A Dignifying Debate

Kuli dzuwa lampiri!

That phrase, in Chichewa, describes the almost constant state of affairs weather-wise these days in Lilongwe – that of being almost too sunny, if there is such a thing for a (half) Swede. Having grown up in the mountains, and lived in Stockholm for the past few years, I am accustomed to schizophrenic weather. The weather can change quite drastically from day to day and exceedingly so seasonally, without surprising anyone. Here, the sunlight hours are extremely predictable, and so is the day to day weather. It’s easier, but perhaps less so for the people to whom I express my excitement to everyday.  Regardless, it is interesting thinking about the relationships between climate and culture, especially with reference to two such disparate places like Sweden and Malawi (i.e. Malawi- ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’; Sweden- ‘Be aware of how reserved and serious Swedes can be!). Perhaps climate has something to do with it? Apologies anyway for speaking about a stereotypically mundane topic such as weather, but it’s hard not to take notice in how sublime the weather can be here.

Anyway- this week was debate week! The idea of the debate, as I mentioned in the last post, was to facilitate a forum where officials and the marginalized urban poor could address each other directly, an otherwise rare opportunity for residents of the informal settlements. Last week, we got RSVPs from five officials from five difference ‘service-providers’ in Lilongwe, namely the Ministry of Lands, Malawi Housing Corporation, City Council, and two different MPs. We also contacted and met with a moderator, who works for Malawi’s most popular radio station, Zodiac. He was a fantastic choice, in that he is very aware of the social and political issues in Lilongwe, including the political flash points surrounding land rights. He’s also a well-respected figure within the country, and has the kind of social ease and swift intellect that are important to any debate moderator.

The LUPPEN members and I had met several times to plan the event, mostly outlining the issues that we specifically wanted to touch upon during the debate, and the corresponding questions that the moderator could pose that would provoke responses to those issues. We came up with five cardinal points:

  • People within the settlements are often not able to claim their rights to land from the service providers, due to range of reasons, but primarily because of rising land prices.
  • Residents of settlements lack access to information regarding the city’s plans for expansion, as well as new legislation (i.e. the new Land Bill).
  • There are myriad problems with land registration, including but not limited to long waiting times, publishing registration information only in English, bureaucratic problems etc.
  • There is too much political influence (polite euphemism for corruption) in land allocation that is further marginalizing the poor.
  • City rates are prohibitively expensive for the urban poor to be able to access land.


Early Tuesday morning, we assembled in Maula Parish for the debate. Our plan was for the debate to begin at 9 o’ clock, but it became apparent rather quickly that that was not to be the case. As LUPPEN had warned, many officials are often reluctant to partake in activities that may reveal certain inconsistencies or weaknesses in the way they do their job. This, it turned out, was no different. Of the five officials who had agreed on multiple occasions to come, three didn’t turn up, and the other two were more than an hour late. It was enormously disappointing to all of us, but, as I mentioned, the LUPPEN members weren’t too surprised due to their experience.

Despite the hiccups, the debate was a success. The two panelists who showed up offered helpful and informative answers, talking at length about the complexity of the issues as well as their attempts to remedy them. The residents of the settlements were very active, all of whom were plying for their turn to ask questions. When they did, it seemed like they cut straight to the point, and cherished the opportunity to finally meet with people who directly influenced the way they accessed land. When leaving, all of them were extremely positive, thrilled that MUD Africa and LUPPEN had organized such an event.

This proved to be yet another constructive and informative activity as an intern, both in its frustrations and successes. I have always believed in the importance of grassroots activism. In fact, I feel that small, seemingly inconsequential acts of resistance are the only hope we have in combatting the forces of our current derisive neoliberal paradigm, one which favors the rich and further marginalizes the poor. This debate was one such small act, an amplification of quiet voices that will one day be heard with resounding clarity. We just have to continue!

Zikomo! Until next time!

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Lessons taught and lesson learnt

Malawi has continually surprised me. This past Monday, I came into the office uncertain whether we would be able to carry out all of our school trainings during the following days, as we had hoped. After meeting the second of the two District Education Managers (DEM) on Monday, it was unclear whether we would be approved for doing school trainings in Kamphinda and Kaliwawala. He was extremely excited about having someone from Sweden in his office, as he had been to a one month conference in Lund several years ago. Regardless, he was still hesitant to approve. He loved Sweden, and we agreed that it was a bit too cold there. We also might have agreed that there is a bit of a smile shortage in Sweden, relative to Malawi.

Gertrude leading the class in Mbuka

In any case, we didn’t hear back from him until Wednesday, when he finally agreed to let us go to the two schools in his district. We learned later that the reason for his hesitation was that an organization a few years ago had visited the same schools and accidentally given out condoms to hundreds of nine year-olds. Needless to say, the parents and school system were not too thrilled. It seems that every time I think something might not work out because of the complicated (and slow) bureaucracy in Malawi, everything comes together at the last minute. Needless to say, everyone in LUPPEN is used to this process, and probably thinks I’m overly concerned and stressed every time there is uncertainty. It is continually a good lesson in patience and flexibility.

