($3 CAD), while a tailored suit from Malawi fabrics could run her up to 1800 MWK ($12 CAD).

Used clothes flooded Malawi’s market after 1994, when the government introduced structural adjustment policies at the World Bank’s behest and liberalized trade policies.

For Malawi’s own textile industry, “it was a shock that we have not recovered from,” says Kantilal Desai, former chairman of Malawi’s textile association.

According to Desai, six factories employing about 10,000 people produced clothes for Malawians before 1994. Once squeezed from the internal market, textile companies exported to South Africa and the United States instead.  But a South African trade ban and an unreliable transportation system proved these arrangements to be unsustainable, says Desai.

Now, fewer than 3,000 Malawians work in the garment industry and they “are on oxygen,” says Desai. “They can go at any time.”

Professor Ben Kaluwa, a University of Malawi economics lecturer, recently hosted a debate on Malawi’s industrial challenges. At the event he said Malawi has not successfully added value to its primary commodities, making it one of the most import-dependent countries in the world.

For example, Malawi not only imports used clothes – it also imports the fabric on which to print textiles, despite being a cotton producer.

Desai is pushing government to revamp the ailing industry by supporting a plan that would see Malawi producing fabric from its cotton. But two things are missing: private investment and the political will to entice that investment.

“We don’t even know from government when we will have enough energy and water to support the industry,” he says. “Would you expect an investor to put millions of dollars here?

For Desai, the labour-intensive garment industry is worth the effort because it could boost Malawi’s flailing economy.

“How else do you give jobs to those 400,000 drop-outs?” he says referring to the number of Malawian students who never reach secondary school.

It’s a question that resonates with me at the Blantyre market.  I think back to my youth, when I would dutifully donate my out-of-fashion jeans to the church clothes drive, feeling good that I was undoubtedly helping ‘people in need.’

But in the tangled world of international trade, investment, and foreign aid, it’s never that simple.

Malawi’s urban squeeze

Ndirande is one of the densest neighbourhoods in Malawi, where urban population growth is expected to double by 2020. Photo by Angela Pereira.

Walking around Blantyre, one of Malawi’s largest cities, is a relaxing endeavour. You can traverse its downtown core in only 30 minutes, recognizing the same faces daily, finding public transportation quickly, and facing a minimum of jostling and hassling.

Blantyre’s sleepy vibe is understandable given 80 per cent of Malawians live outside city boundaries. But the country’s status as one of the world’s least urbanized countries is changing rapidly.

The United Nations Human Settlement Program (UN-Habitat) reports that Malawi’s annual urbanization rate of 5.2 per cent is now one of the highest in the world—but its cities aren’t ready to house the masses at their doorstep.

So what’s pushing Malawians from their villages?

John Chome, habitat program manager for the United Nations Development Program in Malawi, blames growing competition for fertile land, increasing environmental fragility and limited rural jobs.

“When people move, they move to better their lives,” says Chome. “And they think that better life is to be found when they find a job with a better income.”

Francis Kamanga, 21, moved to Blantyre with his family when he was a child.

“I was so excited,” he says. “We had heard beautiful news from our neighbours about the city.”

Kamanga’s family relocated in the mid-1990s among a trickle of rural migrants; but now it is a full-blown flood, with urban population growth rates expected to almost double by 2020. UN-Habitat predicts 21,000 new homes will be needed every year until then to meet the demand.

But cities are already facing a critical shortage of acceptable housing. According to UN-Habitat, close to 90 per cent of urban Malawians already live in slum conditions and 80 per cent can’t afford to access decent housing. Plus, public institutions that provide land and housing can’t keep up with current need.

“Slums are beginning to grow,” says Chome. “People end up living with their relatives leading to overcrowding, or living in shacks in unplanned areas.”

Kamanga and his family stay in Blantyre’s Ndirande township, a high-density, unplanned area, with a population of about 150,000.

“One has to look deep into his pockets to find a house here,” says Kamanga, “and if you do find one, it is very small and dilapidated.”

Mtafu Manda, director of an urban planning consultancy, suggests government should enact a comprehensive urban planning strategy and provide housing loans with flexible repayment rules to the urban poor.

But even if there are enough affordable and acceptable houses to go around, Manda says city councils lack the resources to provide them with water and sanitation services.

As recently as 2008, Ndirande residents faced cholera outbreaks due to poor sanitation.

But politicians tend to focus efforts on potential voters—the majority of which are still in rural areas.

Chome says Malawi’s leaders must embrace an urban future as something that could be good for the country’s development.  He says many African governments made the mistake of focusing on rural development to stem migration but “people have continued to vote with their feet to go into town.”

And despite the challenges he faces in Ndirande, Kamanga says his family’s decision to migrate was a good one. “If I was still in the village, I probably wouldn’t have my education and I wouldn’t be where I am.”

A closer look at the ‘grassroots’

George Nedi works for a community-based organization in Malawi, NAYO, which he says provides local solutions to local problems

Once a week, about 80 men, women, and youth throng the streets of Nkolokoti, an area just outside Blantyre. By sweeping the roadsides, cleaning latrines, and arranging the markets, these volunteer members of community-based organization (CBO) Angoni Lonjezo provide a vital service to their community.

After their work is done, they perform skits to residents about the importance of sanitation and hygiene.

“Through CBOs, communities are empowered to respond positively to issues that affect them,” says Victor Kanyema, programs manager for Active Youth in Social Enterprise, a non-governmental organization in Malawi that works with CBOs. “They complement the work of NGOs because they can reach areas that we cannot.”

