Category Archives: World

Malawi’s culture of sexual violence and rape

face-1618921

Malawi’s culture of sexual violence and rape: a few accounts and some socio-cultural theoretical insights

By Mphatso Moses Kaufulu

Bio: Mphatso is a Malawian cultural and political sociologist. His interests are ethnographic research in sexuality and politics. He currently writes for iAffairsCanada on Southern African politics

The gender situation for girls and women in Malawi is in my view staggeringly deplorable. Abuse in general, be it physical, emotional, sexual and social is very widespread. Economically, the work of women is either undervalued or unacknowledged: for example, in the agricultural sector, women produce more than 50% of the total agricultural output of the country: for all intents and purposes, women and girls feed the entire country even as they are often pushed to the margins of the society. In the household particularly in rural areas, the girl-child and the woman performs a majority of the tasks associated with maintaining the home such as nutrition, household hygiene, fetching water, taking care of siblings and children and so on, to the extent that countless girls (and many women today) have been forced to sacrifice their personal aspirations in order to fulfil these unacknowledged functions. In the urban areas, class is a very important factor: girls born to families in the middle and upper classes tend to be insulated from such wider expectations, as their families can afford to employ “domestic workers” and to privately purchase, through their spending power, access and “equality” for them into wider society. They too however do fall victim to patterns of sexual violence emanating from their familial structures. Poor girls from underprivileged backgrounds do not have this classist luxury, and are thus left to confront, unprotected, the masculine vulgarities of the gender-skewed social system. In addition, the severity of patriarchal violence varies from place to place in Malawi as the country is very diverse culturally and ethnically: in matrilineal and matrilocal settings, these social pressures and expectations materialize differently as the roles of women and girls are somewhat transmuted to fulfil property transference, clan leadership and lineage-tracking functions.

But generally, privilege favours men such as myself, in Malawi who often grow up under very different social and cultural expectations altogether. For us, it is the expectation that we be outgoing, adventurous, risk-takers as we acquaint ourselves with the world beyond the homestead. Also, the cultural canon is replete with layers upon layers of norms which serve as excuses for behaviours which we exhibit which would never be tolerated from the girl-child. We are taught from early on that to be masculine (to be a boy) is to be vulgar, conniving, calculating and sexually adept. The girl-child on the other hand is raised to be ashamed of her sexuality, and especially to conceive of herself as pure primarily on the terms of her sexuality. She is expected to be sexually naïve as a sign of her purity, particularly for the purpose of being sexually innocent for her future male partner: her task is to maintain her sexual purity for him whoever he might be and sometimes whatever he might be up to. In this context therefore, gender relations are given the following configuration: men are not held up to standards of purity because socially they are seen as naturally unrestrained when it comes to their sexual orientation towards women; women on the other hand are expected to be pure solely for the purpose of being one day desired and deflowered by a man, and also as a matter of their own sense of wholesomeness. This is why in Malawi sexual promiscuity continues to be a label reserved primarily for women and rarely for men. (Note: these are social expectations. Malawian women have tremendous agency in undermining or being subversive of such expectations but the matter here is that were norms are constructed in this way, sexual violence and rape can always be dismissed and justified by a social system’s most dominant actors and its dominant discourses.)

This is why it is my view that Malawi has an entrenched culture of rape which is carpeted over whenever instances of rape emerge into the public domain. Following family meetings or other symbolic forms of settlements which are almost always intended to protect the male perpetrator (who is usually, a superior, a personal friend, a cousin, an uncle, a father, a brother and close-family friend, and so on), they are dismissed. The victim’s duty is often to forgive for two primary reasons: one, to guard against disclosing the loss of her own purity because even rape constitutes a form of defilement upon her and it (in fact, this is how rapes are usually reported in Malawian media: as defilements as opposed to rapes); and two, to protect the perpetrator’s reputation within a lens which frames his sexual violence upon her as the consequence of his maleness. (In a convoluted way, the victim is made to affirm him as merely being fully a man who was only doing what men do and thus, she is must forgive him as an affirmation of this male quality even as she grapples and struggles painfully through her own defilement which is brought about by his very violent [and indeed, intended and premeditated] actions.) Even in rape, heteronormative masculinity is affirmed and protected. I cannot count the number of times I have been told: it’s just the way you men are.

