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Malawi: A day in the life of a street paper vendor

 Street News Service 17 December 2019

Harton Banda might not know much about Elizabethan literature. But if he did, he would readily admit that his life had all the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy till The Big Issue Malawi made its welcome intervention three months ago. (2293 Words) - By Joe Opio


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Banda keeps The Big Issue Magazine on display for whoever might be interested as he treks around Lilongwe Photo: Sharon Wibabara

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Banda tries to interest a taxi driver into buying a copy of The Big Issue Magazine. Photo: Sharon Wibabara

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Banda dishes out copies of The Big Issue Magazine to potential customers in a taxi park. Photo: Sharon Wibabara

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Banda zeroes in on a potential buyer at the taxi park. Photo: Sharon Wibabara

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After a fruitless time at the taxi park, Banda starts the long trek in search of buyers. Photo: Sharon Wibabara

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Banda's long trek through Lilongwe in search of buyers can seem desolate at times. Photo: Sharon Wibabara

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Banda exhibits The Big Issue Magazine to passengers in a passing taxi. Photo: Sharon Wibabara

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Banda continuously displays The Big Issue Magazine to motorists in the slender hope that it will catch a buyer's eye. Photo: Sharon Wibabara

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Banda finally hooks an interested motorist and moves in to make his sales pitch. Photo: Sharon Wibabara

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While trying to lure the well-heeled motorists, Banda also keeps out an eye for pedestrians who might be interested in The Big Issue Magazine Photo: Sharon Wibabara

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Banda snaffles himself yet another interested motorist and rehashes his one-minute sales pitch yet again. Photo: Sharon Wibabara

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Banda concentrates his sales powers at the most probable buyer of all the three interested gentlemen. Photo: Sharon Wibabara

Until then, Banda's life had veered from one misfortune to the next unchecked.Born an albino, Banda carried the burden of a condemned man right from birth.

His unusual appearance and pale skin colour marked him out as different from a tender age.

And rather predictably, blatant discrimination stalked each step he took since then.

"When I was young, I would attract glances and looks from people," Banda says. "Of course, it didn't register then, but as I grew up, I started noticing that people treated me differently."

Now, psychologists assert that discrimination can be overcome with support from one's loved ones. But Banda was never afforded such a luxury.

Unlike most cases of prejudice and discrimination, it wasn't just the strangers and neighbourhood children who "treated Banda differently."

As Banda testified when he joined The Big Issue, his own family and relatives partook in the fun as well. This, he said, was because he was born the only albino in his family.

"When he first came here in October," reveals Jolyne Kululanga, the Vendor Recruitment Officer at The Big Issue offices in Lilongwe, "he told me of how, at some point, his own family members started telling me that he wasn't one of them. He said that it was perhaps because the rest of them were 'normal' and he was the only one who looked different. They never made him feel like he belonged."

A lesser mortal would have wilted.

But Banda withstood whatever was thrown at him, concentrated on his studies and fared rather impressively till economic circumstances dictated he couldn't go any further.

That's when he moved in with his uncle, in Lilongwe. But while his uncle played a patient though reluctant host initially, it wasn't long before Banda incurred the harsh treatment again.

His uncle took to imploring him to get a job or else he would be thrown out of his home.

In desperation, Banda tried workplace after potential workplace with no success. Unlike the ordinary job-seeking youth, he had to contend with the fact that few potential employers gave him a chance at all and none saw nor treated him like an ordinary job-seeking youth.

"I was ready to do anything to make some money," Banda reveals. "Despite the fact that I had passed my Malawi School Certificate of Education with 21 points in 2003, I was so desperate I started looking at menial jobs. But even these proved hard to come by. I just wanted to have something to do; something to look forward to when I woke up each morning. I tried different places; asked people to alert me as to any openings but all I got back were negative answers."

With doors closing left, right and centre and none opening, the 26-year old chanced upon a poster urging unemployed and homeless youths to seek self-employment with The Big Issue.

Banda didn't expect his fortunes to change much but then again, he reasoned, it was worth a try.

He stormed The Big Issue offices in Lilongwe, application in tow, and was shocked to be told he would start selling the next morning if he so wished.

"I had expected the usual routine," Banda sighs. "To be asked questions, then told to wait for a response. But when I reached at the Big Issue offices, I was told about the Magazine, its aims and vision and then told that all I had to do was turn up the next day and I would be allowed to start selling."

Aside from the understandable euphoria, the instantaneous offer of a job inspired immediate regrets, Banda discloses.

