Archive | March 2012

And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night – One regime’s epilogue is another’s warning

Malawian-born poet, university lecturer and former Amnesty prisoner of conscience Jack Mapanje’s prison memoir “And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night” chronicles his arrest and imprisonment without charge in Malawi in 1987 during the reign of the country’s former Life President Kamuzu Banda.  Held without charge for four years, Mapanje wrote “And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night” to “probe the hidden motives for this arrest” and “attempt to provide an unforgettable record of the architecture of imprisonment and the perpetual struggle between the forces of truth and those of naked power.”

Actors perform the epilogue of Jack Mapanje's prison memoir-come-play "And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night" at Nanzikambe Arts theatre in Naperi.

On March 5, coincidentally the national Martyrs Day holiday, I watched the Nanzikambe Arts Development Organization’s theatrical performance of Mapanje’s memoir.

I can still hear the delivery of the epilogue, Mapanje’s warning to future leaders to “avoid treading the despotic and corrupt paths of the past” and “spare us the violence, injustices and siege mentality that characterised Banda’s regime” and “please give us the peace and freedom we have been crying out for these years.”

I hope somehow current President Bingu wa Mutharika will hear it too.

And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night


MAUREEN     3 March 2012. Saturday [or whatever the date of the performance]

AARON          When Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda came to power, he started well. But when he declared himself President for Life and sacked his cabinet, power went to his head and he became indifferent to his people’s problems

MISHECK       Anyone who expressed grief at what was souring the long-cherished hopes of freedom, debate and true independence were branded as ‘rebels’ and ‘traitors’.

JAFALI           Banda actually ordered his Young Pioneers to act against any who were against him

THLUPEGO [as BANDA]        Tell the police, but if they do nothing, I put you above the police. And crocodiles are hungry at night.

HUSSEIN        Chaos was unleashed

MPHUNDU     The prisons were choked with thousands of dissenters who were merely presumed to have been the regime’s opponents

JAFALI           Banda built a new prison in every district

AARON          Those not imprisoned were abducted from their homes at night and driven in Malawi Congress Party landrovers at breakneck speeds to the Shire river where they became meat for hungry crocodiles

MAUREEN     Today, fifteen years after Banda’s death, we are told to forget about the pain and suffering that the tyrant and his coterie inflicted on us

DIPO               The deaths and misery they caused thousands of Malawians belong to the past and we must move on, they say.

MPHUNDU     We do not even need the kind of truth and reconciliation that South Africa had so that those who were responsible for the atrocities could be brought to book

THLUPEGO    Or could at least accept and apologise

MISHECK       But I beg to differ. And vehemently so

DIPO               Those who suffered under Banda and his Kadzamira-Tembo cabal cannot afford to forget the brutalities

HUSSEIN        Forgive, perhaps. Forget: no. Only death can erase that.

DIPO               We must talk frankly about the evil and injustices that were going on and try to understand the mindset of those who brought them about so that future generations are spared such calamities

MAUREEN      The past is embedded in the present, which in turn is embedded in the future

MISHECK       This story is a warning. Future leaders should avoid treading the despotic and corrupt paths of the past. We have suffered and endured so much to get here – from John Chilembwe’s uprising against the British in 1915 to the present. We join Jack Mapanje in his plea to our political leaders to spare us the violence, injustices and siege mentality that characterised Banda’s regime and please give us the peace and freedom we have been crying out for these years.


Rising prices hurt Malawi’s poor

Silota Phiri, 71, a retired primary school teacher from Mwasinde Village in the area of Traditional Authority Chigaru, Blantyre, is not embarrassed to admit that the last time he ate bread was last year, when a loaf was selling at K110.

He struggles to recall if things were ever this bad for him and his family, and admits that recently he actually thought his taste buds had stopped functioning.

“At first, I thought I was losing out on my sense of taste,” Silota said at his retirement home in Mwasinde Village.  “I thought it was my age that was playing games on me.

“With all my experience with life, I still struggled to figure out what was happening to me.  I then realised that this is because I seldom eat the things I used to (eat) in the past.”

“In the past, we never worried about relish because it was handy in the gardens,” added Silota ‘s wife Mary.  “No more. Nowadays, even pumpkin leaves are costing too much to buy.

“Whereas we used to buy ten leaves for MK 5, the situation is very different now, when four leaves are costing MK20.”

Like many Malawians, Silota and Mary have been overwhelmed by the recent, unheralded rise in the price of common commodities.

Though the couple is attempting to augment the meagre month-to-month retirement package Silota gets from the Ministry of Education by experimenting with pig farming, having sold one pig for MK 20,000 three weeks ago, they say “the money [is] still not enough.”

“Just imagine, I bought a packet of sugar at the cost of MK 250 early January, because there were reports that the price could be hiked,” explained Silota.  “But the MK 20,000 will not be enough to see us through because maize husks cost MK 750 for a 50 kilogram bag.”

