Tag Archives: Blantyre

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.

Vanessa Nsona

Driving change in Malawi – Signposts and speed bumps on the road to gender equality

With two hands gripping the steering wheel and the right turn signal flashing, 21-year-old Vanessa Nsona’s concentration does not waver when a minibus caller passing by her driver seat window lets out a shrill catcall – she is about to complete her third driving lesson and she’s part of an increasing number of Malawian women who are doing so.

According to Precious Kumbatila, the director of Blantyre’s Apule Driving School,  female students in Malawi have been enrolling at increasingly higher numbers over recent years.

“When we opened in 2003, most of our students were male,” said Kumbatila.  “Very few women came in.

“It was in 2004 when we had the second government that women started learning to drive,” he said.  “At that time there were a lot of vehicles coming into the country; a lot of families were buying cars, and as a result, men started wanting their wives and their girl children to learn how to drive.”

Although Kumbatila said the poorly performing economy adversely affected enrolment numbers for both male and female students in 2011, he added that overall, the gender gap is narrowing.  In 2008, 163 female students registered for driving lessons at Apule compared to 301 male students.  In 2011, 190 female students registered for lessons compared to 282 male students.

For Nelly Kalunga, a single mother working full-time and currently taking driving lessons at Apule, learning to drive is a “privilege” and will mean a new skill set, new opportunities and economic empowerment.

“Nowadays, women are given chances to do what men do,” Kalunga said.  “I decided to start driving because I want to be like the men who are driving.

“If I have a driving license, that means I can do any work that men can do, I’ll have better chances of winning other jobs,” she said.  “Myself, I want try to be like the men who work in peacekeeping.”

Kalunga said the jobs that she will be qualified for once she learns how to drive are higher paying and that “the more you learn, the more you can get good things.”

“We used to think that driving was only for men and not for women, but nowadays we’ve seen that even women can drive,” she said.  “I think we can be 50/50 with men if most women can drive.”

However, according to Kumbatila, still “very few women can come and pay for lessons on their own” like Kalunga.

At Apule, registration for the 40 required driving lessons costs MK45,000 (CAD180).  With the additional costs of the MK4,000 (CAD16) provisionary license, booking a road test for MK4,000 and MK8,000 (CAD32) for the full license if you pass, learning to drive costs over MK60,000 (CAD240) in total.

“It’s the men that pay for the women,” said Kumbatila.  “Either their husbands, their boyfriends or workmates.  They are trying to push the women to learn how to drive so that they can do their chores on their own.”

Nancy Nyirende is one such woman.  A housewife and stay-at-home mother, Nyirende began taking driving lessons at Apule in March after her husband, who has been driving since 2001, decided to register her and pay for her.

“We have two cars now so he wanted me to escort my sons to school,” said Nyirende, adding that none of her female friends drive “because they are poor.”

Despite these roadblocks to closing the gender gap between male and female drivers, Kumbatila said he believes the slowly but surely increasing number of female drivers is steering Malawi in the right direction.

“It is imperative that women drive because driving lifts people’s lives,” he said.  “In my mother’s day she was just at home for us, cooking at home.  But nowadays [women] can have opportunities.  If a woman can improve herself by learning to drive she can get the same kind of opportunities as men.  If more women drive, it will empower this country.”

***

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI), Malawi was ranked 60 out of 102 countries in the 2009 SIGI and ranked 38 out of 86 in the 2012 SIGI.

In 2011, the Human Development Index for Malawi was 0.400, placing the country at 171 out of 187 countries.  For the Gender Inequality Index Malawi received a score of 0.594, placing the country at 120 out of 146 countries with data.  Also in 2011, the World Economic Forum ranked Malawi 65 out of 135 countries in its 2011 Global Gender Gap Report, with a score of 0.6850 where 0 represents inequality and 1 represents equality.

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.

The Daily Times newsroom.

The future of press freedom in Malawi

Joyce Banda was sworn in as Malawi’s newest president on April 7 under the terms of the constitution, following two days of political uncertainty after the sudden death of the late Bingu wa Mutharika.

