Friday, September 5, 2008

Oh There They Are! (the mud huts)

At long last I found them. Just before leaving Africa I had the opportunity to stay in a village, Katimba (it’s in the north-central part of Malawi, just west of Lake Malawi), that had mud huts and thatched roofs, just like what I had envisioned in my mind. I slept on a mat on a mud floor, had nsima for dinner under the stars, washed my laundry in the river, and was forced to all but abandon English in the all-Chichewa neighbourhood… but all was not as it seemed in the village of Katimba.

One hut over, was Mr. Mbewe who had nice couches in his living room; there was cell phone coverage in Katimba (but since there was no electricity in the village, people would go to Mbewe’s house to charge their cell phones using a car battery); the clothes that the girls washed in the river looked a lot like something from Winners; and there were a few people who spoke English. Now Katimba is about an hour-long bicycle ride on a dirt road from the tarmac near the small town of Nkhotakota in the central region of Malawi. But that didn’t stop the people of Katimba from being influenced by life in the city. No matter how far I tried to get away from the cities, I could still find some traces of the western life. I couldn’t find the completely isolated, rural village text-book definition of poverty.

So what is poverty? What is it that I have been trying to battle for the last few months?

LWS: I think the more appropriate question for me is who is poverty?
I have seen many different people who are struggling to overcome challenges that are preventing them from leading the life that they aspire to. To quote my friend Graham Lettner, “I see [poverty] almost everywhere - even in myself, even in the people of Canada. To me, [the poor don't] have power - economic, political, or of another form.” Here, in Malawi, these powerless people have many faces. Below are some of the people who represent poverty to me.

Benjamin: Benjamin is this lanky kid, about 14 years old, who lives in the house across from where I stayed in Katimba. He is one of the most curious boys I know. He did not speak English (although he learnt some in school), but that didn’t stop him from asking me countless questions in Chichewa about life in Canada, poverty in Canada, life in the Malawian city of Blantyre where I was working, and many other things about the world outside his village. When I asked him about his school, he brought out all his notebooks, and I saw that he was an excellent student, who got good grades in all subjects (except English!).
He is in standard 4 (many kids seem much older than their average Canadian counter-parts in the same grade), attending a primary school in the village. The primary school education is free, so I am pretty confident he will finish it. But I don’t know if he will ever get to go to secondary school (grades 9 to 12), which can cost about $200 per year. The closest secondary school is also about a 2-3 hour walk away from the village. And chances are he may be asked by his father to get right into work and take care of their farm.
I feel that if his family did not live in abject poverty and if there was an affordable school closer to the village, he would have the opportunity to get a good education and the power to make more educated decisions, get a good job, and support his family…

Abigail: One of the sisters with whom I am living in the shanty town of Chemosa in Blantyre, is a waitress at a local hotel/restaurant. She is one of the most cheerful people I know. There have been so many instances where I’ve said or done something awkward (which I generally attribute to cultural differences, but it might just be me!), and she would laugh the most genuine laugh for about 10 minutes. It was quite a shock for me to finally find out how terrible her work was – the jobthat she went to almost every day of the week. She was mistreated, paid very little (about $2/day, half of which went to pay her rent), and summoned to work at odd hours of the day (sometimes at 4:00am) without any compensation. In spite of all this, she would always come home and greet everyone with a smile, and then proceed to make some of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had. I instinctively asked her why she didn’t just quit her job and get another one. But then she pointed out how hard it was to get a job when you are competing with so many other unemployed people. This made it easy for managers like hers to frequently abuse their workers. “But Binnu,” she said to me with her unending cheer, “some day I want to open my own restaurant and make all the recipes my mother taught me.”

I would really like to see Abigail get the dignity she deserves, to get a pay that would enable her to have dinner every day, and to some day open the restaurant that she has always dreamed of owning.

Justin and Thamo: Justin is an illegal brick maker. He makes and fires bricks in the shanty town of Makata in Blantyre, although firing bricks is illegal in the city due to the government’s new rules to conserve the firewood that would be used in the kiln. His wife, Thamo, invited me to stay at their house one day. It was a modest little place with no electricity or running water. It had just two-rooms and a windowless kitchen. (I entered the kitchen once with Thamo and almost knocked over a large pile of pots, while she went around easily finding the plates on the shelf in pitch dark.) I noticed that they did not have any bricks in front of the house, which is where Justin would make the bricks. Thamo told me that because it was getting harder to get firewood, and because of the increase in transportation rates (due to rising fuel prices), they could not afford to make the bricks any more. So Thamo is now doing odd jobs (she worked as a survey-interpreter for a development worker once) to try to save up some money so that eventually they can start their business again. But there are other risks that may take away their hard-ended savings – their 4-year old daughter might get sick, they will have to rebuild their latrine when it gets washed away by the rain …

Benjamin, Abigail, and Justin – they are all amazing people who would have done great in Canada. Their poverty is the barriers that is stopping them from achieving what they can, the barriers that take away opportunities from them, the barriers that make their life vulnerable and precarious.
:LWS End

