The hungry season

I saw something amazing today:  a fast walking Malawian.  In my experience, Malawians have two speeds of pedestrian transportation, a slow walk and a quick jog.  There is, however, no fast-paced walking.  When exploring my neighborhood by foot, I frequently overtake and pass several Malawians.  Let it be stated for the record that I am 5’2” and have disproportionately short legs.  But I don’t believe in moseying along, especially when the hot sun is beating down and/or the clouds have opened to release a swift and torrential downpour.  Malawians, on the other hand, aren’t particularly bothered by either of these conditions.  As one of my interviewees told me this week, there is no such thing as “hurry” in Africa.

Imagine my surprise, then, when on my way home from the grocery store this morning, a woman walking ahead of me was actually walking as fast as I was!  I didn’t have to gauge the best place to pass her (the path ranges from very wide to a single lane), I didn’t have to determine if some sort of greeting was appropriate, and I didn’t have to feel like the awkward, fast-moving Westerner.  I don’t know who she was or where she was going, I don’t know if something was wrong or if she, too, is just a fast walker.  It reminded me, again, that though the patterns of life here are now familiar, Malawi still doesn’t feel like home.

Of course, this manifests itself in more obvious ways as well.  We’re into the “hungry season” here in Malawi, when farmers have planted their fields but don’t yet have a crop and when the maize and cash from last season have likely run out.  This is exacerbated by  faulty government crop estimates and/or maize distribution issues, and there are entire villages and towns here that are currently without any maize stocks.  When I was in Balaka on New Year’s Day, an American woman told us, “There is no food here.  The ADMARC depot is empty, and everyone is hungry.”  While I’m not sure if this particular situation has been resolved, it is a familiar story throughout the country.

I’m not a regular nsima consumer, so a shortage of maize meal doesn’t affect me directly.  I have noticed, however, an increase in the number of people who ask me for jobs, for handouts, and for “just 1000 kwacha, ma’am.”  Most of them start out polite, but become increasingly aggressive as I refuse to give them money.  (And, despite my fairly well-developed sense of white person guilt, I almost always refuse to give them money.)  It also becomes harder to gauge everyday interactions with strangers:  an American friend of mine recently thought he had made a new Malawian friend, only to be asked for money at the end of an hour-long interaction.  He did give the man a 1000 kwacha, only to be told that was not enough.  While I know all about the state of the economy here, I often can’t help but think if these otherwise able-bodied Malawians put half as much time and energy into perfecting another skill as they do into begging, they might be a lot better off.  It will be interesting to observe changing behavioral patterns as the season progresses.

On a technical note, my friend Elizabeth arrives from DC (via Joburg) later this afternoon, and we leave for South Africa on Thursday.  I’ll update as I can, but depending on internet access, blog activity may be sparse for the rest of January.  Stay tuned!


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4 Responses to “The hungry season”

  1. Nancy M Says:

    Wondering how long any snail mail variety birthday greetings will take to arrive in your hands. Yes, your picture did have the 4-H’er look to it! It looked like a winner from here. Thinking of you as we hear forecasts for a little more snow, ice, or combination thereof tomorrow. High today 42 in SWIA.

    Happy day after birthday greetings. The Middaughs

  2. jess Says:

    well this is a rather generalised depiction of ‘malawians’, some of who are richer than you and many who have never ‘begged’ in their life. but maybe you did not mean to sound so condescending about the pressure of poverty??

  3. amyinmalawi Says:

    Certainly, MANY Malawians are richer than I, but the assumption that I often face when walking down the street is that because I am white, I have money. You’ll notice that no where did I say anything about ALL Malawians; I merely noted a marked increase in a trend among my street-level interactions. And I stand by my comments that even the informal economy offers rewards to those who devote time to their craft. While I recognize the pressures of poverty are many, I don’t think that begging or giving money to beggars does anything to reduce systemic poverty. In short, there must be a better way. I hope that those more wealthy Malawians are working to help their fellow country(wo)men find such a way.

  4. ggdfvgbbrdgytyybvti Says:

    heyho say ho

    poor malawi !!!!



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