“I am just a farmer” and other anecdotes from Malawi

Its 2012 and I am attending a community workshop in Central Malawi. Our topic of discussion is community driven heritage conservation and community livelihoods around Chongoni World Heritage Rock Art Site. About 20 people are in attendance. It is time for the break and we all go out to have a chat and some refreshments. My colleague gets into a conversation with one of the participants and asks so, what do you do? To which he quickly responds “I am just a farmer”.

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My colleague quickly to points out  that farming is a very important undertaking and that he should be proud because farmers feed the world.  That conversation got me thinking.  How many of us respect or even think of where the food we eat comes from? Somebody has to grow it. And farming is HARD WORK, yet those who toil on the land so that we can eat do not get the respect they deserve not to mention fair compensation. So, how can we show our respect for farmers? How about by not wasting food? (which is a very serious global challenge).

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Photo Courtesy of http://www.thisisrubbish.org.uk/

How about by not being so fussy about if the tomato is perfectly round and without blemish? How about just thanking any farmer(s) you know?  How about not bargaining so much when you go to buy food? We are not willing to question the prices in the supermarket but the poor mama mboga/grocer  will have to wake up at 4am to go buy the stuff from wherever, transport it and then you come and say “niko na kobole”/”I only have 5 shillings” when you can actually afford the 10 bob/shillings you are being asked for. We (including me) need to stop that. : )

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Gule Wa Mukulu

One of the greatest joys of working in Malawi was the opportunity to see Gule wa Mukulu or the great dance performed by  members of the Nyau secret society. This is a tradition dating back to the 17th Century and that has somehow survived colonial and missionary assaults and I think it ought to be celebrated. It is great that it is recognized by UNESCO as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.

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The Chewa are the largest ethnic group in Malawi and are  matrilineal society.  Men are therefore not at the pinnacle of social organization and it is believed that the Nyau  created an opportunity to establish solidarity among the men. It is also a bridge between the present, the past and the future and is performed during initiation, marriage, funerals and other ceremonies. When not performed in a formal setting, the dancers wear masks (each of which represents something- ranging from wild animals, spirits, slave traders etc ) and move around the villages dancing and children enjoy making the Nyau dancer run after them by taunting them. I  was lucky to see one up close because one of the people with us could communicate with the Nyau using a secret code. He was a former member before he converted to Christianity. Sorry, the video is all shaky and even upside down – too much excitement!!!

Lake Malawi

Running the full length of the country this lake plays a vital role in the Malawian economy. I love lakes more than oceans or seas and I am on a mission to see and touch the waters of as many lakes as possible. Lake Malawi is spectacular and the Chambo/tilapia from this Lake is absolutely delicious.

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Lake Malawi
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Chambo/Tilapia
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Nsima – usually served with Chambo

Wood carving heritage

There is a great wood carving tradition in Malawi and you find lots of very high quality products of all sorts at various outlets.

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Malawi wood carvings – this is the backrest of a chair

The people of Malawi

One of the greatest things about Malawi however, is the warmth of the people. That is the one thing that will take me back to Malawi. Zikomo kwa mbiri to all the people of this great land. IMG_4535 IMG_4398 IMG_4374

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689,2128,0,1642,96,1024,997,995,1074,46829,0

Conversations with the Green Belt Movement community members in Kenya’s Aberdare Forest Reserve

The #Forests2015 Blog

Gloria Kendi Borona

In December, 2014 I had the great pleasure and joy to interact with and participate in tree planting activities with the Green belt Movement (GBM) at the Aberdare Forest Reserve in central Kenya. First, a few lines about the GBM. The GBM was created by Kenyan Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai in 1977 to respond to the needs of women who reported that they had to walk for longer distances to fetch water and firewood. Wangari Maathai’s response was “why don’t we plant trees?” and thus one of the greatest environmental movements on the African continent and beyond was established. Tree planting then became an entry point through which to address other related issues such as governance, social justice and community livelihoods.

