Author Archives: Travis Lupick

Conflict in Côte d’Ivoire keeps Liberians hungry

Liberians living along the border with Côte d’Ivoire have encountered persistent hardships since crossings were closed in June 2012. Travis Lupick photo.

Joseph Tahyor recalled one day last August when he and some 600 other residents of B’hai Jozon were asked to leave their homes. Men, women, and children, set out first-thing in the morning, and travelled from the Liberian side of the border with Côte d’Ivoire to the relative-safety of Toe Town, some 10 kilometers east.

“They all walked on foot,” Tahyor recounted. “We left for three days before we came back here….when it was no-longer serious fighting.”

Tahyor said that soldiers with the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) facilitated the move, and that everything went smoothly enough. But he noted that roughly a quarter of those who left have yet to return to B’hai, afraid of another outbreak of violence related to ongoing unrest in Côte d’Ivoire.

Security has returned to the area, residents agreed. But life is more difficult than it was before. It’s the conflict’s impact on trade that is felt most acutely. Even basic staples have become scarce, residents reported. “We have children who are suffering,” one woman complained. “No food.”

The situation is the same in many villages in Liberia’s eastern border region. The Government has stated that it is aware of such complaints. But most crossings have remained closed for more than four months now, since a June 8 attack killed seven UN Peacekeepers and eight civilians.

In November 2010, former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo lost a democratic election but refused to concede defeat. In the ensuing months, clashes between Gbagbo supporters and those of the new President of Côte d’Ivoire, Alassane Ouattara, left more than 1,500 people dead. Gbagbo was eventually captured and sent to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. But sporadic violence has continued, with most attacks occurring in Côte d’Ivoire’s east.

On June 9, 2012, the Government of Liberia launched Operation Restore Hope, which aims to secure the porous border that runs for hundreds of kilometers through dense forest. People in B’hai said that they feel safer since the deployment of soldiers to the area. But they also unanimously complained of economic hardships that have come with the military’s deployment.

Women living along the border with Côte d’Ivoire are bearing the brunt of challenges faced by Liberian's affected by the conflict next door. Travis Lupick photo.

Joanna Zeah, a business woman and mother of six, explained that B’hai residents’ primary trading partners were towns in Côte d’Ivoire. When the AFL arrived, they sealed the border, which has remained closed ever since. Links to suppliers and markets were severed.

“From Ivory Coast, we could get food,” Zeah said. “But the border is closed. When they open the border, then our children can eat.”

Grace David, another merchant, said that the situation has forced the town’s women to search for food in the surrounding forest.

“We go in the bush but it is scary,” she added. “You can be in there and people can come and no one will know. Even to be there for just one hour’s time is scary. If something will happen to you, who will know? Nobody.”

The economic situation in B’hai Jozon is just one of many ways that the low-grade conflict in Côte d’Ivoire is spilling over into Liberia, noted Peter Solo, superintendent for Grand Gedeh, one of four Liberian counties that border Côte d’Ivoire.

In the county capital of Zwedru, Solo described how repeated influxes of Ivorian refugees have become a preoccupation for social service providers previously aiding Liberian communities in need. At the same time, he continued, the economic impact caused by the closure of the border means such assistance is in greater demand.

“We think the government in Côte d’Ivoire needs to fast track a sincere reconciliation process there,” Solo said. “We would greatly benefit from that.”

At B’hai’s closed border crossing, residents emphasized that they were grateful for the improved level of security. But everybody stressed the need for economic assistance, and said that fears of further attacks remain.

“It is two times that this has happened,” said Neeinwley Cooper, vice principal for B’hai-Nicko Elementary and Junior High School. He recounted a second incident, when villagers had to run away in the night.

“The rebels started shooting randomly, heavy guns. And so the whole town left,” he said. “Maybe we will have to run away again. Who knows what will happen tomorrow.”

Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick

False promises of Liberian gold

Out of sight in western Liberia's thick forests, gold mines attract disaffected youth but deliver few benefits. Travis Lupick photo.

Gbessey Musa is a long way from home. Three years ago, he left Sierra Leone in search of a job that could provide for his family. Chasing rumours of wealth, the young man eventually found himself at a gold mine deep in the forest of western Liberia. There, he recounted a story of false promises and disappointment.

