original blog written in 2012
There was a political rally in our town on Saturday evening. The President has been under pressure recently because of the difficult economic times and a number of civil society groups, many of them religious have stated that President Bingu should resign in 60 days or face a referendum on his office. He has said he will stay until 2014, when elections are next due. But apparently he is arresting his opponents and generally acting out. Apparently his first wife was from Zimbabwe and is the daughter of Robert Mugabe and he owns land in Zimbabwe. I asked a visiting business man if the country could go the way of that country and he said, no. Malawi is different and he didn’t feel that Bingu could get away with such things. Our impression is that it is much less extreme a place than Zimbabwe, or countries like Kenya or South Africa. There isn’t the same tribal tensions and the people here have a reputation of being fairly laid back and not tended to extremes.
But a local politician came in to eat yesterday before the rally in town. He was huge and he and his entourage chowed down on some serious food. He came in saying, “I want some big food”. We had a minister of the government also come in and he ate a massive breakfast – eggs, toast, sausages, red beans and other things too. He was also huge, waddling 20 feet from his room to the restaurant being enough to exhaust him. He seemed nice enough though and had a book on how to learn Chinese. We thought he was just getting ready for the invasion but was told he was married to a Chinese woman.
I was reading a book review of a book on a large slum in Mumbai called Annawadi. It is one of the many slums in the city which lie right next to rich people’s homes and new high rise 5 star hotels. The book is called Behind the Beautiful Flowers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo. The review is by Pankaj Mishra. The author used to work for the New York Times and managed to spend considerable time in Annawadi in order to write this book, in spite of opposition from local police and initial suspicion from its inhabitants. The reviewer begins by quoting from Primo Levi’s book, “The Drowned and the Saved”, in which he describes a “gray zone” in the relationship between the people in Auschwitz death camp. This describes the dehumanized condition, where faced by such horror and depravity and being treated so savagely, people then treat their fellow prisoners in a similar way and let go of any solidarity and basic humanity toward one another. The debasement becomes so complete that people forget what they have in common with one another and simply resort to instinctual survival impulses. I remember reading the book and how Levi said that although at any opportunity more benevolent impulses will reappear but only if the debasement is curtailed. The reviewer uses this analysis to describe the behavior of people living in Annawadi, where the direness of living circumstances gives license to a callousness and lack of regard of one’s fellow sufferers and where even benefitting from the suffering of another is justified. Social solidarity coming from a common experience is not the primary relationship. It is one of acceptance of the nature of suffering and the best one can do is avoid the worst of it, which by default means one of your neighbors is going to get it.
Many of us have read of the horrors of life in Indian slums, including infanticide, young girls dying “mysteriously”, women being murdered by their families so the man can remarry for another dowry, forced mutilation of children etc. This article describes similar scenarios and how well-off Indian society would prefer no one would mention these unfortunate details in “modern” India. It is one of the great conceits of India that it abhors any foreign criticism of its underclass, which are in their many millions and the social inequalities in the world’s “largest democracy”, which obviously has made little difference for many of its population. Democracy in India doesn’t really influence the lives of this huge underclass of the population. In other words, nothing really changes, in spite of impressive statistics that say that many of these very people living in such places have been taken off the “Official” poor list by the Indian government, a sign of success of the government policies of “economic liberalization.”
I often thought of India as the perfect capitalist country, in spite of a foundation of Nehru inspired socialist policies. It has no social welfare to speak of, it depends on millions and millions of small business owners, all striving and competing with one another. The government basically lets businesses run the way they want. Its economic activity is not centrally controlled. The ever growing military is the most centralized part of the government apparatus. Until recently, it has had precious few laws to protect workers, including child labor, which is still prevalent despite laws that do exist. Environmental laws controlling business practices are lax and mostly ignored and if someone is injured on the job, they mostly have very little say.
But this gray zone is something I can also see in Africa, a consequence of the collective story of poverty and perceived lack. I say perceived in that there is so much potential here and also that some people do very well indeed in Africa, but often those who do well are very good at keeping their wealth to themselves and it is clear that the majority have no chance of getting a piece of the pie. In Malawi, one of the poorer countries, most people don’t have cell phones, can’t afford a bicycle even or to get a local bus 30 kilometres away. They mostly don’t have electricity, and work on the land simply to survive. If they do have a phone, one call can cost 30 U.S. cents a minute, more expensive than in Europe or America. There are two main cell phone companies – Airtel and TNM and they seem able to extort money from poor people here. If you have a phone, you really need to have a two SIM card phone as calling from one company to another is prohibitively expensive, equivalent of about $10 a call. It is very frustrating to see these sorts of challenges as in other countries, fairly cheap cell phone charges are helping to change the economy of countries.
We were speaking to our friend Christopher who works here and has just had a child. He earns 9,000 kwatcha a month, about 50 dollars. Half goes to his family, leaving about 25 dollars. 8 dollars goes to buying maize flour for nsima, 4 dollars on sugar for tea, perhaps 2 dollars for soap and then some for fish and vegetables and he still has to buy clothes. And he has a job. Many in similar situations don’t even have that. To see so many people living such marginal lives and in a country where the land is so abundant and where land is cheap and most people can in theory build their own house (at least in parts of the country; the south of Malawi is much more congested than the north) is interesting to see. We found that strange. But his story is yet another example of the impact of poverty in the country.