The Revolution of Flowers

21175954_1498788570209917_871295268_n— By Harvey from Malawi

How much do you know about Malawi as a country? Probably very little. Experience everything about the country through Harvey’s eyes, a local who is traveling across the country, reporting for YaLa Africa Press. You just might like it!

Welcome to the booming Malawian flower industry. And as it happens, my newest biggest obsession. I mean, who on earth doesn’t like a flower? Flowers are pretty and by far the only thing in the world that best expresses all things good and beautiful.

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Area 14 suburbs, Lilongwe

As the country is experiencing rapid infrastructural development, project implementers are not holding back in making sure their new projects are completed with a nice natural finishing touch. Not only that, people’s personal priorities are shifting too, as most of them are looking to make their immediate surroundings look as fabulous as possible without having to spend a fortune doing it. Flowers are just the thing. This has resulted in an increase in demand for various assorted flowers – and the suppliers are responding.

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Flowers at a shop

Personally, I consider the flower industry in Malawi quite revolutionary, as it is a representation of people’s shifting attitudes, perceptions, needs, and wants. For a country that lacks good infrastructure and urban recreational parks/centres, flower shops are changing how different spots within the city premises look, and giving city walkers something pleasant to look at. For other countries, this might not be that big of a deal, but in a third-world country where people are used to seeing unpleasant sightings such as pollutants and poorly disposed garbage along public roads and within the city, flowers here are what can be considered as one of the few success stories to come out in recent times.

One of the people I bought flowers from this week, James, points out that the industry is quite self-sustaining. A person starts as an employee at someone’s flower shop, learns the ins and outs of the trade, and the next and final stage sees them setting up their own shop at a place of their choosing. Though there might be some competition, the flower industry keeps thriving because as a business it is less resource intensive. Places to set up shops are in abundance (usually along any city road), water for irrigation occurs naturally, and the owners use their own labour to mitigate operating costs.

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A new flower shop along the road

Accounting the monetary rewards as well as the aesthetic value flowers are giving out to the city, it becomes obvious that this new upcoming industry deserves all the support it can get. A little flowery advice: with the rainy season about to begin, this is the best time to plant some flowers!

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Roads in Malawi

21175954_1498788570209917_871295268_n — By Harvey from Malawi

How much do you know about Malawi as a country? Probably very little. Experience everything about the country through Harvey’s eyes, a local who is traveling across the country, reporting for YaLa Africa Press. You just might like it!

There are very few things in this life that gets my blood pressure boiling. Non-does that more than the road networks in Malawi. For anyone thinking of visiting or even driving on Malawian roads in the near future, this piece is definitely for you. After traveling and driving on Malawian roads for close to three years, here is what I know:

— The general rule is that all motorists drive on the left side of the road section, but don’t be surprised when you see someone drive comfortably on the right-hand side, especially after last year’s massive rainy season. Many roads have chronic potholes, forcing everyone to drive as they please to ensure their vehicles don’t get injured.

— Most roads have no pedestrian sidewalk. A cautionary statement: if you see a pedestrian walking, or cyclist in the same road section as cars, do not be alarmed. Personally, I do not blame them – like the rest of the motorists, they too do pay taxes and deserve to be treated with a proper road experience.

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Devil Street, Lilongwe, Malawi

— Most minor road offenses can be remedied by cash. These include driving without a valid driver’s license, driving of a vehicle without proper documentation, driving vehicles that are not road-worthy, etc. (Disclaimer: don’t blame me if it doesn’t work for you). This is business as usual, cash for the permission of passage, especially with minibus drivers. So, if you are traveling long distances, prepare yourself to persevere multiple sessions of cop-driver diplomacy along the stretch. It’s not all that bad though, one gets to experience the true characters of men and themselves under these intense conditions.

— If you happen to own a car and reside in the ghetto like I do, expect to wash your vehicles hourly, as most low-middle class residential areas have super dusty road networks. This is not a good thing though, as it is perpetuating the wastage of clean water resources, which if I may add is already in short supply.

