The debate on social media on the merits or demerits of increased university fees has reminded me of the two countries that exist in Malawi.
There is a country for the well-to-do who are predominantly in urban areas, semi-urban areas and rural trading centres and another for the poor mostly in the slums of our cities and in the boys’ quarters of the low density areas and the rural.
The difficult fact to reconcile is that most of us in charge of public policy did not come from rich families. If the Malawi we grew up in was the current Malawi, we would not have had a chance to be in the positions of influence that we are now in. In those days, we shared the same rooms, meals and books with children of ministers, politicians and rich people in public schools. For most of us, education and hard work in public educational institutions is the only thing that saved us from being in positions of destitution today.
Unfortunately, things have changed drastically, in the Malawi of 2016, the children of the poor are the most disadvantaged. The lucky few from poor families who get a proper educational find it almost impossible to get jobs; hence, they are forced into all manner of menial and illegal ways of making money and in the process creating a vicious cycle of poverty among the poor.
The divide is very clear in Malawi these days when one looks at several factors. It is no longer imaginary. Those that have and those that do not have live in separate Malawi. Those of us who think we have are more and more becoming apolitical and irrelevant. We debate on social media, vent our anger on WhatsApp, Tweeter, Instagram and Facebook and that therapeutic experience satisfies us.
In practice, we respond to these ills in a very predictable way. Instead of demanding good health care from public hospitals, we go to private hospitals which in some cases prescribe drugs stolen from public hospitals. Rather than demand better government schools, we send our children to expensive private schools for primary and secondary education with the sole aim of preparing them to get to the subsidised public universities. When our children are not selected to public universities, we send our children to the public universities parallel programme, private universities within the country and even abroad. Because we do not trust the police for security, we hire security guards for our homes and neighbourhoods. This is the folly of thinking we are rich!
It is not in our interest to interrogate why the poor have their own school and more worrisome why these schools are all not fully functional. On one hand, making public school better would offer competition to some our pampered and not so bright rich children. So it makes sense that we are interested in giving our children a head start, an advantage for the future at the expense of the poor.
In Malawi, the poor have their hospitals or no hospitals at all within a reasonable distance. The public hospitals are often without drugs or there are not enough doctors. In fact, there are public health centres in the rural areas in 2016 hospitals where midwifery is carried out with lamps or candles due to the fact that they are not connected to the national grid and when they are, the frequency of power supply interruption makes it a necessity to use alternative power sources! No wonder in Malawi, we are now used to the fact that anytime the death of a rich, former or serving public officer is announced, we are always told they passed away in one of the most expensive private hospitals in the country or in South Africa while the not-so-fortunate pine away with death and disease in under-resourced hospitals.
This Malawi is in danger of giving the impression that the poor are almost hopeless and helpless and the rich and powerful have all the advantages funded by the taxes that are paid by both the poor and the rich. In one Malawi, there are two countries, one in which the burden on the poor is getting heavier and another where the rich and the political class are making progress. The danger is that if these children of the poor (who are more than those of the rich), form a significant army of the educated unemployed and frustrated uneducated brigades then development in Malawi will only be a dream. In addition, the burden on the fear rich children to subsidise the poor through welfare programmes will be huge. Let us work for a one Malawi, one country and demolish the one Malawi, two countries!
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