Moreover, rape victims are very frequently shamed, blamed and mocked: often, they are seen as having invited the violent crime on themselves because of their clothing, certain features of their bodies, their tone of voice, where they like to visit (that is spaces commonly seen a male spaces), the time of day they are outside female spaces such as the home, for their being naïve, for their secret need for a sexual experience which they actualize through the violence of rape, and so on. It has to be borne in mind that in a gender context in which a women’s role is to be ashamed or shy of their sexuality and sexual expression, an unspoken assumption comes to pervade in which a man very often is raised to believe that when a woman rejects his advances, she is only doing so in order to project this image of her purity and sexual naivety as a way of concealing her underlying desire of him sexually. This type of programming is in practice a license to rape a woman, and a license to feel no remorse afterwards! The man, as an expression of his masculinity, is almost socially obligated to persist against her objections until she finally accepts that which she supposedly was pretending not to want. This too is a common form of harassment: holding a girl or a woman hostage as one coerces her to provide consent when she is repeatedly saying “No”. Sometimes, a “Yes” is given only so that the girl or the woman can get away from a frightening, very uncomfortable hostage situation: this too is rape concealed in a false consent. The man, on the other hand, goes away reinforced in his belief that she had wanted to do it all along.

As far as the majority of Malawian men are concerned, sexual violence and rape seems to be seen as a secondary or side issue – or as a series of isolated incidences. There is not an awareness of sexual violence as part and parcel of the Malawian social fabric; let alone as violence which women continuously think and worry about, and navigate around.  For one, the dominant political parties never seriously discuss it except for one or two platitudes evoking the moral compass deeply embedded within Malawian culture, the heteronormative obligations that good men have towards all women (largely from Judeo-Christian and Islamic perspectives), and of course, calls to a return to law and order (those buzzwords which often mean to further criminalize the marginalized, since to my knowledge, I know not of any time when Malawi was ever particularly safe and secure for women: our very citizenship at independence was gendered and gendered it has remained) in which all crimes, of which rape is only but one, will be taken seriously once the law enforcement agencies are properly resourced (a Malawian version of “All Lives Matter” to this very critical issue of why “Women’s Lives (Specifically Should) Matter”).  Underneath these attitudes are deeply entrenched feelings of entitlement dripping in a toxic atmosphere of male privilege, and therefore widespread male culpability in this culture of sexual violence.

An old relic of colonial Malawi which also perpetrates sexual abuse against women is “domestic work”. Domestic workers are essentially servants (yes, servants) in urban and suburban areas who work inside the home of their employer and often live in a servant’s quarters within the compound or in a room in the main house. They are usually female workers who are responsible for cooking and cleaning the house, baby and child sitting while the employers are at work, and carrying out any other household chores they might be assigned such as washing and ironing clothes (as opposed to what are referred to as Garden-Boys regardless of their age who work the lands of the compound, and who may or may not live at the compound). These are a very vulnerable group of women in urban areas because they tend to be grossly underpaid, severely exploited, without power and thus indentured to their employers. They often cannot afford the expenses of living in urban areas and so, part of their work arrangement is to be offered accommodation and food plus a small salary as compensation for the work they do in the home. Cases of abuse generally, and sexual abuse in particular in which male employers rape domestic workers, will often never see the light of day. Such victims, if lucky, will be quietly dismissed and sent away. In terms of general abuse, some are subjected to severe emotional and physical suffering through verbal and even physical violence. For those who work in the Asian community, some of this abuse is motivated racially and can intersect with sexual abuse and rape as well – and this too is quite well known even though very little is ever done to address it by successive governments or even civil society. In short, sexual violence against women in Malawi takes on the intersectional characteristics of gender-cultural, socio-religious, post-colonial, economic and political oppressions. Social class ascendency acquired through marriage, educational attainment and professional development, though extremely daunting, enables some women to escape the most obvious of the intersectional aspects of this regime of sexual and general gender-based violence – but never completely.

When I was in college, between 2005 and 2009, I cannot count the number of times I heard or witnessed blatant verbal abuse of female students. Some male students would, under the guise of being drunk, tour the female dormitories on campus, shouting at the tops of their lungs, every obscene thing you can think of at the female students. There was also the notorious college bus which made two trips daily to pick-up students who lived on off-campus accommodation (at the extension wings). This bus was known in the small town of Zomba which surrounded the university campus for the notorious students it ferried, who stuck their heads out of the bus, yelling expletives about women to the people it passed in town on its trips to and from the extension wings. Within it were female students as well who somehow found a way to endure and exist in this despicable, distasteful and frankly shamefully violent testosterone-glorifying daily ritual. And all of this, without consequence. I recall writing an article about this to a newspaper which never got published: it just was not news-worthy I suppose. My own sister too, in her first year of study, had a face-to-face encounter such actions: thankfully, a dormitory guard was on hand to intervene before things got worse – and thanks to our relative privilege as the children of Geology Professor, this matter was pursued with an unusual seriousness and prosecuted. Once more: class enabled her access to what should be irrevocable public protections!

