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.