Friday, October 17, 2008

Blog Action Day 08 -- Malawi's Poverty Problem

What we did... or what we tried to do.

In late autumn of 2006, Mr D and I traveled from Jo'burg to Malawi. We went to visit our domestic worker, Oscar, at his home in Mzuzu village. At least, I think it was Mzuzu Village. It's not even marked on a map. (Don't mistake his village for the city of Mzuzu. No, we're really talking about a village. Oscar's tiny town is near Kapando, if that's any help.) 

We'd been told many many many times by Oscar, "People are suffering there. They are suffering."

And we knew it, from reading the papers. Malawi was in the midst of a drought that, throughout the whole of 2005, had spread across much of the southern half of Africa and had reduced harvests by more than half. Malawi, with its deadly trifecta of drought, poverty, and AIDS, was in a terrible state. I wrote about it briefly here, back in 2005.

Oscar wanted us to come see Malawi, so we did. He also had a long list of things he wanted us to provide for his family and his village, and we decided to do our best. The main thing he asked for was a diesel-powered grain grinder for his village. This would enable the people in Mzuzu Village to run their own micro-business, grinding grain at home, rather than having to walk up to 10 km to the next town, carrying huge bags or baskets of maize atop their heads.

How we got there was like this: Flew from Jo'burg to Lilongwe. Note the very busy airport schedule. Arrivals today? Ummm.... three.

Rented a car. Drove four hours north to Mzuzu, on a long straight 2-lane paved highway. 

We then went to the local bank to get approximately one trillion bazillion Kwatcha in cash to pay for the grain grinder (no credit cards accepted.) This amounted to literally stacks of bills. As in a whole briefcase full of bills, bound together with elastic bands. 

We met up with Oscar, and walked over to the local large machinery store to buy the grain grinder. We ended up buying two, as the maize throughput was the same with two smaller machines versus one larger machine. We also figured that if anything went wrong with one machine, there would still be a second machine working all the time. That was the idea, anyway.

Lots of standing around in the sun, haggling and discussing horsepower and diesel and whatnot. We were certainly a curiosity. The grain grinders were to be delivered to Oscar's village early the next week.

Then we drove 2 more hours on winding, washboarded clay roads, ascending higher and higher into the mountainous back-country of Malawi. We only had to make three turns during that two-hour drive (but there weren't very many roads to choose from). 

As in, pretty much none.

Great. We hoped it would be easy to find our way back.

The farther and farther we drove ("How much further is it going to be, Oscar?" "Not much further, very close!") the more we began to wonder where in the world this village was going to end up. Turns out, almost Zambia, but don't worry. It was only petrol.

We were driving slower and slower, passing mud huts with thatched roofs, tobacco drying shacks, and lots of people (women and children) hoeing out in the fields. The sky was dark and foreboding, and as we passed, people simply stopped what they were doing to stand and stare. We felt very strange and out of place. Like white skinned freaks, really. 

We finally arrived at Oscar's village. We met all of Oscar's family and every person in the village (about 60 souls). The children were excited to meet us, and thrilled to have their photos taken, except for one little three-year-old boy who found me terrifyingly white, and ran away screaming bloody murder as soon as he clapped eyes on me.

But the children were all so small and so frail. Their clothes were literally almost worn off them. Dresses had faded from green to yellow-green to gray, torn at the shoulders and elbows. The little girls were in old petticoats and chiffon, clothes that were now utterly dusty and bedraggled. It was hard for us to believe we shared the same planet ... especially because we hadn't shared nearly enough of our stuff. The poverty was both limitless and stunning.

After greeting everyone and playing with the children, we sat down to eat a quick bite of mielie pap and veg, before turning around at last and driving back to the main town of Mzuzu ... two more hours in the car, in the dark. 

We did manage to find our way back, though the road looked mighty different after sunset. No road signs or signs or directions or anything ... just the moon, which was lovely.

And now? 

Well, it's been almost two years, and I'm ashamed to say that I don't know what's happened in Oscar's village. In mid-2007, Mr D was transferred to Poland, and I left South Africa even earlier to return to the (relative) safety of England, on my way to Warsaw. We tried to be sure that Oscar could keep his position at the home in Jo'burg, staying on to work for the next tenants. But he was dismissed late in 2007 and I don't know where he's gone.

I'm hoping that he's okay. After all the xenophobic violence in South Africa this year, killings directed against foreigners (for example, Malawians) working in South Africa, it's really concerning. 

But I don't really know what to do, or what I should do, or what I should have done. 

I feel very sad. This is a story without a happy ending. No ending at all, really.


Geraldo Maia said...

Hello Expateek,
It is a great pleasure to visit your blog. Good work your are doing.
Best wishes from Brazil:

expateek said...

Thank you very much for your kind comments. This BlogAction Day has really got me thinking a lot more about poverty. Such a huge and difficult problem!
All the best to you in Brazil...