headlines from news in malawi

Children in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Malawi Experiences a Foreign Exchange Crisis

Arriving in Lilongwe, we pull up in John’s pick up to the International Permaculture Convergence and Conference- IPC9.  We get settled in, enjoy an incredibly tasty meal, and begin to connect with others who have arrived in Malawi to discuss the way forward with permaculture.  Staying at Kumbali Lodge & Cultural Village, we are secluded from the outside world, completely enveloped in conversation and presentations from permaculturalists around the world.  A few days into the week we hear word that Malawi is experiencing a fuel shortage because of a lack of foreign exchange to purchase it.  A few people take trips into town and return telling us that people are leaving their cars overnight in lines waiting to put in fuel.  Leaving Lilongwe at the end of the week, things seem to have temporarily normalized at the petrol stations and I travel north to Nkhata Bay.

Soldiers in DRC use health clinic as a front to kill nearly 40 civilians

News comes to me over airwaves in the dark bus as we travel the final stretch to Nkhata Bay on the north-ish shore of Malawi.  The bus is nearly empty with most passengers off the bus, probably home inside candle lit houses made of thatched roofs and fired earth bricks.  I lay across the seats in the back as the bus rattles on, enduring the passing of giardia through my system.  Giardia is a nasty parasite that gets into the human intestines and causes all sorts of havoc.  A man’s voice repeats the headlines through crackling speakers: Soldiers in DRC use health clinic as a front to kill nearly 40 civilians and Malawians smoke their ARV medications for recreation.

DRC is a dangerous place in Africa, much different than any countries I have visited so far.  The headline coming out of the distorted speakers is disturbing.  How low can people get?  Someone or some group has decided that it would be worthwhile to entice innocent people, people who may hold opposite opinions from you, or support an opposing political party, into a health clinic so as to kill them.  Health centers are where we go when we are sick, or as in the case of the people of DRC, malnourished, to receive food.  It is where people go to receive medicines to decrease our pains and discomforts, or simply to fill bellies.  To take a place like this and twist it into a place of killing is disgusting and disturbing.

People in the DRC are suffering.  Much of their economy is dependent on diamonds which, the BBC says, have decreased 33% in value over the past year.  Families who are supported by work in the diamond mines don’t grow their own food for the most part, and therefore are suffering malnutrition because of lack of money and know how to produce their own food. If a family grows its own food at home then at least they can eat if there is no money.  If people had permaculture gardens in the DRC they’d be doing better, I think.

Malawians smoke their ARV medications for recreation.

I am used to hearing only the most harrowing stories come from the news stations no matter where  I am.  It must be a characteristic of news; that whatever makes our stomachs the queasiest and souls ache with the most sadness is what will be on air, in print, and online.  That people are smoking ARVs to get high is another one of these stories.  ARVs are given to people with hiv and aids so that they can live fuller lives.  Instead of ingesting them for long term health, they are smoked to get quick relief from the pain.

After a week in Nkhata Bay, I ride the bus down to Salima and hitch a ride to Monkey Bay to stay for a night or two at the campsite Rob told me about while I was in Lilongwe.  In Monkey Bay I realize the fuel shortage has returned and this time more intensely.  Days go by when there is no fuel available at the stations.  Somedays there is petrol, but rarely there is diesel.  Buses stop running, as do matolas (same as combis).  No one is able to use the vehicles at Mufasa and the Dutch guys aren’t going anywhere anyway because of their run in with the law.

This photo is from Zimbabwe, but also shows the insecurity of fuel availability: YES is written at the bottom of the sign to indicate there is diesel and petrol available.

The story starts to come together from people talking around town and the newspapers, too.  From word of mouth I hear there is no foreign exchange because tourism has decreased this year and tourists aren’t bringing their dollars, euros, and pounds.  In the newspaper I read there is no foreign exchange because the government has paid for too much fertilizer to subsidize Malawi’s farmers.  The president has recently bought a private jet, but the shortage isn’t due to him because the jet hasn’t been fully paid for, say the papers.  Another explanation comes through that the shortage is due to the sales of tobacco this year and that Malawi’s imports are too high compared to its exports.

One of Malawi’s main exports is tobacco.  Due to the recession, people were only paying $1.00 to $2.71 per kilogram.  Imagine that!  Buying 2.2 pounds of tobacco for $1.00.  Think of how much a pack of cigarettes costs.  The tobacco grown in Malawi and Zimbabwe is smoked all around the world.  In Malawi the price was somewhere between $1-2 per pack.  I don’t know how much it cost to run a tobacco company and all the ins and outs of exporting and importing, but it sounds to me like higher ups in the tobacco industry are making bank.  I could be wrong.