— Of course, keep a look out for goats, cows, dogs, chickens, and other earthly creatures on the road as you drive through the M1 road in smaller districts. They have a tendency to show up when you are least expecting them.

The Spirit of Volunteerism in Malawi

Lena — By Lena from Malawi

It was a sunny Wednesday morning and I set out with my colleagues to visit some volunteers who are placed to work on a project called Support for the most Marginalised Children Education. This project is implemented by Centre for Youth Empowerment and Education (CYECE) in a rural area called Siya-Siya in Salima.  Having a clue of what these volunteers have been up to in this community, thus encouraging the most marginalised children to get back to school, it never occurred to me that these youth’s passion in helping others has grown so much that they were not only understanding this community better, but also proposing solutions that are sustainable. This made me realise how much youths would like to give to their communities, even though they might lack the platform and resources to do so.

Working for an agency called International Service that manages a Youth Volunteer Programme called International Citizen Service, funded by the UK Government, the programme engages youths between the ages of 18 and 35 from the UK and Malawi to volunteer in development projects. The Programme is aimed at developing the skills of the youth, regardless of their qualification or expertise, mentor youths to become active global citizens, but also expose them to unfamiliar culture and how they can manage in this cross-cultural setting.

The number of Malawian youths that apply to take part in this programme is so overwhelming that I for one felt most apply because jobs are scarce.  The youth and women  unemployment rate in Malawi is estimated at 27% according to http://malawi.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/resource-pdf/Malawi%20Demographic%20Dividend%20Report%202016.pdf. While this is the case, among the estimated 17.2 million population (2016 PRB fact sheet) of Malawi, 40% of the total population are youth under the age of 15. This means that if the youth age of 10-35 as provided for in the Malawi youth Policy 2013 is taken into consideration, youths in Malawi make over 50% of the population.

However, to the contrary, getting to Siya-Siya that morning, we were welcomed by the enthusiastic 12 youth Volunteers, 6 Malawians, and 6 Britons. Exposed to unfamiliar environment, one would expect them to complain about the environment they are living in, but they enjoyed being in this environment and took it as an opportunity to learn from the community but also identify issue affecting children’s education then propose solutions to these issues. Talking to each one of them, it was established that they at first took it as an opportunity to get away from home and fill the gap of idling at home, but to their surprise it has been a fruitful as they have had the chance to live a life in the rural communities which has changed their world view. For the Malawian volunteers who were not sure what volunteerism entails, said they would do it again as they will be satisfied that their contribution is helping someone who really needs the help.

Some of the activities these youths are involved in is identifying children that are not going to school, persuade them to go back to school and establish the reasons why they never went to school or dropped out. From what these volunteers established, despite primary school being free in Malawi, children have been sent back from school for not having a school uniform, having to walk very long distances just to access a school facility, some schools only having junior classes which meant if one is transitioning into a senior class, he or she must change schools. Some dropped due to bullying while other due to child labour and early marriages.

The Joy in Working With the Youths

Lena — By Lena from Malawi

Growing up in a middle-class family, I used to think we lacked a lot of things which when I grew up, I realised were luxury. Mid-density area, well-furnished house, both parents having modest jobs and going to modest schools, seemed like a way of life and nothing else really mattered. Never in my wildest dreams did it occur to me that some lack even the basic needs, let alone school fees, despite how bright and zealous they might be about Education. For someone like me, education was something I had to do because my parents wouldn’t allow me to ditch school and loaf around. Little did I know what others are going through just to attend college.

Working for an organisation that defends the rights of women, youths, children, and people with disability, I am a defender of the rights of these target audiences and in the process realised my dream of empowering the youths. Having thought of helping the youths on some deeper level, of which I haven’t had the opportunity to establish my own organisation or film that is mainly into empowering the youths, I got a job that I enjoy doing.

Having worked for 10 years, I have never felt satisfied on the job like I feel now, and I realise it is because I can finally do what I am passionate about. This feeling of satisfaction made me realise that working should be more than just a pay check.