Employees of Malawi retail chain store Peoples Trading Centre compare February 2012 prices to February 2011 prices. Photo by Karissa Gall.

Employees of Malawi retail chain store Peoples Trading Centre confirmed that the cost of white sugar has risen from MK 195 to MK 220 for a one kilogram bag since February last year.  Likewise, a one kilogram bag of maize flour has risen from MK 95 to MK 140, one litre of Kazinga cooking oil has risen from MK 715 to MK 950, 500 millilitres of fresh milk has risen from MK 110 to MK 150, and 250 grams of lifebuoy soup has risen from MK 70 to MK 100.

According to the Consumers Association of Malawi executive director, John Kapito, the unprecedented rise in commodity prices has been caused and compounded by factors such as foreign exchange rates and the unavailability of key commodities such as fuel.

“The levels at which inflation (the rate at which goods and services’ prices rise) affects people depends on the type of basket a country uses to come up with inflation rates,” said Kapito.  “For example, Malawi only uses the food basket – which contributes about 60 percent (of consumer spending) – leaving other important baskets unaccounted for.

“In our case, people have come to think that commodity price rises are solely because of inflation.  But there are other factors that have exacerbated the situation; they include foreign exchange rates and the unavailability of key commodities and products such as fuel.  If petrol cannot be found, the cost of transport increases,” he said.

Kapito added that the other factor that has rendered some products unaffordable to the majority of Malawians is the proliferation of parallel market dealings.

Because basic commodities cannot be sourced from the formal market, he said, people are relying on the informal market, a development that has lead to price rises.

Mary Sailesi has been forced to raise the price of three pieces of wood from MK 50 in January 2011 to MK 100 in February 2012. Photo by Karissa Gall.

For Mary Sailesi, who sells firewood and charcoal along the Zalewa Road, the signs that prices are going haywire are sitting on display for all to see.  She said she used to sell three pieces of wood at MK 50 in January 2011; now, the price has gone up to MK 100.

“We understand that, in a rural setting like ours, not many people can afford.  But we also want to survive,” she said.

With files from the Sunday Times Richard Chirombo

In Malawi when ‘Life’ gets tough, it gets banned

This article was originally published on the Toronto Star website on March 8, 2012.

Saturday night in Blantyre and the drinks are flowing at Mustang Sally’s, a fluorescent bar with a swimming pool centerpiece frequented by ex-pats and a new generation of young Malawians who have money.  The laptop DJ plays LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” for the eighth time of the night.

No longer under the strict censuring control of one-party-state president Hastings Kamuza Banda, Malawian airwaves have opened up to music that in the 20th century remained an unknown.  In the years following the country’s first multi-party elections in 1994, the Malawian music industry has diversified, with Malawian artists more free to perform traditional, gospel and reggae-inspired sounds, and some images and styles even being scavenged from sexually provocative, explicitly violent and drug-saturated music on  stations such as  MTV.

Today Malawians can praise any God, they can even party rock, but if you ask Lucius Banda they still can’t protest.

Lucius Banda, the first Malawian musician to use his platform to protest government. Photo submitted.

The first musician to sing openly against political oppression in Malawi during the decades of one-party rule, Banda says growing up in absolute poverty and amid systemic social injustice inspired him to “make sure there’s an alternative voice from the government.”

“Coming from a broken family living in absolute poverty, life was difficult,” remembers Banda.  “We had to go to the Catholic mission houses to clean toilets to pay for school fees.  After we’d paid that, we’d go to school, and then if the president was visiting your area you had to raise money to give him as a gift.

“We couldn’t afford that and so we wouldn’t be allowed in class, maybe for two or three weeks.  It was like getting candy from a grandchild,” he says.  “I don’t forget that.”

In the 1980s Banda began his music career singing gospel songs as part of the Alleluya Band, but eventually branched out on his own to produce music that would “sensitize people to regain their conscience.”

“I didn’t like singing love songs,” he says.  “I talked about injustices, the suffering of the people, that was my main concern.”

In 1993 Banda released his first solo album titled “Makolo”.  The single “Mabala” which means “wounds” was critical of the ruling Kamuzu Banda regime, which he said afflicted pain on those already living in absolute poverty.

In 2001 when then-UDF chairman and President Bakili Muluzi attempted a third term, Banda released the song “How Long.”

“I did a lot of songs rebuking [Muluzi],” Banda says.  “Why should we have become a friend of Mugabe and others who were clinging to power?”

In 2005 he released the album “Enemy (of the State)” where he criticized current president Bingu wa Mutharika for quitting the UDF party that had ushered him into power to seek re-election as the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate instead, and in 2006 and 2008 he released the albums “Survivor” and “Freedom” respectively with messages meant for Mutharika: “We’ll survive you” and “You will see when people realize the truth.”

