Author Archives: Philippa Croome

About Philippa Croome

Philippa has taken her love of newspapers from j-school in Toronto, to conflict-zone reporting on a military exercise in Wainwright, Alta., to the National Post, to her current home at the Daily Times in Blantyre, Malawi.

Prison over prejudice

Prisoners sit outside of Chichiri prison, one of Malawi's notoriously overcrowded jails. Photo courtesy BNL Library.

By Philippa Croome

I don’t know what I expected from my visit to a Malawian prison. Stern and menacing guards, perhaps, brandishing batons and demanding my credentials. Or having the contents of my bag dumped out and searched, my notebook read and confiscated. Or finding prison conditions so shocking they would continue to haunt me long after I’d gone.

I certainly did not expect smiling and welcoming faces. Or that my companion, George Thindwa, director of the Malawian NGO Association for Secular Humanism (ASH), would have running jokes yelled at him from familiar prison guards and staff. Or that the prisoners we spoke to would be able to laugh about the injustices that have seen them wrongfully convicted.

Sixty-nine-year-old Margaret Jackson shakes her head and chuckles as she tells us of the accusations made by children in her village—that she had flown them to distant lands during the night in order to teach them witchcraft. She and her sister are now both serving three-year sentences, and yet Jackson says the treatment from her fellow villagers for being a suspected witch was worse than jail.

“I don’t know why the village hated us, I think they had something in their hearts against us,” she says.

What began as harmless rumours became threatening with accusations. Jackson says it reached the point where she felt she might be attacked at any time.

“We feared for our lives, the way the community looked at us,” she says. “At the village it was very tough, it is better to be here.”

It was the biggest surprise of all, and shows just how low the quality of life is for the Malawians accused of witchcraft.

The country’s prisons leave a lot to be desired. Despite a capacity of 800, Maula prison in the capital of Lilongwe is home to 2,217 inmates, according to a 2009 report from the Malawi Inspectorate of Prisons. There are a total of 11,202 prisoners in Malawi, and yet the holding capacity of prisons stands at a mere 5,530.

The report says inmates can expect one meal a day of nsima (maize porridge) and beans. The inspectorate—mandated in Malawi’s constitution—has taken complaints of physical abuse from police officers at a number of prisons including Maula. Only last year, police reportedly defended the practice of torture on the account of a lack of resources. More than half of HIV-infected prisoners are not receiving anti-retroviral treatment (ARVs) and cells are poorly ventilated havens for disease that sleep people piled up like matches.

“The same problem is very common across prisons,” says Thindwa. “The conditions are tough.”

Incidentally, he knows Maula prison all too well. He was held there for two years without charge during former president Kamuzu Banda’s regime, he believes for publicly disagreeing with the government.

Thindwa says prisons have made “small moves”—at Maula for instance, the women’s cell has been rebuilt and inmates are now given porridge in the mornings.

But human rights activist and lawyer Justin Dzonzi says even that is more than he would have expected.

“It’s just not a government priority,” he says with a shrug. “And I wouldn’t blame them.”

With the average Malawian living in “semi-prison conditions” already, he says the quality of life for the country’s free citizens will naturally come first.

Meanwhile, Jackson’s experience at Maula has never made her feel unsafe. Failed by her village, its headman and the courts, Jackson found solace in prison, free from judgment behind its walls.

But she acknowledges that even in prison her future is bleak. She tells us that she doesn’t expect to see the end of her sentence.

“Three years is too long,” she says, clutching a new pair of shoes and bag of sugar from Thindwa to her chest with fingers curled from arthritis.

We shake hands through the links of fence as inmates sitting in the shade of the dozen or so barracks littered across the wire-fenced compound look on. Visitors stand separated from the inmates by not one but two fences, speaking loudly over each other to be heard.

I walk away with Jackson’s trademark Malawian resilience running through my head, wondering what else prison is preferable to.

Local politics meet gender politics in Malawi’s municipal elections

Beauty Pillow is the only woman running for local council in her constituency. Though it'll be a tough battle, she says she has an advantage because she's committed to community development

Beauty Pillow is a rare woman in Malawi—she can afford to run for office.

“I don’t have any donors but I use the little my husband sends from South Africa and from my own business—selling chitenjes (traditional garments), rice and sometimes beans,” Pillow says.

Aspiring for local government is no easy task. Beyond campaigning costs and time spent, Pillow says a major challenge will still be to win her party’s favour and make it through the primaries next year. She’ll be running against four other candidates in her area: all men, and, like her, representing the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

But she knows she’s got a leg up.

