Trapped in grinding poverty

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DILIGENT—Gift serves customers during lunch hour at the restaurant he works

As I neared my destination and surveyed the surroundings, I instantly recalled what Gift had said about his family.

“I come from the poorest family that ever existed in our country,” Gift had said the previous day, self-pity showing on his face as he spoke.

I heaved a sigh of relief when the compound Gift called his home finally came into view after travelling about four kilometres from the main road on a bumpy path using a bicycle taxi.

The compound consisted of four houses; three that had thatched roofs and another that stood out comparatively, roofed with corrugated iron sheets.

Dismounting from the bicycle, I announced my presence and a woman came out from a thatched house. When I asked her if she was the person answering to the name I mentioned, she froze with fright.

The woman did not answer for a while; obviously wondering if the unannounced visitors were not criminals who had gone to her home with ill intentions.

It was only after I had introduced myself and told her I was the person she had spoken to on the phone the previous day promising to pay her a visit, that she responded “yes, I am Dorothy”.

The woman, now completely at ease, went into another thatched house nearby and came out with a reed mat which she laid in the verandah before inviting us to sit down. And the interview began.

The woman told of her struggles to feed, clothe and educate her five children single-handedly amid indescribable poverty in which her household has been trapped for years.

Various programmes aimed at reducing the country’s widespread poverty have been introduced in independent Malawi, yet it seems the initiatives have not benefited Dorothy Potifa and her family.

Potifa, 45, from Mwachilolo Village in Traditional Authority Kalumbu in Lilongwe, is simply the epitome of living below the poverty line.

Malawi is rated as one of the world’s poorest countries with more than half of its estimated 17 million plus population living below the poverty line of less than $1.25 a day.

Although the country has been able to achieve economic growth since independence from Britain nearly 54 years ago with the help of its development partners, poverty remains widespread.

Even when the country’s inflation rate is said to be declining, falling to a single digit in 2017 compared to 22.8 per cent in August 2016, rural poverty persists with one in two still poor.

Potifa, who is providing for her five children on her own as she and her husband are on separation, said she had been trapped in grinding poverty for as long as she could remember.

“My parents struggled to provide for the family and that was the reason I stopped learning while in primary school. The poverty never left me even after I got married,” she said.

Potifa, who reverted to her family name after she separated from her husband who she alleges is a drunk and never cares about supporting their children, said hers was the poorest family in Malawi.

She said she and her children were forced to perform menial jobs, mostly working in other people’s gardens and receiving meagre payments just to survive.

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“We are at the mercy of the people we work for and accept any amount of money given. People often talk about poverty but few know what it feels to be poor. I have been feeling it all my life,” Potifa said.

And to hammer home what she was saying, she led me inside her house and pointed at what she considered to be her earthly possessions: a sack and some articles of clothing that hang on the wall.

“My two daughters and I sleep on the sack spread on the floor. We use wraparounds as bed sheets since we are too poor to afford proper bedding. The other thatched house is for my three sons,” Potifa said.

As a result of their seemingly unending poverty, it is no surprise that Potifa struggles to put food on the table and the family more often than not skips important meals, sometimes eating only once a day.

“We eat when we have maize flour. When there is no maize flour, we go to bed on empty stomachs. As for breakfast, we consider it a luxury we cannot afford,” she said.

People in rural areas in the world are far more likely than in urban areas to be multi-dimensionally poor, according to a United Nations Development Programme Human Development Report of 2016.

The World Bank, one of Malawi’s major development partners, attributes the country’s continued rural poverty to volatile economic growth of the agriculture sector and high population growth, among other factors.

To reduce poverty, the bank says there is need for the country to manage its population growth and recommends expanding female secondary education.

The World Bank also recommends that poor adolescents should have access to family planning to reduce child marriage and early childbearing.

Women in Malawi with secondary education have low levels of fertility at 3.6 births per woman compared with 6.9 for those with no education or incomplete primary education such as Potifa.

Potifa mostly blames her husband for her family’s hardship, saying were he responsible and cared for his family even as a drunk, things would not have been so bad.

“I have been the one supporting the family from the time we married. When our first child Gift went to secondary school, I told my husband to find fees but he said there was nothing he could do,” Potifa said.

“Yet he would do odd jobs and spend the money he got on beer. To raise money for Gift’s fees, I had to toil in people’s gardens while my son sold chickens that he reared.”

Since Potifa’s culture practices matrilineal system of marriage – meaning that a husband lives at the home of his wife – her husband left for his home village after they separated.

