Contextualisation through compassionate listening: Cowboys, tobacco and tough soles

Yesterday I arrived in Golomoti, a small Malawian community hidden in the equally eloquent and overwhelming vista of boulder strewn mountains, stomach turning roads and meandering rivers. The heat had hinged just off unbearable all day, when earlier I had removed my boots to free my toes, the blistering earth showed no repentance for soft soles. A staunch a reminder of the privilege of walking here, reminder of humility one should preserve as a guest, a reminder that humility is the finest currency for hospitality; a reminder that Africa can withdraw this exchange rate at any time.

I watched as an elderly lady sauntered gracefully down the path barefoot, a large tree trunk effortlessly balanced on her crown. Her feet were broad and her soles tough, in a way you could read her life’s story in those feet. Each and every step had been recorded by their toughening, every load of wood she had persevered to carry; had gradually left her feet arch-less and hardwearing. I wondered if her feet had ever worn shoes, and so I wondered if the last pair of feet which will never wear shoes had begun their first steps on our Earth.

Arriving a few hours past midday, the climate had retired to a more hospitable stance. The clouds shifted swiftly overhead, persistently merging and separating into new shapes. Each one silver-lined and dispersing just a few raindrops, still refraining from a full downpour. I wondered if we would complete our activities here in Golomoti before the rain began.

Under the clouds, the town resembled the set of an old Western movie, except this is Malawi not America. Wooden shacks and abandoned 70s buildings strewn alongside the unfinished railway, which lay through the middle of the town. The track stretched as far as my eyes could see, and I saw boys herding cattle whilst more women carried heavy bundles of fire wood on their heads walking towards the market. The failed railway proved an effective footpath and an explicitly generic image of rural Malawi.

I had travelled with my team to Golomoti to support a relatively self-organising young girls club. The girls help each other in protecting each other’s human rights. One thing I’ve come to learn whilst working with similar communities, is the importance of compassionate listening. How requisite it is to abstain from passing judgement, creating assumptions, or condemning individuals; even in the privacy of our own minds. Practice holding a transient and open mind, let people approach you and let them tell their story, let them own their experience; take a step back and let them be the experts. Arriving at the girls club I was determined to practice this.
It was here in Golomoti, whilst sat with a young women’s group that I was first able to practice this zen-like approach to project planning and support work. With little prompt; it was voiced by the participants that girls in this community were struggling to access education disproportionately to their male peers.

I continued to listen as they shared their stories. For many accessing school was tough because of teen pregnancy, and whilst some returned to school after, many girls in this community felt they were unable to catch-up after a prolonged period of absence. Asides from pregnancies, the girls where often in demand to work their family’s farm, or to earn and contribute a wage towards their household’s income.

I knew this already, but that’s irrelevant; I had to be told by the people themselves. I had read a lot about life in Malawi’s marginalised communities. Nevertheless, hearing it from these girls first hand was informative in other regards. Listening to these girls tell me of their community’s challenges and solutions was a far more engaging and a very affecting experience. Maybe it was the subtle tonalities within their voices, their facial expressions or sometimes their piercing eye contact which conveyed much more to me than the written word could have. I would leave Golomoti later in the day with an infallible empathy I couldn’t have reached from a news article or an anthropological study.

Having first listened, I felt in a position to ask more questions. Firstly I asked, “Can you tell me the reasons are for high levels of teenage pregnancies?” There was a nuance in asking them to tell me, rather than simply asking what they are; as I have already knew the answer but I wanted to hear them tell me. Perhaps this nuance was lost in translation, I can only speculate.

They told me about how people didn’t know about contraception or where to find it, or how to access healthcare or safe abortions which are deeply stigmatised. Diverging slightly from the question, they talk about forced marriages with older boys and men, prostitution, sexism and their daily vulnerability to sexual harassment. One young woman began to tell me about a girl who didn’t want to re-enter school after pregnancy, from fear of being bullied and having fallen behind.

The comments diverged further and they began talking about the horrifying and disturbing “sex camps” at which young girls are raped and boy were unsafely circumcised, in the name of coming to age rituals. I have read about these camps from newspapers in the UK in the winter before I arrived. Those few articles had been disturbing enough, now I am face to face with some of the girls who are vulnerable to this torture.