Having won national and international recognition for championing the education and rights of underprivileged girls, Banda’s ascension to the state house has raised hopes for a fresh start for the impoverished nation.

But in a place where a two-day national news blackout left Malawian media scrambling to ascertain the fate of the late head of state, what can be said for the future of press freedom under the new leader?

According to Daniel Nyirenda, deputy editor of The Daily Times and editor of The Business Times, it will take more than a transition of power to translate into improved media freedom.

“We are at a period now where there has been a suppression of media freedoms,” said Nyirenda, citing “bad laws” for press freedom that were enacted during Mutharika’s second term of office.

“We’ve also seen threats from the executive arm of government on the media and the banning of advertising to media that is unfriendly to government,” Nyirenda added.  “Reporters or even newspapers are afraid to publish certain stories for fear of getting a backlash from the executive arm of government.”

When asked if rights media might improve now that the executive arm of government is under Banda’s new leadership, Nyirenda said he is unsure.

“In my view, I think much won’t change because it’s the same people really, just wearing new clothes.  In Malawi, we have people who believe in controlling the media…so much won’t change.

“But, I’m hopeful that now that (Banda) has tasted life in the opposition she has learnt a lesson and she might be more flexible in the way she handles the media.”

Based on comments from The Daily Times’ current chief reporter, Charles Mpaka, Nyirenda’s hope may stand to come true.

While Mpaka said that colleagues working longer in the industry have testified that Banda was averse to criticism from the media and personally attacked journalists when serving as a minister, he added that after she was ousted from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in December 2010 and started her opposition People’s Party, “she was reachable on her phones and willing to talk all the times that (he) phoned her.”

However, he added, the interviews were on issues serving her interests.

“From the experience that I have had with Malawian politicians, I would not rush to conclude that things will get easier for the media.  Politicians do change when they get the power and influence.”

When asked what needs to change to usher in a new “normal” for press freedom in Malawi, Nyirenda said that it’s not the people that need to change but the system.

“We still have a hangover of one-party dictatorship in our laws,” said Nyirenda.  “We also need to change MBC (Malawi Broadcasting Corporation) from a state-controlled institution to a public institution.

“We need to reviews these things – then there will be adequate press freedom in this country.”

This article was originally published on the Toronto Star website on May 4, 2012.

Collateral damage: Police report policy delays treatment for accident victims in Malawian emergency rooms

You’ve been in an accident in Malawi – where do you go?  If you said the emergency department you could be wrong.

A few months ago my editor at Blantyre Newspapers Limited’s Sunday Times made this “mistake”, taking a small boy who had been in a traffic accident to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH) for emergency treatment.  The boy, playing with a friend alongside of the highway, had run head-on into an oncoming SUV.  He was severely bruised, crying, and required treatment, but when they reached the hospital the staff at the registration desk turned the boy away on the basis of a policy that requires a police report before care can be administered to an accident victim.

Nurses and doctors affirmed the police report policy to the boy and the editor and it was only after they drove to the police station and were escorted by an officer back to the emergency department that the boy received treatment for the traumatic experience he had endured – nearly two hours after initially arriving to the ward.

Three weeks ago, that same editor witnessed a similar episode when a transport truck struck a small car.  At least one passenger was killed on impact, and when another bloodied passenger was brought to the hospital in hope of emergency treatment he was forced to wait in agonizing pain until a police report could be acquired.

When questioned on the policy, chief administrator of QECH Themba Mhango said a victim of a traffic collision would “definitely” be treated right away because “it is a human rights issue.”

“Now with the multi-party system, human rights came in and people started realizing their human rights.  You can’t do that to a person now – say ‘no I won’t give you treatment,’” Mhango said.

However, a subsequent visit to the hospital’s emergency room registration desk involved no mention of human rights.

In contradiction to Mhangos’s comments, a desk attendant said that while critical injuries are treated as soon as possible, “when an accident victim arrives a police report is required.”

While “there are serious cases in which you can’t do otherwise but treat the victim,” the attendant matter-of-factly said the majority of individuals who seek treatment following a collision have suffered “minor injuries” and therefore require a police report.