“I’m looking for money,” he said. “This work is by luck; sometimes you get the gold, sometimes you don’t.”

Unable to find any sort of meaningful employment in Freetown, the plan, Musa continued, was to try mining in Liberia, which he heard could quickly make a person rich. Three years later, Musa conceded that he’s yet to send a penny back to his wife and four children. He explained that he makes enough to pay for food and rent a small room. But that’s it. There’s never been anything extra to send to his family. Even a ticket home has remained beyond his reach.

Travis Lupick photo.

Some two dozen men working the mine with Musa told similar stories. They earn enough to survive and work another day. But seldom anything more. And just like Musa, many travelled great distances – most, from Monrovia, some 160 kilometers southeast – and now find themselves unable to pay for transport home.

“We live at the mercy of the dirt,” Musa concluded. “Digging a pit to get our daily bread.”

In nearby Henry Town, community leaders were equally disenchanted. They said that their hope was for the area’s gold mines to bring paved roads and social services. But development hasn’t come. Instead, commodity prices have soared and petty crime has risen to overwhelm the city’s small police force. Meanwhile, adolescent males are leaving school in favour of easy money in the mines while many young women are similarly offering their bodies to meet to a booming demand for prostitutes fueled by a transient labour force.

Kafa Manjo, a chief for the Quinika people, complained that the money made in the mines around Henry Town seldom finds its way to the community. The majority of miners’ earnings are sent back to the men’s families in Monrovia. And what little that does trickle into the local economy largely goes to vices such as alcohol and prostitution.

“Most of the boys are not putting their money to use,” Manjo said. “All they do is misbehave with it.”

Travis Lupick photo.

He explained that because most of the young men working the mines often only reside in Henry Town for a short time (mining in the area is seasonal, ending with the onset of annual rains) they feel few ties to the community in which they stay.

“The money they get does not go to our roads and our clinics are not fixed,” Manjo continued. “They take the money to Monrovia.”

In the county capital of Bopolu, officials conceded that the mines are mismanaged and a problem.

Superintendent Allen Gbowee argued that youths’ eagerness to work in the mines is a legacy of the past. “The war and then NGOs have made young people accustomed to making quick money,” he said. “So many look at mining as the best option for them.”

Gbowee noted that there are laws designed to keep young people out of the labour force and in school. He also emphasized that the government should be receiving revenue via taxation of mineral resources extracted from the mines. The challenges are enforcement and capacity.

“How can we solve these problems?” she wondered aloud.

Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick

Rain in Liberia and how weather becomes an issue of health, and even life or death

During Liberia's wet season, neighbourhood wells can become contaminated with waterborne diseases, to which children are especially susceptible. Travis Lupick photo.

Living in Liberia through the country’s wet season, I find myself nostalgic for the relatively dry climate of Vancouver. To witness a true West African monsoon is to realize that western Canada is seldom inconvenienced by more than a drizzle.

A couple of statistics to explain my point: downtown Vancouver receives an average annual rainfall of 1,590 millimetres. Monrovia: 5,300 millimetres. The capital of Liberia sees almost as much rain during the month of July (1,150 millimetres) as Vancouver does in an entire year.

For many in Liberia, weather is an issue of health, and even life or death.

On a recent visit to Monrovia’s West Point neighbourhood, Thomas Tweh, head of the community’s sanitation committee, explained the problems that come with the wet season.

“When it rains, the water flows through the streets and into the wells,” he said. “Water with feces goes into the wells.”

During seasonal flooding, wells with openings at ground level are easily contaminated with waterborne diseases such as dysentery. Travis Lupick photo.

Lacking access to the city’s water supply, Tweh estimated that West Point relies on wells for 95 percent of its water needs.

He said that residents know that water from the wells is not safe to drink. But for many, the cost of clean drinking water leaves them no choice.

“And the little ones, they drink the well water unknowingly,” Tweh added. “This is how they become sick with waterborne diseases.”

West Point is one of the poorest areas of Monrovia. A July 2012 report on the neighborhood found that 85 percent of households live on less than 4,000 Liberian dollars (US$57) a month (and many, significantly less than that). That same study reported that water pollution is the primary community concern. West Point sits at sea level, and so is especially prone to flooding.