Next I asked them to tell me more about working on their families farms; for example, what crops are they growing? Are certain times of the year more demanding than others? Do their parents understand that you want to go to school? Are their parent’s members of co-operatives?

They were very empathetic in their responses, they understood the challenge and dependence that subsistence farming represented for their families and they wanted to help them first and foremost. Then some suggested they could only truly help their families if they could access education, and go on to have careers in formal work which would involve them moving to bigger towns or cities. Their career ambitions where amazing and well thought out, some wanted to be nurses others teachers, others wanted to find work in offices in the city. It seemed nearly all of these girls wanted to study at university.

They told me that the farms mainly produced maize, tobacco, fruits and tobacco. The tobacco would mostly be brought by The British-American Tobacco, and be used in many of British and American cigarette brands. The tobacco plantations pay very little and many of the children were aware of the amount of toxins, which are absorbed through the children’s hands where harvesting tobacco without protective gear. For many working on the tobacco farms, their small earnings are an essential contribution to help provide their families daily food. Regardless of necessity; this work is child slavery.
The farming is more intensive during the rainy season and harvest. Periods of time which are becoming less predictable with climate change. The rainfall can often flood the farmland and then quickly run downhill, taking away the top layer of soil which damages crops and lowers yields. And other times the rainfall just simply isn’t enough.

The effect of crop failure or low yields is that the price of maize goes up in the market. This is the staple crop, which is used mainly to make Nsima (a mash potato-like food which seems to accompany nearly every Malawian meal). When the prize of maize goes up, so does everything else in the market, and the cost of living and accessing social amenities are increasing difficult for people to meet.

My final question was if they couldn’t access education, what would be their remaining livelihood options? They told me that there were many types of informal, exploitative and illegal work they could do. For example, collecting wood for charcoal, working full-time on farms, the tobacco plantations and in some cases prostitution.

I could conclude from our meeting in Golomoti that this was a community in need of a development which focused on building the capacity for health and education access; whilst the people and environment are protected from illicit industries, irresponsible corporations and informal work which further exacerbated the threat to cultural diversity, biodiversity and human security. Furthermore this development needs to be gender sensitive as women remain most oppressed in a disturbingly male dominated society.

The private sector here is mainly represented by British-American tobacco which, despite being established a long time ago in this region of Africa; has done very little other than exploit communities already marginalised by its central government. Whilst the private-sector have helped many communities throughout Africa; this definitely isn’t a case study for success. The tobacco industry is benefitting from poverty being sustained in Malawi and human development only eats out of their profit. I just can’t help but imagine one of the famous cowboy actors lighting up some Malawian grown tobacco backstage.

At this girls club, there was a hope. I met with oppressed and marginalised people who are also survivors and many of them true and inspirational freedom fighters. They were conscious of their oppression whilst unifying and struggling against it in their own way. Unfortunately their main route for survival is at the expense of leaving their cultural homeland for the promise of jobs in the “city offices”. Whilst working in tobacco plantations is at the expense of their own freedom, health and biodiversity. Also significant if that the collecting of wood for charcoal contributes to deforestation and exacerbates the effect of climate change particularly detrimental for rural farmers.

It’s clear that ending this oppression will require challenging local, national and global processes of corruption and exploitation. Whilst sex camps and sexual harassment needs to be stopped at the community level, a devolution of central power and administration would allow for more formal work away from the urban-cores, and the tobacco industry and the slavery it fosters represents a global challenge, with the consumer market largely belonging to the richer countries of the world.

As exploitation and marginalisation have become standardised in rural Malawi, so too has the forced eviction from land, the destruction of local ecology and the cultural nexus; and it has most often been the woman and child who have been pushed to survival the most. In the girl’s club I saw a hope for a decentralisation of the means of survival for those most oppressed. A means which diverged from the standardised patterns created by the central powers who have persistently failed them, stolen from them and denied their unique cultural identities by branding them under the umbrella term of the poor.
I saw hope in these marginalised young girls and women turning away from centralised power, by self-organising and supporting each other towards a better future that they want. One free from torture, humiliation and slavery, and fulfilled with peace, dignity and social equality.

I left Golomoti hoping that young people once liberated from oppression, if they must leave their rural community nexus and take jobs in cities; remember where they have come from, protect their cultural diversity, and help build new economic and political systems which aim to be conducive for biodiversity and all people.

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