Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Meet the Maize women

(I have known the women in this article for four years, their husbands are unemployed but through the business of selling green maize, they are well off that the average Malawian lady.)

They sit on wooden stumps placed 2 meters from the busy tarmac; their bare feet dipped in maize husks. Before them a wire mesh rests on a rusty car ream filled with charcoal. Aboard the mesh lies tantalisingly roasted maize that many a passer-by fail resist.

Kondwani has lived in Mzuzu for 10 years and the women are almost a statue to him. He was in primary school when he first saw them now employed as a salesman he still passes them daily; to him they are just two women on the road side.

For Eunice Songa, 40, mother of 6 and Ellen Mkandawire, 35, mother of 4, the roadside is their office...their very existence depends on the spot under the big Mubanga tree just outside the main gate of the ailing Mzuzu Stadium.

Eunice and Ellen have been roasting maize outside Mzuzu Stadium since 1998 and theirs has not been a rosy ride. They have sailed through ridicule and have been chased by authorities; their overall story, however, is an inspiring tale of a communitarian and Africanized approach to tackling poverty.

“I will never get a loan, over my dead body. How do I pay it back and still enjoy my profits? I cannot afford to pay for somebody’s life and in turn be pressured to pay in the toughest of conditions,” says Ellen.

The fear of loans has made small scale business women in the Mzuzu’s locations form groups of eight each with a treasurer who collects a small amount from each members daily sales, the weekly amount realized by a group is paid to one member. The weekly process then rotates among the members.

Ellen who proved loquacious of the two, confessed that she gives K250.00 daily and when her turn comes she gets K12,500 that is apart from an average of K2000 that she makes daily on the roadside.

“I have managed to educate my children from this green maize, I feed, clothe my family with this business. It’s very profitable and I don’t have to go beg or do prostitution,”

So at K2000 per day and with the K4000 or so over the football days, the women make about K60000 a month that is more than an average college graduate earns in Malawi and what if we add the K12500 that was banked? Surely these are not average women.

The amount goes down when they explain what they use it for; rent, school fees, food and transport to and from Nkhata-bay where they get their green maize.

These are not their only problems. Whenever green maize matures, the Mzuzu City Council bans the sale of the maize with the aim of curbing theft that soars with the high demand of the crop as a breakfast delicacy. The women have to engage in hide and seek games with the authorities.

Eunice wonders why the authorities do not licence them or make them produce documents of where they get their maize.

“we get the maize from Nkhata-Bay where the staple crop is cassava if they ban the sale of maize they are not only hurting our families but also those growers in Nkhata-bay, why don’t they ban the sale of cars when car theft increases...is it because we are poor?” asked Eunice.

Malawi is a conservative country and many men would be irked or even be angered into battery with the two’s action why did they break the taboo of waiting from a man and brave the business world themselves?

Ellen admits that it was not easy to convince people that it was not prostitution they were looking for. The husband however had to give in after being convinced that raising the kids was superior to an oppressive cultural notion that is perpetuating poverty among many rural housewives.

The two have not been past Standard 7 and although Eunice comes from Salima and Ellen from Rumphi they both left school due to the fees.
Asked what can be done to them to make them leave the maize roasting business, the women all agree that only old age can suffice.

“Of course if government gives us interest free loans we can move from the roadside to something bigger after all we are getting old and the Nkhata-bay hills that we dare to get this maize are fast becoming mountains to us,” said Songa.

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