“My fellow aspirants, they say, ‘We will do [community development] in the future, after we have been elected, but as of now, we can’t do anything, we don’t have money.’ So I am the only candidate that is already doing development,” she says. “I buy uniforms for football and netball to keep the youth busy, I buy coffins for those who cannot afford one.”

It’s an economic advantage that women in Malawi don’t often see. A report from the Ministry of Gender, Children and Community Development released last year says men typically earn double the income of women in Malawi, from informal and agricultural household enterprises on up. Men also have more access to credit and spend less time consumed by domestic duties, such as gathering water.

The report also says that when the country last had local councillors in 2004, there were 767 male ward councillors to 76 female.

Despite the touted 50/50 campaign that was praised for raising female representation in Parliament from 14 to 22 per cent in the 2009 general elections, local election disputes have gotten in the way of raising the gender platform at the lower echelons of government.

The campaign was recently taken over by the Ministry of Gender from local NGOs—what’s been called a surprising move in the face of their past success at the federal level. Civil society is worried the ministry’s interests are too aligned with those of the governing party, and will see their candidates take precedence over the interests of women overall.

What’s more, with the recent suspension of the Electoral Commission on fraud charges, the setting isn’t exactly ripe for tackling social inequities.

The money that’s supposed to be reaching female candidates in order to level out the playing field simply isn’t, and it’s threatening to widen the gap.

“We have just heard that we’ll be told [about campaign support] later on. They have said they are waiting for funds,” says Pillow.

Pillow looks on as members of her community surround a new borehole being drilled in her home village of Sigerege, on the outskirts of Malawi’s commercial hub Blantyre. She smiles as the water sprays up suddenly, over children cheering and playing in its mist.

After months of campaigning Blantyre District Council members, Pillow says this borehole is now the fourth she has brought to the area on her own initiative and sheer persistence.

“I think they just wanted to get rid of me,” she laughs. “But I know how important water is, water is life.”

Women’s representation at the local level is tenuous with the polls only three months away. Though parties are gearing up for primaries, the three major ones have all expressed a disappointing lack of female participation. Cultural prejudices have even meant threats and intimidation for some of the women in the race.

Unless government gets the intended funding into the hands of women like Pillow, their potential will be stunted before it has a chance to start, and Malawi’s desperately overdue local representatives won’t be representative at all.

Chiefs struggle to find role in Malawi’s democracy

A row of senior chiefs line up to greet President Bingu wa Mutharika

Chiefs in Malawi have a lot of sway.

In rural areas, they solve customary disputes and are the connection for residents to governing district assemblies. They were outlined in the country’s 1967 Chiefs Act as gatekeepers of their residents and champions for local development. They are paid an honorarium by government, but are also expected to be separate from party politics.

In practice however, the lines between heads of state and heads of village aren’t nearly as clear. Malawi’s late dictator Kamuzu Banda was known for using chiefs to assert his power all the way down to the local level, and the tendency has carried through to multi-party democracy today.

Unandi Banda, executive director for local NGO National Elections Systems Trust (NEST) says the chiefs’ partisanship is tantamount to helping the ruling party rig the vote.

“The chiefs are influencing the thinking of their people to only consider the ruling party,” says Banda. “That kind of public talk has a bearing even on local election results.”

Although the Chiefs Act was put in place after Malawi broke from colonial rule in 1966, many of the same control mechanisms that saw much of the chiefs’ financial and decision-making autonomy removed, carried through.

It’s been 16 years since Malawi voted democracy in and yet village votes continue to be swayed with fertilizer subsidy coupons or free chitenjes (local garments) offered up by aspiring political candidates.

Whether chiefs will have a place in a functioning local government is yet to be seen, but in the meantime they are standing in the way of encouraging the open dialogue necessary for Malawi’s long-awaited local governments to take hold.

Spokesperson for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Hetherwick Ntaba has said there is no problem in the chiefs publicly endorsing a candidate—they are simply exercising their right to freedom of expression.

But Christopher Naphiyo, civic education officer for the National Initiative for Civic Education (NICE), thinks otherwise.

“It all comes down to the issue of misunderstanding of what it means to serve the government of the day,” he says, “and that ignorance is abused by the politicians.”

He says chiefs are receiving mixed messages from the government, which has at times failed to respect chiefs’ neutrality.

