Mr. Mbenderana

Mr. Mbenderana is the Group Village Headman (GVH) for Mbenderana Village and six other villages. Mr. Mbenderana is not his real name, his real name is actually Mr. Mpero but out of reverence for his stature in the community he is called Mr. Mbenderana. He and I sat down in his shop on Sunday evening so that I might learn more about the village I have been living in for the last month.

This meeting was motivated by a program actually happening right now in Canada. Engineers Without Borders (EWB) is working on developing case studies and problem sets to supplement the traditional Canadian Engineering University Curriculum which cover the required material for accreditation as well as the newly implemented focus on engineering in global society. Each of the Junior Fellows like myself has been asked to gather information on the communities that they are living in which will be used to create the case studies. All around, it is an initiative I am extremely excited about.

I spoke with Mr. Mbenderana about the geography, population and economy in Mbenderana Village (actually Mbenderana Village 1, Mbenderana split into two villages in 2005 due to the high population, I am living in Mbenderana Village 1 which is immediately adjacent to the current Mbenderana Village 2) here are some of the key things I learnt both from that conversation and conversations with others over the last month:

Geography

Mbenderana Village is located in the north-eastern corner of Chikwawa District (see the maps in previous posts). Chikwawa District is located in the Southern Region of Malawi and is about 7 hours (by bus) away from the capital city, Lilongwe. The closest big city is Blantyre, the commercial capital of Malawi which is about 1 hour away. The road from Blantyre to Chikwawa is steep and winding boasting one of the most beautiful views in all of Malawi.

A snapshot of the breathtaking view on the road from Blantyre to Chikwawa.

Nestled in the Shire River Valley, Chikwawa District is one of the warmest districts in all of Malawi. The rainy season extends from October to March but due to the topography of the region, Chikwawa is both in a floodplain for the Shire River and is a rain shadow area. As a result, Chikwawa is prone to both flooding and droughts which makes farming a volatile and difficult profession in Chikwawa and in Mbenderana Village in particular.

View of the Shire Valley from about a 3 km walk from my home in the village.

Mbenderana village is located about 3 km from the BOMA (area where all the government offices for the district are) and has a population of approximately 2400 people. In the entire village no one owns a car. The only people in Chikwawa who own cars work at the BOMA in the government offices and even then the number of vehicles is extremely low. Villagers travel by foot, bicycle or bicycle taxi as owning a bicycle is still a bit of a luxury.

Locally available materials are: bricks, soil, water, timbers, planks, thatch and poles (of wood)

The buildings in the village are made of unheated bricks (heated bricks are much more expensive but are also stronger) and thatch roofs. In the BOMA, the buildings are constructed of a combination of heated bricks, corrugated steel roofs and cement. The Malawian government has recently penalized the use of heated bricks due to the increasing deforestation problem across the country and is promoting the use of cement and soil for building construction.

The major roads, like those leading to the BOMA from Dyratue and Dyratue from Blantyre are constructed and maintained by the government. Local roads, like those connecting villages, are built and maintained by villagers; however, their initial creation is through “work for food” programs supported by the Malawian Government.

Population

In Mbenderana Village, the population is primarily made up of children. Walking around the village you will see tens of children running and playing at every corner. The average person in Mbenderana Village lives to be about 65 years old. The average family size is 3-6 children.

One of the groups of kids who run to greet me as I walk by on my way to the market or work.

Mbenderana Village is governed by a Group Village Headman (Mr. Mbenderana) who is also responsible for overseeing the village heads of six other villages. The Group Village Headman is a tribal leader who is revered and respected within the community. All family quarrels, i.e. marital issues, funerals and land severance are judged and presided over by the Group Village Headman and Village Headman. In addition, the Group Village Headman is responsible for resolving extra-familial conflicts within the community and being knowledgeable on all issues pertaining to the village.

The Group Village Headman presides over issues for nominal fees as well as imposing fines for certain behaviours. As an example, the current Group Village Headman imposed a fine that all women who give birth outside of the hospital must pay. The fee is unaffordable for most families in Mbenderana and as a result very few women in the village take the risk of giving birth outside of the hospital.

