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The highs and lows of looking for greener pastures in Malawi
As a result of financial difficulties and rural poverty, Malawi is seeing an increase in rural-to-urban migration.
As a result of financial difficulties and rural poverty, Malawi is seeing an increase in rural-to-urban migration. Some migrants succeed in making a better life for themselves after settling in cities, whereas for others, the difficult circumstances from which they fled remain.
MALAWI: When confronted with difficult circumstances in their home country, it is natural for people to migrate to better-off areas in search of better opportunities. However, the pursuit of greener pastures can bring both good fortune and misfortune. This is frequently the case for the majority of rural-to-urban migrants. According to a World Bank report from 2019, 84 percent of Malawi's 18 million people lived in rural areas, but internal net rural-to-urban migration, primarily for economic reasons, increased rapidly at 4.1 percent per year.
Some rural-to-urban migrants are fortunate enough to be able to turn the difficult circumstances they fled from around. This was the case for Fred Mkandawire (38), who moved to Lilongwe from his home district of Karonga in 2005 in search of a better life. He now resides in Mtandire, Lilongwe, where he runs his own delivery service that specializes in home and construction material delivery, as well as a second-hand clothing store. He earns approximately 500 000 Kwacha ($624) per month from these two businesses, which he claims provide a stable income for his family of five. His journey to the promised land, however, has not been easy.
Fred, like the majority of rural-to-urban migrants, left his home to escape rural poverty. "I was working as a farm labourer in Karonga and earning very little money," he says. "As a result, I decided to relocate to Lilongwe in search of better-paying jobs and opportunities."
Fred moved to Lilongwe and lived with his mother, taking whatever jobs he could find.
"I've worked many jobs in my seventeen years in Lilongwe," he says. "I have shoveled sand and sold used clothing."
"I've worked as a delivery man, a cook, a gardener, a housekeeper, a minibus driver, a bicycle taxi driver, and groundnuts and fish vendor. I've gone through a lot to get to where I am now."
His delivery service and second-hand clothing business didn't take off until February 2021. To help these two businesses take off, Fred gradually saved some of the money he had earned from previous jobs and purchased a small lorry, which he now uses in the day-to-day operations of his businesses. Both of his businesses have given him a steady income and employ a large number of people.
Despite the fact that his businesses are financially beneficial to him, he still faces challenges in running them.
"Sometimes the business is seasonal," he explains. "When the season ends, our businesses slow down or, in some cases, stop completely." ]
"Another challenge is that access to credit is difficult because credit conditions are too stringent for small businesses like ours."
With his current success in comparison to the life he led in Karonga, I ask him what advice he has for rural-to-urban migrants.
"It's difficult to predict where your luck will take you," he says. "I just tell people that it's better to try new things and take chances. If you're lucky, you'll succeed eventually."
Sharon Phiri (23) disagrees. She is a rural-to-urban migrant herself, and she now lives in Area 47 in Lilongwe with her husband and two-year-old daughter.
Sharon and her family's journey from Mzimba to Lilongwe was marred by poverty and misfortune, which continues to haunt the family today. Sharon's husband was unemployed in Mzimba. Sharon supported her family by working as a farm labourer, an Airtel Money agent, and selling fritters. However, Sharon's earnings were insufficient to support the family.
Sharon and her husband were relieved when Sharon's husband's friend (*Tom) contacted them and invited them to Lilongwe, promising them better-paying work.
The family, seeing this as an opportunity to change their lives, left Mzimba in December 2021 and arrived in Chitedze in Lilongwe. The events that followed would forever alter the course of their lives.
During their journey from Mzimba to Lilongwe, the family misplaced all of their belongings on the bus. They arrived in Lilongwe in the evening and were greeted by Tom at his Chitedze home.
Tom abandoned the family the next day, early in the morning, without paying his overdue rent. Tom's landlord evicted the family, leaving them homeless. The family spent the rest of the day looking for shelter, sleeping in a shopping mall near Area 47 under the watchful eye of a sympathetic security guard.
The next day, the security guard advised them to go to Area 47, which was a short walk from the shopping mall, and ask the owners of the unfinished houses in the area for shelter. The family took the security guard's advice because they were homeless, had no money, and had nowhere to go.
They were turned down for shelter by one of the unfinished house owners they approached first. In their second attempt to find shelter, they were able to persuade the owner of one of the unfinished houses to let them stay for free as long as they took care of his property.
The owner promised to build a living quarters for the family, but he abandoned them a few days later and the family has no contact with him.
Sharon and her family are now living in an unfinished house in a small cramped room with a hole in the roof. "I don't like the place my family and I are staying in, but we don't have anywhere else to go," she sobs.
"When it rains, our belongings get soaked, and we get wet as well. We tried draping a large plastic sheet over the roof, but it didn't help."
To compound their already-existing housing issues, their tiny room has no doors or windows, and all of their belongings are kept in that small space.
There isn't a fence, running water, or a toilet. Every day, Sharon collects water from some of her neighbors' homes. To maintain their privacy, the family drapes a duvet over the entrance to their cramped room.
Sharon and her husband spend every day looking for piecework to support their family.
"Every day, my husband and I go door to door with our daughter looking for piecework. The only work we can find is ploughing other people's fields. From time to time, people ask us to plough their fields. If we can't find work, we'll go to bed hungry," she laments.
Sharon and her husband earn between 1000 and 1500 Kwacha (less than $2) per day for their efforts.
The most they've ever earned is 2 000 Kwacha ($2). They spend their meager earnings on food.
Sharon's current life serves as a stark warning to rural-to-urban migrants.
"I would strongly advise people living in rural areas not to come to cities," she says.
"In town, everything costs money, whereas, in the village, you can get some things for free, such as firewood and vegetables. Some of these things are readily available in the village, whereas everything must be purchased in town. It's difficult in town because you can get food but not charcoal to cook it. My friends back home in my hometown are faring much better than I am. I wish I hadn't come to town," she says, sobbing.
Despite Sharon's warning, it appears that rural-to-urban migration will continue due to the poverty, high unemployment, low-paying jobs, and income inequality that people in rural areas face. The rural-to-urban migration will continue as long as these issues are not addressed and the majority of rural areas remain underdeveloped.
*Names have been changed to protect the individual's privacy.