“We have had cases where certain powerful politicians have bribed some of the chiefs to say we don’t want any other candidate to come in this particular area,” he says.

When more than 200 chiefs met in Malawi before the long-awaited launch of the Nsanje Port last month, the event turned into a political endorsement for a brother to the current president Peter Mutharika. The Daily Times reported everyone from paramount chiefs (the country’s highest traditional position) on down to village headmen took turns to voice their support for the DPP frontrunner.

One chief reportedly said, “Let the DPP reign. As chiefs, we are here to be told ‘this is our candidate.’ And since the DPP has chosen Peter Mutharika, we accept it warmly.”

Accepting the party of the day has been a long-standing tradition for chiefs in Malawi. But still struggling to find their place between the arm of the executive and being grassroots representatives, chiefs must realize a free and fair local election could very well define their roles and see Malawi into its next stage of democracy.

Queuing for Fuel in Malawi-again

Malawi is facing its second major fuel crisis since 2009, resulting in long queues at gas stations.

The fuel merchants carrying jerry cans on the backs of their bikes lead me and a colleague down a dirt road outside the town of Mangochi, near the southern point of Lake Malawi. We drive along its bumpy path past vendors and curious children’s eyes to find a standard brick house turned into a filling station.

It’s a sight to behold: bright lights cast shadows from dark corners onto the 200-litre fuel drums littered across the small front lawn, fuel attendants are readied to feed petrol into the approaching car. At the slightly inflated per litre price of K280 ($1.88 CAD) versus K256 ($1.72 CAD) real price, fuel may be running low in Malawi, but the business is booming.

The small landlocked country is two months deep into its second major fuel shortage in two years. Massive queues have hit filling stations from the north in Mzuzu on down to the country’s commercial capital, Blantyre. Last year’s lack of petrol reportedly cost the economy 111 billion kwacha (more than $7 million CAD), crippled agricultural outputs, and skewed the value of products through hiked transport costs—feeding the cost back to the everyday Malawian.

It’s the ripple effect that will hurt Malawi again argues John Kapito, executive director of the Consumers Association of Malawi (CAMA).

“We anticipate that there could be another crash, and to take care of that crash what do we do? Put our prices up,” he says.

“The consumer will have to take the burden, but the burden will be based on speculation.”

From upped minibus fares to the increased cost of deliveries, the “exorbitant prices” that have tricked down from the fuel suppliers to transporters to suppliers are only being exacerbated by the silence from the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (MERA), says Kapito.

Last year, prices were adjusted upwards immediately. It’s the same thing this time around, he says. And although regulatory bodies are put in place to distance government from politicizing essentials such as fuel, MERA’s failure to decisively comment on the matter will in fact worsen the situation. For the fuel providers on the frontlines, MERA has been silent other than to implement permits for drivers to collect fuel in jerry cans.

Meanwhile, the government has commented through pointing the finger at Tete bridge construction in Mozambique for impending fuel delivery. (Minister of Information and Civic Education Symon Vuwa Kaunda told The Daily Times the shortage is due to the reconstruction work – a claim the Road Transport Operators Association (RTOA) and Mozambican government have since refuted.) It has also challenged the private sector to remedy the forex problem they’ve denied exists.

Opposition parties have cried foul – Malawi Congress Party (MCP) spokesperson Nancy Tembo reportedly told The Nation, “fuel affects every aspect of our society, including ambulances. Those are issues we hoped the President would have commented on and assured people that something will be done.”

Kapito says while the public has already felt the immediate impact, the extent of damage to the economy last year suggests the shortage isn’t over. And in a country where power outages are as ubiquitous as minibuses that clog the roads, everyone from local farmers to big business relies on diesel as a necessary back up.

Malawi is currently seeking tenders for the construction of a fuel pipeline between it and major supplier Mozambique. With K60 million ($402,753.54 CAD) committed for the first year, Grain Malunga, Minister of Natural Resources, Energy, Mines and Environment, says it will ultimately expand Malawi’s fuel reserves from two weeks to three months.

But that’s a ways off. While cars are still on the road and black market deals over jerry cans and handshakes are available, it’s costing everyone a little more. And with no one taking responsibility, it will continue to do so.

“It’s the same situation as last year,” says Blazio Sintchaya, 31, a Caltrex petrol attendant who has worked at the filling station in Blantyre, Malawi for five years.

“The problem we are facing will not be solved. And no doubt it will come again.”

