Living on the Margins in Malawi’s Year of the Vision. It's 2020!
Updated: Jan 7, 2020
Tinyade is completing her final year of Business Administration at The Polytechnic in Blantyre. She looks funny. Her limbs appear stiff, her stomach ostensibly and perpetually bloated. Her face usually looks as though a Botox operation went bad midway, making her look decades ahead of her age. For the most part, she confines herself to large, hanging clothes. She was born in 1998 and will be turning 22 years old this year.
According to the Vision 2020, which was signed and launched in the year of Tinyade’s birth, she is supposed to be walking into the affluence of a middle-income economy today.
The Vision was the first-of-its-kind democratic-era statement of hopes and aspirations by Malawians. It stated, in Malawians’ own words, the shape and size of development they wanted to see. They ambitiously settled for “By the year 2020, Malawi, as a God-fearing nation, will be secure, democratically mature, environmentally sustainable, self-reliant with equal opportunities for and active participation by all, having social services, vibrant cultural and religious values and a technologically driven middle-income economy.”
Unfortunately, Tinyade’s reality in 2020 is that she is most unlikely going to get hired immediately after her graduation, rendering her actual experience much more dire than the vision the generation before her bore. She would instead be treading her accomplished feet into a country trapped in poverty, her singular luck being that she wasn't married off before age, thanks to the relentlessness of saviors like Theresa Kachindamoto.
The labor market that she would join would most likely be too tight to match her skills with the right jobs that would remunerate her accordingly with her education. Her dream to work for the Malawi Stock Exchange (MSE) will always hang in the balance, for there is only so much expertise the MSE can accommodate to run a boarse whose daily trading is minimal for the paltry 14 corporations it brandishes. She may have to eventually settle for a teaching job for a start.
The crumbling public education mechanism that she could afford means her writing and speech are limited and crooked, as going through the highest echelons of pedagogy by Malawian standards today yields much less education than it did before. This is in spite of the ferocity of life she's already had to weather during her entire childhood. Tinyade’s story, like that of many other Malawians’, is embroiled in the many development failures that the four presidential figures her life has spanned, those of Bakili Muluzi, Bingu wa Mutharika, Joyce Banda and Peter Mutharika have been good at.
At the very core of her story, Tinyade was born in a poor family. In 1998, her family was one among 65.3% of Malawians living on less than the international poverty line of $1.90 a day. Both her parents were HIV positive and died when Tinyade was six years old in 2002, before they could acknowledge their HIV status and get tested in order to diligently take on the life-long commitment to Anti-Retroviral Treatment (ART). Tinyade was herself diagnosed HIV+ as a result of mother-to-child transmission although, with 26% of all antenatal patients in 1998 testing HIV+, her parents could have easily been identified and be made aware of the remedies they could have accessed before giving birth. Luckily, Tinyade’s grandmother, a naBanda, who assumed parenthood for her granddaughter, responded to advocacy messages by NGOs and quickly enrolled young Tinyade in an ART program at Bwaila Hospital.
As Tinyade completes her university education, her household has been pushed back into poverty as the poverty levels since 2010 have increased from 50.7% to 51.5%.
In spite of the odds against her from the outset, Tinyade’s grit got her through Muluzi’s shaky universal primary education. Her grandmother sold enough vegetables in Area 23 to fund her secondary education at Chipasula Secondary School. At The Polytechnic, a constituent college of the University of Malawi, Tinyade has had to endure the ridicule and stigmatization of fellow students because of her lipodystrophic appearance. Yet locating the AIDS Clinic at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (Queens) is her de facto mode of survival. Her looks shoo away young men although she secretly admits to hoarding strong feelings for a young engineering student. She may have to settle for spinster, for the rest of her life.
Predating the Vision, however, everything Muluzi was putting in place was wedging against it. A promise of shoes for every Malawian would hardly have ever aligned with the attainment of such a vision. Thanks to her wisdom, a naBanda was undented by Muluzi’s murmurs and maintained more down-to-earth commitment to her small horticultural business in Area 23. Despite the hopes that a tarmac road to Area 23 would someday ease her burdens of marketing her produce, which she vehemently voiced out when meeting the UNDP enumerators hired for the Vision 2020 Project earlier in 1998, she has come to terms with the fact that this road would not materialize. Instead, Mr. Muluzi’s presidency would be rife with misappropriation of government resources, a hemorrhage inherited by all his successors without open hearts. His departure from office itself was marred by a MK1.4 billion corruption scandal that got him in court for years following, and his vertebrae allegedly shaky. Subsequent political choices have disappointed, whether they parade several earned degrees like Peter Mutharika (who launched a Malata Subsidy) or not, like Joyce Banda (who, instead, promised a cow per family) a few years earlier. The Malawi Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (MPRSPs) and their successor series of Malawi Growth and Development Strategies quickly learned to mention the Vision 2020 only in word. The rest was and remains geared towards making political statements for the next election, such as inflated agricultural input subsidy budgets.
