Tag Archives: Blantyre

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

The story behind Malawi Vice President Joyce Banda’s dedication to women’s empowerment

Malawi Vice President Joyce Banda traces her lifetime commitment to the economic empowerment of women to a childhood spent in the village. Photo by Travis Lupick.

It’s often fascinating to hear from where an activist found their dedication to a cause.

I’ve interviewed a young victim of molestation who openly shared her story in the hopes of letting abused children know that they are not alone. There was a bereaved mother who founded an experimental drug rehabilitation centre after her son overdosed while backpacking in Thailand. And I’ve met plenty of convicted criminals who now work to prevent youth from making the same mistakes that they did.

More recently, in Malawi, several women carrying the HIV/AIDS virus bravely broke cultural taboos and let their names and stories be publicized in order to spread awareness of the disease.

Another favourite inspirational story I’ve enjoyed since arriving in southern Africa is that of Malawi’s vice president, Joyce Banda.

“I have worked in the area of economic empowerment and education all of my adult life,” she told me during a recent interview at her office in Blantyre. “For me, it is about poverty eradication.”

Growing up with a police officer for a father, Banda has spent most of her life in the city, she began her story. But for many years, her grandmother forced her to spend weekends in her family’s village, lest that be where Banda’s fate one-day take her.

“So I had a very good friend in my village whose name is Chrissie,” Banda said. “She taught me everything about village life and she was brighter than me in school.”

Both girls completed their primary studies, the vice president continued. “And she was elected to go to Saint Mary’s and I was elected to go to Providence. She went one term, but her parents couldn’t raise the six pounds that we needed for her to go the second term, so she dropped out and went back home.”

That was when the girls were 16 years old, Banda recalled.

“I went on, finished, and now I am vice president of this land,” Banda said, matter-of-factly. “She is locked up in the village, in poverty. And it makes me angry when I see her. I say, ‘Why am I here, and she is not?’ For that reason, I decided that I was going to spend my life working to economically empower women.”

Banda, the country’s first female to hold an office as high as vice president, has since gone on to help Chrissie start a bakery, she’s establish schools and orphanages that focus on educating girls, and Banda continues to financially support hundreds of young women’s educations.

“Chrissie is very bright,” Banda said. “But she lost out; I cannot support her education. But I can spend my life supporting people like her….So for me, again, it is the eradication of poverty, focused on education, health, and the economic empowerment of women.”

Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick.

Malawi’s economic crunch hits the media hard

Employees of The Daily Times and other BP&P papers have been laid off as Malawi faces economic difficulties. Photo by Travis Lupick.

“Dear brethren,” Leonard Chikadya, managing director of Blantyre Printing and Publishing, began the conclusion of a speech to staff on Aug. 30. “With a lot of pain in my heart, I have swallowed my pride and, reluctantly, decided that I am going to reduce our head count. I am going to reduce the number of colleagues that we have by 44.”

Speaking for the leadership of the largest publishing house in Malawi, Chikadya’s words soon reverberated throughout the media environment of the entire country.

And they were not the only ones.

On the same day, the state-run Malawi Broadcasting Corporation announced that a significant round of layoffs would hit its ranks too. The following morning, just 418 remained of the 700 employees who comprised MBC the day before.

In a packed cafeteria at BP&P’s head office in Blantyre, Chikadya showed remorse for the situation.

“I have called this meeting because this problem affects all of us,” he said to some 150 of the company’s 260 staff. “We were all witness to what happened on the 20 of July…but what happened on the 20 of July was just a symptom of the problems we are facing.”

The date Chikadya referenced was initially reserved for peaceful demonstrations aimed at government inaction on foreign reserve shortages and fuel scarcity. But the people’s anger boiled over and by nightfall, riots met with police brutality left 19 dead and scores more injured.

And so, yesterday, BP&P’s editors, reporters, salespeople, and everybody else that a publishing house requires to function, were told that financial hardships matched by the government’s mismanagement of the economy had reached their doorstep.

“We are all aware of the acute shortage of forex,” Chikadya explained, referring to the country’s dwindling foreign currency reserves. Requests for loans from Malawi’s cash-strapped banks had been denied and negotiations with BP&P’s paper supplier had hit a wall. If action was not taken, Chikadya continued, BP&P would no longer have the capacity to pay for the broadsheet on which it prints Malawi’s news.