Within a short time, I’ve realised youths between the ages of 18 and 35 are a bright bunch of youngsters who always have fascinating ideas and positive energy. They are a group of hopeful people who regardless of their backgrounds, lack of basic needs and care, look forward to fulfilling every plan they have envisioned.

Sitting at my desk one morning in June, with a mission to get done with that day’s task which was to finalise reviewing applications for candidates for a youth volunteer programme, I came across an application that caught my attention. From the application, I envisaged a bright boy who made people laugh. Meeting James Samson in a one-on-one interview, I established he was a bright boy who has experienced a tough upbringing but has never given up. Not only did he earn a spot in the volunteer programme, the opportunity opened doors for him to finish his education. Here is what Samson says:

A third born of late Mr. and Mrs. Samson, I was born in Mangochi district, which is in the Southern part of Malawi, in tradition authority Chimwala in Kausi village. My mother is from Mangochi, while my father was from Karonga in the Northern part of Malawi, in the area of tradition authority Kilupula, in Iponga village.

Both of my parents had small businesses. In 2004, my father decided to take the family to his home village where 9 months down the line, he passed away after suffering a minor headache. Way of life made a back flip as my father’s uncle removed us from our house, and took away our family possessions. All this happened because my mother refused to go through a wife inheritance process, which is largely practiced in Karonga.”

A wife inheritance is commonly practiced in Malawi and has been called different names in the different cultures in Malawi:  ‘Kuhara’ ‘Chokolo’ and ‘Kulowa Kufa’ are some of the names used. This practice allows a brother of the deceased to marry the widow. It has of late been a contentious issue in the wake of HIV & AIDS.

“Consequently, in 2007, my mother decided to take us back to Mangochi with the hope of things getting better. Unfortunately, conditions in Mangochi were not friendly either, and we struggled to survive. Amidst such an environment, in 2008, l was selected to Changali Community Day Secondary School, of which I worked extremely hard and scored 13 points in the Malawi School Certificate of Education and was selected to pursue a Bachelors of Education Social Studies at Chancellor College the University of Malawi. I was enrolled under the Government bursary until third year when the school fee was increase by 300% and the Government stopped the support and I couldn’t continue any more and had to temporarily withdraw.

After spending a year at home, things changed dramatically when l was recruited to participate in International Citizen Service Programme on a six-month placement as a team leader. Coincidentally, l was assigned to work in Zomba, a district where chancellor college is located. Through the stipend which l received, coupled with support from one of the lecturers from the college, l had been able to partially resume my studies at chancellor collage and l expect to finish my four-year studies by July 2018. Four years from now, l will be able to fully support my mother and my brothers as well as my community at large.

Life has taught me not to lose hope, as situations that may seem hard and hopeless turn out to be the core sources of next opportunities. Therefore, my message to youths is that they should not lose hope, and they should set more goals, even when everything seems to go against them.”

Nita Ambani says, and I quote, “Education is not a tool for development – individual, community, and the nation. It is the foundation for our future. It is empowerment to make choices and emboldens the youth to chase their dreams.”

Youth empowerment is my passion and am glad to have indirectly contributed to a youth’s success.

Tales of Cannabis from the Warm Heart of Africa

21175954_1498788570209917_871295268_n — By Harvey from Malawi

How much do you know about Malawi as a country? Probably very little. Experience everything about the country through Harvey’s eyes, a local who is traveling across the country, reporting for YaLa Africa Press. You just might like it!

These days when you hear the term ‘drugs’ on mainstream media, one’s mind immediately turns to the Mexican drug cartels, a few Television Shows such as Narcos or Breaking Bad, and in most cases, drug problems in developed countries such as the US. But no, this is not what this article is all about. Like with developed countries, third world countries too have their own drug problems. Although issues of drugs, including their different and varied effects are usually overlooked by society, they actually do exist in Malawi.