All in all, the school trainings were a success!  We went to four different schools, Mbuka in Katantha, Msambeta in Area 44, Liwera in Kaliwawala, and Katola in Kamphinda. Every training involved around 160 pupils, all of which seemed excited to have LUPPEN there. The class participation was fantastic – despite the lessons being in Chichewa that I couldn’t understand, it was apparent that many of the children were eager to answer questions and jumped at the opportunity to be involved in the lesson. It was almost as if the entire LUPPEN group were tenured teachers, making the teaching seem so natural and fluid. One of the highlights of the lessons was a song that the LUPPEN group had written, which I mentioned in my last post. Every time LUPPEN finished singing, the students were ecstatic, and seemed to be even more engaged with the lessons. We also used a series of poster-sized drawings that Matilda’s friend Alexander had drawn, which depicted different scenarios relating to land rights and human rights. The students loved the pictures, and they proved to be a great way to cultivate discussion and engage the students.  It certainly seemed like a worthwhile activity, in that the students, headmasters, and everyone else involved seemed to benefit from it. Also, it was extremely rewarding working with a group like LUPPEN, who bring so much energy to everything they do.

Apart from work, I’m thoroughly enjoying life here in Malawi. In fact, I am a bit concerned about how quickly time is passing. It seems that living here brings you closer to life, closer to a feeling of vitality that I somehow think is partly absent in Sweden. The inequality and the poverty are very difficult, and I am constantly reminded how difficult some of the challenges are here. Malawi is a country that has so much to offer, and it is heartbreaking that so many people live is such a degree of poverty.

Until next time!

Pitani bwino! (Goodbye!)


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A trip to Nthunduwala Camp 

Despite being educated as a geographer, it has taken a surprisingly long time to orient myself in the city. But just like the weather, which is slowly inching out of the rainy season and becoming a bit warmer and drier by day, my bearings are also slowly improving. It’s relieving to finally understand when people give directions using landmarks.

Thatch huts typical of Nthunduwala Camp

After a relatively eventless last week, it has been great to get back into the routine of meeting LUPPEN and starting to put pen to paper on some of the upcoming activities. Due to the fact that we are still waiting on the exact dates for the school trainings, we have begun to plan the live debate, which is our next planned activity. We have decided to hold the debate in Maula Parish on April 5th, and have already sent out invitations to various local politicians and authorities in Lilongwe. Being a grassroots organization, it is great that LUPPEN will facilitate a forum that puts the urban poor and local politicians in the same room, so that, at the very least, the groups can understand each other better. It is seldom that the two would interact, and hopefully the authorities will feel the pressure from the marginalized participants and make some commitments to them. I look forward to telling you all about the debate after it happens!



Arguably the most interesting part of the week was Markus and I’s visit to Nthunduwala Camp with Millennium Information & Resource Centre (MIRECE), a small organization that operates out of Kasungu.  The idea of the visit was to get to know (and investigate) another prospective group that MUD Africa could work with in Malawi. We were escorted by a passionate man named Flywell Somanje, the coordinator of MIRECE, who was born and raised in Kasungu and is extremely active in the area. His main concern right now is to mobilize support for a group of villages, composed of almost 1600 families, who were evicted from tobacco estates almost 30 years ago due to the dwindling global tobacco trade. Nthunduwala Camp is one of them, and a particularly disheartening example of how detrimental it can be to lack secure land tenure.

Children in the camp

The camp lies 55 km down a mud road that has roughly 5 potholes per meter, about four kilometers from the Zambian border, south of Kasungu National Park. It was immediately evident that their situation is dire. The huts, made from thatch, are falling apart, and too few. Six people sleep in each of them, which are roughly four square meters. Many of the people cannot afford food. The prevalence of malaria is extremely high. Access to health services is almost nonexistent. Unemployment is ubiquitous. Visiting Nthunduwala was an especially insightful example of the exceptional poverty of Malawi, and the challenges development work faces when nearly every part of the community needs assistance. Hope is that the government will recognize the plight of these people, and reach out a hand in some capacity.

Markus joining the celebratory procession after we got the car out of the mud

On the way back, the road made it clear that it didn’t want us to leave. We got stuck in about a half meter of mud, and found out the hard way that the four-wheel drive of our vehicle didn’t actually work. In any case, we spent the better part of the next 4 hours trying to get the car out with the help of some 150 locals. Eventually, a local legend of car removals came and dislodged us, and we drove back to Lilongwe in the dark. In hindsight, it was an amusing end to an emotional day.

Until next time! Yendani bwino!

