It’s around 4:30 a.m. and still pitch black as I arrive at the bus station in downtown Lilongwe. At this hour, this is a key center of distribution for Malawi’s fishing industry.
Waist-high heaps of fish transported overnight from Lake Malawi lay on tarps spread out beyond the length of a football field, at least as far as I can see in the darkness. Small fires flicker dim light for thousands of men hustling after their livelihoods. Some drag bags larger (and much heavier) than their bodies, sprinting to keep up their momentum until they arrive at an empty slab of tarp where they can pour out their bounty.
This is far from a mechanized industry. Instead, productivity is fueled only by sweat and desire. There are sellers and buyers of all kinds sorting through the piles with nothing but buckets, small flashlights and squinted eyes. Negotiations take place in Chichewa and other local languages.
This scene flies in the face of the popular foreign narrative of African men lounging lazily under the acacia tree all day. Still, by many World Bank metrics, it can be argued that Malawi is the poorest country in the world with a per-capita GDP stuck around a staggering $250 USD, well under a dollar a day.
No, laziness is not the primary culprit here. Instead, Malawi’s poverty has much more to do with neglect of long-term thinking. Most obvious is Malawi’s homogenous agriculture industry — which, despite its great potential, is dominated by a terribly disproportionate concentration on maize. This is the nation’s only real staple crop on which 90 percent of the country depends for subsistence farming. The past year’s drought left maize fields withered and un-harvested across the country, with little to reap in its place.
The fishing industry is arguably Malawi’s second most important sector, providing its primary source of protein, contributing to the livelihoods of more than 1.6 million people, and even generating some export business for a nation that depends desperately on foreign aid.
As I learned on a visit to the Mangochi District, one of Lake Malawi’s major fishing regions, the industry also serves as a striking example of the short-term thinking that plagues the nation’s economy. As a 2012 report indicated, Malawi is losing $28 million worth of fishery resources each year due to overfishing. Exacerbating this problem is Malawi’s rapidly growing population, which has doubled over the past 25 years. In the same period, the total fish supply has fallen by more than 20 percent.
Strolling through fishing villages along the lakeside at midday, I noticed an alarming number of young children debarking from boats, not school.
Later on, I met with Joseph Makwakwa, a former boat builder from the shores of Lake Malawi. He started a project aimed at building cages designed for sustainable aquaculture and employs 45 people from the community to execute the project.
However, understanding that his community suffers deeper issues, Makwakwa is resolved to tackle the roots of his country’s problems. Drawing upon his own money and spare time, he founded a nonprofit called CISER (Community Initiative for Self Reliance). “We are empowering communities to take charge of their own development,” Makwakwa explained. “We know that knowledge is power, so we start with education.
His community of Mangochi suffers from the highest secondary school dropout rate in the country – an issue largely and paradoxically fueled by the region’s wealth of natural resources. “Families here don’t understand the long-term value of education,” Makwakwa elaborated. “Instead, they only see opportunity for their children to make a little money today by fishing and selling things to tourists. Sending your 6-year-old boy to the lake instead of school means a few more fish in your net or coins in your pocket at the end of the day.” As a result, as they grow older, many young uneducated men leave for South Africa for the chance at unskilled work when they are unable to build a life and support a family in Mangochi.
But this problem is not exclusive to boys. As Makwakwa explained, young girls are also sent to the lake at the end of the day, only for a different reason — to offer sex in exchange for fish. “As a result of what we call ‘fish for sex,’ along with social pressure to marry early among Islamic families, we have many teenage mothers, as young as 12 years old.” Makwakwa proceeded to reel off a list of staggering statistics, ranking Mangochi at the bottom of all districts in Malawi: a 21 percent HIV rate, a 34 percent literacy rate, a 14.2 percent teenage pregnancy rate, and an average of 7.2 children per woman. “The culture here says the woman is basically worthless, so many young girls are married off to men living elsewhere who have multiple families.” With a population comprised of so many young, uneducated mothers, it’s no wonder so many children are pulled from the classrooms in pursuit of shortsighted gain.
CISER seeks to tackle these underlying issues with a diversified arsenal of programs. It all started with a small library to provide books, along with an after-school program available to local primary and secondary students. Recognizing the financial constraints that hamper many local youth, CISER developed a sponsorship program to support vulnerable children. The program now supports 24 students who are enrolled in both secondary school and local universities. The next big project is CISER’s recently completed secondary school, set to open and enroll 160 students in August.
But the core engine of the organization’s anticipated future impact is its newly formed Youth Group, an idea initiated by youth who were already involved with CISER. This special group of more than 50 young people has pooled together its collective talent to focus on disseminating critical messages related HIV awareness, teenage pregnancy, and youth education at well-promoted community gatherings and via a variety of artistic media spanning music, drama, poetry, traditional dance and visual art. According to Chilu Chikolera, the youth group’s leader, “People our age are much more likely to listen to a message if it’s coming from those they can relate to in a way that interests them.”
Makwakwa raved about the limitless capabilities of his dynamic and driven youth group. “We want the youth themselves to build the models and take these messages to their community.” The youth group’s most recent event reached an audience of more than 250 people. Channeling the youth group’s energy and ambition, CISER also launched a vast array of community-empowerment programs, ranging from planting an organic community garden and greenhouse, to installing 3,300 wood-burning stoves in local homes, to training beach village committees about the importance of sustainable fishing.
Leveraging Mangochi’s unique positioning as a tourist getaway along the sandy shores of Lake Malawi, CISER also offers cultural tours through its partnership with the Responsible Safari Co — a local tour operator specializing in sustainable, educational, philanthropic and experiential travel to Malawi. This partnership sparked new relationships that have contributed significantly to CISER’s development through both skilled volunteer work and funding support, Makwakwa said.
Toward the end of our visit, I asked Makwakwa about his longer-term vision for CISER and his country. “I believe these young people will become future leaders in our country. They will use their energy, education and skills to create a more diversified and sustainable economy for our future.”
Image credits: CISER