Tweh listed dysentery and typhoid as seasonal problems that come with the rains every year.

“We are talking about diseases like cholera,” he continued. “Just three weeks ago, a child fell sick from some water. We tried rehydration. But within a number of hours, he was gone.”

In Clara Town, another low-income neighborhood in Monrovia, David Jacobs, chairperson for the community, relayed complaints similar to those of Tweh.

“The drainage ditches around this community are very, very small,” Jacobs noted. “They were not meant for this many people,” which is he estimates is around 48,000.

In Clara Town, Monrovia, a lack of options for waste disposal has resulted in drainage ditches meant clogged with waste. Travis Lupick photo.

Touring Clara Town, Jacobs pointed to open waterways clogged by piles of garbage. He explained that the community lacks a proper facility for waste, and so people use the drainage ditches as disposal sites.

“When the rains come, the water just goes everywhere,” Jacobs lamented. “Sanitation is the issue here. You get cases of diarrhea.”

Back in West Point, Tweh presented a simple plan that could drastically improve the quality of the community’s well water.

He wants to strip existing wells of their metal linings— which are porous and rust— and replace them with more durable, heavy plastic linings. In addition, Tweh continued, wells with openings at ground level should be raised with concrete barriers so that their entry points always remain above flood levels.

Tweh has identified 50 specific wells for such renovations, and estimates that the cost of each upgrade would be US$100, or US$5,000 to significantly improve the quality of sanitation for a community of some 72,000 people.

Tweh maintained that funding remains the only barrier to his plan. He said that he’s approached several NGOs active in Monrovia, “but everybody is holding on to their money.”

Thomas Tweh, head of sanitation for Monrovia's West Point community, says he has a practical plan to improve access to clean water in the area. Travis Lupick photo.

Jacobs similarly has ideas about how to address the sanitation problems he described in Clara Town. Drainage ditches should be widened, he suggested. And open sewers should be covered to prevent people from using them for the disposal of garbage.

But again, there’s a lack of funding.

Both West Point and Clara Town are technically informal settlements— slums, as they are commonly referred. And so while the City does do business with them and is beginning to provide the most basic of social services, neither community is a high priority for the Mayor’s office.

During our interview, Tweh repeatedly returned to the story of the young boy who succumbed to dysentery. He emphasized how easily the death could have been prevented.

“They tried to take the child to the health facility,” Tweh recounted. “But at the end of the day, the child was lost.”

Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick

In Malawi, child rape is a tough case

In Malawi, reports indicate that as many as one in four children have been sexually abused, with orphans and at-risk youth being especially vulnerable. Photo by Travis Lupick.

Dr. Neil Kennedy recently told me he sees an average of 20-25 cases of child sexual abuse a month referred to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH) in Blantyre, Malawi.

I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly.

“Yes, that many,” he confirmed. “I was working a shift last month when I saw three in one day.”

Our conversation was part of a discussion on sexual violence in Malawi. Kennedy, head of pediatrics and child health at the University of Malawi’s College of Medicine, proceeded to dispel any doubts about the scale of this problem.

He called attention to a report titled “Suffering at School: Results of the Malawi Gender-Based Violence in Schools Survey,” which was published in October 2005 and based on interviews with more than 4,400 youth from various segments of society.

“Almost one in four children have been forced to have sex against their will,” the document states. “Repeat victimization is common.”

Indicating that little has changed in the six years since that report was published, Malawi’s Daily Times newspaper recently reported that it carried 16 stories covering 22 cases of child sexual abuse for the months of August and September 2011 alone.

Tackling child rape in Malawi is “messy,” Kennedy sighed.

He recounted an example.

A mother brought her seven-year-old daughter into QECH, the largest health centre in Blantyre, with a case of tuberculosis. TB is a common indication of HIV, and so doctors suggested the girl be tested; the result came back positive, but the girl’s mother swore that she was negative – and an HIV-test of her own confirmed that.

Other possible causes of transmission were subsequently ruled out, and doctors came to suspect that the young girl had been raped. The mother refused to believe it was possible, but agreed to further examination.

Indeed, doctors found every physical indication that the girl had been raped, both repeatedly and over an extended period of time.

