I’ve been neglecting my friends i Malawi lately. My new house, the start of the school year and my life here have kept me busy. After a few months of not being in contact I finally spoke this morning to my dear friend Kalirani. I have known this man fo 7 years. We met during my first trip to Malawi. He was the English tutor that summer and was truly the life of the party. He could always be found chatting or dancing or telling tales to entertain his colleagues. We weren’t close at the time but I loved his energy.
On my third visit to Malawi I needed a place to stay as my relationship with my previous host had fallen apart. It was suggested to me that Kalirani might be willing to host me. I felt awkward asking a man I barely knew if I could impose on his family for 9 weeks. I wasn’t even sure he remembered me. I couldn’t remember much about him but desperately needed to return to the orphan care and sort things out. After chatting for a few moments Kalirani quickly agreed to let me stay with them. He didn’t hesitate and didn’t even ask his wife. He assured me that Florence would welcome me happily. He was right. Upon arriving at their home that July Florence, whom I’d never met, welcomed me with a warm embrace. I quickly adopted this family as my own and have had a loving and close relationship with them since. That summer was filled with adventure and laughter with Kalirani always willing to show me the sites and share folktales, songs and dances.
While Kalirani was certainly the the fun-loving head of the household, Florence was the strong, steady backbone of the family. I have written about this amazing woman before. She is a grade 8 teacher with classes of almost 100 and the demands of marking, planning and implementing government initiatives with few resources. When I last stayed with them in 2011 she was studying for her secondary school certificate. She woke each morning at 3, studied for a few hours and then began to prepare the family breakfast and was clothes before heading off to work. In the afternoons she would prepare the evening meal, mend clothes, press clothes, clean the house, go the the mill, go to the market and do all other household chores required by Malawian women. She was the only woman in a house of 5 men. In the evenings she attended classes at the local secondary school. She did all of this with grace and a knd nature. I’ve never seen her get angry or upset.
Kalirani has just informed me that Florence has been diagnosed with cancer. She has had her uterus removed but has tumours in her pelvic region that cannot be removed. She is currently on the waiting list to be sent to South Africa or Kenya for treatment. Kaliran has no idea how long the waiting list is. She needs chemotherapy which doesn’t exist in Malawi. The government of Malawi will cover the cost of her treatment in another country when she gets to the top of the list, but I can only imagine the list is long and moving up it is a slow process. The cost of outside treatment is $18 500. More than most North Americans can afford and impossible for a Malawian to pay for on his own. Presently Florence is in a private hospital 4 hours from Kalirani. She is receiving some medicine and nursing care at a cost of $55 a day. Kalirani’s monthly salary is probably about $275. How can he possibly afford to keep her there?
I feel helpless and ashamed. I have been thinking of what kind of duvet to buy and whether I should change the colour in my bedroom while my closest friends in Malawi are facing a reality more frightening and painful than any I can imagine. I’ve seen the hospitals in Malawi. There is nothing about them that makes me think Florence will be ok. Cancer in Canada is terrifying and sad. Cancer in Malawi is beyond words. I sit here and write this and fixate on Florence’s warmth, gentle heart and patience (Kalirani can’t be easy to live with) and am filled with sadness that such an awful thing is happening to such a beautiful lady.
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.