Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Back to Malawi -- Close-up Concerns

Dear Friends, Family and Onlookers,
It was in March that I last wrote to the blog. My apologies – a lot of stuff has been happening that probably isn’t of great interest to people. But I’m back in Malawi, and that’s pretty interesting to me. The interesting little tidbits, observations and anecdotes have been backing up. It’s a lot like getting behind sending a thank-you note – the longer you neglect to do it, the more difficult it is to finally make it happen.
I’ll use this short entry to tell you a little bit about what I’m doing here. I’m doing some very specialized training with 23 experienced reporters from various media (newspaper, radio, television, freelance), from various cities and from various news outlets. About a third of them attended one of my week-long classes in February. Another third attended a class that one of two other trainers hosted and the rest are attending their first training with the company that’s employing me.
They’re working on a project that’s very focused and it’s likely their final product will be on a website of some kind. I’ll certainly send you a link when they’re done. The training lasts until the end of next week, August 17th or so.
The one thing I’m doing differently this time is I’m encouraging (forcing) them to do their reporting from the bottom up. In Malawi, the journalists seem to have been focusing their attention on the president, the members of parliament and the ruling and opposition parties. The people about whom they write know how to get the attention of the journalists and, way too often, the government officials or party members get away with manipulating the always-ready-for-a-tip reporters.
For that reason, I instructed them this time to seek out Malawians who were at the bottom of the socio-economical hierarchy. It would be an overstatement – OK, an all out lie – to say that they were enthusiastic. In fact, a few of them displayed outright hostility (in spirit, at least) to anyone who begs for help or money.
On Monday and Tuesday of this week, the group hit the streets and talked to some of the most unfortunate of unfortunate in this, one of Africa’s poorest countries. The reporters returned from their missions with a new view of how people in their own country are living.
I don’t want to spoil the stories you’ll read in a couple of weeks, but here’s one of the stories that best tells the story:
A woman who has been crippled – unable to walk – her entire life spends every day of the week sitting on a Blantyre sidewalk begging for money. Like many of the other beggars the reporters interviewed, this woman takes in about $3.20 on a great day and no more than $.70 on a bad day. Of course, she can’t walk to get to “work” and she has no wheelchair or family members to help her. How does she get to her sidewalk workplace? She hires a couple of men to carry here there and back – every day. Here’s the grabber: on a bad day – a full day without a lunch break – she only makes enough money to pay the men who carry her to and from work.
There are other stories – many of them have common themes. The life expectancy of Malawians has been plunging over recent years (it’s now in the 30s) because, some believe, of AIDS, malaria, poor nutrition and poverty that keeps getting worse. The reporters have talked to numerous street urchins who had to leave school when both of their parents died. Many – most actually – of the poor people have tried to get loans so that they can open up their own businesses and work their way off the streets. Sometimes the loan is as small as $7 and it’s supposed to be enough to get them started in business. The bigger loans seem to be in the range of about $35. Many of the people the reporters encountered have a belief that God – or someone – will make life better for them. But it seems obvious that more people fall into the abyss of poverty each day.
Millions and millions of dollars shower in to the country every years – dollars that the donor nations, organizations and agencies believe will make things better.
But there’s corruption at every level – it touches absolutely everyone here.
Stay tuned for more when I get another break.
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