The first few times I visited Malawi the local currency, the kwacha was valued at about 77 cents on a US dollar. This meant that 1 USD was about 130 kwacha. After President Bingu wa Mutharika drained Malawi of all of its US currency the kwacha was devalued. Suddenly the kwacha was worth about 35 cents meaning that 1 USD was now equal to about 270 kwacha. Recently I learned that the kwacha has further been devalued. 1 USD is now equal to 430 Malawi Kwacha. I suppose this would be ok if all aspects of the market were changing at the same rate. This is not the case.
Vendors are adhering to the new value of the kwacha. What once cost 100 MWK now costs 400. When I was in Malawi in 2012 100 MWK could buy a bunch of bananas, a newspaper, 4 minutes of talk time on a cell phone or 10 texts. Now that the currency has further devalued those things will cos 400 MWK Sadly the salaries of most employees have not changed. Their salaries remain at the rate of the kwacha before the first devaluation. Many of my friends earn about 60 000 MWK each month. With the kwacha at 77 cents US most Malawians were living hand to mouth with no savings. Many had second jobs or businesses on the side to make ends meet. Now that the kwacha has been so drastically devalued the people who were previously surviving from pay check to pay check are now really struggling.
I am in no way financially minded. I barely pay attention to the value of the Canadian dollar vs the US dollar. My bills are paid automatically from my bank account. Even with my financial ignorance I know that Malawi is on a fast track to disaster. People will once again suffer from starvation and the level of violence and illness will increase drastically. It seems that the current government is struggling to rectify the mistakes of the past and the citizens of malawi are paying the price.
Recently I was with a friend here in Toronto and I told him I was about to make a call to Malawi to speak to Mr. Mwakayoka. My friend saw that I was picking up my iPhone and asked, “Will you use Skype or FaceTime?”. This made me laugh but also made me think that if my friend thought this what might the average person think life is like in Malawi. This made me think of a time when I showed my dad a picture of a heavily loaded truck driving on a mountain road and he was surprised to see paved roads.
We often take for granted the technology, sanitation and infrastructure we have here. In fact, we often complain that it doesn’t suit our needs or we get upset when it breaks down. I was reminiscing with this friend about how I felt upon my return from working in Malawi for several months. Suddenly those things I’d found tedious became amazing. I would walk down my street and marvel that i was able to look around while I walked as opposed to watching my every step for fear of a giant hole or rock on the sidewalk. I was no longer bemoaning how boring my neighbourhood is but appreciating how clean and safe it is. We are truly lucky to live here.
So I just want to point out a few of the obvious luxuries we have that the average Malawian does not. Most Malawians do have a cell phone and few have landlines. None of my friends has a Smart Phone. Few know what one is. When I was last in Malawi I was able to use my iPhone as a smart phone. The cellular companies of which there are two, have data plans. At the time my data plan was 1GB of data for $25. Texts and calls were charged separately. This data plan seems reasonable right? For me it was but for the average person in Malawi it is outrageous. I pay our cooks a salary of about $25 a month. Azikiwe brings home a salary of about $250 a month and pays half of that in rent. A smart phone is a luxury most cannot afford. While I lived in Malawi I am told that a friend tried to Skype me but the network was so poor that I didn’t receive his calls. Many areas in Malawi have poor or no cellular network at all. Many also have no electricity so charging a phone is a big deal and the phone is used sparingly to conserve the battery life.
Most of us have at least one computer and one tablet in addition to our Smart Phones. I know only two Malawians who own a computer and those came from me. The cost of a laptop in Malawi is equal to about 4 months salary. Not only is it not an affordable luxury but Malawians rarely have time for luxuries. Every moment of a woman’s day in Malawi is spent on household cores and work outside of the home. Men have more free time but that is generally spent socializing or watching football.
Most of my Malawian friends have televisions and radios but not satellite dishes. Most get one or two channels from Malawi and surrounding countries. Often Malawian men will go to bars to watch Premier League football matches as they are not broadcast on local networks. Azikiwe does have a satellite dish and a free card which allows him to access news channels from France and Iran but these channels are inconsistent and might disappear without notice. There are no PVRs, no Netflix and no downloading of movies. In the market one can buy pirated DVDs for about $2. These are generally action movies, Nigerian or Chinese films or children’s anime.
A typical kitchen in Malawi consists of pots, pans, bowls a kettle and a hot plate. Many families have a deep freezer but few have refrigerators. None has an oven or a microwave. Dishes and clothing are generally washed by hand.
Bathing is done by heating large buckets of water on charcoal. These heated buckets of water are placed in a basin on the floor of a shower room. Cold water is added and bathing is doen by sponging oneself in a squatted position. That coveted rain shower head I want does not exist there.
I could go on but I think you understand and I hope you have a better appreciation of the comfortable life we live here. Go have a hot shower, grab a latte and watch a movie on Netflix. Embrace it but appreciate it.
I started Itatu in July 0f 2008. I have been proud of my work and honoured by the support I have received from all of you. It has been a very rewarding experience helping our girls and seeing them grow. My trips to Malawi have been full of adventure and learning. I wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything.
Over the past year things have changed with Itatu. Azikiwe, the manager, lives about 3 hours by public transport from the girls. He seems to have lost his motivation for helping facilitate communication between Itatu and myself. I guess I can’t blame him as it is quite a trek to get there once a month. He was doing a very good job of communicating when he lived in the same area as the orphan care but now I think the work is too much. He rarely calls or emails and has not followed through on agreed upon improvements to keep the orphan care running well. As a result of his apathy, I have become frustrated and have a feeling of helplessness. I’ve not made as many appeals for support.
As this year draws to a close I must admit that Itatu too will soon draw to a close. It is my hope that we can continue to support the girls until the end of their school year in June. At that time, Itatu as we know it will cease to exist. I hope to provide support for those families in greatest need by supplying food and household supplies or start-up funds for a small business. These goals will be reached only if I find we have enough money in our accounts.
If any of you are thinking of making a donation for the holiday season please know that it will be put to good use even though the orphan care centre will close at the end of the school year. I can guarantee the money will still go to the girls we have supported for the past 5 years. I have always been honest in my posts and will continue to be so until the end.