Working for a better future for all in Malawi

A women’s co-operative in Malawi shows that people can learn to help themselves with great results, writes Isabel Conway.

The potholed track winds past huddles of thatched mud huts and squalid stalls selling withered vegetables and maize.

Small ragged boys herd goats, cyclists laden down with lengths of aluminium, mounds of sugar cane and bulging sacks wobble past our 4x4. Barefoot women, babies swaddled behind them trek forever homewards balancing water containers and heavy bundles on their heads.

Good news is rare in the Dedza district deep in central Malawi. We drive over the flat scrubland of Chauma whose only modern structure, a simple single-story building built with funds from a foreign charity, is the first library for many miles. But It cannot be opened because there are no books.

Yet things are looking up in Chauma, thanks to the hard work and courage of a group of hard working women. Against the odds they are taking charge of their own destiny and creating a better future for their families.

Determined to rise above bare subsistence and hunger, 200 women now belong to the thriving Kangamowa Co-operative that provides low interest loans to the needy and ploughs any profits into extending their agri-business activities.

The NGO which trained them COMSIP (Community Savings and Investment Program) is funded by the World Bank. The women are decked out in their Sunday best, long bolts of colourful cloth called chitenjes are wound around their waists.

Toddlers running under their feet are hugged and chastised and the group smiles, proudly showing the NGO official who came to congratulate them on their progress and check their hand written ledgers in which all the co-op’s financial transactions are religiously accounted for down to the last cent, or Kwacha — Malawi’s currency.

Their total honesty sharply contrasts with massive fraud, in particular “Cashgate” that has engulfed Malawi, involving former Government ministers, top officials, leading business people and even the former accountant general of the country, who was finally allowed bail during my recent visit.

The fallout has not gone away. Rather, ongoing revelations of corruption and theft continue to link key political and business figures close to the former government with the disappearance of enormous sums from the exchequer’s coffers and budgets of various ministries.

No wonder Malawi’s Anti Corruption Bureau (“we strongly support Malawi’s fight against corruption by supporting the Anti-Corruption Bureau to advance the Government’s Anti Corruption strategy” the Irish Aid division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade reiterates) is one of the country’s busiest agencies.

Back at Kangamowa Co-Operative, older women in the group include grandmothers and a few great grandmothers and they know everything about extreme hardship — the droughts and hunger, families wiped out by the Aids epidemic, countless children orphaned.

In former times it was usual for women to be traded as commodities. Giving birth, up to and beyond nine children was not unusual, considered a rural family’s wealth and a insurance policy to look after elderly relatives later.

The cultural practise known as Kupimbira that sees girls between the age of three and 16 sold off to men in exchange for cattle or as repayment of debt still occurs but only very occasionally in the remote far north of the country.

Midress Pitilosi, 34, a mother of three, tells how her family’s life was transformed since joining the co-operative.

“We were always in debt to the loan sharks, borrowing from wealthy people to keep going during the growing season, hungry whenever the crops failed. Now I can clothe and feed my children, I can send them to school so they will have a better life than us.”

In over a year the co-op has ploughed the proceeds from much of its agricultural activities, from tree nurseries, maize and ground nuts to pig rearing and home crafts back into their little bank. They have provided small interest loans of more than 3.8m kwacha to local borrowers. Over 200 women have joined the scheme.

Their profits are buying more seeds and fertilizer. They have begun an irrigation scheme using pails and water cans, taking water from the river during the dry season. Their endeavours are inspirational in a country that of necessity is largely reliant on handouts funded from abroad.

Rosemary, one of the co-founders adds: “We don’t need to rely on our husbands now for support, we have independence, we can buy groceries and clothes for the children, we can decide things, we know freedom”.

Do their husbands help with the farming and the child rearing, I wonder, observing men lolling outside village shops, sitting with other males chatting elsewhere while women were working in the fields and bowed under heavy loads along the main M1 thoroughfare south from the capitol Lilongwe.