There was now a dilemma.

The doctors involved in the case knew the girl’s father, knew that he was HIV-positive, and were certain that he was the man who had assaulted the girl. But doctor-patient confidentiality forbade them from telling anybody about the man’s HIV status, without which, there was significantly less evidence on which to make a case.

Furthermore, the girl refused to say a word about anything that had happened to her. And for the same reasons that doctors couldn’t reveal anything about the father’s health, they were also forbidden from sharing what they had discovered in their examination of the girl.

So what could be done? Ask that question and the matter grows even more complicated.

Speaking alongside Kennedy was Esmie Tembenu, child justice magistrate for the Government of Malawi. She called attention to a massive gap between the number of incidence of sexual assault recorded at hospitals and the significantly-fewer cases filed with police.

“Most victims of sexual abuse in Malawi do not report that they have been abused,” Tembenu said. “The information I have in my office is that as much as 90 percent of cases of sexual abuse are not being reported to police.”

She counted off an extensive list of contributing factors as to why this is the case. Among others, family members are reluctant to report incest, rapes that occur in extramarital affairs are often concealed, and in cases of child rape, it’s not uncommon for parents to take a bribe from an assailant in exchange for a promise not to press charges.

There are also serious economic considerations a Malawian woman might take into account before reporting her husband for a crime that will put him in jail for years, Tembenu continued.

In a wealthy nation like Canada, it’s easy to say that there is no reason in the world for a mother to conceal the abuse of a child; but the realities of life in an impoverished country such as Malawi are rarely so simple.

Let’s say that the household in question falls within the World Bank’s definition for extreme poverty (surviving on less than the equivalent of US$1.50 a day) and is comprised of a mother, her husband –the sole breadwinner for the family– the child that’s being raped, her two brothers and a sister, and their two cousins –orphaned from their biological parents because of HIV or AIDS.

If this woman were to have her husband sent to jail, she would find herself left with seven mouths to feed, abysmal prospects for employment, and virtually none of the social security or welfare programs common in the West. With the crime reported, abuse of the child would likely stop, but without her husband’s income, what would happen to the rest of this woman’s family?

Like Kennedy said, dealing with cases of child rape in Malawi is messy.

The “solution” to situations like the hypothetical one outlined above, he said, is usually to send the victimized child to live in another village or to one of the country’s crowded orphanages. But that, of course, goes nowhere near the root of the problem, and leaves a child rapist free to assault other young girls.

This state of affairs may seem bleak. But Kennedy said that he actually sees reasons for optimism.

When he first started seeing child victims of sexual assault at QECH two years ago, there was no follow-up capacity whatsoever. Now, thanks to a push by UNICEF and the UK’s Department for International Development, as many as 40 percent of sexually-abused children are enrolled in counseling programs and receiving regular psychological care.

There are also encouraging signs that Malawi, as a society, is dropping taboos around discussions of sex and sexual assault, Kennedy noted.

“Malawi is going through a huge culture shift about this,” he explained. “It is getting easier to talk about sex […] and we know that perpetrators are growing more frightened because of this.”

The seven-year-old girl discussed at the beginning of this article still lives with the man who raped her. Authorities know who he is, but lack the evidence required for a prosecution. However, it was “made clear” to the man that if the sexual abuse didn’t stop, police would catch him. Now authorities can only hope that he has heeded their warning.

And the girl is now receiving regular counseling at QECH, Kennedy reported – though she’s yet to say a single word about anything that’s happened to her.

Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick

Chronic fuel shortages keep Malawians talking

On-going fuel shortages are forcing Malawian drivers to wait in queues at petrol stations that can sometimes last for days. Photo by Travis Lupick.

One theme runs through conversations in Malawi more than any other:  the topic of fuel – and a lack thereof.

No one’s discovered oil underneath Malawi, the government has all but exasperated the foreign currency reserves it needs to buy petrol and diesel from sources outside the country, and no monetary institution trusts President Bingu wa Mutharika enough to give the government the loans it could use to import fuel on a regular basis.

The result is an erratic pattern of supply that often leaves tanks empty.

Here’s a look back at how the fuel crisis has played out over the last couple of months, and a snapshot of day-to-day chatter on the matter in Malawi.

