At the Hands of a Malawian Woman

The hands of a Malawian woman are at once oven mitts, steel wool, spoons, cloths, washing machines, you name it they do it. Here in Malawi, the women and female children use their hands to complete each task of the day.

Mrs. Banda, my host mother, cooking nsima. The cooking rooms are very smoky as you can tell from this photo.

The women in the market are normally bustling around washing and rearranging their produce, but as soon as I told them I was taking a picture they reverted to these lounging positions. Haha

My host sister, Lusanne, scrubbing a pot. In Canada, we might use steel wool or another abrasive to scrape off stuck on food, charcoal stains, etc. Here in Malawi, women use a combination of sand, soap and their hands to not so gently 'exfoliate' stains off of pots.

A couple of my neighbours, demonstrating how to carry water on your head in style. Most days they also have babies strapped to their backs while they collect water.

This post is as much a nod to the incredible strength of the hands, arms, backs of Malawian women and children as it is a commentary on their lives. Here in Malawi, women and children work tirelessly to complete the most menial of tasks. They do so without complaint, without many thanks and without a break.

Before coming to Malawi I understood that women worked tirelessly, that water was brought to the house on the heads of children and that washing was done by hand. What I failed to internalize was that this was done EVERY day. There are no Saturdays or lazy Sundays for women here. There is no sleeping in, ordering take out or hiring a babysitter – and for many there never will be.

Gender equality in the workplace is accelerating at an exciting pace here in Malawi, but for most that same trend is lagging behind in the household. In the mornings, I can step away from helping wash the dishes to ensure that I can get to work on time; my host sisters will not leave until all of the chores are done irrespective of the time. In rural villages, such is the life for Malawian woman and children, the household comes first, education second.

Just before bed at night, I think about all that I have to return to in Canada.  Then I think about my host sister Zoene, who at 13 or 14 cannot read or write and is in the same grade as her 6 year old siblings but still desperately wants me to try and teach her. I think about my neighbour, Mrs. Mafuta, who passionately wants to be a teacher but has not been accepted to college. I wonder lying there, what it will take to change their futures – what do you think it will take?


8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Josh on June 12, 2010 at 10:10 pm

    Hey Lauren,

    Thanks for sharing. The women of Malawi are incredible. Much stronger, harder working, and quiet and humble throughout. I wish I knew how to support the futures of people like Zoene. I believe that through our understanding of the stories of Zoene and Mrs. Mafuta we make commitments to work in solidarity and constantly aim to spread awareness and change the way Canada and the world treats Malawi and the rest of Africa. I feel like this answer is too vague, but there is something grey about this work, it isn’t clear cut.

    I’d love to hear how you see your time with your family changing them, their lives, their expectations.

    A big hug!



  2. Posted by Cathy Sandy on June 13, 2010 at 12:44 am

    It sounds as if the women have no choice but to follow this routine. It is sad that Zoene is unable to go to school. Are there any schools in the area? Love your emails.
    Gram S.


  3. Posted by Cheryl Hockin on June 13, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    We are so proud of you for taking on this adventure to not only discover, but try to help out in areas that are needed.
    I can’t wait to share your photos with my classes, along with your thoughts and comments.
    It must be frustrating not to be able to ask questions and converse in the same language.
    Miss you.


  4. Posted by Sharla on June 14, 2010 at 1:57 am

    It will take global awareness, global empathy and passion. Or it will take awareness, empathy, and passion – one person at a time. I am humbled, passionate, and broken. Each one of us has a responsibility to do WHATEVER we can to change this! If you have read this and are currently doing nothing to assist with the global poverty crisis, DO something. Now.
    Thank you for your compassion, and for giving us a window through which to see the truth.


  5. Posted by Annette on June 14, 2010 at 2:18 pm


    This is such a huge topic! It’s so hard to leave in the morning to go to work knowing your host sisters will stay as long as they have to to get the task done; knowing that their hands will become as calloused as their mothers so that dishing out hot Nsima won’t hurt them, but the pain caused by desperately wanting to go to school like their other siblings will remain.

    I second Josh in that you are playing a large part of the in Canada battle to increase awareness about these issues. Canadians need to know and to feel for fellow human beings across the world and to make choices that will support and respect them. In Malawi, to really change opportunities for women should the focus be on education directly? Should the focus remove other systemic barriers? or create projects specifically designed for women, and what does that do to their workload? Should they be separately or in concert? What do you think?



  6. Lauren,

    Really loved this post – if its the same family I think it is, the Bandas are awesome and you are so lucky to be staying with them. Duncan had them has his host family and has shared many stories with me about them, I am really excited to learn more from you both about your experience and this amazing family.

    Plus, this was such a great post. Keep up the great work and I look forward to reading more of what you are doing soon.



  7. When you ask the questions like that, it seems so overwhelming.

    ‘What will it take to change their futures?’

    It makes me very sad. But then I think of EWB and you, and I think there is hope. I agree with Josh and Annette ,changing Canadians perspectives on African poverty is an important step. As for in Malawi itself, I think of how women across the world have gained independence for themselves and wonder what parts of that can be replicated in rural Malawi. Maybe you can help me with that Lauren, or anyone else.

    I am not exposed to same things in Accra and Ghana, as you are in Malawi. I really appreciate getting your perspective on rural poverty, where even education is difficult to attain.

    Thanks Lauren.



  8. Posted by David McColl on June 17, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    Step 1 awareness
    Step 2 realign idea of progress in rich nations


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