Gates and backyard of the Vice President
Trip Start Jan 13, 2009
11Trip End Mar 20, 2009
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Where I stayed
home of Wordsworth and Roslyn Rashid
I am writing to you for a third time as I continue meeting interesting people and experiencing a different mode of living in Lilongwe, Malawi. On this Monday afternoon I'm enjoying the warm summer sun and talkative chirps of our neighborhood birds (although the sounds of play from Paul & Simeon overtake the whistles of our flying friends). Diverson, who drives me to my appointments, just dropped me off from Skyway Business College where I conducted a focus group discussion with four enrolled students...but more on that later. Today's entry will give you a taste for the dichotomy of Malawi living: typified in the very rich (gates of the vice president), the middle class (struggling students), and the majority of Malawians living in poverty (cholera infested population living in the backyard of high profile officials.) But don't let these stories that tug your heart strings fog your reading glasses. Persevere and read on! Focus! I want to involve you in my evolving perspective. Most of all...Enjoy.
MANSION AND DUMP.
It was on the way to the nearest hospital that I saw the dichotomy of African living. Diverson rushed his diabetic aunt to receive immediate care after she went into a coma from low blood pressure. The following observation takes place in the car on the way to visit her. We were on our way, with just a few miles from the hospital when we hit an unusually nice stretch of paved road. While we say, there may be "dirt on the road," in Malawi there is "road on some dirt.". Riding in the car has been enough of a roller-coaster ride to keep any child entertained. But at this moment I was able to drink out of my water bottle without spilling for a change. It was great. Then I saw why. To my left we soon passed the front gates of the Vice President's home--a kingly mansion made of choice stone and cement. Malawi VP Cassim Chilumpha was under house arrest for several months in 2006 after the President Bingu wa Mutharika accused him of treason (citation from Wikipedia). He created an underground political party that competed with the current administration and plotted to "overthrow" the current President (aka assassinate). The courts held him under house arrest in his home until February 2007. By the looks of it, his short-term prison couldn't have been all that bad.
But "bad" isn't vile enough to describe the smell, let alone the sight, of the community village down the road. Just around the corner we started on the typical barren road, passing one of the dirtiest areas in Malawi. You may have heard of the Cholera outbreak in much of Africa, including Malawi. This strip of land had the most concentrated number of victims in the country. The flood waters are high and trash is everywhere. I rolled up the windows from the stench of garbage, dead animals and miscellaneous odors. Of course the local children know no difference. Kids were playing without clothes on, let alone shoes. They jumped and played in the large pools of rain water similar to how young children play in the kiddy pools at Walt Disney World's Typhoon Lagoon water park. It was a somber sight. On the way back from the hospital, I had to get a picture of both landscapes.
While politicians earn inflated incomes, the government employs most of the country on wages that cannot satisfy the basic standard of living for a Malawian family of five, let alone the typical numbers of eight or more. See this example of a very good wage. Diverson is applying for a distinguished government job as Foreign Services Officer against stiff competition. He has his master's degree in business and computer sciences from UK, while other applicants are finance officers and lawyers. You'd think that compensation would support comfortable living. Well, the offered monthly salary is MK49,000/month (at a MK140 to $1 US dollar exchange rate that is $350/month!). Pitiful, right? But that's over $50 more that the average annual salary for most Malawians. The IMF reported that the average Malawian makes $299 per year. I have a perspective of a USA outsider. Wordsworth Rashid, my guardian, makes $92.80/month as a special education teacher. Cost of living: housing is much cheaper, food prices are a bit lower, appliances such as a TV and computer are comparable to US prices and gas is upwards of $6.80/gal. Obviously, most do not have a car. On that $350/month, Diverson will try to support his wife and children in the UK and his extended family in a rural village. Like many, he's desperate for work and will take any job. For the time being, I'm paying for him to take me around the country from my student financial assistant package to do this research, labor not included. Of course I wish I could do more. For now, my major contribution is through this research.
HOPE FOR THE "MIDDLE CLASS": EDUCATION AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP.
I'm getting a taste for the spirit in Malawi students. They are faced with pressure to make more of themselves. It's a privilege to record the ambitious stories of these youth close to my age. In the West, it is obvious that our parents, teachers and family friends want us to do well, and we may feel "like we need to make our parents proud." But Malawi scholars are reminded of the groaning pains from their family and friends in the nearby villages. This drives them to do more.