Southern Region Police Public Relations Officer Nicholas Gondwa also confirmed the hospital procedure of requiring a police report prior to treating injuries sustained in an accident and said the policy exists as a kind of collateral, because “hospitals fear that the person may not be an accident victim but rather a criminal who got injured while committing acts of crime.”

“It cannot be known whether the person was really involved in an accident or was injured while committing acts of crime,” he said.

The point is moot.  Under Article 16 of the African [Banjul] Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Malawi ratified in 1989, Every individual shall have the right to enjoy the best attainable state of physical and mental health” and, “States parties… shall take the necessary measures to protect the health of their people and to ensure that they receive medical attention when they are sick.”

The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contain similar clauses.

Because Malawi uses a socialized system of health care, “with the goal of providing access and basic health services to all Malawians” and to “raise the level of health status of all Malawians by reducing the incidence of illness and occurrence of death in the population,” it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Health to address this unjust policy – take necessary measures to protect the well-being of their people.

Considering the fact that it is already difficult to get necessary health care in Malawi – transportation to clinics and health centers is problematic, and when a person is able to reach a health centre or hospital it is not uncommon to find that there is no medicine – added delays to accessing appropriate care such as this hospital procedure of requiring a police report are undue, unjust and inhumane, and contradict the state of emergency for which the health department in question exists.

In the meantime, Malawians should be advised to keep a first aid kit on hand as well as a police officers’ phone number on speed dial – you will need both before you can access appropriate treatment for injuries sustained in an accident at Queen’s hospital.

With files from the Sunday Times’ Ruth Mputeni

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.

Health & Fuel: A follow up on Malawi’s shortage impact on health services.

The inaccessibility of oil in Malawi causes a considerable slowdown in regard to the overall productivity of the country. While hospitals have developed strategies to ensure continuous access to resources, their employees and patients are still queuing up nearby the pump.

According to Dr. Themba Mhango, the director at the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH), some patients are unable to attend appointments due to fuel shortages.

“At the moment about 50% of the patients with diabetes who are booked to come for sight-saving laser treatment are defaulting and when we call them to trace them, they almost always say it is due to no fuel or the cost of transport that has increased.” Said Dr. Mhango.

Malawi’s shortage has been going on for three years now. With people sometimes waiting six to eight hours without any guarantee of accessing the fuel, life has just taken another pace has lining up for gas is now part of everyone’s weekly reality.

QECH is a 1 300 bed public hospital receiving about 500,000 patients per year and spending nearly 2 million kwacha (approximately 12 500 Canadian dollars) a month on fuel. They managed to work around the shortage by creating contacts at gas stations so owners can inform them in advance whenever a delivery is about to happen. However, their work is still indirectly affected by this situation.
“Some staff may report for duties in the morning and then later disappear because they have gone queuing for fuel at the gas station.” Explains Dr. Mhango.

At Mwaiwanthu hospital, recent agreements with the Minister of Health have highly enhanced the life of the management team who no longer fear fuel shortages during the frequent power outages.

“It takes about 20 liters to run the hospital’s generator for six hours. Before this January, we had to find the fuel ourselves. Now we prepay for the fuel who is delivered to us.” explains Dr. Edgar Kutchindale, admitting that although this is a privilege it does not cover any of their staff members. Individuals must still queue up to buy gasoline or are forced to buy it off illegal vendors which requires them to pay up to three times more than the original price.

In the past few weeks, police attempted to implement better security on black market and began arresting the dealers who are keeping the oil in their houses. According to Christian Sidande from the Malawi Human Rights Commission; 1000 liters were confiscated last week.

These new interventions by the authorities appear to be favorable for the buyers. “With the outlawing of consumers buying fuel in containers has strangled the black market, hence we are seeing an improvement in the availability of fuel supply, we can ably fill up our vehicles at the gas  station,”  said Dr. Mhango.

However, for Mr. Sidande, the recent availability of fuel is only a temporary balm on a wound.

“In the last two weeks 90 million liters were bought by government. Their problem as eased a little for a short period of time but the president admits still not having a solution yet.” Said Sidande.

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’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.”

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