But in 2011 his latest album of protest music and its title track “Life” attracted negative attention from the Malawi Censorship Board and a ban by the Malawi Broadcasting Company (MBC).  Now that his music is banned from Malawian radio stations, Banda says Section 35 of the Malawi Constitution has failed him and that without free expression the music industry is “harsh” in Malawi.

“You can’t criticize people who are in positions where you put them with your vote,” he says.  “They say, ‘Stay quiet as I’m sitting on your money’ at a time when we don’t have a strong opposition and [Malawians] are weaker than we were in terms of our reactiveness to dictatorship… The Malawians you meet today are not the Malawians of 1994.  In 1994 Malawians were aggressive.  We were patriotic.  The Malawians you meet today I’m sorry to say are desperate, everyone for himself, ‘as long as I get mine it’s OK.’  That’s why we cannot come together and fight one common enemy.”

Though he still believes Malawians who love their country should show that they’re not happy with what is happening, Banda says the MBC ban has hurt his medium.

“Because of the ban, slowly [my] music is dying, people don’t listen to it, youngsters don’t listen to it, so they [government] are succeeding,” he says.

“Today you have to censor yourself so much when an artist is supposed to be free.  If I were going into the industry now, in this environment, I wouldn’t go.”

Listen to Banda’s song “Tikamalira” (Why We Cry) here.

Mainstream gender in policy and programs to end poverty and hunger

Today marks the 101st annual International Women’s Day and the theme “Empower Rural Women – End Hunger and Poverty” as declared by the United Nations (UN) hits close to home for Malawian women, the majority of whom live in rural areas where food insecurity remains a real threat.

Across the rural expanses of Malawi, the agricultural productivity of female farmers compared to male farmers is relatively low.  According to the report “Gender and Poverty Reduction in Malawi,” written by Malawian economist Naomie Ngwira and published by the UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs, national maize yield was only 1,353 kg/ha for female farmers compared to 1,384 kg/ha for male farmers in 2008.  In the same year the average hybrid maize yield was only 1,887kg/ha for female farmers compared to 1,915kg/ha for male farmers.  The results repeated for rice and all other food crops except sorghum.

This disparity creates a vicious circle of poverty for female Malawian farmers; according to the most recent African Gender and Development Index for Malawi, women make only 71 percent of what men make in smallholder agriculture.

Gender-based stereotypes and discrimination underlie these issues and are problems that are difficult to “take to task”.  However, a call to action can and should be made to the Malawian government to mainstream “engendered policy”.

Here’s why:

Women living in rural areas tend to have less land – Ngwira’s report states that female farmers in Malawi on average have 0.8 hectares of land compared to 1.0 hectares for male farmers.

“Land grabbing” is one reason for this disparity.  The pervasive problem came up in a recent interview with Tadala Mawindo, a pre-teen girl of Che Mboma village.  Tadala recently returned to school after staying home to care for her younger sisters and her mother, Flomina Mawindo (pictured), who is struggling with mental health issues.  She attributed her mother’s mental health issues to stress, and the stress to problems such as land grabbing.

“When my father was alive he was encouraging thieves to steal money and household items from the house,” said Tadala.  “He wanted the family to suffer.  At that time my mother was working very hard and she was strong.  She woke up in the morning, went to the market, did business and bought food – everything.  My mother was in charge at home.

“When there was a rumour that she wanted to buy land is when he started inviting thieves at home, so that my mother would be broke and would not have money to buy the land, so that she would lose her business, lose everything, then go back to him.

“After my father passed away in 2004 my mother bought land and started building a house.  But the family of my father was mocking her that she could not manage to build a house.  They were jealous, so they were trying to do some tricks with magic so maybe they could kill my mother, so that if she died they could grab that land to sell, and we would suffer.”

In addition to having, on average, less land, female farmers also have less labor and less access to inputs, credit and extension.  According to the 2008 National Agriculture and Livestock census (NACAL), only 49 percent of female farmers got fertilizer subsidy coupons compared to 54 percent of male farmers.  And according to the 2008 Malawi Gender and Development Index, only 10.7 percent of women compared to 14 percent of men had access to credit.

These disparities can be attributed to lack of will to move the gender agenda forward at the top policy making and planning levels.

A review done by the Sector Working Group on Gender in June 2010 observed that “Gender does not have sufficient presence within the ministries at central and district level.  While project oriented activities are being conducted in the area of gender-based violence and the 50/50 Campaign, little is done to develop a broad ranging network and an advocacy campaign and an M&E system to ensure the capacity building and mainstreaming of gender across all sectors.  The present focal gender‐point approach does not have a face at the political and decision making level.”