Throughout the rest of the day, envelopes circulated as reporters manned their desks until the last of their stories were filed. Even those who knew they were on their way out remained loyal.

“Don’t show it to me,” one was heard as a letter was dropped on his desk. “I will file my article and be gone by the end of the day.”

The morning of Aug. 31, those who remained spoke with nervous optimism. “We live to fight another day,” one BP&P reporter said.

I’m sure the mood over in the newsroom at MBC was similar.

Malawi’s economy is struggling badly. On Aug. 31, two of the country’s biggest media houses felt the weight of these hard times. And 326 of their employees carried it home.

Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick.

Malawi street kids work through struggles with HIV and AIDS

Jonathan is one of many Malawian children orphaned and HIV-positive who struggles to keep himself on a complicated ARV drug regiment without older family members to assist him.

Meet Jonathan – “Big John,” I overheard a friend call him, despite the fact that he is quite small for his age.

Jonathan’s parents died when he was 10, leaving the child on the streets and forced to fend for himself. So that’s what John did.

Shy about the details, Jonathan told me that after the last of his family had disappeared, he realized that nobody was going to take care of him. He accepted this, found a routine place to sleep, and joined the ranks of Blantyre’s uncounted street kids. And then, somewhat settled, Jonathan walked to the nearest hospital he knew of.

He found a doctor, asked to be tested for HIV, and, predictably, the test came up positive. So Jonathan asked how he could get medicine.

Roughly one year later, he boasts that he has never missed a day taking his ARV drugs. The kid is smart.

Jonathan’s no longer on the streets. A chance encounter saw him placed in an orphanage, which brings us to the second inspirational character I met at Jacaranda Foundation, a complex of schools and, come September, a health clinic, in Chigumula township, Blantyre.

I’ve long held some disdain for CNN’s annual “Heroes” television event.

I considered it a self-serving affair; a chance for a superfluous news network to flatter and aggrandize itself by filling a room full of celebrities that could then be filmed applauding good people who were poorer than them.

And what is a hero, anyways? Most instances of the word refer to the man who has spilled the most blood.

Then I spent an afternoon with one of CNN’s heroes –no quotation marks. My attitude has changed.

Marie da Silva, a recipient of the 2008 CNN Hero award for her work with children, has long championed the cause of orphans and at-risk you in Malawi. Travis Lupick photo.

Marie da Silva is the 2008 CNN Hero for championing children. She received the title for founding the Jacaranda Foundation. Today, Jacaranda’s elementary and secondary schools provide an education to 400 orphaned or at-risk youth. After spending a couple of hours at Jacaranda, it’s difficult to express how strongly I agree with CNN’s assessment of da Silva.

“John is an amazing boy,” she told me. “He came here by himself and enrolled himself in school. And at the time, he was living alone. And he was just 10. Just 10 years old.

Da Silva confirmed that Jonathan put himself on ARV drugs. “He would go by himself to the hospital,” she explained. “He would walk, ever since he was a young child. And many children do that. Many children go by themselves to the hospitals to get their ARVs.”

On his feelings for Jacaranda, Jonathan is equally complimentary.

I’ve been given a life,” he said in Chichewa, speaking softly. “I’ve been given a family. I know that if I were still on the streets, I would not have a life.”

When Jonathan grows up, he wants to serve in the Malawi Defence Force.

According to UNICEF statistics, in 2009, there were 120,000 children aged 0-14 living HIV-positive in Malawi, and an estimated 650,000 thousand youth aged 0-17 orphaned by AIDS.

Jonathan is just one of them.

For Malawi NGOs, tough times only getting tougher

Longtime activist Emmie Chanika sits in front of her struggling NGO's new office. Like many groups in Malawi, financial constraints have pushed the group near to its breaking point. Photo by Travis Lupick.

Considering I was interviewing Emmie Chanika to learn about the financial hardships her NGO is experiencing, we couldn’t have met at a more appropriate time.

I found Chanika working in the rain outside of her old office in downtown Blantyre. The executive director for the Civil Liberties Committee (CILIC) had already loaded a truck with office equipment and files and was making final preparations for a move to a –shall we say– cozier space.

