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Bartering charcoal for survival

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By Gospel Mwalwanda:

Each day before dawn, two women leave their village in rural Blantyre and head for the city on foot; each carrying a 50kg bag of charcoal.

Margret Chiphaka, 51, and Rhoda Fisha, 29, brave the darkness and walk for hours to reach Chileka Airport before proceeding by mini bus to the city’s residential areas to hawk.

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Although they earn their livelihood through charcoal business, they are not the kind of charcoal sellers one sees daily carrying their merchandise on bicycles.

The two women carry the charcoal on their heads and instead of selling it for cash, they barter it.

Chiphaka and Fisha have been travelling to the city’s residential areas for the past six years, going from door to door bartering charcoal for clothes that are seldom worn, or have been discarded.

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They also accept bedding or anything that they think is of value and can ease their suffering. Occasionally they sell the charcoal for cash.

“Poverty has forced us to do this. Our families exemplify the country’s poverty,” Chiphaka told this writer when he found them resting within Malawi Housing Corporation (MHC) Estate at Ngumbe.

Chiphaka, who is married and has four children, said they knew they were endangering their lives by starting off around 3 a.m. from their Chimutu Village in the area of Senior Traditional Authority Kuntaja.

“But when you are as poor as our families are, you have to do everything you can to survive even when there is danger lurking. If we did not leave as early as 3 a.m., we wouldn’t make ends meet,” she said.

Fisha agreed it was risky leaving their homes when it was pitch dark, “but what can one do when there is no alternative way of earning a livelihood to support the family? It’s tough, but we have no choice.”

And from bartering charcoal which they buy from charcoal makers, the women are able to help their husbands– who normally do piecework–provide their families with basic necessities on a daily basis.

Malawi is rated as one of the world’s poorest countries with more than half of its estimated 17 million plus population living below the poverty line of less than $1.25 a day.

Although the country has been able to achieve economic growth since independence from Britain 55 years ago with the help of its development partners, poverty remains widespread.

Even when the country’s inflation rate fell to a single digit in 2017 compared to 22.8 per cent in August 2016, rural poverty persists with one in two still poor.

The grinding poverty has compelled countless Malawians to initiate survival mechanisms, including the selling of charcoal, despite the negative effect the practice is having on the environment.

More than 97 percent of households in Malawi rely on illegally sourced charcoal and fired domestic cooking and heating energy, says the National Charcoal Strategy (NCS 2017-2027).

The NCS says this has resulted in high levels of deforestation and forest degradation in Malawi, with downstream negative impacts on water availability, and hydro-power-generating capacity.

Drivers of charcoal production and use include rural and urban poverty, a readily available urban market for charcoal tied to a lack of reliable, affordable alternatives and weak law enforcement.

Chiphaka and Fisha said they do ganyu or piecework and use the money earned to buy charcoal, spending K4,000 per bag weighing 50kg.

The two women said they were aware that government was against charcoal business because of the harm it was doing to the environment, but could not quit as it was their only means of survival.

“We are dressed like this because of bartering charcoal for clothes. Were it not for this initiative, we would be walking in rags,” Fisha said, looking fatigued from walking and having inadequate sleep.

The mother of six said the clothes their spouses and children wore back home were acquired through the barter trade and that for this reason, there was little likelihood of them abandoning it soon.

“Members of our households are comparatively well dressed by village standards, thanks to the barter initiative. It also enables us to pay fees for our children at primary school,” Chiphaka chipped in.

When reminded that primary education has been free in the country for the past 25 years, the women disputed vehemently. They said that was supposed to be the case, but it was no longer free.

“Teachers often tell children to bring money for this or that school project and if they fail, they are not allowed in class. When you add the money, it is more than what we used to pay as fees,” Chiphaka said.

She went on: “This is cruelty of the highest order. We are already suffering and as if this is not enough, teachers are also robbing us in broad day light. How do you expect us to survive?”

“Charcoal business offers the only solution,” replied Fisha, who had already sold her charcoal and was carrying a bundle of clothes tied in a wraparound when this writer met them.

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