Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Bridging development gaps through community empowerment

By Richard Chirombo

The truth, that indigenous knowledge and common sense are commodities in which many Chikhwawa people are rich, was there for the taking. But nobody, not even those rich in it, was innovative enough to explore the opportunities that come with this bequest.

The cost, as expected, was high: the apparent lack of basic amenities, strengthened by a litany of unfulfilled expectations.

Not that Traditional Authorities Katunga, Mulilima, Chapananga, Ngabu and Lundu did not know or care about the status quo; that is why Katunga faults the two issues for limiting Chikhwawa people’s definition of ‘good life’ into a mere search for the basics.

“Poverty had become accepted as an inevitable feature of life. There are people who get satisfied leading simple lives that border on resource constraints,” he says.

Indeed, people have come to regard poverty part of the life system that deepening poverty levels have fallen under the same category as earthquakes, flash floods and bad weather- acts of providence, ancestral spirits or God.

It may just be now that these perceptions are changing, thanks partly to President Bingu wa Mutharka’s assertion that- despite the grim picture painted by United Nations Development Programme indices that rank Malawi among the world’s poorest nations- the country is, after all, richer in resources than the spirit of its own people.

The other reason for this mindset change could be the initiative by the Blantyre Synod Health and Development Commission (BSHDC), through its Church and Society arm, aimed at enhancing community participation and advocacy capacity in the quest for satisfactory public services.

Limbani Chipembere, BSHDC Programme Manager for Governance, says their intervention came after realizing that much of the poverty in Chikhwawa could be alleviated through attitude change.

“We realized that people have abundant resources coupled with a well-developed indigenous knowledge system that has been underutilized for a long time in Malawi. The problem was lack of skills on how to harness this knowledge and keep it up to date with latest world trends,” says Chipembere.

So hopeless was the situation that though people realized the dangers of growing millet in the face of non-existent market opportunities, underutilization of land in days that have come to be defined by climate change, the disenfranchising aspect of low prices, and neglect of community problems, they left such problems unresolved for over 46 years of independence.

Add this to the fact that one of the characters of the Chikhwawa people- the drinking of local brews, which turned millet into a cash spinner within the community- was changing fast in this age of bottled-and- packaged lives, the type of life that has relegated gourds to mere relics and historical, other than practical, ware.

Advancements in technology have left indigenous knowledge systems wanting, raising the need to ‘update’ its values. This update, Chipembere enthuses, includes turning local knowledge into a horse that will carry Malawians through the race of poverty to the finish line of prosperity.

“Malawi has a rich cultural heritage and impeccable local knowledge system that have neither been embraced nor improved. We have failed to utilise this resource and, as a result, lagged behind in many crucial areas of development,” he adds.

All these factors have forced the resourceful people of Malawi into the cold arms of self-resignation as they watch their efforts bear unproductive results. A good case in point is the cultivation of millet in Chikhwawa. Besides maize and cotton, farmers peg their hopes on large scale millet farming.

However, experience has shown that, though grown on a massive scale, the crop has left communities in the area of Paramount Chief Lundu poorer and disoriented due to the unavailability of lucrative markets. Farmers have adapted to this challenge by turning millet into a poultry feed and main ingredient in local brews.

Then, there is the issue of villagers from Chinkole in T/A Katunga’s area; they have spent the past 46 years leading subsistence lives, turning them into perpetual dependants of rain fed agriculture and victims of natural shocks. All these years, community members have failed to realize that continuing to farm as individuals when they lack such resources as organic fertilizers and modern machinery is a renewed attempt at hugging poverty.

This scenario, however, is different from the subjects of village headman Namila in T/A Mulilima’s area. Unlike their subsistence counterparts of Chinkole, Namila people have problems with maize surplus and abundance. Too much produce has not changed their fortunes but turned them into fair-trade cry babies.

But these problems are not restricted to farming. Public service delivery systems have their dark sides, too, as communities have come to learn from the experience of Kandeu Primary School in T/A Kasisi’s area. For years, parents and guardians felt so elated seeing their wards go to school, only to get disappointed with pupils’ immediate allergy to learning, a problem whose root was suspected to be witchcraft.

How, community members wanted to know, could children get so enthusiastic about enrolling at Kandeu primary school, only to develop cold feet immediately after? Through Kandeu Village Rights Committee (VRC), people discovered that the real reason was lack of school uniforms. Every time Kandeu pupils came into contact with pupils from other schools at district events, it was easy to trace the majority of them by dressing, or lack of it.

“It (lack of uniform) made them different from other pupils; It made their poverty more visible,” chips in village headman Kandeu.