Even as Mr. Muluzi transitioned from the Targeted Inputs Program to the mainly Bingu-era Farm Input Subsidy Programme (FISP), aimed at giving a boost to people with limited means as Tinyade’s grandmother, the ills that accompanied the programme throughout TA Tsabango’s area, where she comes from, would manifest with a vengeance. The perennial corruption that characterized FISP’s distribution channels, the sub-optimal rationing of the inputs themselves and her weak capacity to use modern and productive farming methods meant starvation was not a stranger in Tinyade's young life. Today, the DPP government continues to promise her that she will receive more agricultural subsidies. Although her name’s always on the list, it’s not always that she gets to receive adequate “sabuside”.
Tinyade grew up witnessing the widening gaps in the opportunities and outcomes given to kids like her in comparison with her peers in primary and secondary school whose parents Mr. Muluzi and Mr. wa Mutharika were rehiring back into the civil service on contract bases. This translated into astronomical salaries for them that afforded them a life beyond the reaches of many in the Area 23/Chilinde/Kawale area. As the elite strata arose, the allocations for better quality education would dwindle to lower than the standards Kamuzu left behind in 1994 when Mr. Muluzi’s government stepped into Capital Hill. For others who aligned well with the powers that be mushroomed as contractors for goods and services for a government that had transformed in favor of quality and quantity compromises. Soon she would have to fetch her friends for playtime behind high opaque gates because their rising fortunes now required to be cordoned from the thousands of the less fortunate around them. For other friends, they would stop going to Chipasula Secondary School altogether as they were being shipped to Mount Sinai, Lilongwe Academy or Kaphuka Secondary School, all private schools believed to be miles ahead of the public schooling system at the time. The bonds that once bound their youthful selves would start to weaken. Their distances would widen.
Granted, life expectancy for Malawi has tremendously improved to 64.6 years in 2020, in major part due to improved AIDS medications. However, this applies to a child born in Malawi today. For Tinyade and her peers born in 1998, the only miracle that would keep them alive beyond the 45.6 year lifespan they were allocated at birth would be the hope that the ART she receives at Queens will continue to be made available in both quantities and qualities that are dignifying. It is not uncommon for Tinyade to read in the papers about government misallocation of finances every time Mr. Mutharika lays his hands on Global Fund money. But the state of major hospitals like Queens and Kamuzu Central Hospital (KCH) in Lilongwe has deteriorated so much and have been a regular part of Tinyade’s upbringing. In 2020, she must prepare to sleep on the cold floor of KCH every time a naBanda is admitted for high blood pressure, an ailment that’s on the rise among other non-communicable diseases in Malawi.
The economic woes and deteriorating social situations have not been kind to people like a naBanda who can’t afford medications readily available on a pharmacy counter. Beyond 2020, she will continue to feel the pangs of Cashgate, which will deprive her of the many public services (cue worsening electricity and water services) she would have needed as social security. The nail in the coffin was when she heard that many of the public services would likely suffer as the government was planning to build two stadia for football teams in Blantyre. But for many in her shoes, even the broken healthcare system remains their best bet, although Malawi’s government spends only 9% of its GDP on healthcare. In fact, it’s at times like these, when a naBanda courts the hospital to receive pills of Benazepril and Hydrochlorothiazide (Lotensin HCT), that kindle a spiritual flame, the closest to a God-fearing nation any citizen could sum up to. Perhaps this is what “God-fearing” has translated to from the postulates of our bold Vision 2020 statement.
A naBanda’s state of poverty translates immediately to Tinyade’s. Apart from the few successful people she recognizes on the radio, she can hardly measure up to the ideal role model for her ambitious granddaughter. But she must continue to toil to give her grandchild the best she can as she strives to live in a city that will always be unforgiving to her quotidian plight. Of course, she can’t buy land on the outskirts of the city because the intersection of her age, gender and female household head status always stand against her whenever she submits a loan application at any bank that would assist her to purchase her own land. The loan officer is unsure of recouping the bank's investment on her shack of a house in the event the monthly payments failed. So she must toil endlessly on the rented piece where her small horticultural garden locates.
In 2019, a naBanda and five million other Malawians just voted to usher in a new government. It was Tinyade’s first tripartite elections! They had wished this was it for their favorite candidate to come in and spin the wheel of fortune so the destitution their country has condemned them to could be thawed…somewhat. They have both seen the rise of youthful, fresh voices on the political scene in parties such as the United Transformation Movement. Or perhaps a real shot at the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) would be the answer. Perhaps. But they both were resolved it was not going to be the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that they believe has been tried, tested and failed. To their dismay, the dislocation to the democratic system a naBanda spent a good hour of her life with the enumerator in 1998 would come to life as the irregularities of the 21 May 2019 tripartite elections would emerge. Yes, Mr. Peter Mutharika made repeated promises to transform Malawi into Singapore, Europe or England, three geographies she has no idea about.
Yet, tomorrow or just a little later, the reality a naBanda faces is that the hooligans disguising themselves as protesters behind Timothy Mtambo’s Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) will have ravaged her vegetable garden, raising her budding veggies to oblivion in front of by-standing policemen.
Note: The characters depicted in this article are fictitious and have been employed to aid in the narration of Malawi's reality today.