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School trainings and Bureaucracy 101

Moni! That means hello in Chichewa, and is probably one of the 10 words I’ve learned since being here. I also learned that nobody really uses that word, so it barely counts. It’s a difficult language to learn, especially since it’s so phonetically and structurally different than Swedish and English, but I should admittedly put in a bit more effort.

Last week, we had several meeting to plan the school trainings in Kamphinda, Kaliwawala, Area 44, and Katantha. The idea is to teach students in primary school, between 11 and 13 years old, about human rights, land rights, and the benefits of registering land. Designing a curriculum that would make those subjects interesting to pre-teens was, let’s say, challenging. I kept thinking about what my interests were when I was that age, and how I might have reacted to a lesson in those subjects. We decided to use a series of drawings that we also use for the TOT Base that Matilda organized a few months ago, which depict different scenarios relevant to land rights and human rights. Pictures, we concluded, offered the best chance of engaging 11 to 13 year olds. Additionally, LUPPEN will recite a poem that is a sort of anecdote on the importance of land rights, as well as a song to be written and performed by the executive members of LUPPEN. I was fortunate enough to be able to hear the rehearsals, and look forward to sharing the performance with you all in the future! It was fun and productive to design a school curriculum.

Since then, not much has happened, which I think has been a valuable lesson for an intern in a country like Malawi. In order to conduct the school trainings, we need approval from various authorities at different departments within the municipal government. The most important of those authorities is the District Education Manager (DEM), who essentially decides whether or not what we want to do is relevant and therefore permissible. To make a long story short(er), we have to wait until Monday, at the earliest, to get on answer on whether or not the one-hour training we are doing in just four schools will be okay. So, the lesson is essentially that bureaucracy can be a serious hindrance to speedy implementation of development projects. And my feeling is that that is often the reason that many projects take much longer than one would expect, especially from the outside looking in.

In other news, I got to see a bit more of Malawi over the weekend. We drove through the beautiful countryside to Cape Maclear, a somewhat touristy-yet-charming beach and community nestled on a peninsula at the southern end of Lake Malawi. I’ll let the pictures describe the place to you. All in all though, it was wonderful to leave the city and relax in such a sublime environment.

Until next time!


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My first week at MUD Africa 

Hello again! It has been a fruitful week not only with MUD Africa and LUPPEN, but for me personally. We started on Monday with a preparatory meeting for the follow-ups, outlining what we wanted to do and how. Our plan was to use the same questionnaire that Matilda used earlier in the year, so that we could compare the results from both of the sessions to see if there was any evidence of progress between the two follow-ups. We also decided to add one additional question, asking the trainers to estimate how many people they had reached out to during the elapsed time.

LUPPEN coordinator Harry speaking in Katantha
LUPPEN coordinator Harry speaking in Katantha

The rest of the week, we visited Kaliwawala, Kaphinda, Katantha, and Area 44, and were received wholeheartedly in every settlement. It was fantastic seeing how many people showed up to the follow-ups, and also the lengthy discussions and insight that everyone readily offered. We had between 40 and 70 people at every meeting. Not only that, but it seemed that everyone had taken their newly acquired knowledge of land rights very seriously! Most of the groups stated that they had reached out to large numbers of peers, teaching them about their rights to register land and the benefits of doing so. Next week, we plan to start the translation of the questionnaire, so that we can have a more clear idea on the details of the answers, and discuss how we can move forward with LUPPEN.

Lebiam and Ekelina holding a follow-up discussion
Lebiam and Ekelina holding a follow-up discussion in Kaliwawala

One highlight of the week was a poem written and recited by a man in Kaphinda. He stood up in front of the group, and told the story of how, when is father died, his mother was evicted from the land that they had lived on for decades. He voiced his appreciation for our work, saying that now that he was armed with the knowledge of his rights to land, he was assured that the same thing wouldn’t happen to his children. This is one powerful anecdotal example of LUPPEN and MUD Africa’s actual impact.

Having only worked one week with LUPPEN, I have already learned a lot and garnered an enormous amount of appreciation for what LUPPEN and MUD Africa are doing. Having recently finished my MSc, I am all too used to criticizing essentially everything, something that seems quite symptomatic of academics in general. The problem, however, is that the classroom is so distant from what actually happens on the ground, and has a position of luxury, in that pointing out the faults from afar does little to actually change things. That is not to say that academics isn’t of utmost importance– because it of course is­– but being here, and seeing how appreciative people are of the mere knowledge of their rights, is profound for me as an intern. Being partnered with and in the company of LUPPEN is a guarantee of unconditional respect, which speaks volumes to the work that they have been dedicated to for years. I can’t help but be excited for continuing to work with LUPPEN.

Man reciting his poem about his struggles with land rights in Kaphhinda
Man reciting his poem about his struggles with land rights in Kaphhinda

Next week, we will start the planning stages of our next project­ – the school trainings for primary school students in the same four settlements that we visited this week. Can’t wait to start the next stage! Over and out!

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