Following a brief but welcome respite, fuel queues have been the norm since the beginning of November. The customers waiting in those lines are paying more at the pump than ever before, and the pains of price increases are being felt by everybody, save only the country’s most wealthy.

On November 8, the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority raised the price of petrol by 31 percent and the price of diesel by 38 percent ($2.30 USD per litre up from $1.80 and $2.10 per litre from $1.60, respectively).

The following day, the Minibus Owners Association of Malawi issued new rates for their vehicles – a primary means of transport in Malawi. An analysis by the country’s largest daily newspaper found that fares were increased by an average of 37.5 percent – a hike that many citizens of the impoverished nation simply cannot afford.

In the streets, where most work in Malawi’s informal economy and live hand-to-mouth, reactions to the new minibus fares were bitter with frustration.

“My business helps me look after my family,” began a woman selling bananas. “Now, boarding minibuses with the hike will not make sense because the money I will be making will only be enough for transport.”

“It is not only transport, but everything on the market that will shoot up,” another commuter noted. “Yet our salaries remain the same. These are very tough times.”

This all followed weeks of what the papers described as “total chaos” at filling stations across Malawi.

Towards the end of October, licensed vendors from Mzuzu in northern Malawi to Blantyre in the south, began to run dry. By mid-November, people whose businesses absolutely required fuel took to sleeping in their vehicles, which were queued around petrol stations in hopes of catching morning deliveries. When, in most cases, none came, drivers turned to illegal hoarders.

“The black market continues to thrive, with desperate people paying as high as 10 000 kwacha [$60 USD] per 20-litre jerry can,” an editorial from one of October’s papers read. “That is 500 MWK [Malawi kwacha] per litre –about 72 percent more than the normal pump.”

On October 27, the government revealed it had gone to great lengths to make 500 million MWK (roughly $3 million USD) available to Petroleum Importers Limited. That eased queues and reduced reliance on the black market for a time.

But it didn’t last long.

And so six weeks into this most-recent round of acute shortages, little has changed. In Blantyre, queues all over the city stretch on for blocks. On December 7, Energy Minister Goodall Gondwe pledged that loans from India and regional financial institutions would restore a regular supply of fuel by January; but that announcement was met with skepticism.

As the public outcry over increased minibus fares makes clear, tempers are escalating.

November’s drastic climb in transportation costs came on the heels of a 10 percent devaluation of the Malawi kwacha. Couple that with the fact that wages for the vast majority of Malawians have not increased with the rate of inflation, and families across the country are hurting.

Since the hike in minibus fares, fuel is all that anyone in Blantyre is talking about. Surprisingly, it was my eight-year-old neighbor who I found delivered the most-apt summary of the past two months events.

“From here to town it is 100 kwacha,” she told me, referring to a five-minute trip that just one day earlier, cost half the price.

“It is too much. It is not right,” she concluded.

Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick

Malawi prepares for climate change

Charcoal producers in rural Malawi understand that their work hurts the environment, but they argue that poverty leaves them little choice but to continue working in the industry. Photo by Travis Lupick.

Daniel Chakunkha and Mussa Abu understand that what they do for money is detrimental to Malawi’s environment – but poverty has left them little choice in the matter.

“We are well aware of the effects of deforestation on the environment but we are forced by circumstances,” said Chakunkha.

“We are feeling the effects of these self inflicted injuries,” Abu added. “When we had enough vegetative cover, the soil was very fertile and strong because of the leaves and roots. Nowadays, our farmland has become useless.”

These men are charcoal producers; to earn money to feed their families, they fell trees and slowly heat the wood to turn it into the chalky lumps of biomass used for cooking across the country.

Charcoal is big business in Malawi. According to a 2007 report by the International Institute for Environment and Development, the industry employs upwards of 93,000 people and charcoal is used for cooking by 85 per cent of households surveyed.

But charcoal production is also a leading source of deforestation in Malawi, a densely-populated country where resource depletion is an increasingly-pressing concern.

Chakunkha and Abu maintain that they do not want continue exacting such a toll on the environment. But they are poor and must do what they can to see that their incomes grow.

The two old men told me that last week, in a remote village called Makunje. Not so far away, in Durban, South Africa, similar arguments are being made by some of the most powerful men and women in the world.

