An American sociologist went to do research in the Ivory Coast two years after the country had gained independence from the French Government. He visited, among other places, a village called Ebrie which was within the boundaries of Abidjan City. He spent several hours discussing the difference between change and progress. His hosts told him: “Before the white man came, we had time but no watches. Now we have watches, but no time.”
A watch is a symbol of modernisation. It means you live in a modern city where it is said time is money, do not waste it.
Modernisation most of the time means changes taking place in rural areas where we find villages instead of towns. These villages are often surrounded by gardens. People reckon time by the cry of the cock and how high up the sun has risen.
Generally in villages in the past, there were no glaring inequalities. Every member of a village owned a piece of land to cultivate. His harvest depended on the strength of his arm. With the growth of the rural population and the use of advanced agricultural implements, there is no more spare land for distribution. Now there is rural landlessness at unprecedented scales.
Fifty or 60 years ago, especially earlier, a person would go to work abroad such as Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) or South Africa. After buying clothes to come and share with his relatives or carpentry tools he would come back and set up a workshop usually in his village while cultivating his plot for food. Similarly, a clerk and a medical assistant who retired from government services usually went and resettled in their villages, visiting the town occasionally just to collect his pensions. He was never bothered about rents, buying food or paying for water bills. In these,he was self- sufficient.
The situation is now very different. People who have retired from town jobs do not go back into the village but settle in urban centres such as Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu, buy or erect a house there. This is partly for social, psychological or economic reasons.
Having lived in urban life for a good part of his life, he finds it difficult to go and live in the village and adjust to the simple life of no newspaper, no football, no tea or European type beer. Secondly, there is just not enough land to cultivate for food and income so he or she prefers to remain in town.
We have the problem of urbanisation. The land does not offer opportunities for a living to everybody; people go to town which as yet has few industries to offer them jobs. So, what do people do in urban centres? Eking out a living out of petty trading but increasingly some have specialised in armed robbery.
Those who are managing the macro-affairs of this country should be better informed on the needs of the people in the rural areas as well as those in urban areas. It is high time universities were given funds to do rural and urban surveys and provide accurate pictures of problems and opportunities people face in these zones. Only then on the basis of such survey can effective policies be adopted and empower the people.
A few days ago I stopped at a shop in Blantyre to buy a five kilogramme pack of maize flour. When I took it to the till to pay for it, the cashier demanded K1 500. I thought she had made a mistake.
The last time I bought such a pack at the shop, I remember to have paid something like K4 000. Naturally not only was I surprised but pleased that out of the K4 000 I had brought with me, I would go back home with K2 500.
The price of necessities has fallen in urban centres. This is good for poorly paid urban dwellers. Food prices have drastically fallen in response to the bumper harvest that has submitted to the law of supply and demand. But farmers are not happy to sell at give away prices. They say they are unable to recover the costs of production.
Professional advice must be sought on how to reconcile farmers’ rights to remunerative incomes and urban dwellers need for affordable necessities. In place of vagueness, let us have verification. n