I shall call him John. He is a celebrity in our life and a new found friend. He is our guide in our new country away from South Africa, he is our gardener, our friend, our hero, our teacher. His willingness to teach us about Malawi, its culture, its fauna and flora and the local language, makes us want to share his voice with you. He does not have a multi-million dollar bank account or a flashy repertoire of books, perfumes and movies, but he shares the warm heart of Africa with us every day as we glean from his knowledge of life and culture in Malawi.
He does not speak English in a clear and understandable way, so I edited his telling into understandable English, staying true to his heart.
What is it like, living in Malawi as a Malawian citizen?
Difficult. There are many problems in Malawi. School fees, housing and food.
If you talk about school fees, what do you mean?
When I was young, school fees were very expensive. We wrote exams from standard 1 through to standard 8. We had to pay exam fees for every exam and school fees. Now it is better. We have to pay working fees also. Currently exams are written in the final year of school, which are standard 8. No school fees are payable from standard 1 right through to standard 8. Education is government sponsored until standard 8.
What do you mean by working fees?
We pay a working fee for when something needs to be fixed at the school. We go to the government and show them our plan. Then they ask what we are going to bring. If we want to build a class room, we must tell them we will bring the bricks and then they alongside us will provide the mortar. They don’t bring all the money, we must bring something too.
Is standard 8 the very last year of school for the children?
No, after the children pass their standard 8 exams, they proceed to form 1. From form 1, students are required to pay school fees and exam fees but it is very expensive and I am unable to send my children back to school to finish their education right up to form 4.
Is form 4 the last year of school?
Yes. Then the children can start their tertiary education at the University of Malawi.
Tell me about the other problems that you referred to earlier.
My family lives in a village outside of Lilongwe. The transport from the city to my family is very expensive. I have to pay MK 2000 (Malawian kwacha) one way to go home. My house does not have a proper roof on. It is not a good house for my family. I cannot afford to buy metal sheets to replace the grass roof.
Does the Malawian Government provide housing aid of any sort? Can they assist you financially to fix your house?
No. In the city you can apply for housing support, but not for the villages. I do not even want them to assist me. I want to stand on my own feet. But it is difficult. Since the devaluation of the kwacha last year, it is more difficult. My children have to walk about 2 kilometres to school every day. There is not a school closer to my home. I want them to have a good life. But it is difficult.
Why is the food also a problem? I see ample patches of maize that are planted everywhere around the city and in the rural areas. Is there still a shortage of food?
The people live off the land. When the harvest comes in, we live well. When the maize is still on the land, the people suffer. But not everybody can afford to buy the seed every year. Some people can buy seed only every third year and one year’s harvest is not enough to feed them for all that time. Meat is very expensive so we eat ‘nsima’ (ground maize porridge) only.
What is your favourite food?
‘Nsima’ with meat. And I like apples. But we cannot afford the meat.
Where do your wife and children live?
They live on my farm in the village. I plant maize, soya beans, ground nuts and beans there. She works the land because I live here in the city.
Do you sell any of the grain that she grows?
Yes, we sell the soya beans, ground nuts and beans. But we do not sell the maize. We store it up for our own food.
Do you have electricity at your house in the village? Or do you use fire?
We do not have electricity. We use fire or oil or candles for light and cooking.
Have you never considered buying solar panels for electricity at your house?
Yes, but I cannot afford to buy it. Only the wealthy have it on their houses. It is too expensive to buy.
How many children do you and your wife have?
We have 7 children. 3 children are finished with school and the last 4 are still busy with their school.
You said the first 3 that are finished with school, only completed standard 8?
Yes, I don’t have money to pay for more school.
Do you think other countries will be a better home for you and your family?
Yes, I hear that the people say that they find a job in the first week that they go to South Africa. They say there is a lot of work there in South Africa.
Do the Malawian people have a problem with the foreigners that come and work here in Malawi?
No. The Malawians have no problem with the foreigners. They are welcome.
I have heard that the Malawian people greet us like that when we tell them that we are from South Africa.
Yes, you are welcome in Malawi.