Most Malawians are said to be poor, about 80 percent of them, especially those living in the rural areas. The slogan is â€˜living below the poverty line,â€™ but the story of Abiti John, who lives just eight minutes from the heart of the capital Lilongwe makes one crave for another line instead of the poverty line. This is the story that she sadly narrated to Bright Mhango.
This new line is to separate the poorest from the poor and Abiti John falls in this last group.
She migrated to Lilongwe from the lakeshore district of Mangochi in 1949 with her first born child. She was in her teens, but she says she cannot recall the year she was born. She now lives in a house perched in the shanty Chilinde 1 neighbourhood in Lilongwe.
She is not that attractive due to the blow that time has dealt her with. When she opens her mouth, it is just a hole with red cavities, no teeth in sight. She has loose skin below her eyes and the eyes are always watering, as if she is constantly crying about her situation.
The base of her foot is cracked and meshed; every person who has grown up around fishermen would instantly draw parallels between the cracks in her legs and the fish nets that line the lakeshores. She is African yes – but there is some strange black tan around her legs. The last time she might have had a shoe on must have been way back in time, but definitely not in the last three years.
While in Lilongwe, she went on to sire nine more children. Some elders that knew her children described them as handsome and adorable. Sadly, the children just exist in memories like her â€˜hey daysâ€™, for they are all dead, according to Abiti John.
She looks like she is in her late eighties or early nineties. She is weak. To get up from her sitting position, she has to struggle; pull her legs to her chest, plant her hands on the ground and slowly hurl herself up, she ends up looking where her back faced.
She has one grandchild who can at least take care of her. But what more can she do? She is as poor as the old lady; with no job and dependent on her husband.
â€œI sometimes bring her water to bath,â€ said the lady, only identified as Amake Gilesi.
Abiti Johnâ€™s house is a saddening sight. There are two pails, old buckets, and a brown tyre rim overturned and used as a table. There is no chair, no raised surface to place oneâ€™s bums on. The house has one door which is just a collection of different pieces: specifically for shielding the inside from the outside and not providing any security.
Two years ago, the house collapsed on one side and it has never been repaired. From outside, one can see an exposed room which used to be someoneâ€™s bedroom, a green worn-out mosquito net still hanging on its four corners and dirty rags littering the room.
Martha Thole, a woman who runs a charity in the same Chilinde 1 area, said women like Abiti John particularly need attention because they are at their most vulnerable.
â€œWhat she needs is food, clothing and a good shelter,â€ said Thole who admits that her hands are tied in terms of reaching out to the poor like Abiti John.
Talking of a roof, sarcastically, Abiti Johnâ€™s house is well lit; it has no electricity, has no glass windows but is lit from above. Streaks of light trickle through the many holes on the roof; lighting the coarse and unattended earth floor all day.
The iron sheets are always making sounds even in the calmest of breezes. The sheets are bound to some eucalyptus poles, most of which have outlived their life and are ready to give in to any strong wind that might come.
The roof is not only bright with holes but also blighted by rolls and rolls of cobwebs: webs that have gathered dust and even became inhabitable for the spiders that originally weaved the webs.
â€œWhen it is raining, gogo has no choice but to stand under the lintel. The whole house becomes a pool and there is nowhere to sleep,â€ said Amake Gilesi, plaintively.
Abiti Johnâ€™s bedroom is as sickening as the rest of the house, only darker and the only place she can lay her head on. There is something similar to a bed that raises the contents of the room to about forty centimetres.
On the raised thing that resembles a bed are the lowest grade blankets, the kind that are sold during the popular mobile market day.
There are no clothes hanging on the bedroom wall, not even elsewhere in the house. The visible clothes that would pass as rags are bundled up and squashed into several bags that line the room sides. The room can only fit a single bed.
She spends her time on the veranda, staring blankly into the air and watching the able-bodied pass her by. The women around her homestead care less about her. Nevertheless, they cram themselves into one of the empty rooms in the compound and gamble with playing cards.
Abiti John, according to Amake Gilesi, loves tea. It is all she asks for if given a choice. Yes, tea is a delicacy. But her choice could be because nobody cares to make her food that augurs well with the gogoâ€™s toothless buckle cavity. So, she has resigned to tea.
She has no food reserves in her impoverished and humble abode. Luckily, at meal times, children from the benevolent neighbour bring over a ration of whatever the neighbour is having.
She is almost like a member of that family. But nobody seems ready to imagine what would happen if the neighbour decided to move or restructure in these times of economic hardships. Abiti John would surely be alone out in the cold.
â€œShe has dizzy spells, she once fell down and we had to rush her to the hospital,â€ said Amake Gilesi.
Her health is visibly in question. It explains the hustle she has to pull up when standing up and why her head is always in drool mode.
Her skin is dry and resembles that of a cat-fish that has been in the sun all morning. It is dry, crackled and white, more like the colour of smoke. And then it is wrinkled, like the dermis divorced the bones beneath it.
Her left pinkie finger is just a stub, only half of it remains. Whether it was Leprosy or an accident, it does not matter now. What she looks forward to is to survive each day.
â€œWhy is there no one out there to help this lady? Fix her house? Give her some clothes and some food to restore her strength?â€ wondered Thole.
As for Abiti John, she sat silently while the whole interview ran with her granddaughter. She could only answer in one syllable. She answered as to when she came to Lilongwe, where her village is, and about her husband who died a long time ago.
She is lonely in this world; all she has is poverty to discomfort her in her old age.
Even when briefly speaking, her underlying Yao accent is difficult to miss. The Yao she used to speak when she was in Mangochi in her early teens, her good old days.
People always wish each other long life, I wonder if Abiti John wants to live on another 10 years.