And now, in only the second week of January 2018, a musician in Malawi has released a song called Rape, in which he talks about sedating girls who refuse sexual advances with alcohol, opting to rape them thereafter. Yes, there has been some outrage on social media particularly from women but as expected, there are mostly male backers of this song as well. To them, this is just what boys and men do: alas such is their nature. Moreover, they are convinced that her “No” is really a concealed “Yes” and that deep-down, she really wants to be raped too. So far, I have not yet heard a statement from any prominent political figures either – perhaps they will speak up in the days to come when it no longer matters. Civil society activists in their isolated pockets have issued statements of condemnation. And of course, I am not surprised: what else could one expect, save for such few exceptions, from a very entrenched culture of rape and sexual violence?

 

This article has been written in the spirit of #malotoathu.

Broken English

DSC_5267 2

By Michelle Alipao Chikaonda 

A few weeks ago I had just arrived at a formal lunch organized for my department a few blocks away from my office building, and had gone to a nearby bathroom to change from my walking shoes into my nicer indoor shoes.  I would be catching a flight out of the city later in the afternoon for a long weekend with college friends, directly after the event, and so had taken my small carry-on suitcase with me so I wouldn’t have to go back to my office.  It was out of this suitcase that I pulled my slightly worn but still solid black patent-leather wedges, repacking my tattered Converses into the space where my nice shoes had just been, and straightened myself up for the two hour lunch.

My mother taught me, many years ago when I first left Malawi for school in the UK, to always pack a chitenje in my carry-on bag whenever I travel.  For the non-Malawians reading right now, this is a large, often colorful rectangle of wax print cloth that is always worn by women, most typically wound around the waist and legs as a type of coverall, but can be deployed to multiple other uses as well.  Because the chitenje can be so many things—wrap skirt, halter dress, headscarf (a large one but still), blanket, towel, even a thin sleeping mat if one’s situation were truly dire—she insisted it was a travel essential, and regularly chastised me if she found out I had left for the airport without one packed.  I do have to admit that my travel chitenje has saved not only me but various friends journeying with me on several occasions, and so packing one when I travel is now something I do mostly without thinking, as routine as brushing my teeth or putting on shoes before leaving my house for the day.

As I opened my carry-on suitcase in the bathroom that afternoon, one of the event’s catering staff happened to walk by, towards the sinks behind us.  Spotting my chitenje at the top of my suitcase as she passed me, she pointed and grinned.

 

“I like your lappa,” she said.

 

Lappa?” I replied, unsure what she meant.

 

“Yes, your lappa,” she repeated, and pointed to my chitenje.  Understanding dawning in my eyes I thanked her, telling her that it had been a gift from one of my cousins, and then we chatted for a bit.  She told me she was from Liberia, I told her I was from Malawi; we mused for a short while about the similarities between our cultures despite our countries’ geographical distances from each other, and then we said goodbye and went our separate ways.  I had to get seated at my table with my coworkers, and she had to get back to managing the event tables alongside hers.

As I walked back to my table, though, I kept mulling over the word, “lappa.”  It didn’t seem like a real word.  I know, for example, that in Kenya they say kitenge instead of chitenje; but lappa didn’t seem to have an obvious etymological root in any African languages that I knew of, and I found myself, strangely, beginning to feel annoyed at the use of what seemed to be a non-word for something that was such a cornerstone element of the African experience.  But then, suddenly, it clicked: I had just finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah,” and recalled that the word the author used for what we would understand in Malawi to be a chitenje is “wrapper,” quite literally something wrapped around oneself.

 

Wrapper.  Lappa.  Wrapper.  Lappa.

 

Suddenly I felt transported back to my secondary school years at Kamuzu Academy; specifically, the moment when someone was reading a book or announcement aloud in English and broke a word.  Not merely stumbling over it, but loudly and proudly saying it completely wrong.  “With vigor,” as one of the girls from the popular clique used to say.  There would typically be a brief half-second of silence following the break; then, depending on the severity of the breakage, people would either zuma the person for a small mix-up (polysyllabics from our IGCSE literature texts got this treatment), or burst into a coordinated explosion of laughter for a word that the observing audience decided the speaker should definitely know better than to break (think “runch” instead of “lunch.”).  Going from wrapper to lappa would have fully counted as the latter, and as the keynote speaker at the work lunch continued trundling through her talk I nearly spat out my iced tea from the effort of trying not to laugh.  Especially being in a place, at that moment, for which no one would understand what I thought was particularly funny about lappa.