Monday marked the opening of the 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (or if you’re on Twitter, just #COP17). More than 20,000 state delegates, lobbyists and scientists are meeting to negotiate resolutions and agreements around climate change.

As U.K. publication, the Guardian, paraphrased it, the International Energy Agency’s “most thorough analysis yet of world energy infrastructure” recently warned that “the world is likely to build so many fossil-fuelled power stations, energy-guzzling factories and inefficient buildings in the next five years that it will become impossible to hold global warming to safe levels.”

Yet despite such a dire pronouncement by the world’s foremost authority on energy, it largely won’t be the environment that’s the focus of discussion among world leaders in Durban next week.

For years now, international talks on climate change have been locked in arguments between the world’s richest economies –including the United States, European Union, and Canada– and the world’s fastest growing economies –such as China, India, and Brazil– over who gets to pollute the most and why.

Largely left out of the debate are the world’s poorest nations, which are not only the countries least-equipped to deal with the impacts of climate change, but also those projected to be the worst-affected. (For a map illustrating how climate change will specifically affect Africa, click here.)

“(Malawi’s) total emissions are insignificant at the global level,” said Yanira Ntupanyama, director of Environmental Affairs, “and yet we do suffer from the consequential adverse effects of climate change that include intense rainfall, floods, droughts, dry spells, cold spells, strong winds, thunderstorms, landslides, hailstorms, mudslides and heat waves, among others.”

Ntupanyama described the link between climate change and extreme weather – which was recently confirmed a reality by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – as “a threat to the country’s socio-economic development, attainment of the goals in the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy, as well as the Millennium Development Goals.”

Speaking as she packed for her flight to Durban for the convention, Ntupanyama detailed a host of measures adopted by the Government of Malawi to minimizing the country’s contributions to greenhouse gases and prepare the nation for oncoming stresses associated with climate change.

For example, there is the Greenbelt Initiative, Ntupanyama said, which was designed to safeguard against climate change impacts like erratic rains and unexpected draughts. And the National Framework for Managing Climate Change, she continued, which is promoting adaptation and mitigation capacities, strengthening weather forecasting capabilities, and researching how to strengthen the management of climate change.

But there is always more work to be done. “We need to up-scale the effort, scope and modalities of funding to effectively manage the efforts of climate change,” Ntupanyama added.

Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick

Dignitas reports a model for progress in the fight against HIV and AIDS in Malawi

In 2004, Edith Thaulo administered antiretroviral drugs to Dignitas International's very first patient. Seven years later, she is happy to report that the man is still alive. Photo by Travis Lupick.

When Montreal’s Dr. James Orbinski visited a hospital in Zomba District, Malawi, in 2004, he was taken back.

“It was a living hell,” Orbinski writes in An imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action in the Twenty-First Century. “My knees weakened as I looked around. The hospital was overrun with desperately sick patients. A hundred and fifty people were crammed into a ward that had only 30 beds. Sick people were lying under trees outside. Ninety-percent of the sick were HIV-positive. It was not a hospital but a morgue.”

“There was one nurse, Alice, and no doctor,” he continues. “She wept when I asked simple questions about how she had seen the disease spread. In a feeble effort to console her, I said, ‘There is always hope.’ She wiped away her tears and said, ‘Yes, Dr. James, there is hope, but it’s a long way from here.’”

This experience inspired Orbinski, who accepted the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of Doctors Without Borders (also known as Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF) and a colleague, James Fraser, to leave MSF in 2004 and start Dignitas International, a smaller NGO that would focus on community-based care for people living with HIV and AIDS.

Some seven years later, there’s good news to report from Zomba.

“I registered the first patient,” reported Edith Thaulo, head nurse of Tisungane Clinic at Zomba Central Hospital.

“And,” she continued, “he is still alive today.”

We met Thaulo as part of a tour of Tisungane Clinic ahead of World AIDS Day, which occurs every December 1.

Dignitas runs Tisungane in partnership with Malawi’s Ministry of Health. Showing us around the facility, clinic coordinator Edson Mwinjiwa detailed just how far Zomba has come in achieving this World AIDS Day’s theme of “Getting to zero” (Zero new infections, zero discrimination, and zero AIDS-related deaths by 2015).

