In Mbedza village, a remote rural community in southern Malawi, Fedson Feston beams an infant’s awkward smile and swings his tiny arms up towards the face of his mother. Four months old, Fedson is too young to know how lucky he is to be alive.
When his mother Manes, went into labour, she and her husband were far from the nearest hospital. The couple found a bush on the side of the road and that’s where Fedson and two siblings — triplets, it turned out — were born.
One, a boy named Ezera, died in a hospital the next day. Shortly after, Fedson and his sister, Mandaliza, were discharged.
Premature and still weak, the newborns needed special care, Manes recalled the doctors telling her. “The children were always to be strapped to the belly and be in a warm place all the time,” she said. But it was winter and that proved difficult.
They are a desperately poor family, and Manes’s husband was always away looking for work.
Moreover, the couple had five other young children to look after. It was not long before Mandaliza passed away.
“The house that we live in is makeshift and does not provide enough warmth for premature children,” Manes said. “I think that contributed to our losing the other child.”
After Manes survived their difficult birth, the smallest semblance of a welfare state might have saved the second child.
A few hundred Malawi kwacha (roughly $2) could have bought the family extra blankets and kerosene, or even a meagre amount of unemployment insurance could have provided the family some financial security. Manes’s husband was a seasonal worker and unemployed when the triplets were born.
But in this small country in the Southern Africa
region, such social safety nets largely do not exist.
“To me, this is the reason why women like me are suffering and reaching the extent where we (lose) children who should have otherwise lived,” Manes complained.
This family’s situation is not an isolated case. In Malawi, 74% of the population lives on less than $1,25 a day. Nearly one in 10 children die before their fifth birthday.
Reflecting the fact that significant segments of the population are fundamentally excluded from society due to poverty and inequality, the 2010 Ibrahim Index of African Governance recently handed Malawi an abysmal score of two out of 10.
There is legislation aimed at protecting families from falling on hard times, such as the Employment Act and the recently amended Pension Bill.
However, according to a 2010 report by the International Labour Office in Geneva, 90% of Malawians, more than 13 million people, work outside the formal economy.
Labour minister Lucius Kanyumba argued that the government has attempted to bring such people under the protection of the law. Section 43 of the Employment Act refers to benefits for seasonal workers, he noted.
And a 2010 amendment to the Act reduced the qualifying period for the payment of long-service benefits from 12 months to three.
“This is the drive the government is making in an effort to address the imbalances for all workers in Malawi,” he said, “whether in formal or informal industries.”
But the evidence on the ground suggests such efforts are failing to reach the most vulnerable people they are intended to help. Jonathan Mbenje (73) is a night guard. “For me, to be working at this old age is not out of choice,” he said.
“Being a guard, especially at this age, is very dangerous.”
Mbenje claimed that when his employer and many others do pay out severance packages, the amounts often fall far short of what the law requires.
“Most of the time, they give someone between $120 and $240,” he said, emphasising that is a one-time severance payment. “With that kind of money, you cannot survive; hence I am still working at age 73.”
Enock Andaradi (79) told a similar story. Found scavenging through a garbage dump in Blantyre, Andaradi explained that while he was also once a security guard, he is now forced to live off other people’s waste.