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!