Usually when one is talking about issues to do with drugs in Malawian context, they are referring to marijuana or cannabis. Don’t get me wrong here, other drugs do exist, but cannabis is the most used and the most widely available substance on the market. Unlike prescription drugs which are imported, cannabis is locally grown, affordable depending on quality, and very easy to access. Half of the youths in my community are either active users of cannabis, have used cannabis, or supply cannabis as a means of earning a living. For most people, cannabis is not a drug. It’s a coping mechanism, it’s a means of earning a living, or as some put it: a spiritual herb.

Prior to writing this article, I asked a few friends as to the reasons why they use cannabis. The general answer was, “I want to beat boredom,” or, “My day is too long without it.” Thus, it comes down to one thing, most of the younger generation is feeling stagnant. It is easy to see that perhaps the root cause of this growing drug problem is sloth. Simply put, their time is not being put up to productive use due to lack of economic opportunities. Because I believe in hearing all sides of a story, I went to visit one cannabis supplier who also happens to be my childhood friend.

He confessed that the returns from this illicit business are too good to let them slide by. When he demonstrates to me the economics of it all, as well the pricing mechanism in cannabis trade, it all makes perfect sense. He also states that the money he makes is too good because this being an illegal product, there are no taxes from the central government involved. He does not like the term drug dealer, his clients call him the herbalist, a spiritualist, and a few other terms that give respect to his occupation. He however testifies most youths who are idle in their everyday lives do abuse cannabis more than those engaged in various income generating activities. Sadly, it is not as if he can put a stop to it and select which people he sells to, or rather he just doesn’t want to do that for fear of losing out on possible economic gains.

What is being considered a ‘drug problem’ by policy makers is but an economic activity to those who sell the so-called drug. For the consumers, it is no longer a drug, nor do they care about the economic aspect of it. Rather it is a welcome relief, something used to pass the day by. Perhaps it is these incongruities in how different people perceive drug use which is making it difficult to deal and manage such issues. Perhaps multiple approaches are needed to take into consideration the needs of all parties involved in issues concerning drugs and their use. Perhaps.

Tragedy at Zomba Mountain

21175954_1498788570209917_871295268_n— By Harvey from Malawi

How much do you know about Malawi as a country? Probably very little. Experience everything about the country through Harvey’s eyes, a local who is traveling across the country, reporting for YaLa Africa Press. You just might like it!

It was during my third year of college that I experienced feeling so close to death. It was one of those sunny Saturday mornings in the middle of the rainy season that Wongani and I decided to go hiking to the top of Zomba mountain. Wongani was my closest, nerdiest, and the weirdest of friends back then. This being our second trip within a period of 12 months, we had agreed to hike up to the highest point on the mountain, if this was to be a challenge worth taking. We did this because we felt the previous hiking trip we took was less of a thrill due to poor preparations, and we were motivated to make this one an adventure of epic proportions.

Zomba mountain is 2000 metres at its highest point, and occupies an area of 130 square kilometres. For novice hikers, it’s not that much greater of a challenge, and we had heard of many people going up the mountain like child’s play. More importantly, we had done this before, but had turned back only after covering half the distance. The plan was that we choose a section of the mountain with the highest point, hike upwards and then back, following the same route. We had calculated that if we left at 5am, we ought to be back where we started by 5pm. As luck would have it, we were already on the road at 5am, carrying a backpack with four litres of water and some glucose. To make things even better, we had met a guy in the bushes at the base of the mountain who volunteered to walk with us a few kilometres up the mountain. It was ironic since he was a charcoal maker, people who are actually destroying natural habitats in Malawi. But here we were, us, the admirers of nature, and a man who makes a living by destroying nature.

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Myself and the charcoal maker.

He did leave us on a good track and we parted ways. From this point, Wongani and I marched upward, exchanging the role of carrying the back pack which by now (about 4 hours into the hike) was getting heavier every passing minute. Hell broke loose when our trail began disappearing, the surroundings getting trickier with vegetation, and the upward slope became steeper. Before long, it was no longer mountain hiking, and the whole thing began to look like one of those rock climbing documentaries you see on National Geographic Channel. We did not bring any ropes, as we had not anticipated slopes that steep. I am a very cautious person, so I was first to suggest we turn back, but adventurous Wongani would not have it. He kept pressing on, rock after rock, with me following him behind and cautioning, “Be careful bro, it’s a long way down.” Wongani would only say something like, “Calm down dude,” as he went upwards. Occasionally he’d miss a step, which would send my heart racing at supersonic speed.