“The clinic started small with just a few staff and a few patients being followed here,” he recounted. “Zomba didn’t have any ARV service and it is a big place, with 70,000 people and a high HIV-prevalence rate; about 17 percent at that time.”

Since then, Mwinjiwa detailed, Dignitas has enrolled approximately 18,000 HIV-positive patients in antiretroviral treatment (of which 10,000 currently remain in the system and make regular visits to Dignitas clinics) and Zomba District’s HIV-prevalence rate has dropped from 17 to 10 – nearly two points below the national.

This wasn’t all accomplished at Tisungane Clinic, Mwinjiwa noted. A big part of Dignitas’ work in Zomba has consisted of capacity-building  – training staff to specialize in HIV and AIDS prevention, care, and treatment – throughout the district. In addition to these efforts, Dignitas also opened 22 satellite clinics, which has meant huge gains for ARV accessibility, Mwinjiwa emphasized.

Furthermore, he continued, there are success stories in more than just numbers.

“Patients were first coming here to [Zomba Central Hospital] at the end stage of the disease. You would see patients die in the queues and come in unable to walk, dying,” he explained. “And now, that is no longer the case. Most of the patients come here walking on their own. And some come here just to get tested, even when they do not have any symptoms of HIV.”

Acknowledging Dignitas’ success, the Ministry of Health recently invited the group to expand into two additional districts –Phalombe and Mulanje – and after that, Malawi’s entire South-East Health Zone.

And so there is much to celebrate. However, Dr. Belete Assefa, Malawi country director for Dignitas International, called attention to recent funding problems that could put much of the progress Malawi has made at risk.

He noted that Malawi’s fight against HIV and AIDS is heavily dependent on funding provided through the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which, on November 24 and amid an economic downtown and accusations of financial mismanagement, announced that it would issue no new grants until 2014.

No one interviewed during a week of hospital visits ahead of World AIDS Day was so bold as to claim that Malawi can actually get to a zero rate of HIV transmission by 2015.

But looking back over the last decade, the majority expressed great optimism for the direction in which the country’s fight against HIV and AIDS is headed.

“Though universal access to ARVs has not yet been attained, 67 percent of the people [in Malawi] who need the lifesaving antiretroviral therapy are receiving it,” Assefa said.

That’s a far cry from the situation that Orbinski found before himself in 2004.

Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick

Malawi’s informal economy keeps social security services out of reach

Like millions of people in Malawi, men working Blantyre's common food stalls are employed outside of the formal economy, and often lack social security benefits such as pension plans. Photo by Travis Lupick.

Two months ago, our neighbours here in Blantyre, Malawi, fired their night watchman. The man was in his late sixties and, we suspected, was going senile.

‘What will he do for money?’ I recall wondering. But the thought was soon forgotten.

Last week, however, the night guard’s fate returned to my conscience. Researching a story on social security in Malawi, I learned that in all likelihood, my neighbour’s former employee now lives in extreme poverty (defined by the World Bank as living on the equivalent of less than US$1.50 a day).

Down a back road in Blantyre, a colleague and I found Enock Andaradi sifting through a pile of garbage, scavenging for anything that he could exchange for money or food.

“Life has been tough on me, especially lately because I am completely abandoned,” he told us.

Andaradi, 79, was also once a night guard. But he, too, was dismissed on account of his old age.

A few days later, Jonathan Mbenje told a similar story. Despite being 73-years-old, he was still working as a night guard, but expressed great anxiety for his future.

“For me to be working at this old age is not out of choice,” he said. “Being a guard, especially at this age, it is very dangerous.”

In Canada, these men could have paid into pension plans and now be living comfortably in retirement. But in Malawi and throughout much of Sub Saharan Africa —where, according to a comprehensive World Bank analysis, an average of 40 percent of economic activity takes place outside the formal sector— such social services are largely out of most people’s reach.

In Malawi, there is legislation aimed at providing the basics of a welfare system.

The Employment Act, for example, includes provisions pertaining to a minimum wage, contract terminations, and severance pay. And there are sections in the act that state that employers must provide paid sick leave as well as full pay for women on maternity leave. In addition, the recently-amended Pension Bill sets the maximum retirement age at 70 and requires employers to pay 10 percent of an employee’s wage into a pension fund.

