Only four other countries in the world are poorer than Malawi, according to World Bank data, but they are all riven by conflict and violence, writes Susan Dalgety
Yet another survey, published in USA Today earlier this week, puts Malawi in the top five of the world’s poorest countries.
Using data gleaned from the World Bank, the research shows that only four countries are worse off: Niger, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi and the poorest country of them all, the Central African Republic (CAR).
But they are all riven by conflict and violence, whereas Malawi is, and always has been, peaceful. The recent tension over the May election result, which has seen regular demonstrations by opposition parties and civil society, may have resulted in a few smashed windows, but is nothing compared to the slaughter seen regularly in the villages of CAR or DRC, where people are butchered because of their faith or ethnicity.
Sitting in Lilongwe’s Gateway Mall, sipping on freshly ground Mzuzu coffee served in contemporary copper cafetieres, while watching smartly dressed shoppers peruse smart-screen TVs and sectional sofas in Blockbusters Mega Store, it is easy to dismiss such surveys as scaremongering, or just plain wrong.
The South African-owned supermarkets groan with produce, from imported fruit to extra-large bars of Dairy Milk. There is always a long queue at each of the half dozen ATMs scattered across the mall, and the car park is full of shiny 4x4s and imported Japanese cars. Spend any time here and you could be lulled into thinking Malawi was, at the very least, a middle-income country.
But the prosperity on show at the mall is as fake as the copper on the cafetiere in front of me. Malawi published its 2018 Census last month, and it paints a stark picture of everyday struggle.
Only three per cent of the 18 million population have a flush toilet, with only a third able to enjoy a good night’s sleep on a mattress. The rest sleep on the floor of their village home.
The overwhelming majority of people (95 per cent) rely on firewood or charcoal to cook their daily meal and only a tiny number of homes (six per cent) have a fridge or electric cooker. And as many people own an ox cart as drive a car.
However, there is one statistic that shows, that while Malawi’s farming-based economy is largely unchanged since the 1800s, its people are firmly in the 21st century. More than half the population have a mobile phone (52 per cent), with ownership rising to two-thirds in the Northern region.
Malawi’s culture is an oral one. People love nothing better than telling stories, whether over a bottle of green (Carlsberg lager) or after a family meal. And cheap mobile phones offer Malawians a platform to stay in constant touch with each other.
Every village has a small shop where you can charge your mobile phone for a few kwacha, and phone masts, which provide better 4G coverage than can be found in many parts of rural Scotland, pepper the landscape.
Digital technology holds no fear for Malawians. While most people still believe in witchcraft and the power of traditional medicine, they also worship WhatsApp and Facebook.
But social media will not feed Malawi’s millions of children – more than half the population is under 18 – or transform its economy from one based on subsistence farming to one robust enough withstand the future shocks of climate change and population growth.
“Malawi is hugely dependent on agriculture, as a country we have not thought enough of other areas,” says Wesley, a successful defence lawyer.
“What would your priority be if you were President?” I ask him, only half-joking.
He answers immediately, with confidence and conviction, reminding me of another young lawyer who once believed in the power of education.
“Everything comes down to the issue of education,” declares Wesley. “It is extremely important. If you are educated, you can think of creative ways of not just surviving, but of prospering, without the need to rely solely on farming.”
He pauses for a moment, then with the surety of a man used to winning arguments in court, continues his argument.
“Our challenge is not population growth, it is that our growing population is mostly illiterate, not well educated. Even if the population increases to 30 million, or more, if you have productive citizens, that population increment is manageable. Look at China, it has a population of 1.4 billion, but most of them are productive.
“If you invest heavily in education instead of say agricultural subsidies, you will create a more sustainable future. But politicians will not make that decision, they want instant votes. It takes too long to educate a country.”
He ends with a flourish. “Our national priority should be education. I am here now because my father went to school. And because my grandmother’s grandfather, the first Wesley, was also educated.”
He stops and scrolls through his Samsung smartphone. “Look,” he says showing me a grainy black and white image of a proud Malawian, dressed rather incongruously in a blazer and shorts, standing next to an even more incongruous white man in a pith helmet and safari suit.
“He was one of the few Malawians who could speak English in those days, so he was the interpreter for the colonial bosses, and he passed on our love of education.”
Wesley is determined that his seven-month old son, the sixth-generation Wesley, will get the best education he can buy. “I went to a government secondary school, it wasn’t the best, but I worked hard and got into university,” he explains, “but these days the government schools are terrible. I can afford to pay for his education. Most Malawians cannot.”
And therein lies the real challenge laid bare by the Census and the USA Today survey. The cost of educating Malawi’s nine million children and young people far exceeds the government’s revenue base.
Donors do their best. The UK’s Department of International Development currently invests over £50 million in education, so that “more Malawians have the foundation and skills to fulfil their potential and contribute towards national development”.
The Scottish Government funds NGOs such as Mary’s Meals, to provide free school meals to help keep children in education.
And small charities, such as the Mamie Martin Fund, pay the school fees for over 100 girls so that they can get a secondary education.
But if Malawi is to escape the poverty that saps the spirit of so many of its citizens, its education sector will require long-term, significant investment. And who is going to fund that?