Little evidence of Malawian middle class beyond confines of expat community
Poverty and limited educational chances are more pervasive than any affluence
Two friends chat in a street in Blantyre. Malawians who work in the cities, where the middle classes are more likely to be found, are primarily engaged in local government, wholesale and retail marketing, social and community services, construction, transport, finance and business.
Joyce Namasasu: ‘Here you have the very rich, the poor and the very poor, and most people are in the latter two groups.’ Photograph: Bill Corcoran
Lilongwe, the Malawian capital, is still waiting for its middle class to emerge.
Home to the halls of political and administrative power, it has the type of urban development one would expect a modern African city of nearly one million inhabitants to have.
There are hotels, banks, restaurants, bars and shopping centres to be found across both the old and new parts of the metropolis. But it seems like the expats working in the development sector frequent these establishments far more than middle-class Malawians.
The type of entertainment venues one would also associate with the middle classes, such as the theatre and cinema, are also few and far between, if they exist at all in Malawi’s first city.
I visited Lilongwe’s Madsoc Theatre on the first night of my stay – a Thursday – to see a locally produced, politically charged play called Eye of the Tiger, but only seven expats and the Zimbabwean ambassador to Malawi turned up to be entertained.
As for going to the movies – a most middle-class pursuit – there is not even one cinema in Lilongwe.
Indeed, such is the dearth of an obvious Malawian middle class in the city that a Chinese-built hotel and residential housing compound designed to accommodate these upwardly mobile members of society remain empty and unused.
Malawi is one of Africa’s poorest countries, and 40 per cent of the national budget is usually provided by donor aid. The government faces numerous challenges, from building and expanding the economy to improving education and healthcare, and ensuring environmental protection.
While there is no data produced locally in relation to the middle class, the state’s most recent welfare monitoring survey shows its population of more than 15 million people is primarily rural and poor. The majority of those in the three main cities – the other two being Blantyre and Mzuzu – are to be found largely in the hinterland.
About 86 per cent of all employed people work for themselves in agriculture, forestry and fishing, states the survey.
Malawians who work in the cities, where the middle classes are more likely to be found, are primarily engaged in local government, wholesale and retail marketing, social and community services, construction, transport, finance and business.
Joyce Namasasu (51), a general manager with a development company in Lilongwe, says that Malawi’s middle class is very small. “Here you have the very rich, the poor and the very poor, and most people are in the latter two groups,” she said.
Namasasu is a Malawian who could be considered middle class – she is well-educated and has several sources of income derived from property, farming and business enterprises – although she reacts uncomfortably to the suggestion she fits this profile.
When asked why there are not more middle-class people in Malawi, she responds she has been lucky when it comes to the education she received and the opportunities that followed.
“There is a tendency among Malawians to wait for the government to do everything for us, and this attitude comes from a lack of education. If I did not go to a good school I might not have done so well.
“Most people go to school, but to get a good education you have to dig deeper into your pockets. Most middle-class Malawians are just clever people. Entrepreneurs who see the opportunities that are out there,” she says.
Namasasu thinks that to create a proper Malawian middle class the government needs to change the school curriculum so it includes subjects that will empower people, as not everyone can go to university.
“There needs to be technical subjects, like carpentry and entrepreneurial skills other than the usual, like maths, history and English. Most government schools don’t offer these practical skills,” she says.
Mia Stuart, a 29 year-old Malawian businesswoman who grew up in Kenya before returning home, says that middle-class people based in Lilongwe tend to socialise in Blantyre, which is three hours away, rather than in their home town.
Drift to Blantyre
“Lilongwe is where the expatriate community lives, as all the diplomatic missions, development agencies and government departments are based there. Myself and my friends go to Blantyre to have a good time; it is more Malawian.”
In terms of what she and her friends spend their income on, Stuart says they tend to save up and travel abroad to shop and eat at restaurants, as the local quality of goods and entertainment is poor. The education of her children is also a constant preoccupation for her.
“People prefer to go to South Africa or east Africa and spend their money there if they can afford to. The same can said for education. Good local schools in Malawi are extremely expensive – it can cost $1,000 a term to send your child to pre-school.
“Secondary education and university here is also very expensive, but you can send your child to university in east Africa for $800 a term. It is much cheaper and the standard is very good. ”
This series was supported with a grant from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund