As she traverses the streets of Blantyre, her eyes squint around. She is wary. Life in the city offers no margin of error. If not cautious, her day will be ruined. The merchandise on her head weighs like a rock. She must endure the pain. In this basket are tomatoes, onions, eggplants and vegetables.
On she paces across the street. She hears a car screeching to a halt. Hell breaks loose. It’s the city rangers— no nonsense men salivating to catch her.
They surround her. They have caught her red-handed breaking the law. Do not mind that they have not found her selling items on the streets. They have found her walking there and concluded she is selling items, narrates Madalitso Mphyu, a 32-year-old woman whose life experience in the city is replete with dramatic battles with city rangers.
The rangers confiscate her merchandise. They take the basket away as spoils of war. With unfathomable incredulity, she watches the vehicle speed away, receding in sight, diminishing with distance.
Mphyu resolves to follow the rangers. She cannot let her merchandise go just like that. She has lost her capital. Every day she leaves her home in Machinjiri for the city—selling her merchandise.
“I have six children. Their father died. So I sell these items to put food on the table. I am both their father and mother,” she says.
But, according to Anthony Kasunda, Blantyre City Council (BCC) public relations manager, it is against the city by-laws to trade in undesignated places, as such, the rangers move about the city chasing people who are selling items in such undesignated places like streets and on verandas of shops.
Mphyu dismisses the council’s stand that people should be trading only in markets.
“There is no space in markets. Markets are overcrowded,” she argues.
In addition, she cannot sell alongside ‘big traders’ from whom she has bought her merchandise to resell.
“I buy my items from those traders at the market. So I cannot survive the competition if I sell there alongside them. That is why I choose to sell them away from the market. Like here at Zubeda [in Limbe],” she says.
On this, Kasunda says: “Our markets are not overcrowded. We have 26 markets in Blantyre City. For example, at Kamba Market there is a lot of space. Markets are not only Blantyre and Limbe. Let us utilise what we have at the moment.”
In October 2016, the court users’ committee at the High Court in Blantyre urged BCC and street vendors to find ways of resolving misunderstandings between them.
The committee observed that vendors have often complained that BCC rangers beat them up and confiscate their merchandise without proof that they were selling trading in unauthorised places.
Blantyre chief resident magistrate Thom Longwe said the country’s Constitution allows anyone to operate their business anywhere, especially in places where they will not violate city or district by-laws
So, BCC and traders in the city are in a mouse-and-cat relationship. Mphyu and her colleagues say sometimes they find themselves in police custody. To be set free, police demand K5 000 from them as bail bond.
“Sometimes the rangers take our clothes, money, cell-phones and food,” the woman claims.
But Kasunda says the council confiscates the merchandise from these women to exhibit in court as evidence, but the women dismiss this claim.
“They don’t take us to court. Instead, they take away our merchandise. When they take our merchandise, we lose them completely. I lost two zitenje [wrappers],” says Rose Wedson, another trader at Zubeda.
All the risk these women are taking in trading in undesignated places might be a result of overpopulation in the country, which is putting a strain on resources and women are the worst hit as they are less empowered economically, according to economists.
Local demographics and economic experts urged authorities to tackle population and development concurrently to ensure robust economic growth to mitigate the poverty levels. Malawi’s population is projected to surpass 20 million in 2023, according to the forecasts by the National Statistical Office (NSO).
Economists argue that when population growth rate is higher than the gross domestic product (GDP), growth rate dwindles. Malawi has a per capita GDP of $376 [K275 984] which is one of the lowest in the world and is also characterised by high dependency ratios. This applies to these women who, through their small-scale businesses, are supporting many people. They have perfected the art of surviving in situations of tussling with city rangers.
But where are organisations that champion rights of women, wonders Mphyu.
“We don’t even know that there are such organisations, which can lend us money to do decent business and not these humiliating games with city rangers,” she says.
Well, there are plenty of organisations that look into the welfare of women. But it seems they are selective in their care. The International Union of Food (IUF) Women’s Project commemorated the International Women’s Day at an event in Blantyre last February where national coordinator of IUF women’s project Dorothea Makhasu said their aim was to promote and protect workers’ rights, especially those of women.
“There are many challenges women face at workplaces such as sexual harassment and gender-based violence,” The Nation quoted Makhasu as saying.
Minister of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Jean Kalilani said government was on track to ensure that women in the country were empowered.
Speaking in Lilongwe during a news conference on the 61st Commission of Status of Women (CSW) in February this year, Kalilani said: “We are making progress on making sure that women are empowered in the workplace and even making them economically empowered.”
The policies seem to be targeting a working-class woman who is already empowered economically through formal employment. The woman plying her trade on the streets, whose day’s itinerary includes fighting with city rangers, is forgotten and condemned to frustration, anger, hunger and despondency. n