November 12, 2004
The employment rate in Malawi is about 19%. That means that over 80% of the people in this country do not have jobs. The average Malawian exists on less than a dollar a day. Most of us blow that on a cup of coffee. Imagine if that were it for the day?
Just because people do not work for a company, does not mean that they do not work. Almost everyone in Malawi does something. Every inch of arable land is tilled and planted. Each family has a “garden.”They plant Maize (corn) and vegetables which hopefully will supply them with enough food for the entire year. On top of that, most people do something else as well. This country is full of entrepreneurs. If people have just a little bit of capital, they start a business.
For instance, Alfred’s wife, Margaret, recently started making some extra cash for the family. She walks several kilometers to the market and buys very ripe bananas, mashes them with sugar and spices, and uses them to fill corn cakes that she fries. They are sort of like banana donuts. She makes up a big batch and goes just outside our gate to the street and sits with her baby and sells them for 2 kwacha each (less than 2 cents.)
Her marketing plan takes into account rush hours. Hundreds of people walk in front of our house in early morning and late afternoon, so that is when she is out there selling. The rest of the day she does housework and takes care of the four children. She tells us that she sells out every day.
Everywhere you go you see little booths set up. People sell everything from cell phone covers to sugar cane, tomatoes, security locks, beach towels, ski caps, strawberries, surge protectors, enameled tin dishes, penny candy, flower pots, CDs, onions, baskets, clothing, eggs, etc. It is a sight to behold! There are some people who are much more aggressive salesmen. “Madame, you need some oranges today.”It is a statement not a question. Others, who are more mobile and have their wares in portable baskets, chase you down the street, “you take very nice carrots.”
We have learned how to say, “No, not today,”very firmly, but still, they persist. Some are desperate, and follow you as you walk away, “Please buy this book, so I can buy food today.”Others surround the car as you leave and hold their wares up to the window, “necklaces and leeches.”It is an art to extract your car without running them over. Actually, they know us in downtown Blantyre now, and so when we say, “No,”they have learned that we mean it and walk away. Even Heather and Brooke have become expert bargainers.
Other entrepreneurs set more elaborate shops. There are dozens of “chip”booths around the areas where people congregate. When it is time for the Secondary Schools to let out, you will see people with propane or charcoal burners frying up potatoes. The students get a healthy helping of French fries topped with a relish of cabbage and tomatoes for less than a quarter. Usually there are long lines of people cued to get the filling snack.
Another business venture that flourishes here is the “telephone bureau.”A shack of some kind is set up, and inside you will find a person with a phone or cell phone that you can pay to use. Most people can’t afford phones, and I have only seen one phone booth in Malawi, so these bureaus are very popular and profitable.
Some of these people’s lives depend on how much they sell and what prices they get. We have watched men load rickety bicycles with stacks of firewood (deforestation is a huge problem here) and push them for miles uphill in order to make a dollar. If a woman has a few extra mangoes from the tree beside her hut, she spreads out a cloth and sits beside the road to sell fruit. They know how to carve out a living creatively. Can you imagine what would happen if more of them had the opportunities that we do?