Sintchaya says he has seen everything from missed weddings and delayed fertilizer deliveries. MERA’s permit fees resulted in constant queues, and though he’s heard the cause of the shortage is forex, he doesn’t expect any official explanation any time soon.

He shrugs his shoulders and says, “We can just accept the situation as it is, we cannot point fingers at anyone.”

Mobile Development

If you’re a cell phone owner in Malawi, you probably have not one, but two mobiles—one each for the country’s only networks, Zain and TNM.

The duo has continued to enjoy an uninterrupted monopoly on the rapidly growing industry and charges Malawians more to call the other network; TNM customers pay more to call Zain subscribers and vice versa.

It’s not an uncommon business practice, but in a country where only 11 per cent of the population can afford to use cell phones (according to government statistics, though Zain says 18 per cent were mobile last year), it threatens the very development Malawi was recently lauded for at a UN summit in New York. The ultimate aim of seeing Malawi develop through innovations such as rural banking and patient-doctor text message care—projects that depend on phone access—is being stunted by high costs.

A third competitor, G Mobile, recently had its license revoked by MACRA, the country’s communications regulator, after missing its third deadline to roll out its services.

The company has been on the brink of entering the market for more than two years. According to its CEO, Peter Davies, G Mobile’s aim is to combat low mobile access and be a boon for socio-economic development in a nation struggling to develop itself.

Andrew Kumbatira, executive director of the Malawi Economic Justice Network, says communication sector regulators have a “rightful role to ensure that at the end of the day, the poor Malawian is benefiting, both in terms of lower prices as well as quality services.”

While Kumbatira hoped G Mobile’s introduction would curb high cell phone rates in Malawi, he says in other industries, such as banking and petroleum, greater competition has not translated into better service or access for Malawians.

He says “a high degree of inefficiencies and anti-competitive practices” is not exclusive to communications—every industry in the country’s small private sector faces a multitude of barriers such as high tariffs and challenging regulatory frameworks.

At a recent Broadband Commission meeting, the organization declared that cell phone and internet access “will serve as tomorrow’s fountain of innovation,” and be “as critical to social and economic prosperity as networks like transport, water and power.”

Yet last year’s numbers from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) say Malawians are paying 2038 times their average monthly income for broadband making it the third most expensive country in the world for its citizens.

And in August, then-Zain boss Fayaz King told The Daily Times that the average Malawian has to work for 158 minutes to purchase one minute of talking time from the brightly coloured pink or green vending tables that litter Malawi’s streets.

King also suggested that barriers to the further growth of the telecommunications sector, which contributed seven percent to the country’s GDP last year, include an unreliable electricity grid, high costs to business, and shortage of foreign exchange in the country.

Despite Africa being the fastest growing region in the world for subscriptions, Malawi’s numbers are still among the lowest on the continent. The country’s 2009 MDG report deems its goal of increasing access to technology “likely to be met”—although it also sets itself no targets. On paper, Malawi is poised to take advantage of a growing industry. But the country has only scratched the surface of where technology can take it—for now, that potential is limited to a chosen few.

Love and Marriage in Modern Malawi

There’s a running joke in my newsroom that our resident arts reporter denies being married.

Like a lot of 28-year-olds, Sam Banda Jr. wasn’t ready to get married when his girlfriend moved in a year and a half ago. But she had lost both her parents, and it was only natural for him to take her in.

“The love was there but it was more to do with desperation,” he says.

Today, my colleagues at The Daily Times in Malawi say as far as they’re concerned, the two are married. No certificate, no ceremony, rather, a culturally recognized fact. Blantyre lawyer and chair of the Malawi Law Society, John Gift Makhwawa, says marriage by reputation is in place to “protect the middle class who are no longer tied to those traditional beliefs. “Society’s changing,” he adds. “Marriage now is more or less diluted.”

Malawi’s clash of old and new is everywhere: paved streets are found not far from fields of maize, long hemlines become miniskirts in night-time dens of iniquity. Cities are cast between traditional expectations and modern development. Relationships are very much caught in this pull, as Malawians’ views of marriage continue to evolve alongside the country’s national identity.

The urban population is the underwhelming minority here, with only 15 per cent of Malawians living in cities. And while courts must still factor in the intent of both parties should a dispute be brought before them, evolving views on relationships, divorce and cohabitation are still swayed by popular opinion, according to Makhwawa.

