Selina, her husband, and four children are among the 1.2 billion people in the world living on less than a dollar a day – what the United Nations calls “extreme poverty.” It is families like Selina’s that the leaders of the world’s wealthiest nations will be looking to help as they meet in Scotland for the G-8 summit this week. Selina’s message to donors is quite simple. “Monetary help is needed,” she says. “We want iron sheets on our houses. We want capital for our businesses.” In a typical week, Selina will make 1,125 Malawian kwatcha, or $9.09, in fritter sales. With the $5.17 that’s left over after she buys supplies for her next batch, she’ll purchase food and amenities for her family and tuck away $1.25 into savings. Her annual earnings, combined with her husband’s earnings as a farmer, will give the family of six, after business expenses, about $453 to live on this year.
Selina married her husband, Bonefesi Malema, when she was 16 and took his first name as her last. Selina’s fritter business is meant to be a buffer against hard times, warding off the insecurity that comes with each growing season. Selina says her contribution is only to “take some of the financial strain off my husband and to help his farming business.” But this year, Selina is the main breadwinner. The fruits of her labor are 150 small fritters and 150 large fritters, which will sell for about $.02 and $.04, respectively. Her customers are her neighbors, schoolchildren hungering for a midmorning snack, and people headed to the market three miles past her town. They all know Selina’s house and yell out to her from the yard for service with a smile.
With the exception of the trip to the market to buy supplies, Selina’s entire business – preparation and selling – is done within the confines of her house, allowing her to continue her primary role as the caretaker of her family. “Some women have had problems with their husbands when they engage in economic activities,” she explains. “Those are the women who neglect their family duties.”
Most days Selina walks the three miles to the market. With the money that’s left over from buying $3.92 worth of fritter supplies, she’ll purchase fish ($.24), tomatoes ($.08), and practical items – soap, lotion, and salt, for a total of $.51. Trousers and two blouses for her youngest children tally $.50 after bargaining down the price. Next week she’ll give her son $1.25 to select his clothes but will spend up to $1.60 on her daughter, knowing the importance of an attractive wrap. She motions to the brightly colored cloth that covers her legs. “If a woman has more than one of these, then she is a real woman,” she says.
With fish and tomatoes from the market, Selina will make a special porridge supper. Usually they will eat porridge garnished only with dried pumpkin and bean leaves, picked from the surrounding area in season and dried for use throughout the year. Greens from their garden also provide some variety to their meals. But because the diet is generally bland, Selina says, “I do struggle to get a little tomato for flavor.” If they ever find themselves with extra funds, Selina and her husband will treat themselves to luxury items: a liter of milk for $.38, a loaf of bread for $.50, or half a pound of beef for $2.50. The family has precious few belongings, all bought from the local market – a pail for water, a handmade lamp, and some plastic chairs that they hospitably lay out for visitors not accustomed to sitting on the hard-packed dirt. Several years ago, after a particularly fruitful harvest, Bonefesi bought his most powerful possession: a bicycle worth $50, which is used to transport tobacco from the field. He also enjoys a radio he bought for more than $4.
Bonefesi farms both tobacco and maize on his three-acre holding. He laid out a whopping $67.87 for fertilizer this year and will struggle to see returns on his investment. The income from Bonefesi’s farming activities will total $197.07 and will yield $118.29 in profits this year. With this, Bonefesi can pay for the $75.14 in annual family expenses that Selina’s earnings do not cover, including school uniforms and fees. This does not leave much margin for investment in business, or for emergencies like funerals, illness, or a low return on crops. Fortunately, the sale of 15 of the family’s chickens will add $36.36 to the kitty, as well as protein to Selina’s dishes. They don’t eat the eggs – they would rather let them mature into full-grown birds. This year they could save about $175, some of which they will put aside for harder times.
While all the children pitch in to help in the fields or by selling fritters, Anne, the oldest daughter, bears the brunt of the household chores. While her 19-year-old brother, Sifiledi, attends 11th grade, she stays home to help her mother. Anne completed 8th grade, the last free year of public school, but her parents cannot afford the cost for 9th grade.They do, however, consistently pay Sifiledi’s yearly tuition bill of $29.09 and a per annum of $6.46 for school supplies and smart pink-and-blue uniforms for the three school-going children.
Bonefesi proudly tells of Sifiledi’s ambition. “He would like to work in the government in the rank of official,” he says. They hope that if he continues to study he will achieve his dream. Anne has ambition, too. She would like to be a nurse. While the children will hope to earn more than their parents, the majority of teens will remain in the village as farmers and housewives. While Selina and Bonefesi will continue to work diligently at their businesses, Bonefesi wants Western readers to know: “It is good to live in Malawi, but poverty is the real struggle. If there are other countries that are willing to help, let them help us fight poverty. Poverty is the biggest enemy we know.”