Later, though, as I was waiting at the airport to board my plane, I began to think harder about the darker currents running underneath the reflex to laugh at someone’s failures at English pronunciation, an analysis I had never taken up the challenge of while I was still a student at KA.  I wonder if part of why I never questioned it is because I arrived at school in Form 3 and not Form 1 like most of my classmates, and thus being two years behind my peers in learning the rules that governed social life at KA, I couldn’t very well waste even more time trying to understand the rules when I needed to simply and quickly make it clear I could follow most of them.  I already had a significant stack of rules that I had decided to ignore—girls shouldn’t be seen eating as much food as boys; always ask someone to walk with you to the Tuck Shop; nobody wears high tops with pencil skirts, and for that matter girls from families like mine should dress better than I did.  I could at least learn and accept the rule of immediate raucous laughter following broken English.

But I also believe, having grown up in Canada with English as my first language, that the prospect of breaking English was one of the few things at Kamuzu Academy that decidedly did not cause me anxiety; put a different way, it was a rule that was almost too easy for me to follow.  Not that I never broke when reading or speaking aloud—I did, and more frequently than even I would have predicted.  But when I did break, I confidently knew—as did everyone else, even while the class simultaneously laughed at my breaking—that this breakage was a distinct anomaly for me, rather than the possible rule that it suggested about other people who broke, a possible rule implying the existence of a fatally chimidzi mindset lurking beneath the fancy uniforms and society parents who had nice cars and big houses.

Because that’s the truth about the laughter: it was never just about the English.  It was about the suggestion, even if in apparent jest, that you weren’t actually as cultured or educated as you seemed or claimed to be, which in turn suggested that there was a place you needed to go back to that was decidedly lesser than the Roman arches and vine-tressed pergolas of the Kamuzu Academy campus.  Government school, maybe, where they ate nsima and beans for dinner seven days a week and their uniforms didn’t include ties and boater hats for special occasions, but not KA.  If you were at KA then you should have known, long before passing through its great wrought-iron gates for the first time, that the English alphabet has two separate letters for the closely related but nonetheless distinct sounds of l and r; the two may occasionally meet—look at those girls, whirling in pearls—but they should never be haphazardly crushed into each other as though one didn’t understand the difference.  That’s for villagers.

That laughter, then, was at its core not just about language, but about class.  And this is what eventually made me so uncomfortable about my encounter with the catering staffer who called a cloth wrapper a lappa: despite being nearly 18 years removed from Kamuzu Academy, many times more educated in social justice issues, and now living in a society that has no patience for that kind of humor (at least not in public spheres)—my first impulse was still to chortle.  Even after Googling “lappa” and finding out that it is, in fact, the commonly accepted term for that kind of cloth wrapper in Liberia, which is to say that even people who would have attended KA’s peer schools in Liberia use the word—the fact of the seeming bastardization of the English word wrapper still struck the same locus inside my mind.  The place that regards butchered English not as an understandable by-product of second language English speech, but rather as reflective of an inferiority of education and refinement on the part of said speaker, and which further suggests, strangely, that this is fully the butcherer’s own fault.

I could blame Malawi’s colonial legacy for this, certainly and with facility.  I could even blame the more recent reality of Kamuzu Academy’s own troubling pedagogical heritage, in which students were punished for speaking Chichewa outside of the hostels, and the majority of our teachers and administrators were white and British (on explicit orders from the founder himself, Malawi’s first post-independence President.).  But I believe the truth really lies inside how our society determines the categories of better and worse, and how those determinations manifest culturally—cities are better than villages, private schools are better than all but a few government schools; and speaking English is better than speaking Chichewa, or at least strikes a higher register in the social order than Chichewa could or ever will.

Of course there are lines that may be drawn from our colonial legacy directly into this cultural phenomenon.  But this far down the road from colonialism’s demise, I would argue that it has long been our society’s mandate and responsibility to actively, consciously, decide ourselves what our values as a nation are to be, and then insistently live by those values.  And I would suggest that with nearly 90 percent of Malawians being Chichewa-speaking rural dwellers with limited government-school educations, a value set that aggressively prioritizes English-speaking, private school-educated city dwellers is one that, in a really problematic way, has precious little to do with Malawians at all.

