Author Archives: Josiane_Blanc

Empowering Malawian women one seed at a time

Across Malawi, 5000 women have been trained by Annie Bonomali, a mother of six who’s been involved in making products such as soap, jam and oil out of tree leaves and seeds. What started out to be a family business in 1994 rapidly evolved into making Malawian women financially independent.

“In 1998, the International I foundation called and asked me to train my fellow women in soap & jam making, mushroom growing and oil processing. Overall, I’ve trained 5000 women in 26 districts. Nchisi and Karonga are the only districts I haven’t been too”, explains Mrs. Bonomali.

Even though she studied tailoring, over the past 20 years it’s the Jatropha, Baobab, Moringa and Neem trees that provided Mrs. Bonomali with the sufficient source of income to send her children to university.

This is why she agreed to train her fellow women when she was approach by several NGOs and later registered her own business as Khumbo oil Refinery and Consultancy.

“I wanted them to improve their lives and depend on themselves not on their husbands, uncles or brothers. Life will be hard for these women if the people they depend on end up dying. In the villages a lot of women rely on their husbands to take care of them”,  she says.

Currently 150 women work hand in hand with Mrs. Bonomali in the Michiru district. It takes five hours for the women to extract ten liters of oil from the baobab seeds. Every 250ml bottle is sold out for 500 kwacha, which amounts to two Canadian dollars.

However, Mrs. Bonomali admits that involving women in generating income activities is challenging since they are most likely not to have access to loans. Another issue is that many men refuse to see their wives being empowered; being afraid that earning their own money will make them too independent.

Like mother, like daughter

While many women in Malawi were recently initiated to the business culture, it is not the case for Mrs. Bonomali who admits that her business idea came from her grandmother. After practicing tailoring for 14 years, she thought it was time for her to follow the path of the woman who had inspired her own mother before her.

Grounded moringa leaves sold has nutrient for the people with diabetes

“My grandmother and my mother were both business women. They had a garden were they pound ground nuts and sell the powder”, she explains.

Even though Mrs. Bonomali grew up surrounded by business women and has been exporting her products to foreign countries such as Japan for more than 20 years now, the inaccessibility to funds makes it very difficult for her business  grow as she would like.

“If I receive an order today, the bank will still refuse to grant me the loan that will help me process it and won’t giving me any reason for declining it. Most people here in Malawi do things politically. People look at you, who you are, who you are supporting politically and if your business is profitable to them”, she admits.

Though Mrs. Bonomali is yet to reach her goal of expanding her business, time and commitment enabled her to get her products known across the country. While her products are available in various drugstores around Blantyre, she admits that word of mouth remains so far the best advertising to help sell her products.

Experiencing the “real” Malawi: A media development journey in Nancholi.

 

Women in Mchokera are patiently waiting to access the clinic.


A month ago I was approached by George Nedi, projects coordinator at the Nancholi Youth Organization (NAYO), to produce a short video presenting their community-based programs related to youths and HIV/AIDS.

Among their many projects, one I remember most is the construction of a clinic in Mchokera, a village located about three hours walking distance from the downtown Blantyre, in order to ease the access to health services.

The beauty of NAYO is that most of their employees, including George himself, are volunteers devoting their free time for the development of their own community.

When I first visited Nancholi I was by myself  and I rapidly realize that even though I could help, the potential of that project was bigger than me taking a few hours of my personal time to realize a ten minutes long video.

Students from MIJ are interviewing a volunteer

Working in media development, you often come across the question of effectiveness and sustainability of your work. How could I combine my work as an rights media educational officer and help NAYO all at once? That’s when I decided that I wasn’t going to do that video: Instead, I would train several of Malawi Institute of journalism (MIJ) students in documentary filmmaking and have them, with my supervision, produce the documentary from the script development to the video editing.

Seven students signed up to join the project where their time and investment were offset by a transportation & lunch allowance given by NAYO. After a week of production I had to admit that I could have never done this project without them.

Never could have I spoke to a woman digging a canal to irrigate a community garden where maize, cabbage, egg plants & green pepper will be plant in order to sustain Nancholi if it wasn’t from my students. On the other hand, never could MIJ students film and produce their 1st video work if it wasn’t from me and never could NAYO have gotten this video for their potential donors if it wasn’t from us.  Exchange. I like to think this is what development work is all about.

MIJ students with George and Watson (two volunteers of NAYO)

One thing  I didn’t know then that I know now is that by agreeing to take in charge this project, I also paid myself a one week long VIP pass into what I know now to be the “real” Malawi.
Above the language barrier created by my practically non-existing knowledge of Chichewa, I also realized that despite the fact that I’ve been living in Blantyre for almost five months now; I am still a novice to Malawian culture and an outsider to the rural region where 80% of the population is located.

I remember many of my Malawian colleagues at MIJ telling me: “If you haven’t been into the villages, you haven’t seen Malawi.”

I now know they were right: You haven’t truly experienced Malawi until you’re in a village, dancing to the sound of the drums or sitting on the floor eating Nsima with your bare hands.  This was last Monday. Like one of the student told me on that very same day: “Ndiwe, M’malawino.”  I’m a “Malawian” now.

Queuing for treatment: “In Malawi if you’re diagnosed with cancer, you die”

Being one of the 24 countries with no radiotherapy machine and limited access to medications, Malawi’s health care system has very little to offer to patients battling with Cancer.

“In Malawi if you’re diagnosed with Cancer, you die,” says Yohannie Mlombe, hematologist at Malawi’s College of Medicine in Blantyre.