I had travelled to the village to meet Gift’s mother after hearing about the child and how he was struggling to raise university fees, having been selected to the University of Malawi’s The Polytechnic.

Gift, who will pursue a Bachelor of Science Degree course in Physical Planning offers a glimmer of hope to his impoverished family.

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I first met the 21-year-old at a modest but popular restaurant around Kapiri in the city of Lilongwe where he is employed, doubling as a waiter and also looking after its finances and small staff.

The soft-spoken Gift recounted during the interview the difficulties he was going through in his pursuit of education, praising his mother for defying all odds to ensure that her children went to school.

“I come from what I think is the poorest family in this country,” he told me, on the verge of tears. “And knowing what it feels like to grow up in such extremity, I owe my mother a huge debt of gratitude.”

Gift said he and his siblings all started schooling under difficult circumstances, with his mother struggling to raise school fees and provide basics for the household even when their father was around.

“She would work tirelessly in people’s gardens and use the little money she earned to pay our school fees and buy essential items the household needed while my father busied himself drinking,” he said.

“Whenever I asked for school fees from my father, he would say ‘wait’ but when he had money, he would spend it on beer. That is the reason our mother decided to be on separation.”

As Gift was completing his education at Mitundu Secondary School in Lilongwe in 2016, his younger brother called Gonex was selected to the same school. It was cause for both joy and worry to the family.

“We were happy my brother had been selected but we were also worried because we did not know where our mother would get money to pay his fees, having struggled to keep me in school,” Gift said.

It then occurred to Potifa that she had to go to the school to explain her predicament, in the hope that the school would pity her and help find a solution to the problem about her son’s fees.

The head teacher was reportedly moved by the plight of the family and told Potifa her son would stay in school. He then telephoned someone asking if they would come to the rescue of a needy child.

“We do not know who that person is the head teacher phoned but a Good Samaritan has been paying for my brother’s school fees to this day,” Gift said. “But we are equally grateful to the head teacher.”

When Gift heard that he had been selected to university, he was overwhelmed by joy for a moment before the thought of where he would get fees for his tertiary education began to worry him.

“I started growing vegetables for sale to raise fees but when it dawned on me that the money would not be enough to meet the huge cost of college education, I decided to look for a job,” he said.

As luck would have it, Gift got a job at an eatery in the city after the proprietor learnt about his poor background. The owner not only employed him but also accommodated him gratis at her home.

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That was after Gift’s mother went to Mitundu Secondary School on visitors’ day and met a woman from Lilongwe City who had also gone there to see her son who happened to be close friends with Gonex.

As they chatted, the woman from the city heard of Potifa’s problems and asked her if she had other children at school. She was told about Gift and how he was struggling to raise his college fees.

“The woman wondered if growing vegetables would enable me to raise enough money to pay for my university fees. My mother then asked her to help find a job for me,” Gift recalled.

“The woman said she would try and they exchanged contact phone numbers. The woman said she was contemplating opening a restaurant in the city and would call should her plans materialize.”

The woman brought her plans to fruition late last year and made good her promise. She telephoned Gift to go and start work as waiter and cashier at her restaurant at the bustling Kapiri Trading Centre.

“I am at a loss for words how to thank her,” Gift said of the owner of the restaurant, who is married and a journalist by profession. “She and her husband have been extremely supportive of my family.”

“It is rare to see people who are as kindhearted as this family in these days of economic hardship who can accommodate and feed a person in need like myself at no cost. God bless the couple.”

Last year, Gift received a K600,000 loan from the higher education students’ loan board for his college tuition fees. However, he says he still needs money to cater for his other needs at school.

“I need money for accommodation and food. The money from my job will just enable me to buy clothes and also help my family. I therefore appeal for assistance from any well-wisher,” Gift said.

As I was interviewing Potifa, her aging mother Anakwenda sat near her, nodding in agreement to everything her daughter said about the grinding poverty in which they had been trapped for years.

“It’s true. We have been poor all our lives,” said Anakwenda, who is in her late 60s, looking tired and dejected. “We perform small odd jobs to survive. It as if we were condemned to live miserable lives.”

Potifa said she was now in poor health because of working hard to educate and provide for her children, and that doctors had advised her against overworking.

“I am now a sick person. Doctors have told me that I should not overwork myself. But if I stop working, who will provide for my children?” said Dorothy.

She said: “The fact that I quit school in Standard Three for lack of fees does not mean my children should suffer the same fate. I don’t mind remaining poor but my children should see a change in their lives.

”And I believe it is only education that can bring about the much-needed change, even if the change comes after I am gone to the next world.”

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