Malawi Spring

By Dan Moshenberg

Did you hear about Malawi Spring? It started Wednesday, July 20. Thousands of people filled the streets of the capital Lilongwe, the commercial capital Blantyre, the northern city of Mzuzu, and elsewhere. Police are accused of having killed protesters, protesters are accused of having looted. According to the Western press, the streets are filled with riots, “anti-government” protesters, and eruptions of violence. The demonstrators are against the government, the police are against the protestors. But what are the protests for, and who are the protesters?

None of the reports mention women. In and of itself, this omission would be bad enough, but given that this particular `spring’, just like those in Egypt and Tunisia, concerns rising food and fuel costs, the absence is glaring. In Malawi, as elsewhere, women not only purchase and prepare food, they farm it.

So, where are the women of Malawi?

They’re farming. Women farmers, like Esnai Ngwira, are investing in new, environmentally appropriate and sustainable farming techniques. Ngwira, a 57-year-old farmer in Ekwendeni, northern Malawi, has been working with a program that builds social ecology in sustainable ways. Rather than using fertilizer, for example, Ngwira uses crop residue. She gets a better maize harvest, helps the soil, helps the earth. Esnai Ngwira is “a star innovator.”

Women are engaged in new projects in agroforestry, which not only provides their households with firewood and income, but opens their daily schedules for other endeavors.

Malawian women are at the forefront of struggles for land access and ownership. In Malawi something like 80 percent of the land is communally owned. And so women are organizing into groups that, as a group, control and benefit from land the women farmers either lease or own. Women, like Maggie Kathewera-Banda, of the Women’s Legal Resource Centre, are researching, organizing, engaging and empowering rural women. Researchers and farmers understand that access to land and to household bargaining means access to power.

Village women like Ethel James face polluted and fetid water where once it was clean. Infrastructures have collapsed. One borehole serves all of Kwilasha village in Machinga District, in southern Malawi. Women spend, or waste, whole mornings in pursuit of a single bucket of water. So, the women organize. They develop skills to fix the existent pipes and to lay new ones.

Women, like Tiwonge Gondwe, are health activists, feminists, movement builders. They take HIV and AIDS and turn the stigma on its head. They organize communities … across the country.

The stories could continue. Life in Malawi is hard. It’s a poor country, fuel and food prices are on the rise, the UK recently cut aid because of perceived mismanagement, the State is arrogating more and more power to itself. LGBTIQ people and communities are under attack. None of this should be minimized.

At the same time, a mass protest, perhaps the beginning of a next phase of engagement, perhaps not, does not occur in a vacuum. In Malawi, as in Egypt, as in Tunisia, as around the world, spring means harvest. Harvest, in Malawi, as across sub-Saharan Africa, means women farmers. Where are the women? Not in the news reports of the Malawi spring.



Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an Associate Professor at George Washington University.

  1. Not all of the women of Malawi are farming. Some are also protesting, though in smaller numbers than men.

    If you go beyond Western media accounts (which I strongly suggest you do), you'll see that the major Malawian daily, The Nation reported on female journalist Rabecca Chimjeka as having been injured by police yesterday:…

    Much as I'm annoyed with the press coverage on the event, I think this post contributes to a narrow report of the protests in not accurately portraying the sacrifices women are enduring to participate in this action for change.

  2. I think the press coverage has been deplorable and it feels as if the world is slowly waking up to the goings-on in Malawi a day late and more-than a dollar short. So 'Malawian women' are not the only omissions in the international reporting of the events. (By the way, strange choice of image to accompany your post – you mention the missing Malawian woman and you accompany that lament with a picture of Madonna and her daughters. Why?)

    I think you will find that the women of Malawi were very much (and remain) a distinct presence in this mass action. The power of the social network to bring people together and give them a single powerful voice has been reiterated these past few days. On the 20th of July when the independent radio stations had been silenced – Twitter and Facebook were ablaze with information, details and debates. Men AND women took the risk of voicing their demands, their desires, their hopes and their dreams. Malawians of all ages, gender and locations lent their support to those on the ground.

    I suspect that the fields were empty on the 20th and will remain so whilst we mourn the blood that has been shed and the lives that have been lost and look towards the future.

  3. Hie every one! am Philli Tembo the young man all the way from malawi, mzimba Euthini T/A Chindi in the village called ROBERT TEMBO VILLAGE. Am feeling very sad to see what is hapening in my country malawi. its very sad because malawi is apieceful country, and we have never seen this since before. And its very funy seeing people fighting for the politcs. So i just wanna say to all malawians who are doing this such kind of norsence thing. thanks to you all.

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