I still break my speech sometimes; each time I do, I instinctively find myself looking self-consciously around the room to see if anyone noticed, until I snap out of the throwback and remind myself that I am not at KA anymore: nobody is going to zuma me here.  Sometimes, if my brother or sister break while speaking I’ll immediately snort and giggle at them, as they still do when I break.  But I’m going to call that a sibling dynamic rather than an indicator that I haven’t grown up or learned anything since driving away from the Ornamental Lake, Kamuzu Academy’s reservoir, for the very last time.  These days, I’m not riding so high on my English literacy, because I live now in a country where English is the first language, and in countries where English is the first language the true literacy is cultural, a space in which I am unremediably uneducated.  Movies watched and music listened to while growing up; places visited in childhood as part of the Family Summer Vacation Repertoire; slang and signifiers that are often several historical levels deep; foods and flavors that are cornerstones of this cultural experience.  A few years ago at happy hour with some work friends, for example, while discussing the Fruity Pebbles-like taste of a particular ale, my coworkers nearly fell out of their chairs laughing when I raised my hand and asked what Fruity Pebbles were (it is a cereal akin to sugary Rice Krispies, for anyone for whom this is also a burning question).  And I have finally learned to take it in stride, rather than submitting to the despairing feeling of being hopelessly lost, as I used to over a decade ago when I still tried so hard, mostly in vain, to figure it all out.  After a certain point one can never really catch up.  But I intimately know, now, the feeling of trying desperately hard to appear literate in a language that isn’t mine and never fully will be.  And, sometimes, that doesn’t quite feel like a joke at all.

Hotel Hope: Part One

By Sydney Chuka

Photo credits: The Shire Porter Photography


 Below is the plot of the play that was performed by the children.

The first scene was set in a typical Malawian village. The set was bare. You had to listen to the context of the dialogue to work out the location. As the step-daughter sat on the floor of the deck, sorting out beans for the meal in the evening; the father came home drunk. He hurled insults at her and accused her for stealing his money. She was not sure what money he was referring to: was it the money that he had just spent at the nearby pub or was he referring to the money that he had invested in her as his step-daughter. She defended herself. He attacked her. Her mother was not home. She freed herself from his grasp. She ran for her life. She did not look back.

She found her way to the city of bright lights, Lilongwe. Determined to be an independent young woman, she was the perfect prey. A Human Resources Manager of a street gang head hunted her. Without much of an application or an interview and with approval from the boss, they abducted her into their employee. She was the new starlet of their business empire. This was the hope that she desperately needed. She attended orientation. She graduated but not one of her family members were present to see the proud smile that she wore on her face. She was a professional ruse. Her role in society was to distract men as they get pick pocketed.

Back in the village, her mother Juliet came home and found her daughter to be missing. She asked her small-village Romeo of the whereabouts of their daughter. He denied ever having a daughter. Armed with a heart of love, he beat her and the other children under the roof of his protection. The scene resounded with a different but yet applicable meaning to the Shakespearian words of Friar Lawrence; “These violent delights, have violent ends.”

Elsewhere their missing child had become a masterful pick pocket. Her beautiful smile got the attention of men. She sold an alibi that was so captivating that few would remain indifferent to. The street gang watched her every step as they were on full alert to provide tactical support should things not go according to plan. She reported another successful stint and handed over the loot. She got a meagre commission for her efforts. She struggled to make ends meet. She needed a new job that would give her a worthwhile bonus for her stellar performances. She expanded her professional offering. She solicited her first customer. She sold the only thing that was completely her own; her own body. The admission fee was K10,000. For the first time in her career, she made a profit. She now had real hope. A small reward for an otherwise costly transaction.

As she became a hit on the street, another head hunter spotted her. A gold mine she was. He invited her for a coffee and told her of their boss lady, a respectable woman who could provide access to the big shots. No more dark alleys for her. She would now eat in the finer restaurants, wear glitzy dresses and most importantly, she would become somebody. A force to be reckoned with. Same job, greater rewards. She liked the proposition. She joined. Not long after, her seven-to-five employer noticed the trails of her unexplained wealth. They called for an investigation. It revealed reports of an ever expanding social network. Her two employers fought over her.

A few months later, the golden goose returned to the village. She was ill and pregnant. The violent ending of an otherwise colourful career in the city of bright lights, Lilongwe.


As one drives through Lilongwe on the M1 road, one cannot ignore the bright red lettering “Simama Hotel”, one of the Capital City’s most notable developments in recent years; nonetheless many people ignore another hotel right across the entrance of Simama Hotel. Having lived in the Capital City for most of my life, I only discovered its existence yesterday. As much as I call it a hotel, it is not registered as a hotel, you will never see them advertised at a tourism expo; but they do have staff, a kitchen fitted to feed a large group, a dining room, guests and a checkout registry. Unlike most hotels, the staff of this hotel actually stays in touch with its guests upon their return to normalcy. It does not have late checkout fees and its doors never close. The beauty of this hotel is not in its architecture, frivolous pomp or great reviews on tripadvisor; but rather in the stories of its inhabitants: the street children of Malawi.