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The Catholic Church is in some ways (?) a representation of the “Dung of the Devil”

Pope Francis referred to unbridled capitalism as the “Dung of the Devil”. He is right, but I would also argue that the institution he represents is in some ways the embodiment of this Dung of the Devil phenomena. Hear me out…..

So, I go to visit one of my friends and her family and as is tradition we all head to church on Sunday – Catholic Church. Kenya is a predominantly Christian nation. We get there at 11.00am and get on with mass. There are about 40-50 people all together. Then comes time for the sermon. Oh! before that the catechist barraged the congregation for  15 minutes and took them on a guilt trip about not sending their children for classes – I forget what they are called …Catechism? Anyway, back to the sermon. The priest spends a cool hour and a half lecturing the congregation on how they are not GIVING enough.

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He reminded them that the priest’s vestments/dresses that are mentioned in the bible were embroidered with gold. I can assure you that none of the people in that congregation has ever seen gold so I am struggling to find how this is relevant or even useful? He went on to remind all of us how everything in the church now is sub-standard. It sounded like it is the congregation’s fault that the church has had to “down grade”.  I thought the ministry of Jesus Christ was about humility and social justice and not oppression and exploitation. I look around and can see the irritation on the faces of some of the congregation, who by the way are predominantly women.  It is time for the offertory.

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People line up to go give encouraged by the choir who sings “God can see your heart and all that you have”.  Some give food or produce from their farms, some give maize flour, others give cash..(the priest had lamented that people only give coins which is inconveniencing because they have to go change it to get notes and it is heavy. Sigh!.. how do people develop this sense of entitlement?). It seems that giving whatever you have is no longer acceptable. People sell the last chicken they have and cut the last tree on the farm in order to get offering to give to the “men of God” so that God can bless them.

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I remain on the bench because I do not believe the priest deserves any of my money for that lackluster sermon/offensive lecture. I am of the opinion that the offering should be a reflection of the quality of this sermon i.e. the better, the more the offering. This one was somewhere below zero.  After the offertory, we proceed with the rest of the mass but at the end it, we are informed that there is a second collection/offertory. What? What is this one for? To support vocations at the Vatican. Oh yes. All the churches around the world are expected to contribute. The choir rises up to sing and a couple of people line up to contribute. The priest is not impressed by the turn out so he summons the chairman of the church to the front and asks him to talk to the people and explain to them how important this is.  In all honesty, when you look at some of the people who are being asked to contribute it is clear to see these are people who may not have had breakfast or three complete meals in the last couple of days. I sit there writhing in disgust.

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Now, having been to the Vatican a couple of years ago and seeing first-hand the amount of opulence there , it sickens and hurts me to hear the church extracting the very little from people that are really the most vulnerable members of society. It is the poor who sustain the church, it appears.  Isn’t this how unbridled capitalism works – the majority supporting the exponential growth of a few? How did the church get to wealthy? Why the church is still so wealthy given most of the followers are currently found in the global South?Catholics around the world. How much  idle land does the Catholic Church own in some countries where there are serious issues around landlessness?  I do like the pope. He seems like a honest and moral man but he is presiding over a predatory organization and one of the most vertically integrated capitalistic institutions in the world. Yes, the dung of the devil is littered all over the Vatican.

Gold lines ceilings of the Vatican
Gold lined ceilings of the Vatican

I know, I know, the church does good and all that but it also does bad. Extracting the very little that the poor have is a gross injustice.  Everybody seems to be very excited about the Pope’s encyclical on climate change. But what is the history of the Catholic Church? The church is built on the extermination of other forms of spirituality amongst all the colonized peoples of the world. Africans, for example were told their norms and practices were witchcraft, barbaric and evil, never mind that some of these practices were highly congruent with environmental conservation.

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Wangari Maathai writes about an interesting example in her memoir ‘Unbowed’. When she was growing up there was a fig tree near their home. Her mother told her that she was not allowed to fetch firewood from that tree because it was a tree of God.  Nearby that tree was a stream from which she would fetch water. She went for her studies abroad and when she came back she was appalled to find that the tree had been cut down and in its place a church constructed. The church had now become a “house of God”. The stream had also dried. In essence, a whole ecosystem was compromised.