“Some men do help with the children while we work in the fields, they are proud of what we are doing” says Jessie Thomas Chairwoman of the co-op.

As we tour their plantations, admiring uniform lines of ground nuts the women express frustration, forced to sell their produce at low rates to traders who market it on. “We cannot afford to take our maize and harvested ground nuts into town where we could find better markets and higher prices,” one woman says.

Their dilemma neatly sums up the harsh realities of life here on the African continent where people desperately try to operate small businesses and escape from the poverty trap — yet are unable to do so.

Scams, regularly reported in the Malawi media, and involving seeds and fertilisers, building materials and bricks , paid for by international development aid agencies, ending up in the clutches of corrupt middle men who sell such vital commodities down the line at exorbitant prices.

Malawi is one and a half times the size of Ireland with a population of over 15m people, 70% of whom are under the age of 20. More than 50 years after the British protectorate of Nyasaland became the independent nation of Malawi development aid continues to pour in and Ireland traditionally is a big subscriber.

Malawi boasts stunning scenery, exotic wildlife and enormous potential for tourism development (which is at last being realised and exploited). it has rich coffee and tobacco plantations and gas and oil lie deep in its lake which runs for 600km, (the length of the country), while the mountains contain gold deposits.

Corruption, similar to elsewhere on the African continent, plus decades of government mismanagement have badly stunted Malawi’s growth and progress. There is also a dependency culture that the charities, well meaning as they are, invariably foster, I was told.

One former NGO insider who has worked with aid charities in Africa and South East Asia says: “Changing people’s mindset here in Malawi is desperately difficult, they have a take all now mentality, provide fish breeding farm ponds and after two or three weeks they will have taken out all the fish to eat.

“ There is little or no follow up after NGOs hand out the money, it is such a big dependency culture here and it will remain like that as long as the foreign donations keep coming without showing people not only how to survive, but to prosper in small ways.”

Another foreign insider adds, “The NGOs are telling people they should have a mobile phone and tin roofs on their houses, you find villages of people who are hungry but they have mobile phones”.

The brain drain of talent leaving Malawi is yet a further non-inspirational fact of life. Many of the newly qualified doctors and nurses leave without feeling the slightest spirit of volunteerism themselves. They go abroad because salaries at home are so low. Meanwhile, there is still a chronic shortage of hospitals and schools in Malawi.

Public hospitals are free but there are far too few of them and seriously ill people who cannot afford a taxi to take them to hospital may die due to the lack of ambulances countrywide.

But it is not all bad news. Well-run initiatives have been making all the difference in Malawi for many years. Since opening in 2004, the Billy Riordan Memorial clinic in the Chembe district has cared for up to 320,000 patients.

It is one of the most successful such clinics in the country, founded by Mags Riordan from Dingle, Co Kerry, in memory of her volunteer son. Billy who drowned in nearby Lake Malawi. Hundreds of medical, nursing and other volunteers from Ireland have come here to help over the years.

Ireland donates tens of millions of euros helping Malawi to meet the food needs of poor communities, developing its agriculture sector while individual aid agencies including Goal have been at the forefront in Aids prevention and other programmes.

With more than one in five young children underweight, combating malnutrition has remained a key priority for successive Irish aid programs.

The need to reduce family size is a major challenge, especially in the countryside. “We have new initiatives, supported by chiefs who are custodians of our culture to reduce family size in the rural areas” says Patricia Liabuba, director of tourism at Malawi’s Ministry of Tourism and Culture. She points out that Malawi is today a shining example of good HIV management, with 95% of babies born HIV negative.

Small and landlocked, squeezed between Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique, there is a exciting future for Malawi with considerable opportunities for prosperity as a result of tourism development believes Mrs Liabuba.

“Tourism will be our future, I am convinced of that, because we have extraordinary beauty here, wildlife that is untapped, wilderness that is uncrowded and a peaceful country without ethnic or religious tensions”.

For more information on Malawi see www.visitmalawi.mw 

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