Views on divorce are evolving too. Malawi’s rates are high—in fact, it has one of the highest rates in Africa, according to the Population Studies Center. It estimates the rate at 40 to 65 per cent, a number comparable to developed world rates: 2003 Stats Canada numbers show that 40 per cent of couples in Canada will divorce before their 30th wedding anniversary.

And yet most Malawians still have close ties to traditional marriage customs. Banda says he withheld from telling his relatives about his live-in partner because he knew they did not approve of co-habitation before marriage. His surviving family, Christians from the Northern region, are used to wives being lined up for their sons, in line with the region’s patrilineal tradition.

Once he did tell them, pressure from Banda’s side of the family saw his girlfriend return to her relatives. A short while later, they brought her back.

“They thought I was chasing her away,” he says. “I was torn between two worlds…do I have to convince my relatives or hers?”

Makhwawa says “the illiterate in the village” would never be in these situations in the first place—parents or relatives would immediately be consulted when it comes to getting serious about a girl.

Both statutory (licensed) and customary (traditional) marriages are recognized under Malawi’s Marriage Act. Marriage by repute fits somewhere in between.

“You don’t have to examine a register of marriages to establish whether people are married, you allow basic assumptions from their conduct,” says Makhwawa.

Though Banda doesn’t consider himself a married man, it’s essentially been decided for him. Last month, Banda and his girlfriend had a baby, and as soon as he can afford it, they will be married under statutory law.

“To some effect I’ve been forced into marriage earlier than I thought,” he says.

“But I hope we’ll do the actual marriage thing, because that’s the right thing to do.”

Building Homegrown Health Care, Brick by Brick

MP Moses Kunkuyu (centre) molding bricks with his constituency's villagers.

Thousands of freshly molded reddish-brown bricks lie baking under the hot Malawian sun.

“Self-help project! Self-help project!” one young boy declares to me proudly. He holds a wet brick high over his head, smiling broadly from under the dripping mud. “We need to build here for medicine!”

He’s one of hundreds of children, women and men that have gathered to mold bricks for a health centre in Blantyre’s Manase township. Residents of Manase, like too many other villages in Malawi, have seen members of their communities die while travelling to faraway medical clinics. But the Manase residents are determined to see themselves into better health, even if it means building their own hospital from scratch.

Malawi’s population is 85 per cent rural and poor access to medical care is all too common among villagers far removed from hospitals. According to the Ministry of Health, Blantyre’s fares better than most districts with 18 public health centres. By contrast, Phalombe, a community of 300,000 about an hour outside of Blantyre, has none. Districts were put in charge of hospitals when Malawi embraced decentralization along with a multiparty system in 1994. But critics say they are often left without the funds from the top to respond to the needs on the ground—the most basic of which is access.

Martha Kwataine, Director of the Malawi Equity Health Network (MEHN) characterizes the coordination between the District Assembly and the Ministry of Health as “there, but quite weak.”

“Some health facilities have been constructed but up until now they have not been used because according the ministry, they were not held to the required standards,” she warns. “Some communities have been helped, some are left along the way.”

The first step for a future hospital in Manase.

Blantyre City South MP Moses Kunkuyu refuses to let that happen in his community. The self-described “Manase boy” already knew his annual allotted K3 million ($20,477.15 CAD) budget wouldn’t be enough for a health centre. When he took the project on less than a year into office, he showed an incredible amount of faith in the system.

“We have the bricks but we haven’t identified any funds. We just have the need and we just have the desire to see the thing take shape,” he says. “We’re going to use whatever possible funds we have.”

Kunkuyu says he has consulted the district and has the go-ahead from ministry officials. But in the interests of time, he says he had to pursue other avenues. Instead of waiting for help, he enlisted community members to help build.

“We are two weeks into molding bricks and they are almost done…if we had waited for someone to come and help us, we would have waited for years,” he says.

Group Village Headman in a nearby village, Kampala, says the villages can’t afford to wait. The journey to the nearest health centre has for years been a challenge at best. With no money for transport, it’s a two-hour walk. Some who have braved the hike at night have fallen prey to attackers, injury, or even death. “We were suffering a long time to find a hospital,” says Kunkuyu.

The villagers that surround us murmur in agreement.

On a trip to Zomba earlier in the month, residents in a rural fishing village said it is commonplace for their elected MPs to be voted in, and then never return to field concerns of the people.

Harriet Stima runs a grocery in Zomba-Likangala, and says she hasn’t seen her MP since his campaign.