The main health concerns in the village are Malaria, particularly in pregnant women and young children. In the rainy season, cholera and pneumonia are concerns for young children. HIV/AIDS is also a growing concern in the village. Mr. Mbenderana estimates that 20-30% of the population in Mbenderana Village is HIV positive. Despite this, the village is located about 3 km from the hospital and in the last few years the number of people living normal lives while being HIV positive has increased due to earlier testing and provision of anti-retroviral drugs such that currently you would not know someone’s status unless they chose to tell you.

Female health is encouraged through a coming of age type ceremony for each girl wherein the women in the community come together to teach the girl about being a good housewife, mother and staying healthy. This decreases (I am told) the number of women who are unaware of the risks associated with pregnancy and not receiving pre-natal care. In addition, the proximity of the hospital is likely a large factor in improving ante and post natal care.

Economy

The economy in Mbenderana Village is based on farming. The staple crops are Chimanga (maize, aka corn) and Tonje (cotton). Chimanga is farmed to be eaten by the families in the community and is dependent on good rains. In comparison, cotton thrives in poorer rainy seasons and thus villagers rely heavily on cotton crops in years of poor rains. In addition to farming, livestock rearing is a common livelihood in Mbenderana Village. Community members raise pigs, chickens, goats and sometimes cows which are relied heavily upon as sources of cash in the years of poor rains. However, although relied upon, in years of poor rains, livestock fetch low market prices due to the need of villagers to sell the livestock in order to feed their families.

Many villagers also rely heavily on “work for food” programs implemented by the Malawian government in years with poor crop yields in order to feed their families. When all else fails, Mbenderana relies heavily on Christian and other charitable organizations to donate food.

After the meeting

At the end of the meeting, I asked Mr. Mbenderana if he had any questions for me. He replied that he had two. The thought crossed my mind that he might ask for money as I know it is customary for fees to be paid when the Group Village Headman resolves a quarrel or gives advice. I was nervous as I did not know how I would respond should he ask me for money but was pleasantly surprised when he asked what I would do back in Canada after living in the community. As I told him about this blog, the work EWB is doing in Canada and the program to develop case studies which supplement the Engineering Curriculum I was proud of the organization I belong to and warmed to see that a small smile spread across his face knowing that people in Canada would learn about him and his community.

The second question he asked me was why I thought his community was poor…now that I will leave for another post!

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by rackattackmississauga on June 23, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    Loved it Lauren, Keep it up. Craig

    Reply

  2. Posted by Tanner on June 24, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    I’m excited to read the next post on the his thoughts on the community!! Its great to see you doing the research into your community that will contribute to many University’s curriculum.

    So what size did the village reach when they decided to split it in two? And what does split it in two mean? I’m really surprised to hear about the women being fined for not giving birth in the hospital but I have to say it sounds like a good more to ensure a safe environment.

    On a side note, how well do the unheated bricks do in heavy rains?

    Thanks for putting so much effort into blogging Lauren!!

    Love Tanner

    PS Let me know if your down for a skype chat next week

    Reply

  3. Posted by Alex on June 24, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    Great post! gives us lots of information about where you’re staying etc.

    I’m excited to hear about your thoughts and Mr Mbenderana’s on why you think the village is poor

    -Alex

    Reply

  4. Posted by David McColl on June 29, 2010 at 2:21 am

    It’s exciting to think of this community’s potential. It sounds like Mbenderana is a fun place to live, with lots of opportunity to work for a better future. I’m proud to have you over there supporting them.

    Reply

  5. Tanner,
    Thanks for the great questions and my apologies for the super slow reply. I tried to discern what size the village got when it split into two but the answers I have been given vary significantly. I notice this with other facts as well – although it is interesting to me when a tap was put into a community – to them it is trivial, the important thing is that the tap is there and it is working. The same goes with the village size “It got too big” “How is it decided that the village became too big” “The group village headman decides” “Is there a number or is based on something else” “The group village headman told us to split?….” and general confused looks about why I am so concerned with the number.

    In terms of the durability of the clay bricks in the rainy season…the answer is low. Structural stability in the rainy season is a big problem which is exacerbated by low soil stability due to deforestation and the sandy nature of the soil in Chikwawa. Many of the ‘main’ houses for families will be constructed at least in part with concrete but not so for some of the sleeping huts and the houses of less affluent families.

    I am good for chatting anytime after Wednesday this week  When works for you, or are you off to camp now?
    L

    Reply

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