Running behind schedule, I jumped into the truck with Chanika and a couple of her colleagues and proceeded with my interview on the bumpy ride out to CILIC’s new headquarters in Mbayani, a neighbourhood just outside of the city’s Central Business District.

“Oh, you’re Canadian,” Chanika said. “You know, it’s a Canadian that is giving us this space for our office.”

I hadn’t known that.

Upon being contacted, my fellow countryman declined to allow for his name to appear in the media. But he made clear he felt that CILIC is an organization worth supporting.

“It is led by a very dynamic person,” he explained. “Over the years, Emmie Chanika has fought for many causes and not restricted her work to one segment of society. Black or white, she has been helping out everybody. She has given a lot of personal sacrifice.”

Back in the pickup truck, Chanika lamented that her Canadian friend’s organization is one of the few supporters CILIC has left. In Malawi, times are tough for NGOs.

“As an activist, my wings have been clipped,” Chanika said. “Civil Liberties Committee has been undermined by donors, government, and civil society. And because of that, we haven’t had funding for almost two years, going into the third year.”

It’s like there is a perfect storm working against NGO funding in Malawi, she explained to me. There is unnecessary competition for funds among nonprofits working in the country. Malawi’s economy is in a tailspin and chronic fuel shortages have resulted in soaring commodity prices.

And President Bingu wa Mutharika’s increasingly-autocratic leadership style has sent international donors running.

“Our organization’s funding problems began before Mutharika,” Chanika noted. “Our problems started with NGO-infighting and needless competition. And then Mutharika was able to come and take advantage of a situation already deteriorating.”

CILIC was formed in 1992, making it one of the oldest human rights organizations in the country. Not only was it was at the front of Malawi’s first marches for women’s rights in the late 1990s, but Chanika was also one of the founding members of the Human Rights Consultative Committee, an umbrella organization largely responsible for organizing the July 20, 2011 nationwide demonstrations against poor governance and economic mismanagement.

But today, CILIC is all but defunct, Chanika sighed. She and her employees still show up for work everyday, but increasingly, they are having to empty their own pockets to continue working.

“My husband, he asks, ‘Why don’t you just leave them?’” she recounted. “And I ask my husband, ‘What then would I do with my energies?’”

Malawian protesters wanted their say – and didn’t get it

A protester shows his solidarity by wearing red in downtown Blantyre, where peace reigned the streets in the morning. Photo by Travis Lupick.

Two weeks ago in Malawi, country-wide demonstrations deteriorated from peaceful celebrations to chaotic street battles. There were riots, the military opened fire, and people were killed –19 as of July 27.

That’s the story that has been broadcast around the world – and for many North Americans, it might be the first news to have ever reached their ears from the poor Sub-Saharan country.

But amid broken windows, gunshots, and thick plumes of teargas, important issues were lost.

Late in the afternoon of July 20, after a very long and hectic day covering the largest demonstrations to take place in Malawi since the fall of the long-ruling Hastings Kamuzu Banda, a group of reporters and I were asked, ‘What’s the story today? What can we say that the other newspapers will not?’

“We cannot go through this again,” one older journalist shouted. “We already saw people die for democracy once.”

“It has to be the violence, the police brutality,” another colleague offered.

And then a third suggestion gave the group reason to pause: “Today was supposed to be about civil society having its say,” the youngest reporter there said. “Now, all anybody will hear is the violence.”

The narrative that emerged from the discussion that followed goes something like this:

Malawi’s July 20 demonstrations were led by prominent civil society leaders who helped plan the protest more than two months in advance. In Blantyre, gatherings were highly-organized, with dozens of clearly-marked volunteers effectively keeping crowds within designated areas and separated from police and military personal.

For the majority of the day, the atmosphere was completely peaceful, with those citizens who showed up eagerly discussing exactly why they were in the streets, and what they wanted to see change to improve their country.

These demonstrations were called out of concern for an increasingly-autocratic leader’s mishandling of the economy and poor governance. In recent months, President Bingu wa Mutharika has seen laws passed that overly-regulate people’s freedom of assembly, give the government power to ban certain news publications, and restricted citizens’ powers to temper government action.