However, according to a 2010 report by the International Labour Office in Geneva, 90 percent of Malawians – more than 13 million people – work outside of the formal economy. And considering the extent to which significant segments of the population are fundamentally excluded from society due to poverty and inequality, the prestigious 2010 Ibrahim Index of African Governance gives Malawi a miserable score of two out of 10.

The Malawi government has attempted to extend social services to this large and vulnerable pool of labour.

Section 43 of the Employment Act refers to benefits for seasonal workers, and a 2010 amendment to the act reduced the qualifying period for long service benefits from twelve months to three. Furthermore, the 1996 Labour Relations Act provides for the formation of trade unions in the informal economy, and a group called the Malawi Union for the Informal Sector now exists.

Even still, an untold number of Malawians fall through these safety nets, which, as the situations of these night guards makes clear, remain porous.

A primary factor frustrating efforts to see casual labourers gain access to programs such as pensions is a lack of awareness.

Andaradi claimed that he has never heard of social services for the old and unemployed. “I do not know how the aged can be helped,” he lamented.

Another problem is the ineffectual state of Malawi law enforcement.

Mbenje is employed by a registered security company, and so upon leaving his job, he said he does expect to receive some form of monetary compensation to help ease him into retirement. But he complained that uneducated workers like him rarely get what they are owed.

“Most of the time, they give someone between K20,000 and K40,000 [US$120-$240],” Mbenje reported, noting that that would be a one-time payout, and not any sort of regular allowance.

“With that kind of money, you cannot survive; hence, I am still working at age 73.”

Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick

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

Malawi abandons tobacco for crop diversification (and food security)

At a farm estate in Zomba District, Malawi, chickpeas now dry in the sun where previously space was only made for tobacco. Travis Lupick photo.

This past season, Henry Tambula saw his farm narrowly avoid financial ruin.

“I’ve grown tobacco for 25 years,” he said on the property he manages in Zomba District, Malawi. “And what happened this year has never happened in Malawi -It has forced us not to grow tobacco this season so we have stopped. We will never go back to tobacco.”

Strong words for a farm manager in a country that once relied on “green gold”, as the locals fondly call it, for as much as 70 percent of its exports and 15 percent of GDP. But in renouncing the crop, Tambula is in good company.

For 2011, Malawi’s tobacco earnings are down 57 percent from what they were the previous year. After five consecutive seasons of declining returns on tobacco, a combination of the global recession, oversaturated markets, and increasingly-popular anti-tobacco campaigns is forcing Malawian farmers to look to other crops.

According to Prince Kapondamgaga, executive director for the Farmers Union of Malawi, this is not bad news. “Diversification is long overdue,” he said.

A group of Canadian’s working in Malawi agrees. Canadian Physicians for Aid Relief’s Putting Farmers First program has long supported food security in Sub-Saharan Africa. In an email sent from Toronto, Kevin O’Niell, a program officer with the group, wrote that CPAR builds on the strengths of small-scale farming communities by promoting conservation agriculture principles such as crop diversifcation.

“Crop diversification is one of a series of sustainable farming techniques at the core of CPAR’s approach that improve crop production and expand opportunities for farmers to lead competitive agricultural production efforts,” he explained. “By moving away from mono-cropping (planting only one staple crop such as maize), small-scale farmers lessen their dependency on the success of that crop.”

What’s more, he continued, this strategy also helps to improve the nutritional content of families’ household diets. As arable land previously used to grow maize and tobacco –the two most-common crops in Malawi– is cleared of those plants, more room is made available for healthier fruits and vegetables.

O’Niell maintained that for CPAR, these issues are very-much a matter of human rights.

“People’s right to food is driven by the notion that food should be accessible to all (sustained year-round access to a stable supply of food), available to all (a sufficient supply), adequate for all (nutritionally adequate and from a sustainable food system), and acceptable to all (culturally appropriate and respectful of traditions),” he wrote. “Our work with small-scale farmers is based around these principles.”

[caption id=”attachment_5516″ align=”aligncenter” width=”675″ caption=”Not tobacco: In a country that once relied heavily on so-called "green gold", farmers are increasingly focusing on other crops, such as c