“In terms of development, there is nothing he has done,” she says. “I’m not surprised at his behaviour, it’s typical of MPs.”

Kunkuyu refuses to fall into that categorization. Instead, he demonstrates the power of personalized politics. The drawbacks to decentralization have shown just how necessary the persistence of local players is to ensure basic services at the grassroots level.

“There is always something that we can do,” he says. “We can evolve ourselves.”

The Perils of Witchcraft

The cover of national newspaper The Daily Times after four siblings committed suicide in Blantyre, Malawi.

It’s been called a macabre mass suicide, a bizarre religious ritual, and hell on earth.

Last week, the suicides of four and attempted suicide of another, added a new dimension to Malawi’s already complicated religious landscape.

According to police, it was a belief in witchcraft that led to the five siblings throwing themselves into a blazing fire in Ndirande, Blantyre’s most populous township.

Lamace Manda, 31, and his sisters, Etta, 27, and Annie, 16, died on the spot, while Petro, 25, was admitted to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital with severe injuries. He died several days later. The last sister, 19-year-old Maria, was rescued by horrified onlookers and has now pleaded guilty to attempted suicide at police headquarters.

Some local reports have suggested the siblings were being taught witchcraft by their parents, while others have quoted the parents saying they had been physically and sexually abused by their children.

Others have carried reports the children acted on the advice of preaching that encouraged suicidal tendencies from a local church, the Ndirande Lunch Hour Fellowship, which it has since denied.

According to a UNICEF report from April 2010, “Children Accused of Witchcraft”, Sub-Saharan Africa, especially in West and Central Africa, has seen an increasing number of children accused of practising witchcraft, which often leads to their abuse and abandonment.

“Whereas in the past, elderly people, particularly women, were accused, these days the number of children accused of witchcraft is increasing,” the report reads. “The frequent accusations are the direct consequence of a generalized climate of ‘spiritual insecurity.'”

Despite no available numbers from Malawi, the report cites unofficial estimates from a widespread study. Examples include Limpopo Province in South Africa, where 389 people were allegedly killed between 1985 and 1995 and another 600 killed by lynching between 1996 and 2001. The report also cites northern Ghana, where women accused and banished to “witch villages” are forced to live in dehumanizing conditions.

While the numbers in Malawi are unclear, reports of such cases are also prevalent.

The Malawi Law Commission is currently undertaking a review of the existing Witchcraft Act. Inherited through colonial rule in 1911, the current act presumes that witchcraft does not exist, but also makes it an offence for any person to represent themselves as a wizard or witch and aims to protect those against “trial by ordeal.”

Expected to be complete by the end of this year, the review will then be submitted to parliament for consideration to establish a new act.

Sophie Nyirongo, Civic Education and Public Relations Officer for the commission says they are responding to “many incidents related to witchcraft allegations,” which she says often result in mob justice, where victims are stigmatized, cast out or even lynched.

Although Nyirongo could not comment on the results of public submissions until the commission’s report is finalized, she says “the response from the public has been overwhelming,” and has ranged from claims that witchcraft does not exist, to accusations that the act is a breach of constitutional freedoms of conscience and beliefs.

Malawi is a God-fearing nation with a secular constitution. The tragedy in Ndirande is yet another indication of how that paradox plays out for its people.

Planes, Blame and Sedition too

In a single month, Malawi’s President Bingu wa Mutharika has threatened to shut down “any newspaper that publishes lies,” faced backlash for the arrest of a cleric on charges of sedition and blasted international donors for condemning his purchase of a multimillion dollar jet.

Blame.

“If you continue consistently writing such stories with the aim of disorganization, I will close down your newspapers. I am tired. This country is not run by you donors or the newspapers in this country. This country is run by me,” The Nation reported him to have said at an agricultural fair last week in the southern city of Blantyre.

He was responding to another Nation article earlier that week. It had published the findings of a report from the South African Development Committee (SADC) earmarking Malawi as one in the region at risk for famine.

The report matched research done and released in July by USAID-funded Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS), which said an estimated 1.5 million people in Malawi would need food aid due to dry spells and population growth.

According to the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) 2008 African Media Barometer, in Malawi “almost 80 percent of advertising in print media comes from Government and Government-funded projects.”

Sedition.

The arrested cleric, Reverend Levi Nyondo, was charged with sedition – defined in Malawi’s penal code as any intention to bring “hatred, contempt or excitement of disaffection against the President and government.”