I contacted the organisers of the event after I saw the event on Facebook. The poster simply read “Christmas with children from Lilongwe”. Since we are a newsletter focussed on the youth of Malawi around the world, we did not need any further motivation to attend. The future of Malawi would be there and so would we. The date was set. The directions to the venue sounded simple enough but that did not prevent me from getting lost. I was to get to Simama Hotel, turn left and then a right and before me would be signpost. I drove around the neighbourhood for some 15-20 minutes, stopping occasionally to ask for directions. In all fairness, the hawkers in the neighbourhood did not even know the place. About to give up, I met an elderly lady who directed me to the Social Rehabilitation Centre. As I drove in, I realised why I could not locate the venue, it barely had a readable signpost.

Feeling guilty for showing up 10 minutes late, I got to work immediately. The children were gathered in a dimly lit room with green and black plastic chairs, cream burglar bars and light green walls. The children were playing Lilongwe Got Talent, a localised version of Britain Got Talent in which each member of the audience was also a judge. The participants would dance to the song being played. The audience would then cast a vocal vote as to whom ought to be eliminated from the contest. The dancing was competitive as every participants used every ounce of energy to twist their bodies to the rhythmic reverberations played by the DJ, Chifundo Tembo. The audience cheered fervently. The finals were between a volunteer, Jabulani Maseko, and one of the children. Jabulani was older than his competitor and from the dancing, one would tell that Jabulani was no longer close the streets, the academy of African dance. The audience unanimously voted against Jabulani. The winner stood in front looking rather exhausted. The audience asked for an encore and the winner obliged. He had fought hard. He was awarded a pair of purple framed sunglasses by one of the volunteers, a much deserved Christmas present. In an act of humility, Jabulani carried the winner when he held him by his legs. The audience cheered once more. The audience joined him on stage and they all danced along. The winner held his neck up high, head above everyone in the room. A good seed fallen on bad soil.

As lunch approached, the guest of honour had not arrived. I feared that she might not show up at all; which would be a let-down for the children who have not even been priorities in the homes of their birth. Whilst we waited for her arrival, a volunteer talked to the children of the role of their initiative, Thanthwe, a non-profit startup by Sellah Singini, Tionge Kulemeka and Violet Machika. The volunteers seamlessly filled the time with a hip hop freestyle contest, stand-up comedy and poetry recitals. Whilst this was going on, the guest of honour, Hon. Patricia Kaliati entered the room. She apologised for late arrival as there had been a mix-up after the rescheduling of the programme.

Most people know Hon. P. Kaliati as a politician but here in this unmarked building, standing before people too young to vote, she became a mother. Until now, I had not ever been in the same room with the Member of Parliament. As a student, I remembered politicians paying our school a visit to give a speech that had next to no relevance to the audience. The teachers would smile and the students, the ploy of a political photo opportunity, would clap that the speech was finally over. As these recollections were racing through my mental processor, the guest of honour started to speak. She opened by saying “Giving is not about having much but it is about the heart.” She pointed out that most of the children at the Social Rehabilitation Centre and those in the streets of Malawi actually have parents who are still living. She called on the attendants to make the right choice of having the right number of children and to make the commitment to provide sufficient support their children. She called out irresponsible men who plant children everywhere they go and subsequently neglect to meet their basic demands. Of the women, she advised them that bearing a child for a man is not a way of buying the love of the man. To the yet-to-be married youths, she said that marriage is about choosing a great prisoner, someone with whom you can work within the confines of your circumstances to raise a happy family. She said that bearing children irresponsibly does not provide justifiable grounds on which the children should now be sleeping under bridges. She told the children present that God has a plan for their future and welcomed them to take up civic duty in the country in whatever capacity they find befitting should it be as President of the Republic of Malawi or as Members of Parliament. She closed by saying a truth that should be obvious but is not as obvious: God never created a street child.

Lunch was soon served. I met with Mary Malunga, the matron of the Social Rehabilitation Centre, a part of the Ministry of Gender, Children and Community Development. She said that the children coming to the centre were either street children or were referred there as part of the social welfare programmes operating all over Malawi. Sometimes, the children get to the centre before they are even old enough to enrol in primary school. She cited that parental divisions (usually involving a step-parent of the child or grandparents of orphaned children), peer pressure in unconducive environments, and poverty were the primary reasons that drove the children out of their homes and into the streets. The centre also partners with Sweet Aroma; a faith organisation that teaches the children music amongst other things that will help them to integrate in their communities when they eventually check out. They later on performed some songs such as Udolo from their CD.

