Friday, November 21, 2008

Sharing Poverty --Part 2

The song is powerful. It is philosophical, too.

Rich man, share the riches with the poor
Before they share the poverty with you
Man, share the riches with the poor
Before they share the poverty with you.

This song by Culture resonates well with umunthu philosophy which Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu likes to talk about: that you cannot be fully you if your neighbour is not fully himself or herself, meaning you cannot live a happy life and talk about balanced diet when your neighbour is sleeping on an empty stomach.

The world has enough for everyone, only if the resources were distributed each according to their need. The challenge, and it’s a real one, is that resources are distributed through chainstores, hence the poor cannot afford what they want while the rich can afford what they don’t need. The final danger is that if the rich do not share their riches, the poor share their poverty. Exactly what is happening in the world today.

How can the poor share their poverty with the rich in a world whose economy has been growing at about three percent every year? Of course, the economy of all countries—except Burma and Zimbabwe—has been growing. But the gap between the rich and the poor has also been growing. Here is how and why.

One reason, perhaps the main one, HIV remains a threat is sexual relationships outside marriage by both men and women married and single.

If people were faithful to themselves before marriage and faithful to their partner in marriage, we would not have been talking about HIV at the grand scale we do. But this is not as simple as it reads here. Poverty has sent hundreds of girls and women into prostitution. They earn a living from selling sex to men who can afford such temporary pleasures.

The girls and women have poverty and their bodies. The men and boys have money and lust for sex. The result is that the two sides share poverty. They do not share wealth.

This is how poverty is shared from the poor woman to the rich man. The woman, let us consider, has HIV and to make more money she sells herself for sex (and unprotected sex for more money, hence she is HIV positive). This status does not stop her from selling raw sex (let us use this term for unprotected sex). Thus she passes on the virus to more men.

Now let us take one man who catches the virus from such a sex worker. He passes on the virus to his wife. For whatever reason the couple does not test until the woman is pregnant and loses energy to the extent that the pregnancy is a cause for worry. The rest is history. It is still surprising that in this day some people do not accept their HIV status to benefit from antiretroviral therapy. They choose to die.

What next? The man dies—for whatever reasons, the man is often the first to die. Next the woman goes and leaves children without parents, without any idea about the sources of income the parents had, without a sense of direction for the future. And you know how orphans are suffering in Malawi and elsewhere.

A lady greeted me in Blantyre recently. I could not remember her, really but she greeted me with confidence. I stopped and asked who she was. This is becoming necessary, especially now when I have lectured (part-time) for four years at Chancellor College and one year at Polytechnic.

They maybe my former students, I tell myself always. She was not any of those I taught. We once stayed in the same neighbourhood in Chimwankhunda in Blantyre. She must have been young and I did not notice really someone growing up over 10 houses away.

What are you doing? I asked.
She said this and that, this and that, finally she realised she said nothing.

But she greeted me, so I had the right to know about a person who knew me. Thus I insisted to know about her. Then she told me a story, a long one and I was kind to listen to it. She married in 2005, upon falling pregnant. (I left Chimwankhunda in 2000.) She has a three-year-old girl now. The marriage is over. The girls is with its grandmother in a small house in Chimwankhunda. The mother of three I met is working in a bar in Lunzu. In short, this is a story about poverty.

Now you have money to buy beer or sex or both. You will get her one of these days and when you build trust in each other, you will begin to have unprotected sex. If she has HIV, you will be at risk of catching the virus.
Have you tried business? I asked.

Yes, she said. I was selling soap from Mozambique.

So, what happened to the business?

I lost the capital.


My daughter was sick and I blew up my capital on hospital expenses.

What else could she do? If she lost her capital (money), she has not lost all capital (her body). This is what she is selling now.

How much was the capital of your business? I asked.

I can do with anything between K4,000 and K6,000.

Would you go back into business if you had this capital?

Very much. Actually I want to raise some money but I am not sure this will be possible because I am getting very little.

