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Those with nothing

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Almost each and every day, she treks from her home at Senti, one of Lilongwe’s sprawling shantytowns, to the City centre and beyond to sell vegetables and fruits that would eventually earn her a little over K3,000 on a good day.

Back home, Grace Banda has left four children whose hope for the day’s supper is on her successful day in the city which she often accesses either through the sweltering heat or the incessant drizzles of the capital city.

Dust or mud stuck to her craggy shoes tell a complete story of how hopeless her life is—perhaps as it always is with those who have little or nothing.

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“Perhaps, one day, this poverty will no longer be there,” she murmurs with cautious optimism as she mounts her basketful of vegetables and fruits onto her head.

Banda has to spend a whole day, either in the sun or under tree shades at Lilongwe’s City Centre or Old Town, where she often rushes to passing-by cars or flees from them.

On this particular day, a Friday, she has just sold slightly over half of her commodities—tomatoes and mangoes—hoping to finish the rest before dusk.

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The sweet thought of her children having a ‘sumptuous’ meal for supper after her successful business is disturbed by the screeching of a Lilongwe City Council (LCC) patrol vehicle that swerves dangerously to where she is sitting, almost knocking her to the ground.

“Mayo ine!” she cries helplessly as two burly men jump off the Toyota Land Cruiser before it has even come to a complete halt and manhandle her before throwing away her commodities which fall onto the roadside concrete.

Her crime is perfectly documented in LCC set of by-laws which illegalise undesignated vending—no one is above the law.

Yet there are those who see poverty as Banda’s biggest crime.

“Otherwise, why should small vendors, poor women who are simply trying to survive, be subjected to such brutality by the council when, in fact, there aren’t enough designated markets from where they can sell their goods?” Harry Mamba, Chairperson of the Lilongwe Urban Poor People’s Network (Luppen), queries.

Perhaps what comes out clearly in all this is that every law should be respected whatever the case.

“The problem comes when there are those who are clearly above the law and Lilongwe City Council is aware of that,” Mamba states with the courage of his convictions.

The poor, with little or nothing at all, are victims of brutalising acts of LCC while the rich, perhaps with almost everything, can sell their goods wherever they desire; no car will swerve dangerously to their side, almost knocking them down.

“Rich people are selling cars in several undesignated areas in the capital city. City council officials pass by the places every day but nothing happens,” Mamba states.

LCC spokesperson Tamara Chafunya says that the designated place for car sales, apart from the ‘formal’ ones, is Biwi Triangle, along the Lilongwe-Blantyre M1 Road, admitting that there are several illegal car markets sprouting in the city.

“But we do understand and appreciate that there is a desire for many to earn a living and people are conducting these businesses that are actually earning them enough for their day-to-day living,” she says.

According to Mamba, the desires of the rich are easily respected and accommodated while those of the poor are despised and thrust into the periphery.

Thus, when Chafunya discloses that the council has been able to sit down and see how best it can incorporate other dealers operating car markets in undesignated places, he seethes with rage.

“They never sit down to reason with small vendors,” Mamba charges.

It even hurts him more when Chafunya discloses that LCC is in the process of legalising the market at Area 18, near the Memorial Tower , “just that there are some issues which need to be finalised first”.

Studies conducted by organisations such as Luppen and ActionAid expose glaring gaps between the rich and the poor in the capital city and other urban areas.

“The benefits of urban citizenship are not enjoyed equally by Lilongwe’s residents. As many as 76 percent of residents are estimated to live in substandard housing and/ or informal settlements.

“These areas are characterised by lack of access to public services, tenure insecurity and inadequate housing. A quarter of the city’s residents are also officially estimated to live below the poverty line, with nine percent considered ultra-poor,” says a study by the two organisations.

The Parliamentary Committee on Social Welfare observes that regarding poor women who are brutalised by city council officials, the biggest problem is that there are few markets from where they can easily sell their merchandise.

“Because of that, they find themselves on the streets where they are treated like thugs. City council laws are applied selectively where the rich are favoured,” the committee’s Chairperson Richard Chimwendo Banda says.

He cites the selling of commodities such as chickens in vans along the cities’ streets which goes undisturbed by authorities as a clear example of unfair application of laws.

“Malawians doing businesses must be treated equally; whether one is poor or rich. Laws are not meant to punish some and spare others,” Chimwendo Banda says.

With projections indicating that more people will continue moving from rural areas to urban centres in search of greener pastures, urban poverty is also expected to continue growing.

And for poor women such as Banda who are engaged in small-scale businesses, perhaps the biggest pain comes when laws are applied selectively regarding where they can earn a living.

As she starts off from the city to her home, having had some of her fruits and vegetables confiscated by city authorities, the biggest worry is where the next day’s lunch will come from.

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