He had gone up, 3 big rocks above me. All the while he would be calling for me to follow, excited that he can see a walkable flat mass of land on top. I tried to climb up but I could not. It was after I was tired of trying that the bitter reality became known. Wongani was a much taller person than I was, and he could reach places I could not. All the while Wongani kept climbing, I called out his name, but his responses by now were becoming very distant. I told him I could not climb up and asked him to come back down so that we may abort this seemingly life threatening mission. Alas! Wongani could not climb back down the same way I could not climb upwards. The slope had become so steep where he was, that coming back down would be like trying to climb down a wall built at an angle of ninety degrees. At about 1700 metres above sea level, I tried not to imagine what my friend would look like after falling from such height.  I yelled, “I am going back!” and he yelled back that he will find a new path down and that we will probably converge somewhere.

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Wongani trying out a cave.

I looked back down, and at that moment I knew it was going to be a long and painful way down. Because the rocks were steep, moving was very difficult – to the point that I was only circling the same place I was sitting. When the wind blew, coupled by the heavy backpack with the four litres of water in it, my body almost fell over the edge. I had to lose the bag… no I have to lose all of the water… no, maybe lose just some of the water… where are our mobile gadgets? Maybe I should call for help, and say something like I am stuck up in the mountains. Through this confusion, I had to sit down and clear my mind. I yelled, “Wongani!” But the man was long gone to find his own way down. I had to get going too, as the time on my phone was displaying 12:20 and I was long way up. I opened the bag and threw the bottles of water over. I watched them smash as they went down the mountain. Since I could not lose the backpack, I took some bandages Wongani had in his bag and tied the bag to the bandages forming a rope. I would then let the bag down onto a different rock using the bandage as a rope, then I’d follow and so on. I could not lose this bag, because it had sentimental value to Wongani, and knowing the man who from time to time named and still names his inanimate possessions, losing the bag was not an option.

Wisdom came over me, I had to follow the gorge that ran from up the mountains going down. Gorges on mountains have running rivers and are mostly covered with vegetation. I figured that moving this way, the chances of me falling over the edge would be minimal. Vegetation would act as support and keep my speed in check, and when I slip I would get caught in the bushes before long. More importantly, the gorge will be my GPS so I do not get lost. It was working, but I was worried about my friend…what if he fell? Wongani was a bit clumsy at times. I had to call him but all the mobile phones were with me after we had previously agreed to do so to void losing or breaking them during the climb upwards. I had to put such thoughts away and focus on covering the distance down. I had worn shorts on this day and by now my legs were full of cuts and bruises…the wounds stinging with the dumpy heat under vegetative cover. I had walked for over four and half hours going down, calling out for anyone who could hear, but no one was up here. The place was quite scary, with nothing but the sounds of nature in the background.

After getting lost more times than I could count, and almost going insane in the process, I was at the base of the mountain. Wongani was nowhere in sight, and I told myself I should walk straight to the hostels and wait for him there. It is a 1 hour walk from Chancellor College hostels to the base of the mountain. Heading home, I contemplated on what I would tell people if Wongani disappeared. What would I tell his parents? I would look like the evil one for leaving a friend behind. Halfway to the hostels I met a group of men whom we had passed at that same place 11 hours earlier, moulding bricks. I was so relieved when I heard them say a guy I went up the mountains was asking them if I had passed by before him. Wongani was about 25 minutes ahead of me all the while getting worried sick of what had happened to me.