While CBOs are community-led with volunteer staff, NGOs tend to be initiated by people outside the community they serve, with a paid staff and a formalized organizational structure. CBOs have become ubiquitous in Malawi and their role in the country’s development is increasingly recognized, but a lack of funding, coordination and skilled volunteers limits their effectiveness.

Estimating their current number is difficult since city and district councils track CBOs but data is not collated nationwide. Blantyre alone boasts about 165 registered CBOs.

What is known is that while Malawians have undoubtedly been supporting each other for centuries, CBOs began to multiply after 2001—the year Malawi’s National AIDS Commission (NAC) formed. According to Kanyema, NAC encouraged the formation of CBOs by funding their HIV and AIDS projects, which was in line with the government’s decentralization efforts. As a result, many CBO activities today revolve around HIV and AIDS.

But like Angoni Lonjezo, many organizations have branched out to address other issues identified by the community. The Nancholi Youth Organisation (NAYO), for example, provided a loan in 2009 to local women to support small business activities such as selling mangoes.

“The one who has a problem is the one who knows how to solve it,” says George Nedi, NAYO’s project coordinator.

International donors are embracing the idea that CBOs are effective channels of development. Terms such as ‘grassroots’ and ‘community participation’ now crowd donors’ promotional materials. And funds are often transferred directly to CBOs, cutting out NGO middlemen.

For example, last year the Stephen Lewis Foundation awarded $25,000 CAD to NAYO for its home-based care program for HIV/AIDS patients.

But don’t get the picture that communities are sitting around and waiting for international saviours. There are too many CBOs for too few donors, so CBOs must struggle to find local funding.

When NAYO started in 2004, it was funded solely by community members who contributed 50 kwachas per month—about $0.34 CAD—to support orphans and sick people.

“It was difficult for community members to manage,” says Nedi. “But they understood the importance of contributing.”

Angoni Lonjezo raises funds by renting out the plastic chairs in their office for 20 MWK per day (about $0.13 CAD).

Raising money is a constant struggle for individual CBOs and no strategy is in place to coordinate their efforts.

“There are so many CBOs now that district assemblies have trouble managing them,” says Kanyema. “And there is no special body that coordinates their activities so in one community you might have five CBOs addressing the same issue and competing with each other.”

Another challenge is ensuring CBOs have skilled employees since they are run by volunteers who often lack knowledge of areas like management or accounting.

“Even if they are trained, people can move from one place to another, leaving gaps in the organization,” he adds.

But despite all these potential roadblocks, many CBO leaders are hopeful their organizations can play an even bigger role in Malawi’s development.

According to Nedi, “It’s about linking up with others and coming up with new ideas and partnerships.”

Malawi’s national addiction

No fertile ground is left unturned during Malawi’s annual maize harvest. Fields like this one are a common sight in Malawi’s cities and towns.

“There’s no food if there’s no nsima.”

Or so I learned from a former colleague as he stared disapprovingly at my grilled cheese sandwich over lunch one day. The heavy white porridge of maize flour is Malawi’s staple food and is produced and consumed across the country—uniting all income, class, religious, and tribal divides. It’s also an object of national pride; criticizing the dish is a surefire way to get on a Malawian’s bad side.

“It is part of our culture. Our parents and grandparents all ate nsima,” says Felix Minjale, Programs Officer with the Hunger Project in Malawi.

Nsima’s main ingredient is critical to the country’s food security—2.4 million tons of maize is needed every year to feed Malawi’s 15 million people.

Reaching this goal draws on the country’s collective energy. The most recent Malawi census found that 80 per cent of Malawians are subsistence farmers consumed by the yearly process of planting, fertilizing, weeding, harvesting and milling maize.

While visiting a rural area just outside Blantyre’s city centre, I asked resident Linnah Matanya how many people there farmed maize. She looked surprised by the apparent naiveté of the question before answering. “Everyone,” she said. “Without maize, we die. Full stop.”

And maize isn’t just a rural preoccupation; 15 per cent of urbanites are subsistence farmers. Just about everyone I talk to in the city supports their extended family’s maize field.

Jessey Kachule is a business owner in Blantyre. As a child, her parents would regularly haul her to her grandparents’ village to work in their field.

In her large office with a highway view, Kachule reminisces about those days. “The best part was when we ate the maize straight from the field . . . But the part I hated most was removing the seeds from the cob and your thumb would get all swollen,” she says with a laugh before turning serious.

“It taught us children how to be responsible,” she says, “and to appreciate what we had in town.”

While she no longer has time to work in the field, she is still expected to help her grandparents’ village by sending fertilizer and money.

Maize shortages caused famine in Malawi in 1991, 2002, and 2005, so this rural-urban collaboration seems to be an important part of fending off the too familiar spectre of hunger.

But the country is technically riding a wave of food security. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a global organization that predicts food shortages, reported that Malawi’s national grains stock is stable. Andrew Daudi, secretary for Malawi’s agriculture ministry, recently said that 3.9 million tons of maize is expected to be harvested this year.

Matanya, however, doesn’t want to feel complacent since rains have been sparse lately and harvesting season is still three months away. “We don’t know God’s mind. He can do anything to us.”

And no fertile ground is left unturned in Malawi’s yearly quest for sustenance. Maize stalks can appear anywhere—whether they’re by the side of a gas station or sandwiched between a plastics factory and a highway.

It’s a national dependence that may be hard to understand for those from industrialized countries where incomes are disposable and cheap imported foods flood the shelves.

“Countries like South Africa don’t need a staple food because they have so much,” says Matanya.

But even Kachule, who can access imported food, sticks close to corn. Before a busy workday, she’ll eat a bowl of maize porridge using cobs from her grandparent’s garden. According to her, “It just sustains you better than anything else.”