A Parents-Teacher Association meeting revealed that most parents could not afford school uniform. In fact, it was discovered that some parents only bought school uniform for children in senior primary school classes.

But WARA, a Catholic Relief Services integrated community support programme, came in handy to provide school uniforms to needy pupils in T/A Kaisi’s area.

Chikhwawa District Education officials feel, however, that the Kandeu scenario is not common place, and that the district was not far from meeting Millennium Development Goals on increasing access to primary education. This is a feeling replicated by the subjects of Village headman Mpokonyola in T/A Katunga’s area: asked how they could tackle the problem of absenteeism, they are unanimous in settling for the Parents-Teachers’ Association problem solving set up.

They forget their own problems, though, in their quest to pick the speck in Kandeu’s eye. As consumers, Mpokonyola communities have been subjected to unfair trade practices whenever they go to buy goods and services at Dembo Market.

Some of the maize traders at Dembo are middlemen who work for Mozambican businessmen at a commission. For unknown reasons, apart from the apparent motivation to get quick returns, these Malawian traders have for years been selling substandard maize that, when processed into flour, turns bitter.

Community members confronted the unscrupulous traders to no avail: the traders acknowledged selling ‘bad’ maize but refused to withdraw it from the market. Even the words of village headman Mpokonyola bore no fruits as he reveals:

“The trader was still reluctant saying he was only an employee of a Mozambican trader. The owner of the business was later called and withdrew the commodity while admitting that it was, indeed, substandard. He finally brought good maize”.

Signs on the ground are that each Chikhwawa problem has a solution. In fact, community mobilisation and sensitization campaigns have already created strategic alliances that have evolved into a positive chain of reactions as citizens claim their right to development.

Since July 2009, Chikhwawa has mobilized 40 community based educators and 1,500 members of VRC- all these efforts in pursuit of Section 30 of the Republican Constitution, which guarantees the right to development irrespective of one’s status in society.

“So far, so good,” says group village headman Mbendelana of T/A Kasisi.

In 2009, his subjects realized that Chikhwawa Primary School lacked blocks, teachers and pupils’ toilets, desks, and headmaster’s office. On February 28, 2010, a meeting was held with MP for the area, at which people agreed to contact the British Department for International Development (DFID) for assistance.

“On April 16, 2010, the project, worth over K40 million, started with the construction of two self-contained teachers’ houses, four school blocks with two class rooms each, one head teacher’s office and eight toilets for teachers and pupils. Within three month, it was over,” says Mbendelana.

What inspired the chief was the level of community involvement. During one of the community members’ monitoring sessions, it was discovered that the door padlocks were of poor quality; community members quickly asked the contractor to fit good quality ones, and durable paddocks were soon purchased and fitted accordingly.

Communities surrounding Kalima Primary School in T/A Maseya also prevented a bad situation from getting worse. High absenteeism levels prompted them to call for a Teachers-Parent-Pupils meeting at which the pupils revealed that absenteeism was a reaction to corporal punishment meted by teachers.

These included severe beatings, orders to dig deeper-than-child height pit latrines or banishment from class. All these punishment forms violated the child’s right to education. People threatened to report the matter to the Primary Education Advisor but the teachers pleaded promised to change.

For three weeks, from early February 2010, VRC members monitored the situation and confirmed that the teachers had really changed.

Millet farming, too, has become lucrative as farmers have utilized the concept of collective bargaining to negotiate their way into produce supply opportunities; so have cotton farmers, though many still complain that they are still attached to exploitative companies through loans on farm inputs offered at the beginning of the planting season. Those who are not bound by exploitative contracts also face the problem of manipulated weighing machines.

But Davlin Chokazinga, Malawi Bureau of Standards (MBS) Director General warns: “Farmers and, indeed, consumers, should make sure that they buy from sellers with MBS certified equipment. Many farmers are losing a lot in income through manipulated scales. We have intensified sensitization meetings since April this year, and will not hesitate to bring perpetrators to book.”

Farmers have also come around the problem of cheating by forming cooperatives and associations. Propelled by the hope that it will be difficult to fool a dozen eyes, maize, sugarcane, and cotton farmers no longer sell their produce at the farmyard: this task has been designated for focal business points where the market forces of demand and supply dictate shelf prices.

On the community development front, trends have also changed as people take more responsibility. In T/A Ngabu’s area, for example, Constituency Development Funds meant for the construction of a school block were misappropriated and villagers are following up.

It is a success story arising from the jaws of self-defeat. Civil Society Organisations and development partners are there to oil the spirit of community involvement.

“It is a good thing when people start to demand development. It is their right and not privilege as some policymakers want us to believe,” says Chipembere.

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