The lunch itself was special. The children enjoyed a humble Christmas feast. No one went without. The guest of honour actually served the children. They sat on their chairs and ate quietly from their takeaway boxes. I wondered how many of them couldn’t wait for the day when such a meal would be provided at their tables for them to enjoy with their own children in the comfort of their own homes. There was a harmony I don’t usually see between young children and those slightly older than them. There was no sign of bullying. No one was hustling another for an extra piece of chicken. Had the children learned to treat each other as brothers and sisters, looking out for each other’s wellbeing? The guest of honour joined the children and ate with the children; she actually went around the room getting a spoonful from the children’s boxes. The children ate together with the guest of honour.

Reflecting on the event, I realised that I watched a different kind of a Christmas play. The children were not enacting the work of a strange playwright, they were enacting their lives. Last week, I wrote about attending a different kind of Christmas Carols at Gateway Mall. Maybe the world is changing. Maybe Christmas for the young generation is not about getting but rather giving. Watching the young organisers working to organise the event, prepare the food, provide the music; it made me realise that even if Santa doesn’t land on roofs in Malawi, there are many santas in the form of young people who are devoted to improving the condition of those coming after them. The message to those children was that Rudolf the Reindeer is not here but we, your fellow Malawian brothers and sisters, are here for you. There are many stories that tarnish the image of street children; reports of theft, assault and even murder. For myself included, I avoid them where I can. It was safer to avoid them than to understand them. The term “street children” is one that I never examined at length until I spend a day with them. Watching them dance, joke, chat, perform a play, sing, eat as children do all around the world; I had the epiphany that even though they might have no valid residential address, they are just children.

 

This article has been written in the spirit of #malotoathu.

A sad year: 1,791 lives lost on Malawian roads

TSP20170618115855

Written by: Sydney Chuka

Photo credits: The Shire Porter Photography

Malawi commemorated the African Road Safety Day on 25th November 2017. The Directorate of Road Traffic and Safety Services reported in The Nation that 1,719 lives were lost in road accidents in 2017 to date. At the time of reporting, we were 327 days into the year; thus translating to 5 or 6 deaths every day on Malawian roads. Projected for the full year, at the same fatality rate, we are looking at 2000 deaths for 2017. I have used a straight line projection and I have not made any adjustments for the festive season. Once you account for the festive season, the number could be higher. The article in The Daily Times read “a large percentage of the victims being those between 25 and 44 years”. I would like to know just how large is a “large percentage” and for a very good reason.

On 17th November 2017, I witnessed an accident that has incited this article. I was driving towards Capital Hill in Lilongwe and I was about to turn towards the Malawi College of Accountancy Lilongwe Campus when a blue Audi came cruising down the road. My first thought was “where is this guy rushing to?” As I turned to get into the main road, I saw the car collide into the back of a bicycle taxi (locally known as a kabaza). The taxi driver and passenger, who were not wearing helmets, were both hurled a couple of meters into the air. Then they came crushing into the asphalt a couple of meters away from the place of impact. At that point, the car had not braked. Instinctively, I chased down the car. I did not want to witness a hit-and-run scenario. The car did eventually stop and we both came back to attend to the victims. For a while, the passenger was listless but the taxi driver was wailing at the top of his voice ndi kufa ine (I am dying). I will not divulge the graphic details. The bystanders were now attending to the victims and two G4S security cars stopped. The guards stepped down from the car and they helped the bystanders to place the victims in the security vehicle en route to Kamuzu Central Hospital. I took a picture of the Audi driver’s license and waited for Police to arrive. One off-duty Police officer stopped by and called his fellow Police officers who were just further up the road and arrived on the scene within a minute. When I stopped by on the scene a few hours later, I learnt that both victims were recovering but had suffered some broken bones. At the time of writing, the driver has been released from hospital but the passenger is still in hospital.

It later turned out that the passenger was a student at the Malawi College of Accountancy. She had taken the bicycle taxi at the Area 30 crossroads. The taxi driver was crossing the road to drop her at school when the accident occured. That decision to get on the bicycle taxi that morning not only jeopardised her education but also her life alongside that of the taxi driver. Out of the 1,971 fatalities reported, how many were just like her? A casualty of an unregulated and uninsured bicycle taxi industry.