We must appreciate that colonialism and Christianity were Siamese twins in Africa and in other places in the world, I believe. The colonial force relied on missionaries to conquer the people’s minds. Communities were told that it was the will of God to obey authority- never mind that that that authority comprised of all of your land being taken away and you being transformed into slaves on your own land! The church was used to weaken the Mau Mau/Guerilla movement that fought for independence in Kenya, using statements like “accept the blood of Jesus Christ and vomit the poison(oath) of the Mau Mau”.

The Mau Mau in Kenya Image courtesy of MauMauhistory.com
The Mau Mau in Kenya
Image courtesy of Mau Mauhistory.com

When we finally got home hungry and tired (at 3pm 😦 ) we engaged in a discussion and my  friend’s 14 year son quickly proclaimed that “that sermon was all about money”. If a 14 year old can see right through it, what is to be said? One of the adults around says “Ituranyamarirue ni abatiri baa”. This translates to – we have been completely oppressed by these priests.  The graveness of the despair gets lost in the translation.  This is just one example but it is a microcosm of what ails the church today.

The church has made Africans to believe that they are intellectually inferior and this has resulted into an unfortunate morale sapping inferiority complex and  a fatalistic attitude of leaving everything in the hands of God. In essence it has transformed us into cultural zombies. The pope recently apologized to the indigenous peoples of South America for the injustices of the church towards them. I will be watching to see if he will do the same when he visits Kenya. Although, I do not think an apology can help us recover what we have lost in terms of our cultural infrastructure. To be fair, there is a time when the church seemed to stand for social justice issues but it appears that those days are gone by.

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I am 100% sure that this will offend die hard Catholics or Christians but we must also question why it is perceived as almost criminal to question the church. If we question we only murmur about it amongst ourselves and head back to the same institution on Sunday for another dose of injustice.  I am of the view that the church should be up for scrutiny just like any other social institution. It needs to be accountable to the people. The church is one of the reasons why Africans cannot take pride in their cultural heritage and use that as stepping stone to fight for their self-determination and to fight against multiple forms of oppression(from within and without). Even politicians have learnt how to use the church to manipulate the people.

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We are hoping that we will get to heaven because  as scripture says we  should “store our treasure in heaven and not be concerned about the things of this world” then but in the meantime majority of the people continue to live in hellish conditions on earth. The truth of the matter is, no amount of prayers will help resolve the challenges that we face as a people. I will finish this by quoting Wangari Maathai “Surely, there is something wrong about a vision of a God, and a church, where healthy and able-bodied men and women are satisfied with being supported by congregants who are often desperately poor.”

I have got questions

I have got questions about how the world is structured. I find myself asking myself these kinds of questions;

  1. What is poverty? Who defines that? Is ignorance a form of poverty? If yes, why is it not talked about as much as economic poverty? (I mean the kind of ignorance that is manifested, for example, when you tell someone you are from Kenya and they ask you “Is that in A-F-R-I-C-A?”) :)!
  2. What is development? What does that entail? Is there a series of steps that you have to move through in order to be “developed” as a country? Can you skip some steps? Are there many ways through which “development” can be attained? How do you know if you have attained “development”? Is there some kind of “certification” you get?

IMG_79733. What is a developed country? Yes, who defines that? Can’t each country be developed in some aspects and underdeveloped in others?

4.If you are a “developed” country do you stop developing at some point or do you continue developing exponentially? How do you know when to stop (should that be desirable)?

Ruma pictures (1)5. Is there such a thing as an overdeveloped country? Is that a good thing for the planet?

6. Do we foresee a situation whereby all the countries in this world will be “developed”?

7. If yes, can the planet sustain this form of existence?

Suba project from Lorna 0818. Why is it that we normalize describing countries by their markers of disadvantage i.e. developing, low income, least developed countries?

9. Why is there so much inequality in this world and why does it keep getting worse?

10. Is there a way of “developing” without exploiting other people?

Malawi survey and documentation-April 2012(71)

 Answers and or thoughts or other questions  are very much welcome in the comments.