Monkey Bay

However, since buyers were buying so low, Malawi lost a lot of money, in the form of foreign exchange.  It was no longer able to buy fuel which must be purchased with foreign exchange and not the Malawi kwatcha which is 150:1 USD.  Another issue that creates a condition for this situation is that Malawi is so dependent on tobacco  that it doesn’t have strong bargaining power when it comes to negotiating the price of tobacco.  If, for example, Malawi diversified its economy and had other crops in larger amounts for export such as coffee and tea, or exported value-added products, then they would have the ability to demand more for their tobacco because the stakes would not be so high.  (Please chime in with thoughts if feelin it or if you think i’m wrong if anyone’s out there- i swear it feels like writing into the void on a blog sometimes).  Without strong bargaining power, Malawi had no choice but to sell tobacco at a low price, which resulted in a shortage of forex this year.

No fuel means slower days and slower business.  Some people suffer during these days because they can’t make enough money to feed their families for these days. Imagine: these are people who must make less than 500 kwatcha each day (less than $3).  They don’t have cushions to fall back on, or bank accounts, or investments.  They exist within a network in which the total value of money exchanging hands is very low.  If they grow their own food or barter with neighbors then they are set in the daily eating department.  If not, a day without business means a day without food.  This went on for days.  As most things, it went in cycles.  It eased up for a few days, then puttered on a little while longer while people adapted and eventually, the situation improved.

Chicken sale in Monkey Bay.

The full story is hard to decipher, but what is clear to me is the interconnection of people around the world and the illusion of borders that keep us separate.  The global recession shows that we are all playing with the same pot of money and that most economies are interlinked and interdependent upon each other.  What happens within the offices of the mortgage lending companies in the United States affects the global economy in an indirect yet related way, for example, by impacting business in Malawi which is one of the smallest and poorest African countries.  Hundreds of people in the US who charge credit cards and plan to pay them off with next year’s bonuses that don’t come have an impact on the world economy.  Tourists from Australia having to tighten their budgets and not travel to Africa for a few months affects business in Malawi and other African countries.  Our world is one in which we are interconnected and actions taken in one part of the world ripple outwards and are received in the opposite hemisphere.

The proposition that we exist in a vacuum, independent of other nations and states is erroneous and you better listen between the lines of anyone who tries to tell you differently.  The underlying pattern of interdependence shows up in many ways, usually in phenomena that don’t respect the illusory borders people have drawn around physical territories.  For example, disease, climate change, and the economy.  As humans we construct artificial boundaries and then act as if they are permanent and that as long as we have enough security and defense then we will not be harmed by the “other.”  This is not the way reality works.  We can put up borders to keep the unpleasantness at bay, but one can’t in all honesty expect to be protected from rolling tides of unrest, disease, and natural disasters that will shake the foundations of these walls.

[personal disclaimer: I don’t guarantee that anything I write on this blog is a fact. I also admit that I can be wrong.  Please feel free to interact and comment.  I’m only writing opinions and how life happens from my point of view.  After all, this is a blog, and mostly about me and the view from myself.  Variety is the spice of life.  Exchange of opinions is both necessary and entertaining, in my humble opinion.]

3 Responses to “headlines from news in malawi”
  1. Eytan says:

    I think the interconnectedness also reaches out in other ways. The reach of computers world wide, for example, allows you to write in Africa, be picked up and read in the Americas, have a picture you took be published by the BBC in Europe, and have supporters from an organization that counts its village somewhere between black rock city and the global universe.
    An interesting read is Thomas Friedman’s “The World Is Flat” , which in essence talks about the emerging access everyone has to knowledge, and their ability to contribute and compete on a global scale as that reach extends into even the poorest villages. When you are “connected”, there is a lot of good as well as the negatives that come from it. We just have to be cognizant of how it all interacts.

  2. David Frierman says:

    Dear Prentiss, Of course your suspicions are correct. Predatory capitalism is about exploitation: the bottom line is king and “if we don’t do it someone else will” the rationalization. There are many books you can find to give you the actual data. And the corollary is: imperialism is in support of predatory capitalism and vise versa. That’s why America has “vital interests” everywhere, and why whenever a developed nation sets out to help an undeveloped nation, somehow the developed nation makes an enormous profit. You are a good person, and there are many good people. I know you feel we should work together for all the people of the world, especially for poor people. I do too. I don’t how much of a difference your permaculture project will make, but I truly believe it is as important a project as anything anyone else is doing. I know you are in the thick of it, where you actually see the bad news. Courage!

  3. No kidding. It’s a complex subject and reality, but I’m understanding more and more the ineffectiveness of so many NGOs that are using so much money for their own administration and have little effect on the communities they serve. It’s a constant struggle doing development work and I have respect for people involved in this line of work, but it is sometimes glaringly obvious the ineffectuality and the amount of money that goes straight back to the country from which it came. For example, oftentimes the US will give aid to a country, but all the products used must come from the states, and Americans are the ones who receive the contracts to carry out such work- this points to the developed nation making a profit when “serving” an undeveloped one. I saw one agency in Malawi whose employees drive the nicest new vehicles yet it’s a wonder what they are actually accomplishing. Honestly, I think it’s the nature of the work. And of course, the interests of developed countries. Personally, I think I rather not work in development unless I am actually living in that country. Then again if someone offered me a phat salary to live somewhere comfortable and do that work- and especially if I had few other options- I might take it. It’s sticky and leaves me feeling more than a bit queasy.

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