Nobody’s going anywhere

A man sits on his generator waiting for a fuel delivery. Next to him, a car fuel tank brought to the queue.

It wouldn’t have been the first time a musungu got stopped from taking photographs; people don’t like nosy journalists recording their actions. But these men were not defending their privacy, after all, I wasn’t taking snaps of their endless wait for a petrol delivery at a local pump, I was shooting the latest show of creativity from black market vendors.

A month ago the government of Malawi prohibited the sale of fuel in jerry cans in an attempt to stop the thriving black market from acquiring all the fuel and selling it at two and three times the official price. This price, by the way, went up by 31% in November because, the government said, the currency had devalued. Funny that, the currency only devalued 10%. Now, in a country where the minimum daily wage doesn’t reach one dollar, the cost of a liter of petrol is at $2.30 – that’s $11.50 per gallon.

Anyway, since jerry cans were outlawed, illegal vendors have gotten very creative. Some bring generators to the pump, fill them up, walk around the corner and empty the fuel in the infamous yellow plastic jerry cans. Some bring vehicles that are out of circulation. Even after they’ve been filled with petrol, the cars have to be pushed out of the station; they’re worthless. The tanks are then drained with a hose. At this particular pump, however, where the police had not come to stand around, as they usually do nowadays (not that this makes a difference in people cutting in the line; I’ve seen the cops themselves back in their vehicles to the front to the queue while the rest of us watch), a man had brought in the fuel tank of a car. Just that, the naked tank, didn’t want to bother bringing in the rest of the useless vehicle, I guess.

So, why are you taking pictures, the men start asking me. They don’t want an answer; they’ve made up their minds about me already and they are not happy. There’s about six of them, a couple are making accusations against white people – I’m not white, I say, I’m not even from a developed country! They don’t care, I’m white, as far as they’re concerned. And how dare you, white people, not help us! Look how we are suffering. You don’t want to help us because we don’t agree with homosexuality.

This is a bit of a distorted version of a small truth: the government of Germany, amongst a few others who have recently cut back aid to Malawi, said they could not support a government that discriminates against people. A couple of Malawian gay men were imprisoned two years ago for their sexual orientation. Their court case made international headlines and ultimately Ban Ki-moon himself had to come over for a chat with the president, Bingu wa Mutharika, so the men would be ‘pardoned’. Talk about international influence. Malawian society is still very conservative. The men were released, but that doesn’t mean homosexuality is an accepted way of life in this country. It has taken Western countries a few shameful decades to come to terms with it themselves.

Back to my grilling. A man wearing a vest with a security company logo comes up to me. I must delete the picture, he demands. I tell him I won’t, I’m allowed to take pictures as this is a public space, and in any case I’ve already spoken to the owner of the station and he has encouraged me to take these pictures. Do I have a permit, another asks. Of course I don’t, where am I going to get a permit to take this random photo? They are all grunting at me. The security guard takes a step forward and tries to grab my camera. At this point I’m aware of being pressed against a car, with this growing group of men around me. For the first time since I moved to Malawi, I wanted to have a policeman around. The security guard continues to pester me, so I tell him we will go to a police officer and resolve the matter. I was lucky enough to find a traffic warden nearby who had the good sense to inform the guard that taking pictures in public spaces is allowed.

The group of men dissipated like fog that gives way to a sunny day. That’s the weather in Malawi these days: sudden clouds of frustration thicken up in the least expected moment. Vice president Joyce Banda, an ardent critic of the government she works for, explained it the other day by saying Malawians are feeling hopeless and are taking their frustrations out on each other.

Banda was commenting on a bizarre episode of fogged judgement that happened this week. A group of young men randomly attacked women who were wearing tight trousers. It used to be, over a decade ago, illegal for women to wear miniskirts and trousers in Malawi. Like I said, a very conservative society. There are still areas of town in the capital where a woman would be urged to cover up if her skirt was above the knee. But it has been unheard of for men to tear off women’s trousers on the street. Needless to say this has been the topic of debate for a few days. What is surprising, however, is to realize just how many Malawians – and Africans in general, for that matter – believe it immoral for women to wear tights or miniskirts. “No responsible woman would wear something that provokes men, and the women who do will be dealt with,” said a caller of a local radio show that was debating the incident. There were several comments of that nature.

There are those who believe the attackers, who at the time said they were acting under the orders of the president, were organized by a mastermind who wanted to embarrass Mutharika, who recently made a comment that vaguely touched on women’s attires. This prompted Mutharika to give an improvised speech condemning the actions of the attackers and saying women in this country can wear whatever they want.

Malawians are in a deep crisis. It’s not just the lack of forex, of fuel, of foreign aid, the rising cost of living, the degrading prices of tobacco, the biggest export product, or the rampant corruption at every level of government. Analysts are fresh out of people to blame, to the point that president Mutharika announced in a speech in december that Malawi’s problems were the devil’s doing, and that all poor Malawians could do is pray.

Naturally, when a President’s solution to economic problems is for people to pray, there will be more than a few who lose their faith in government. Society is at this point flirting with anarchy. Last week police ventured into downtown Lilongwe to clear street vendors who have taken over the area outside the main market and bus depot. The vendors threw rocks at the police and chased them away. This area, by the way, is the flagship of black market fuel. It’s common knowledge that all the vehicles parked outside the bus depot are jammed packed with full jerry cans brought from Zambia. “Police can’t stop us, we are too strong, we would chase them out if they came here,” a vendor told me.

The situation is getting more tense by the day. People are taking matters on their owns hands, like the teachers who, after complaining for months of having ratio of 72 students per teacher, decided to reduce their classes to 60 students. The students then decided to protest by vandalizing school property. It was not until the violence was getting out of hand that police were called in. Their strategy to calm school children was to throw tear gas.

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