The rest of the journey home was an embarrassing and a humbling experience. Crossing through the city, people looked at me with interest. I assumed I looked like some nightmarish creature with bits of bushes in my head, dirty clothes, and red eyes – I was a severely exhausted human being at most. I found Wongani waiting at my door looking worse than I felt. We both went to have our separate hot baths… this was one of the most painful hot baths I have ever had. Later, we convened at my room, ate the food we were supposed to eat when we reached the mountain top, and told each other about our separate horrors we had to encounter coming down the mountain. We laughed and contemplated how close we had come to seeing the worst.

We are looking forward to going back soon. Any partakers?

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The trek up the mountain.

The Three Tribesmen at Mtukwa

21175954_1498788570209917_871295268_n — By Harvey from Malawi

“How much do you know about Malawi as a country? Probably very little. Experience everything about the country through Harvey’s eyes, a local who is traveling across the country, reporting for YaLa Africa Press. You might just like it!”

Welcome to Mtukwa village, a somewhat remote place southwest of Mchinji district in Malawi. In this place, being an archetypal village without electricity and internet access, everything is somewhat bizarre to a stranger from another place such as myself. I immediately felt the need to adopt new hobbies, the usual hobbies I am accustomed to could not sustain me in this new world. Luckily, I was not to brace this new reality by myself. Meet Manase Kaligere, a man indifferent in character as his name in itself. He hails from the northern region of Malawi, a place where culture still flourishes and the people are well mannered and live a communal system of life. The man did fit into this place like a well-fitting sock to a foot. I was a little jealous about it.

As if he was not interesting enough, another equally interesting character joined us a week later. His name is Tenneson Destone, hailing from Nsanje, located in the southern region of Malawi. He is a good talker and he likes to talk all day long. If you get a chance to speak while in his presence, consider yourself a very lucky person. All I had to do was listen, and perhaps find something within the stories to psychoanalyze later when I go to bed at night. Like Manase Kaligere, this man comes from a place where culture is still rife and respected a great deal. He is from the Sena tribe, while Manase is from the Tumbuka tribe. Though a different culture in contrast, they share a lot of norms and these two gentlemen held a great deal of respect for either’s culture.

On the other hand, I hail from the central region, belonging to Chewa tribe – a culture losing values and identity faster than you can say hello. We are very different from the Tumbukas and the Sena’s to the extent that some radical members of the latter cultures disapprove of any forms of associations such as intermarriages with Chewa tribe. No big deal though, as things are changing. The extremist cultural tribes are becoming moderates – it’s the 21st century model.

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Mtukwa village, Mchinji, Malawi

But there we were, the three different tribesmen congregated in a village near the border with Zambia seeking to make sort of a living by providing social services to the rural masses on behalf of our beloved government. Among one of our many late afternoon chats, a very important issue came up. An issue that had the potential to tear nations apart, especially fragile African nations with so many distinct cultural tribes. It was the issue regarding economic opportunities and how they are shared among the different cultural tribes.

Among people of my culture, the Chewa’s, there is a common belief that when it comes to issues of hiring and job opportunities, within the different institutions spread all over the country, northerners favour fellow northerners. And even though the Sena tribe is small and less influential, it is said that this is also their common practice. Although I take no part in such speculative discourses, the two gentlemen from the accused tribes vehemently accepted that this practice is true and they’d do it all day long. When Destone opened his mouth to give a definitive reason for such practices, I was left surprised, concerned, and at the same time humbled.

It’s simple and it’s a cultural thing. Collectivist cultures such the one which Manase and Destone subscribe to have stronger values and practices – in their villages, there is no “I”. What echoes in everything they do is “We”. Basically, it’s simple arithmetic: if one of the members from such tribes acquires a job, it is his obligation to aid his fellow tribesmen to have the same opportunity. There is an unwritten law about it, and it has its own punishment if you fail to abide by it. It’s always “Us” before “Them”. Yes, I know what you are thinking – it is depressing as well as admirable at the same time. They earned this luxury. These cultures have prevailed over western influence – individuals from such cultures do change but they also do not change. They adapt.

At the end of it all, I was left appreciating the power of culture to unite and transform, but at the same time, its destructive force grounded in the principle of difference. At least now I have an understanding why things are as they are.