When Nelson Mandela said ‘While poverty persists, there is no true freedom’, many thought the message was only for South Africans, but it was for the whole world.
Virginia Sinoya (41) of the Nthukwa area in Chilomoni, Blantyre, believes Mandela spoke for her. She wonders what type of freedom she has when she lives in a poor house, struggles to access food and cannot afford to keep her children in school.
“What is freedom when I live in dire poverty?” wonders Sinoya.
Her home is an emblem that depicts an echelon of urban poverty in Malawi. She lives in a slum. It is a grass-thatched house constructed of sun-baked bricks. The roof has few grass straws resting on a plastic paper visibly burnt by direct sunlight. It has holes that the rays of the sun slip through, making the difference of being inside or outside the house minute.
Sinoya, who is divorced with four children, lives a basic life. She has a paraffin-powered lamp, but says she cannot remember the last time it was refuelled.
The house is small, approximately three by two metres and in the absence of a lamp, a fire place behind the door lights the house.
“We rely on fire to light the house, but you know it is not easy to have firewood so we make sure that by 6pm supper is ready and the sleeping place is set,” she says.
An ugly face of poverty is pasted at the left corner of the house where utensils and other kitchen materials are kept. Apart from plastic bucket for storing maize flour, there is nothing else.
Sinoya says they buy flour every day at a nearby maize mill. Our inquiry at the mill showed that the said flour is gathered from the floor and at the end of business, millers collect the flour and pack it in bags for sell as animal feed. It is the same flour that Sinoya and her family lives on.
“We buy the flour at K50 per kilogramme, and at times, I go there to do piecework such as helping customers seeking services such as winnowing and they give me flour in exchange of the service,” she says.
The family struggles to buy relish. Sinoya says she hardly remembers the last time the family had a hot beverage as breakfast. She says in the morning they eat porridge or food that was left the previous day.
The family uses the far right area for bed, but there is only a small mat. Sinoya says the two boys sleep on pieces of sacks and share a blanket and she shares the mat with the girls.
As we talk, Grey, the first born son walks in carrying a plastic bag. In it are four buns soaked in soup and with a piece of meat in-between.
“This is what makes our delicious meal on some days. Five buns cost K100 and we go pachiwaya [wayside chips vendor] where offals are fried. A piece of meat costs K20 and for each bun, we spend K100. Sometimes, we just buy five pieces of meat and ask for more soup. It makes good relish,” says Sinoya, adding that her children are used to the lifestyle.
None of the four children is in school. She says they dropped out due to lack of clothes, soap, Vaseline, notebooks and pens. Sinoya, who relies on pieceworks such as washing clothes for households, says she cannot afford buying these. She reveals that when she washes clothes, she gets between K200 and K1 000, but the tasks are available once in a while.
With such poverty levels, sanitation can hardly be a priority. For six years now, the family has lived without a toilet and uses the bushes at the foot of Michiru Mountain. Sinoya claims that she has constructed several toilets before, but when rains come, they are demolished. She says the solution is to have a permanent toilet, but she cannot afford it.
Sinoya’s tale is just a reflection of the situation on the round. Due to poverty levels, most urban dwellers in Malawi live in slums and have no formal source of income.
Unfortunately, like other townships, life is expensive in Chilomoni. Four of the recent Centre for Social Concern (CfSC) Basic Needs Basket (BNB) reports show that expenditures in the country’s four cities have been constant.
They show that a household of six in the capital city, Lilongwe, requires about K123 500, for Zomba it is K110 000, Blantyre requires K128 000 while Mzuzu requires about K105 000 per month to meet basic food and non-food items.
The global assessment of slums undertaken by the United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN-Habitat) in 2003 shows that 924 million or 32 percent of the world’s urban population resides in slums.
In Malawi, the prevalence of slums with over 80 percent while across the border, Zambia has a percentage of between 60 and 79, states the World Institute for Development Economics Research of the UN University.
The 2014 Human Development Index (HDI) released by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) says 61.64 percent of Malawians live on less than a dollar a day. Another research called Integrated Household Panel Survey (IHPS) published by the National Statistics Office (NSO) in December 2014 reveals that many urban dwellers continue to live in dire poverty. It says incidence of poverty have fallen by just a percentage in four years—from 40 percent in 2010 to 39 in 2014.
“Mzuzu city, which is still growing,” says the 2008 Mzuzu city council Draft Profile, “had 12 slums and over 60 percent of its residents living in these squatters,”
Today, walking deep into Salisbury Line, Mchengautuwa, Ching’ambo and Masasa townships, exposes a serious proliferation of urban poverty defined by slums, deplorable living and environmental conditions characterised by inadequate water supply, poor sanitation, drainage systems and overcrowding.
It is the same story in Lilongwe, precisely in Mtandire, Area 36, Kauma and Mchesi townships, among others. In Blantyre, Mbayani, Chilomoni, Chirimba, Bangwe and Ndirande townships form a world of slums where very poor people live in scornful conditions and the welfare of the family affects the children. This raises the question that after 50 years since independence, what has been achieved and given such living standards, what kind of generation is Malawi building?