The Ministry of health external follow budget allows public hospitals to request transfer of cases that cannot be treated in Malawi to the neighboring countries.

“These patients who are referred to other countries are benefiting a full package from the government to sponsors all the requirements for the external trip,” explains Chifundo Chogawana, chairperson at the Cancer association of Malawi.

Unfortunately, these demands have to be submitted to a committee and patients are most likely to end up on the government’s waiting list.

“All the patients I had put on the list eventually died,” explains Mlombe.

At 24 years old Peter Kaunyolo was one out of too many of Dr. Mlombe’s Cancer patient to be placed on the government’s external follow list for several months in hope to be treated for Acute Leukemia.

“In the past, patients who have benefited quickly from the external follow allocation are the ones who have been backed up by someone who is highly respected in Malawi like politicians. If you have no backing, you could be on the waiting list forever,” admits Thumba Mhango, Chief Administrator at QECH.

The now deceased young man lost his battle on March 10, 2012 after his family was asked by Queen Elizabeth’s Central Hospital (QECH) to contribute half of his 2.4 million Kwacha treatment fees in order to put in place an intensive care self-contained room, even though Malawi’s health care system is to be entirely funded by the government.

“Health system in Malawi is public and funded 100%. It is free on paper and everyone should get basic drugs but this health treatment is too expensive,” says Mlombe.

Even though Malawi’s Cancer association conducts various awareness campaigns they do not possess the necessary funding to proceed with a national data collection which means that most Cancer victims in Malawi are unaware of their health situation. But screening for Cancer is not priority since the country has no treatment to offer.

“If we screen and realize the patient has Cancer what can we do about it? People don’t know what’s happening but even if we catch them in an early phase we have nothing to offer,” concludes Mlombe.

According to him, approximately 2000 Malawians die every year from this disease but the Cancer association of Malawi was not able to confirm these numbers.

Many developing Cancers in Malawi are HIV related. It is the case for Kaposi’s sarcoma which is one of the four most common Cancers in the country.

Miss Real African beauty pageant: A women empowerment controversy

“A real African woman has to be a big, full figured, confident and responsible woman.”

This is what pageant coordinator Florence Banda’s responded with when asked why she felt there is a need for a beauty contest dedicated to Malawian plus size women. According to Mrs. Banda, full figured women have been on the sideline for too long in the beauty world.

Promoting her event as the only beauty contest recognizing true traditional beauty, this idea emerged back in 2009 specifically targeting women weighted above 85kg.

Mrs. Real African beauty was created in order to empower oversized women. According to many Malawians, though, full figured ladies are praised in Malawi since they are perceived as healthier and in a good financial situation because they can afford quality food and services.

This is the case of Madalo Chimalizeni, a 29 years old make-up artist currently studying human assessment management at Malawi’s polytechnic continuing education centre (CEC). On February 24th 2012 she became Blantyre’s Miss Real African beauty defeating the nine other contestants.

“The competition was tough. I’m very proud of my body and I’m not afraid to show it,” she said.

Even though she never experienced any problems as a plus size woman, she explained that it was important for her to show all the full figured women that they are capable of achieving success.

“African women need to boost their self-esteem. Many of them are very shy; they need to be out there.”

Tradition meeting progress

Participant number 6 whipping the floor wearing a traditional Malawian dress.

Mrs. Chimalizeni wishes to join an institution to help abused women and encourage them to keep their heads up through these difficult times. Funny enough though that this confident empowered educated woman subscribed to many controversial gestures during the competition such as reenacting a traditional woman wiping the floor or bowing down on her knees to the minister of tourism in order to receive her crown.

The third category in which the ladies of Miss Real African beauty compete in was entitled Traditional behaviors. Each and every one of them had to parade in front of the judges wearing traditional clothing reenacting everyday chores while the audience widely clapped and screamed as a sign of approbation.

“This is what makes this pageant unique. This is how an African woman should behave every day in the morning. These are the unique skills that only African women have,” Deguzman Kaminjow proudly said as the host of the contest and director of FD communications.

As more women walked across the stage, Mr. Kaminjow spoke about appropriate women behaviors which included gentleness and sensibility. “Women are supposed to cry”, he said.

When contestant number two, Nancy Chisale, was asked how she will help empower Malawian women her answer was chokingly vague:

“I will help them do things that would keep them busy so they don’t do bad things like going out,” she said.

Minister of tourism Daniel Liwimbi was also present as a special guest. While sharing a few words with the public, he explained how Miss Real African beauty was an innovative event that will potentially attract more tourism since Malawi and Zimbabwe are the only countries in Africa holding pageant dedicated to curvy women.

“We are establishing the role of full figured women in the development of our country”, he said.

Only ten out of the 18 women who initially subscribed to the contest actually showed up to compete, most of them withdrawing due to the pressure of their husbands.

“People think models are prostitutes or putting themselves on the market”, admits Banda.

When asked about how she is including everyone in her fight for women empowerment, considering that most Malawians are regular size females, Banda said that her message is to promote self-acceptance for all regardless of their weight.

“Some people are born big, it’s in their genes. These are the people we are promoting, we are not pushing slim ladies to eat”, she concluded.

Women all over the world are pressuring themselves to follow the various social standards they belong to. If fighting for women empowerment is what Mrs. Real African beauty is all about, reducing women to a stereotypical image and idealistic traditional behaviors surely is not the way to do so.