With the late Raphael Tenthani, the Blantyre-Lilongwe road trip always had to be
punctuated with a stopover, somewhere around Ntcheu, for ngumbi or mbewa or both, depending on availability. It just had to happen. One evening, we ran out of luck. Or so I thought.
Driving to Blantyre, we left Lilongwe quite late and by the time we got to Ntcheu, the
young boys and girls who would normally wave their goods to passer-by traffic had retreated to their homes. But Raphael, like a stubborn little child, wanted his fix and we had to look for it. So, in the thick of the night, we parked our car on the main road and started the search for ngumbi or mbewa or whichever was available.
In this territory some of your privilege fears show themselves and you are forced to confront that which you routinely pass by and ignore, the inconsequential. It is a space of abject poverty, indignity and utter humiliation. This is where the boys and girls who sell ngumbi and mbewa come from, in the depths of darkness. This is the so-called future of this country, pushed to the margins of the development highway, only for them to emerge on periphery holding the only source of income nature has bestowed on them.
In this space, certain things become pipe dreams–school, electricity, piped water and happiness. Yet, you meet a people who have given themselves a shot at dignity and destiny. They will not allow you to pity them. They speak of the great hopes they have, starting with seeking a chance at survival then, perhaps, a lucky break somehow. But, it’s a people who are not ashamed of themselves – their work and sense of community is their dignity.
On that night, watching Raphael navigate this space with relative ease, sensitivity and empathy showed me our capabilities as a nation. If we chose to, we could move ahead together, hand-in-hand, making sure that no one is left behind. Through the darkness, things became quite clear to me: the childlike stubbornness was not that Raphael could not do with the meal. It was the realisation that this family we were buying from could not do without the money they were about to earn. It was not a personal thing.
Over time and through his regular interaction with these boys and girls and the families they represented, I understood that Raphael had actually been doing his best to support local business at a very organic level, the level of the unseen. This is not organised enterprise–there are no registrations, there is no bureau of standards waiting to pounce and there are no major consumer issues. It is all based on trust and when the business is as honest and vulnerable as these boys and girls were, then why were they not worth supporting?
Back on the road, as Raphael was having his food, I partook in some food for thought. To get to be so stubborn and decisive about buying this food, the man sitting next to me had had to severely alter his consciousness. This behaviour goes against the grain of most food consumption traits and trends in Malawi. Granted, no one is going to queue for ngumbi or mbewa as much as they queue for KFC or Steers, but here is a principle worth defending—supporting organic business initiatives by giving them a shot at a livelihood.
Of course, one is never inclined to support local for the sake of supporting local. Some local businesses in Malawi have a long way to go before they can provide stellar service that one can actually be happy to pay for. However, they cannot do this on their own. They need to be affirmed, reaffirmed and in most cases, they actually need to be given an unfair advantage for them to successfully compete with foreign businesses operating in Malawi. This is how all successful businesses became successful in their own countries, they were protected by government and given incentives to outmuscle other competition.
The question, therefore, is this: what role can the government play in creating conditions necessary for local business to thrive? And, by local here, I am thinking of the boys and girls along that Ntcheu road.
In the wake of jokes and reactions to what President Peter Mutharika said recently about Malawians needing to diversify their diet, we need to revisit the urgent issue of our food and agricultural policies. What is in there? How does it benefit the people of Malawi and their country? How can we create local businesses that can enable us to meet our national needs so that we not only decisively deal with the perennial hunger problem but also become a healthy and happy nation?
There is no greater shame than the shame of a country that fails to feed itself. Over 50 years into our independence, this should not be a laughing matter or, indeed, an occasion for sensational headlines. It’s a moment to hang our heads in collective shame but do one better and ask ourselves some difficult questions.
By Raphael’s example, this is not rocket science. It simply begins with you and me. Now, will you?
Writer’s Note: I’m back writing again. Let’s extend this conversation on Twitter: @LeviKabwato