(a) Idle Time
Malawi’s greatest untapped resource is the labor force of its adult population. The national economy lacks the robustness to generate nearly enough jobs to employ fully that portion of its able-bodied population that would like to work to provide for themselves and their families. If jobs were available, thousands upon thousands more would be in the workforce, generating money to purchase consumer goods, further driving the economy. But the jobs are simply not there. Nine-to-five jobs, as we think of them in the United States, are extremely rare. I would estimate that less than 10% of the adults in the four local branches have steady employment. Instead, many—men, women, and older children, in the cities, trading centers, and villages--are constantly looking for piece work to earn money, because they cannot find steady work. They raise and sell chickens, make aluminum hangers, paint part-time, hire themselves out as security guards, hawk goods and vegetables along the roads, and transport charcoal and other goods from the villages to the trading centers and larger cities for redistribution and sale. Indeed, they take whatever small jobs they can find to make a little money.
In addition, to provide for basic necessities (food and shelter), they—men and women alike--set up small cottage businesses, working from their homes or out of nearby roadside stands, to sell to neighbors charcoal, scones, tomatoes, potatoes, avocados, guavas, sugar cane stalks, and whatever else they think their neighbors are prepared to buy. They erect temporary small stoves along the roads to roast potatoes—the local equivalent of a McDonalds. Each local market has, in addition to the community maize mill, its own barber, tailor, seamstress, beautician, carpenter, and mortician. Everywhere there are roadside stands selling chickens, vegetables, candies, small plastic vials of water, used clothes. The enterprising set up shop at busy corners, selling bananas, copies of the daily papers, sugar cane, scones. Like carnival hawkers back home, men carry cardboard flats, strapped with toys, dolls, and other knickknacks for kids, walking from township to township, in hopes of a few sales.
But, when all is said and done, there is simply not enough enterprise to keep everyone busy and to fill all of the food pots needed to clothe and feed the population. It is hard to see how these trends will reverse themselves. At the make-shift neighborhood stands, women wait patiently for hours to make a few isolated sales, often sitting in small clusters of three or four, with small children under foot. They idly talk, wiling away the hours, as their infants are nursed, small kids play in the street ditches and along the roadside, and older kids look for more mature forms of entertainment. Men work when they have work. But there is still lots of down time—often they congregate to play “boa,” the country’s most popular board game, played on a flat wood board, pockmarked with a series of positioned shallow scooped out bowls. Marble sized balls are moved rapidly from bowl to bowl until someone wins. Occasionally, we stop to watch men playing, but still we have no sense for the rules or how the game is played.
Often I have wondered why the government doesn’t try harder to harness this resource. It seems to be such a waste not to put those to work, who are both able and willing to do so. It does not take a lot of imagination to think what they might be able to do. But it doesn’t happen. One thinks of the “New Deal” in the United States, with its massive public work projects, that put thousands of idle American adults to work, helping to bring the country out of the Great Depression. Malawi could certainly benefit from similar projects, both improving the inadequate infrastructure and providing jobs for the people. But it is hard to see how Malawi could replicate that experience, since the country is now virtually bankrupt, in part due to the massive embezzlements and thefts perpetuated by corrupt, self-serving politicians, with some access to the public coffers.
(b) Waiting To Be Entertained
Another reason Malawians gather and wait is to be entertained. It is likely that we don’t quite appreciate this communal need, but there is no doubt but what it exists. The entertainment options readily available in the United States don’t exist in Malawi. Community parks, pools, libraries, and recreational facilities are virtually unheard. Nowhere does one find miniature golf, driving ranges, go-carts, fast food, movie theatres, tennis courts, sports and fitness clubs. There are a few soccer programs, but they pale in comparison to the massive organized sports programs open to all-age groups in the United States. Kids don’t have the electric gadgets so common in the United States—PlayStation, Nintendo, personal computers. For that matter, they don’t have the board games found in every American home.
The hunger for virtually any type of entertainment was evident when Carole and I visited with Brother Tsegula’s family in his home village in the Thyolo District. Within a half an hour of our arrival, ten to twenty—primarily women and children—gathered to watch the family reunion and to gawk at the “azungus.” For the most part, the adults sat quietly, chatting, while the children diverted themselves with normal child’s play—chasing one another, climbing small trees, giggling and mugging for the camera. What was unexpected was how long the neighbors, including the kids, stayed around. They were there for the better part of five hours. Surely the composition of the group may have changed, people coming and going. What makes it so extraordinary is that nothing of any consequence happened. But still they waited and waited, as though expecting something unusual or entertaining or diverting to happen. They did not appear bored, just mildly amused. Public schools were in holiday, so it may not be so surprising to find the school-aged children at loose ends. But even then, why didn’t they leave when it was apparent that nothing much was going to happen. Back home, a similar sized group would have broken up after thirty minutes or so, as they got bored, drifting off, looking for something more exciting and active.
While this was an isolated experience, it is fairly representative of what can happen virtually at any time.
Time seems to be a radically different commodity in Malawi. It is more freely spent or, depending upon perspective, squandered or wasted, because it is not as scarce. Extra time is not treated as a premium commodity so, without feeling guilty, it can be liberally used to visit with friends, wait for a social, or for lounging around.