I am an amateur cyclist that has recently branched out into being an unofficial cycling administrator. I am no Martin Luther King Jr., but I too do have a dream (#malotoathu) that young Malawian men and women will race down the streets of Paris past the Champs Élysées donned in the glorious “red, black and green” as they compete for Gold in the Paris Olympics of 2024. I honestly look forward to the day that Malawi has a national cycling team and a national cycling programme for people of all ages. It takes time to develop Olympic talent; you need three years to identify the competitive cyclists and probably another three to train them to Olympic standards.

To achieve this goal, I have met with some parents in the year to ask for their permission to let their children cycle so we can grow the sport. Most of the parents I have met have cited the same reason for not allowing their children to cycle on our roads: safety. We need safe roads for these young men and women to train daily for an hour or two without raising their parents or guardians blood pressures. Reading the road fatality statistics further highlights the road safety concerns as a cause worth fighting for. We are not fighting for any ulterior motives but for our own lives.

Unfortunately, there is very little or no policy that one can point to regarding the safety of the cycling community in Malawi. We do have a cycling governing body and several other stakeholders that directly or indirectly influence road safety for cyclists. I do not have any statistics on the number of cyclists on Malawian roads but there is not a day that goes by when there are no cyclist on the roads. Every road user in Malawi has seen the ubiquitous black-framed single-speed bikes across the country.

To emphasise the challenges we face on road safety; particularly for cyclists, I will provide some context.

For cyclists

  • A crush helmet is not a legal requirement for cyclists on the roads of Malawi and neither are visibility aids such as dynamo lights or reflective vests.
  • Cyclists can cross the roads without dismounting; without which, it can be challenging for cyclists to accurately assess what is happening behind them. As was the case in the accident I witnessed.

For the bicycle taxi industry

  • The growing bicycle taxi industry is completely unregulated and uninsured.
  • The bicycle taxi industry operates late into the night. Without adequate visibility measures, cyclist safety is severely compromised beyond sunset.
  • The emergence of bicycle taxis in the last few years has relieved pressure on the transport system in both urban and rural areas. We have also seen the introduction of bicycle ambulances in rural areas. However; this has also increased pressure on the shoulders of the roads.

Safety infrastructure

  • The country does not have roadside emergency services. It is very rare to see an ambulance or a fire engine at a road accident scene. The need for an ambulance is clear but less clear is the role of the fire engine. The fire engine crew is crucial in extracting people from mangled cars with high-powered hydraulic tools commonly referred to as the “jaws of life”. Professional emergency services operate on the principle of “The Golden Hour” which states that professionally attending to the victims of an accident within the first hour of the accident occurring prevents death. (This brings up another pertinent question: how long does it take for road accident victims in Malawi to be professionally attended to? I have a friend who was driving when a drunk man fell in front of his car at close range and he collided into him. The patient was alive when they arrived at the hospital, but the hospital personnel refused to treat the patient in the absence of a police report. My friend watched the patient expire.)
  • The country does not have mandated shoulders on the sides of the road to facilitate cyclist safety. Thus cyclists are usually disadvantaged as they negotiate for adequate space on roads. Sometimes the sides of the road are so eroded that they form mini gullies and there is no way one can ride a bike there unless one dismounts and pushes the bike. However, pushing the bike means that most people who cycle remarkable distances to get to work, will not make it in time.
  • The country does have speed limits that are only enforced by Traffic Police presence. This becomes problematic in areas with a high density of cyclists within a few millimetres of fast moving vehicles and there is no Traffic Police presence to enforce the speed limits. There is a need for unmanned speed limit enforcement.
  • Looking at the developments and challenges above, there is a need to consider introducing safety regulation for bicycle taxis in particular and for cyclists in general. We should also consider introducing insurance for all road users as is the case in the Republic of South Africa where they have the Road Accident Fund.

Before I close, I wanted to graphically quantify what 1,791 people actually look like. An Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger airliner, can ferry a maximum of 868 people comfortably. In other words, enough people to fill two Airbus A380 planes and 55 more have died on Malawian roads in the first 327 days of the year. Think about it. If two A380 planes had crushed in Malawi this year and there was not a single survivor in both incidents that would be catastrophic world news. All major news networks would come to cover the story. Yet more people have died on road accidents this year alone in this country and somehow it’s business as usual. Those 1,791 people are not strangers. They are our brothers and sisters. As I look forward to 2018, I hope that the safety concerns raised in this article will fall on receptive ears and empathetic hearts.

  • This article has been written in the spirit of “#malotoathu”.