One example of government’s failure to mainstream engendered policy is the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS), formulated in 2006 with the overriding philosophy of accelerating economic growth through infrastructure development as a means to sustainable poverty reduction.  Of the ten areas prioritized by the government gender is not among them.  Gender was only included as one of five subthemes under the “social” development theme.

Systemic problems require systematic policy solutions.  Government must mainstream gender in development planning and implementation; train public policy makers and managers in gender issues and development, fund projects only if and when they have planned and budgeted for engendered aspects, require reporting on gender targets , conduct gender audits, plan and implement gender sensitive programs, especially in education and agriculture, reform laws that still allow for discrimination and change the penal code to punish offenders adequately.

In the words of UN Secretary General Ban Kimoon, “Rural women… play crucial roles ensuring food and nutrition security, eradicating rural poverty and improving the well-being of their families yet continue to face serious challenges as a result of gender-based stereotypes and discrimination that deny them equitable access to opportunities, resources, assets and services”.

Malawians cannot hope for the eradication of rural poverty or food and nutrition security without first addressing the plight of the rural Malawian women who wake up every morning to toil in ancestral gardens, against all odds.

It is the responsibility of government – not just the Ministry of Gender, Children and Community Development but policymakers from each department and at each level – to mainstream engendered policy in Malawi, improve the odds for rural Malawian women and fight to end poverty and hunger – problems that, unlike gender-based stereotypes, do not discriminate from male or female.

With files from the Daily Times’ Sellina Nkowani

State Of Emergency

Sickly emergency ward policy requires immediate attention from Ministry of Health

You’ve been in an accident – where do you go?  If you said the emergency department you could be wrong.

Two months ago my Sunday Times editor made this “mistake”, taking a small boy who had been in a traffic accident to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital for emergency treatment.  The boy, playing with a friend alongside of the highway, had run head-on into an oncoming SUV.  He was severely bruised, crying, and required treatment, but when they reached the hospital the staff at the registration desk turned the boy away on the basis of an archaic policy that requires a police report before care can be administered to an accident victim.

Nurses and doctors affirmed this police report policy to the boy and my editor and it was only after they drove to the police station and were escorted by an officer back to the emergency department that the boy received treatment for the traumatic experience he had endured.

Three weeks ago, that same editor witnessed a similar episode when a 16-wheeler truck struck a small car.  One passenger was killed on impact, and when the other bloodied passenger was brought to the hospital in hope of emergency treatment he was forced to wait in agonizing pain until a police report could be acquired.

When questioned on the policy, chief administrator of Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital Themba Mhango said a victim of a traffic collision would “definitely” be treated right away because “it is a human rights issue.”

“Now with the multi-party system, human rights came in and people started realizing their human rights.  You can’t do that to a person now – say ‘no I won’t give you treatment,’” Mhango said.

However, a subsequent visit to the hospital’s emergency room registration desk involved no mention of human rights.

In contradiction to Mhangos’s comments, a desk attendant said that while critical injuries are treated as soon as possible, “when an accident victim arrives a police report is required.”

While “there are serious cases in which you can’t do otherwise but treat the victim,” the attendant said the majority of individuals who seek treatment following a collision have suffered “minor injuries” and therefore require a police report.

Southern Region Police Public Relations Officer Nicholas Gondwa also confirmed the hospital procedure of requiring a police report prior to treating injuries sustained in an accident and said the policy exists because “hospitals fear that the person may not be an accident victim but rather a criminal who got injured while committing acts of crime.”

“It cannot be known whether the person was really involved in an accident or was injured while committing acts of crime,” he said.

The point is moot.  Under Article 16 of the African [Banjul] Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Malawi ratified in 1989, Every individual shall have the right to enjoy the best attainable state of physical and mental health” and, “States parties… shall take the necessary measures to protect the health of their people and to ensure that they receive medical attention when they are sick.”

The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contain similar clauses.

Because Malawi uses a socialized system of health care, “with the goal of providing access and basic health services to all Malawians,” it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Health to address this archaic policy – take necessary measures to protect the health of their people.

If the mission of the Ministry of Health truly is to “raise the level of health status of all Malawians by reducing the incidence of illness and occurrence of death in the population,” the hospital procedure of requiring a police report prior to treating injuries sustained in an accident must be abolished.

Considering the fact that it is already difficult to get necessary health care in Malawi – transportation to clinics and health centers is problematic, and when a person is able to reach a health centre or hospital it is not uncommon to find that there is no medicine – added delays to accessing appropriate care such as this hospital procedure of requiring a police report are undue, unjust and inhumane, and completely contradict the state of emergency for which the health department in question exists.

In the meantime, Malawians should be advised to keep a first aid kit on hand as well as a police officers’ phone number on speed dial – you will need both before you can access appropriate treatment for injuries sustained in an accident at Queen’s hospital.

With files from the Sunday Times’ Ruth Mputeni

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