We parted. But I kept on thinking about this experience. When children stretch their arms, asking for alms, are they really asking for alms or love? They ask for love, not money. We can avoid sharing the girls poverty if we give her K6,000 for her soap business. Just K6,000. I can afford that, but my money, in this modern world, is for myself. I cannot share it with the poor. The result is that they will share me their poverty.


Nkula in Blantyre is a source of two forms of power: hydro and charcoal. The two forms of power are competitors; they do not necessarily complement each other.

Nkula hydro-power station is one of three on Shire River. The other two being Tedzani, seven kilometres down the river from Nkula; and Kapichira in Majete Game Reserve in Chikwawa. The area around Nkula, or put clearly, the catchment area for Nkula, may loosely stretches from Blantyre to Mwanza.

Once, this catchment area was full of trees. Now it is growing bare. Charcoal makers are among major culprits. They are still cutting trees, even those that are not there.

The result is bad news for Escom’s Nkula Reservoir which has a volume of three and a half million cubic metres. The bad news is that half of the reservoir is taken by silt, one major problem haunting Escom. This silt comes from all over in the upper Shire River, even from Karonga and beyond. But most part of the silt comes from Nkula Reservoirs’s immediate catchment area.

While Escom struggles to remove the silt that takes up half the reservoir, people in Nkula and beyond, in the hills, struggle to make charcoal.

Both Escom and charcoal makers are serving the same customers—you and me, in Blantyre. We want electricity from Escom. We also want charcoal to help during blackouts. And because power goes out often, the demand for charcoal keeps on increasing, resulting into more trees being cut, and more soil being washed down into Nkula Reservoir.

It is a vicious cycle that seems unstoppable. Charcoal makers know they are harming Nkula catchment area and the environment. There are hundreds and hundreds of bags of charcoal coming into Blantyre everyday on bicycles and lorries and small cars, even saloons.

Davie Mpasu is a 21-year-old boy from Chapeta Village, T/A Mlauli in Neno. He is a guardian and breadwinner for himself and his two brothers—John 14 and George 17. Their father died in 2003 followed by their mother in 2005.

A whole world, recalls Davie, collapsed. Then, he was 18 and he had to care for his brothers. Yet he had nothing. He was just a typical Malawian first-born who inherited nothing—except land—from parents. It is common in Malawi. They had to start from a scratch. The immediate solution was charcoal making.

"Kupanga makala sikufuna, ndi kuzingwa. Making charcoal is not by choice. It’s out of desperation," says Davie. "If we had an alternative, we would jump on that."

Davie has not seen any charcoal maker whose life has improved. This is true. Mark Samson, 42, lives in Mchotseni Four Village where he has been making charcoal since 1986 but he remains as poor as he was 22 years ago; perhaps poorer. He has a small house of mud wall and a roof that leaks when it rains.

"This business is for mere survival," says Samson, shaking his head. Indeed. It is just bare existence. He had no shirt, his chest was bare. It was hot, of course. But does he have a shirt to wear at home?

Charcoal makers know they are doing a disservice to Malawi. But there is something strong and strange about poverty that makes people do what is bad for themselves and others. In a way, they share their poverty and all people become poor.

Poverty does not only attack pockets, it attacks the brain. What the charcoal makers need is not sale of their product but a redemption of their mind from the poverty that has attacked them.

Otherwise, charcoal makers don’t bother about electricity, so they share their darkness with everybody else because of siltation at Nkula Reservoir which results from soil erosion which, in the Nkula catchment area, comes from deforestation which mainly results from charcoal making using trees often cut carelessly.

We just need to help the charcoal makers find alternatives and manage the few that may remain in the business.


I can go on and on and on citing more areas in which the rich are failing to share their wealth with the poor and, as a result, the poor are sharing their poverty with the rich. This is an article still being written and it is long; perhaps it will turn into a book, perhaps a long essay, over 100 pages gathering dust on my shelf. Hopefully, it will come to a fullstop someday.

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