And while such draconian legislation repeatedly sailed through the DPP-majority parliament, Malawi’s economy crumbled. A lack of foreign currency has resulted in chronic fuel shortages that have sent commodity prices soaring. When fuel is available, queues that can last for hours quickly form around whichever filling stations are open for business. Power blackouts are a now a near-daily occurrence. And especially in rural areas, water is increasingly in short supply.

Those are the topics that thousands of Malawians across the country made clear they wanted to discuss. The people wished for a despondent government to hear their voices, feel their dissatisfaction, and act to improve the direction of the nation.

But the morning after July 20, the everyday challenges of life in Malawi were not what people were talking about. A last-minute injunction against civil society’s demonstrations left protestors waiting for word from the courts until their collective patience reached a breaking point. Masses of people who for hours had danced and sang for democracy were slowly infiltrated by a frustrated mob mentality. And when authorities saw an opportunity to deploy force in order to end the demonstrators’ day in the streets, they were quick to seize on it.

As everybody now knows, fires were set, windows were broken, and the police and military opened fire with live ammunition and stinging teargas. It was ensured that it would not be electricity and water shortages that people would continue talking about, but raucous youth and trigger-happy police.

In the newsroom, a conclusion emerged from the tired group of journalists:

President Bingu wa Mutharika never intended to listen to the thousands of people who danced in the streets on July 20, and with the police and military contributing to a situation that successfully shifted the conversation to the afternoon’s violence, the President placed himself in a position where he does not have to.

You can follow Travis Lupick on Twitter at twitter.com/tlupick.

Living Without Water

Though 20 per cent of Malawi is covered in water, the majority of rural residents don't have access to it

I loathe the groaning echo that comes from my shower on the mornings we have no water. Having a shower is not longer predictable or convenient; the process relies on whether there is water or not. Last weekend, the lack of water reached a breaking point—I hadn’t showered in more than two days because there was simply no water and we had used up all of the reserve water we had stored in buckets and jugs.

It’s the hot, dry season in Malawi, which means droughts can last up to six months and water shortages happen every few days, often lasting for days at a time. To help solve the issue, the Blantyre Water Board announced it will  initiate a new project with the Hygiene Village Project, Water for People and the European Union to minimize water shortages and increase access to safe water in Malawi.

Unfortunately, the lack of water I complain about is an everyday reality for most Malawians, particularly during the dry season, which lasts from from August to October. This is surprising given that Malawi is considered to be relatively rich in water resources compared to most countries. Approximately 20 per cent of Malawi’s total area is covered by surface water and the country is home to Lake Malawi, one of the largest fresh water sources in Africa.

The problem lies in Malawi’s rapid urbanization—the Blantyre Water Board admits it doesn’t have the equipment or resources to deal with its quickly growing population. According to the United Nations, Malawi is the fastest urbanizing country in the world and is struggling to deal with a growing urban population—which is estimated to mushroom to 11 million people in the next few years.

At a press conference in Blantyre last month, representatives from the Blantyre Water Board announced they are struggling to service 36,000 people from one functional reservoir that stores water. This is cause for concern considering that UN-HABITAT estimates that by 2015 about 44 per cent of Malawians will live in urban areas such as Blantyre.

The influx of people from the rural areas means there are not enough working pipelines to transmit water to all Malawi’s major cities. As a result, the Blantyre Water Board announced that it will continue to ration water to various areas, cutting off water systematically to several regions while also servicing pipelines, which will cause further shortages.

One area that will be affected the most is Ndirande, one of the poorest and most heavily populated areas in Blantyre. In this and other hilly neighbourhoods, pipelines are badly in need of repair and water is more difficult to pump.

And access to water in rural areas is worse than in cities. WaterAid America estimates that only 57 per cent of the rural population has access to safe water, compared to 90 per cent in urban areas. Lack of safe water means preventable diseases such as malaria and cholera spread rapidly in the rural areas. These diseases contribute to Malawi having one of the highest infant mortality rates and one of the lowest life expectancies in the world.

Born and raised in Canada, I can’t say that I have ever questioned whether there would be water when I turned on the tap. But even while I’m grumbling about my shower routine in Malawi, I’m grateful I have access to safe water—albeit sporadically—unlike the thousands of Malawians living in rural areas who do not.