A Voice Gained, A Message Heard

As my time in Malawi is coming to an end, I have been quite busy trying both to get our remaining activities with LUPPEN done in time while also trying to make the most of the time left. This past Friday, Bauti (of LUPPEN) and I attended the Malawi National Habitat Committee (NHC) meeting that we were invited to earlier this month.

The idea of NHCs was born during the Habitat II meeting held in Istanbul in 1996, aiming to provide a productive forum where actors from the central government, civil society, and the private sector could discuss and debate urban issues. Primary among these issues is the growing challenges facing most cities within the Global South that are experiencing rapid growth of slums and informal settlements that are only becoming more problematic with the increasing rate of urbanization. Central to the NHC’s ambitions is to find a way of curbing the negative effects of this growth on urban livelihoods and finding a way to provide economic and socially sustainable alternatives to these populations.

Clearly, such a complicated mission requires a variegated range of actors to be involved in the planning and discussions, and fortunately UN-Habitat at least discursively recognized the importance of the urban poor to be present. According to Mercy Betty of the Ministry of Lands, this was the first convening of the Malawi NHC, and I think that it speaks volumes that LUPPEN was invited. As I’ve mentioned before in previous blog posts, I think that having an inclusionary urban planning process is not only essential to equitable development but is also ethically-sound politics. My only hope, or perhaps worry, is that more influential voices within the NHC will dictate the way these discussions are conducted, but that remains to be seen.

The meeting itself involved actors from a variety of NGOs and officials within government institutions, who led a series of presentations explaining the nature of urban challenges in Malawi, the trajectory of urban growth in Lilongwe, and the current frameworks that are in place to address these challenges. After every presentation, there was a period of questions and discussion that involved all the stakeholders present at the meeting. It is in this span of time that LUPPEN will be able to amplify the voice of the urban poor. Being the largest network of poor urban residents in Lilongwe, and perhaps Malawi, I think that their continued participation is exciting and inspiring.

Work aside, I had a fantastic weekend. On Saturday, we went to the Malawi vs. Madagascar football match in the new Bingu Stadium in Lilongwe. The stadium itself is a sight to see. The China-funded gargantuan is a monument of modernism in the midst of a city that doesn’t quite fit that bill, seating up to 40,000 people. Despite the game being a bit underwhelming (Malawi lost 1-0), the atmosphere was fantastic. It seemed that the general positivity of Malawians spilled over en masse, with every minor positive move from the Malawian team being met with huge roars of approval. It was truly a day to remember. On Sunday, I was able to go to Dzalanyama Forest Reserve for a day trip, an expansive montane forest on the border of Mozambique. After several hours of hiking through the forest with several friends, we swam in the river before heading home to Lilongwe. Definitely recommended for anyone who is coming to Malawi!

This week, we will be holding the last activities of my stay here, the TOT Refresh trainings. I am increasingly sad about the coming close of my stay here, but am also overwhelmingly positive about my experience here.


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Nourishment in Nkhata Bay

This past weekend I was lucky enough to have a little time off to explore more of Malawi, so I chose to travel up to the northern part of Lake Malawi, a little less than 400 kilometers north of Lilongwe.

I had heard that it was wise to get to the bus around 7:30 am, so Thursday morning I woke up early and was at the bus station in due time. The bus typically leaves between 10 and 10:30 am, so I had plenty of time to wait and chat before the bus departed. The people around me confirmed what I had heard before about the length of the trip, saying that it usually lasts between 5 and 6 hours. These experiences, it turned out, did not at all match mine. I ended up arriving at Kande Beach at around 9:30 pm, after an 11 hour odyssey that included chickens, solar panels, and ill babies. Bon voyage!

With that said, I was extremely happy to arrive! In the end, the journey was a good story on the way to a beautiful place. After one night in Kande Beach, a few friends picked me up in a car (quite the relief) and we drove up to Nkhata Bay. Nkhata is reminiscent of a Caribbean stop-over, a lively village abutting the lakeshore, surrounded by rolling verdant hills that drop steeply into turquoise water. At the risk of sounding overly melodramatic, the place is genuinely astoundingly beautiful. It was a weekend well-spent, with mostof my time occupied by friendly chats and leisurely reading.

The majority of people around Nkhata Bay are Malawian Tonga, most of whom are Christian. They are almost entirely reliant on the lake for subsistence, and it is clear that the area proves to be no exception to the pervasive poverty of Malawi. But I did find myself wondering when a place like this would change. It seems inevitable that it will at some point attract the attention from tourist developers to completely change the place. Not that I want this to happen,
for entirely selfish reasons, but I hope that when it does happen it is performed in a way that is cognizant and sensitive to the local culture and the incredible majesty of the environment there.

In any case, I am back in Lilongwe now, and look forward to the next (and last) couple of weeks. Tomorrow, we have a training on the new Land Bill with LandNet, which should clarify some of the complicated amendments that have only come into law quite recently. Otherwise, preparations for the Training of Trainers Refresh are in full swing. I’ll update you during the weekend on how the LandNet training went!



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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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