He had been giving a eulogy at Professor Moses Chirambo’s funeral – the minister who died just days after being fired from cabinet – and had suggested stress had been the cause of his death.

In Malawi, the maximum sentence for sedition is five years.

Last week, Uganda’s courts overthrew its sedition laws, deeming them unconstitutional.

Planes.

The United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID) also released its annual report, which said the Malawi government’s purchase of a K2 billion (just over $13.6 million CAD) luxury plane would result in its axing the equivalent amount  from the country’s Poverty Reduction Budget Support over the next five years.

DFID’s report also says an additional £300,000 ($489,000 CAD) from a total of £800,000 ($1.3 million CAD) in Support to Parliament funds has been suspended, pending investigation into a “concerns of misuse of funds…exposed in a February 2009 audit.”

Deputy Minister in the Office of President and Cabinet Nicolas Dausi told The Daily Times that limitations on how foreign aid is spent too rigid.

“Some of these donor conditionalities are not fair, let them assist us but we should not be subjected to unfair ridicule of our leaders on scapegoat allegations,” he said.

Secretary to the Treasury Joseph Mwanamveka called the allegations that aid money was used “totally untrue.”

“The plane is owned by our army, it’s for security – so we don’t discuss that issue,” he said. “It has never even been discussed in parliament.”

Blantyre-based lawyer Justin Dzonzi says not only was this unconstitutional, but a breach of Malawi’s Public Finance Management Act, which demands accountability and transparency of public money.

An Education in Child Labour


From under long stretches of fishing net that dry the tiny local fish, usipa, in the afternoon sun, we wait for the boats to come in from Lake Chilwa in Malawi.

To my right is a colleague from The Daily Times, to my left a group of children all under 10, also waiting for the daily catch.

The fishing industry is the backbone of this rural village surrounded by the mountains in Zomba district. It’s the same lifeline for all the villages surrounding this lake that runs through Phalombe and Machinga districts too, and produces almost 30 percent of the country’s catch each day.

I’m there following up on reports of child labour that surfaced this month. The Daily Times reported thousands of children to be working, largely in place of going to school, in often hazardous conditions.

The boats come in and it’s a rush of activity. Women fill their buckets, buying chambo (a local tilapia), mlamba (catfish) and usipa wholesale. As my coworker buys some, I watch the catfish killed and neatly hung on a ring of crude hooks by a young boy.

Twelve-year-old Andrew Adam says he doesn’t like having to work, but does it out of poverty.

“If I had the choice, I would go to school,” he says. “I just need to make money.”

He says it’s just the way it is – his family can’t afford to send him to secondary school and anyway, the nearest one is 20 kilometres away. He gets paid fairly most times, at a daily rate of about K2,000 (about $14 CAD), it’s a better than average wage by Malawian standards.

Free primary education was introduced along with Malawi’s multiparty system in 1994. It aimed to break the cycle of poverty and aligned with the goals of the international community for a universal standard.

And yet numerous reports from local media and international NGOs broke shortly afterwards saying the system was overwhelmed by enrolment numbers that didn’t have the personnel to handle it. With such a strong focus on primary school alone, enrolment at secondary schools suffered by default, and in time began to decline. Soon primary schools too saw a drop in attendance, and for a lot of kids, it meant going back to work.

Dinnes Whispah, 30, is a fisherman that tells us he doesn’t employ children.

“If you are found using children below 18 you will be fined K1000 ($6.88 CDN) and the child is sent back to school,” he says.

Whispah says he knows it’s wrong, but acknowledges that it still happens. Despite frequent police patrols of the area, he says it’s largely an accepted fact.

“The figures have been reducing in the past two years, but you can still find some children coming to the lake on their own for profit,” he says. “Going to the lake at young age is like going to school and learning a trade.”

We talk with the village head Likapa, who tells us his Traditional Authority of Mwambo-Zomba is a rich village whose people live prosperously off the lake.

When we get to the question of child labour he pauses for a moment. “Children under 18 are not allowed to work,” he says. “They’re not even allowed to play around the lake.”

We had just come from the lake. He had been standing by the shore watching but 50 feet from us as children played by it.

Growing up by Lake Chilwa means there’s a good chance Adam will end up a fisherman anyway. His father gone, his mother a fishmonger, it’s only natural without the next step of education being free.

He shrugs his shoulders, and laughing, jumps up on the stern of the boat, fanning his money out for us to see.