"I want to build an organization that will target the rural masses. They always depend on handouts from their relatives who are well-to-do. My aim is to empower them by giving them skills so they can find something on their own. After that I can support my relatives who are looking to me because I am the only person in my village that has gone forward with my education," said Skyway third year student Winess Gumbo getting her Advanced Diploma in Rural Community Development.
Winess was one of four students who spoke about their education at Skyway and employment aspirations during an hour-and-a-half focus group session. Next to her were Patrick Kadiwa (Rural Community Development, Advanced Diploma), David Mhango (Accounting, Certificate) and Chinweme Chawma (Financial Accounting, Certificate). Patrick echoed that he chose to study Rural Community Development because it is highly marketable and gives him the highest chances for employment or entrepreneurship. His education has never been financed from relatives but philanthropic donors--a priest, a doctor and now a "white man from Scotland."
"I want to make economic and social change in Malawi. That is what I am interested in," he said.
Fortunately, rural community development is as interesting as it is marketable. The same cannot be said for David. It's never been his dream to become an accountant, but that of his uncle who is paying for his education. He feels a sense of duty to study what his uncle wishes since he provides him the opportunity to go to school. Accountants are in high demand and he has the aspiration of starting his own firm so that he can help pay for his brothers and cousins in the village get an education.
"They will depend on me when I am older," he stresses. Of course in the West we might see "doing what we love" as the best formula for success, but I think that David's motivation rooted in gratitude will get him far and may even feed all the mouths depending on it. Conversely, Chinweme said that she enjoys accounting and being an accountant has been her career goal since she was a child (I don't think many of my accounting colleagues at SU would say the same). She expects she will find employment and be able to support her family. She hopes to be a certified accountant after studying in Europe and returning to be a role model for Malawian girls.
And these were just the assertions from students at Skyway...
I've interviewed two students attending the Polytechnic College, a constituent college of University of Malawi which is widely regarded as the top school for higher learning in Malawi. I met George who later introduced me to his friend Gerald. The last day I presented my letter to the Principal Secretary of Education at the Ministry of Education, George was working in the waiting room. He was peering at a computer screen behind a set of very thick glasses. Wordsworth has his certificate in special needs education for the visually impaired. He was much more interested in looking at George than at the Nigerian soap-opera on the TV. He introduced himself. George is a third year student in Polytechnic's environmental health program. Of course it was hard for me to sit there absently (I tend to draw attention for some reason.) I chimed in and unintentionally began my first in-depth interview. One hour later, Diverson arrived to pick us up just as George was detailing the sad state of his school computer lab. To serve 2,500 students, the computer lab has 20 computers. "All teachers demand written assignments after each lecture," he lamented. He would wait 1-2 hours every day for a computer. So like many students, he books appointments with friends who have laptops to borrow his or her computer for a few hours. He knew three students with laptops. Each laptop owner would lend to 15-20 students per week, free of charge. Nice friends. George and the students at Skyway Business College had a similar drive to succeed. His father passed away from psychiatric causes and his mother can't pay the school fees. He's being assisted by his brother who is the manager of a civil engineering firm. When asked what he wants to do after he graduates, George said he wanted to be an entrepreneur and invest in the stock market. ...risky and environmentally friendly. I see big need (and international demand) for companies developing products in environmental science for developing economies. George could fulfill a big need.
The sum total of my student interviews has left me hungry for more. This week I should be receiving clearance from the Ministry of Education to begin wide-spread interviews in schools. Check back for similar stories to come and more on LifeNets scholarship recipients.
At church on Sabbath, the Lilongwe congregational choir (and their new addition--me) sang "It Won't Be Long Now." Mr. Rashid gave a sermonette on our mission to FOCUS, exemplified in the teachings and example of Jesus Christ. The topic came from an email forward I received from my father c/o Mr. Segall. He thought it would be a good reminder of the frame of mind I must have here in Malawi. Dad, thank you for that and I am happy that Mr. Rashid helped others benefit from the message in that email.
FOOD AND DENTAL FLOSS
I'm enjoying Sima (which is like mashed potatoes made from corn meal), chicken, rice, beans, concentrated orange soda (which Wordsworth is trying to convince me provides the vitamin C for Malawians but I don't buy it), lots of bottled water, Malawian honey, and instant coffee. Most of our food is seasoned with oil and tomato juice. And I brought Trader Joe's goodies (nuts, protein bars and almond butter) so the Rashid household can also enjoy some new flavors. Today I bought pineapple from a road-side boy and am looking forward to the juicy sweetness.
If you made it this far, thanks for following my excursions, observations and insights of Malawi life, people and culture. Come back soon!