LWS: Who is development?
What does it mean to fight poverty? I met several people who are doing just that in Malawi.
Kate: Kate, the country director of Water for People – Malawi (WFP), is one inspiring woman. A local Malawian, just in her mid-thirties, she has a university degree (she was lucky to be born in a well-to-do family), several field experiences, and jobs with other NGOs under her belt. She started off wanting to get into pharmaceuticals but one fateful internship sponsored by CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) gave her the opportunity to live with the rural poor in Malawi and changed her course for ever. Kate entered the world of development and worked on several water-related issues. She strongly feels that water and sanitation is an area that Malawians need to work on in order to improve their quality of life. It is very invigorating to hear her talk about her vision for water and sanitation in Malawi, her perception of the complex challenges, and her ideas for the different kinds of solutions.
Kate once took me to a model community, Angelo goveya developed by homeless women, who had pooled money together and along with some loans and support from WFP were able to build houses with eco-san latrines and start their own businesses. As she showed me around the community and introduced me to the different women, I saw great pride in her voice. She was proud of these women, was passionate about their cause, and was extremely glad to be able to support their efforts.
Kate represents the cream-of-the-crop of development workers. Highly intelligent and motivated, these are the people who will be driving change in Malawi.

Issa: Issa is a Malawian businessman, whom I had the fortune of meeting at the back of a truck (along with 40 other people and a pig) on my trip back from Katimba to Blantyre. He started off with nothing much, just a high-school certificate. But he had the chance to work with a successful Indian businessman in Malawi. He quickly worked his way up from an odd-jobs help to almost a partner. Using this experience, he started his own business. And now he shuttles back and forth between Malawi, Zambia and South Africa, trading various goods from hand-held mirrors to motors. One of his biggest risks he is facing is the rising trend in fuel prices – as transportation costs of his goods keep increasing, his profit margin decreases.
Several people are starting to take advantage of trading opportunities in Malawi – some of the things standing in their way are lack of capital, lack of a sound business acumen and vulnerability to market risks. But there are still people like Issa who are successfully creating wealth in Malawi.

Martin: Martin is a 23-year old upper-class boy trying to make it in the Malawian hip-hop scene. Yeah, I was surprised to find that out too – but he is good! He is also one of the most politically aware people I know. He can tell you anything you want to know from the time Malawi became independent to what happened this morning in Parliament. Recently he started attending college for a diploma in Community Development. Within the first week of classes he started planning out what his final thesis would be on. With his passion for development in Malawi and his in-depth knowledge of the culture and history in Malawi, I have no doubt that he will do excellent in his course.
Martin will go on to join the hordes of young people who are now graduating with diplomas that will place them directly in the NGO-field. They don’t have much field experience and will be up against tough competition for jobs, but I hope that all of them will share the same passion and capacity for change as Martin.
:LWS End

So what did I learn over the last 4 months from all these people that I met in Malawi? Well, a lot. But the one thing that really stands out is the realization that poverty is complex and will take a long time to combat, and the people on the forefront of this combat are the people of these developing communities. They are the real agents of change, but that doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility. As Paul Collier, author of the Bottom Billion said, “We can help the reformers in these societies who are struggling for change, that’s one modest role .”

What would this modest role look like? It could range anywhere from making more responsible consumer choices (buying fair trade coffee to ensure fair wages to farmers or driving less to help reduce the hike in fuel prices) to using the upcoming elections to make sure that our candidates have a plan for more and better development aid from Canada. Below are a few web-sites you can check for some inspiration on what you could do: [suggestions for action from Engineers Without Borders] [influencing the Canadian government] [promoting the cause of international development] [making fair-trade consumer choices]
drive less for poverty article [exploring other ways to alleviate poverty]

I strongly believe that volunteering in Africa is not the end-all solution to helping Africa. We need to work from here in Canada to help remove the barriers to development. Each of us can play different role depending on our individual priorities and capacity. For some of us, maybe going to Africa to work directly with their “reformers” is the most effective role, but for most of us in the long-run, we can best influence change by changing the choices we make in Canada.

The past four months have been an incredible learning experience for me, and I thank you for joining me in my journey. I am now back in Canada, and hope to continue my learning and work from within our country.

Zonse zabwino,
[all the best with everything]


Anonymous said...

Hi Binnu,
I would like to re-publish a portion of your blog regarding Kate Harawa on the Water For People blog. Would that be ok? Thanks! Eileen

Graham Lettner said...


I loved your article. Making people your focus was a brilliant choice, and a perfectly fitting choice for yourself being the consummate people-person that you are.

I wish you all the very best now that you're back in Canada. On the development front, I can help but think that you should read "Development as Freedom" by Amartya Sen who talks about development in the same terms that you have in your article--the freedom for people to choose and do the things that will better their quality of life. Also, google Oxfam: How Change Happens;
Interdisciplinary Perspectives for Human Development for a really good article on all the different things that go into social change-- this article really took my thinking to a whole new, and a very optimistic, perspective.

Ok, enough. Thanks for writing, Binnu.


PS I read the quote that you had from me--I think it might be a bit mangled, or the punctuation is off; I didn't understand it too well (is that because I don't really understand myself?)


JohnPaul Portelli said...


I love the blog. You put people front and centre and it really shows through in the way you write. Beautiful.

As for Graham, don't worry, nobody understands him. :)

Hope you are well, and thanks for the plug.


Binnu said...

Hey Graham!
Thanks for your comment! I have started reading the Oxfam document, and it is a pretty neat analysis of change and super-relevant to what I want to do in Canada.
As for your quote, thanks for picking up on it! I found out that blogspot doesn't like angle brackets, so I fixed that (I replaced your use of "Dorothy" with "poor/poverty"). I hope it makes more sense now!
Hope things are going great for you!
Take Care,