"It took some time for it to sink in, but when I realized what had happened, I couldn't help but lament the fact that I hadn't known about this opportunity sooner. I had spent months and months searching for a job and gotten rejected so many times…and yet it could have been all so easy if only I had been aware of the opportunity afforded to people like me by the Big Issue."

It goes without saying that selling the magazine on the streets requires a thick skin and an ability to handle rejection smoothly. And used to being turned away, Banda has put his past of rejection to good use ever since he started selling The Big Issue magazine.

Watching Banda pitch innumerable clients time and again, one gets to see why he has sold the highest number of Big Issue copies ever since he joined Magazine as vendor.

Due to the difference in his appearance, Banda is never afforded the same opportunity as other vendors. He has to strive more and sweat a little more to make a sale. Put bluntly, he's always on a hiding to nothing each time he approaches a potential buyer. And more often than not, the prospective buyer waves him off without even looking at what he has to sell.

Yet, ever resilient, Banda shrugs off the snubs and moves onto the next potential consumer with the same enthusiasm he approached the previous one.

His water-off-the-duck's-back attitude has reaped immense dividends thus far.

Not only is he the best magazine seller at Big Issue's Lilongwe office, he also happened to have sold thrice as many copies as the second best vendor in his third month on the streets.

"He's the hardest working vendor without a doubt," Kululanga, the Lilongwe vendor coordinator reveals. "He comes here on time and always manages to somehow sell a high volume despite the fact that he is new to the Big Issue family."

Unlike his counterparts who sell along the street lights and make most of their sales during the predictable rush hour, Banda doesn't restrict himself to one spot.

He walks incredible distances and casts his net as wide as possible.

And therein lies the secret to his success: Approach as many customers as possible and leave the rest to the law of averages.

"True, I get so many rejections but also at the end of the day, I know that amidst those rejections, I'll get a few people who are interested in buying and who will go ahead and pay for the magazine. I try to pitch many people because while the more people you talk to, the higher the chance of rejection, it's also true that the more people you talk to, the higher the chance of making a sale."

Each sale Banda makes however extracts a heavy price.

As an albino, Banda's skin is more fragile than most. And since he has to endure long treks under the scorching Lilongwe sun to meet as much of his customer base as possible, Banda ends up suffering the full wrath of the weather elements; his white cap and sunglasses offering flimsy protection from both the sweltering heat and the blistering rays.

Still, he soldiers on, knowing better than to complain.

"Whatever the difficulties, where I am at now is better than the past," Banda philosophizes. "The Big Issue has changed my life dramatically. At least now, I can look after myself and meet my needs like a grown man should. In the past, I would survive on handouts.  I have even moved out of my uncle's place and managed to put a roof over myself. And I'm also saving the remainder of the money since I don't plan on selling magazines forever."

That's music to the ears of Banda's Big Issue supervisor, who while frustrated at the potential loss of so industrious a vendor, is delighted to see him empowered enough to be dreaming of branching out on his own.

After all, empowerment is a cardinal pillar in The Big Issue mission statement.

A lamentable problem, with alarming effects

IF, as the cliché goes, children are the leaders of tomorrow, then Malawi's future must appear particularly bleak to whoever cares to look. A huge chunk of the country's future leadership seems to be caught in a near-hopeless struggle to survive as ill-timed floods and a rampant food crisis in 2002 left many young children living on the streets, under dire conditions and with the temptation to revert to crime a constant companion.

While prospective leaders elsewhere attend class and refine their abilities for challenges to come, this generation of Malawi's future lives under conditions of virtual starvation; begging, pick-pocketing, doing odd jobs and indulging in prostitution to somehow stave off the worst in their crime-ridden habitat.

The issue of homelessness in Malawi was given a human face when press reports a few years back carried tales of street children to highlight the severity of the problem.

Most heartrending among the stories published was that one of 14-year old orphan, who was a veteran of the harsh life on the streets and a beggar in the commercial city of Blantyre.

The boy revealed the brutal existence he endured, before crowning it with a horrifying ordeal that saw him get raped and sodomized by two men.

"It was on Wednesday around midnight when two men entered our shelter and asked for a space to sleep," he disclosed. "Almost immediately they produced knives and ordered me to undress. When I tried to protest they threatened to kill me if I refused or shouted out. Then they introduced their members into my anus. One after another. I was sodomized right in my room."

It was a tale that provoked a sudden surge in calls upon the government to address the issue of homelessness nationwide. But after a few weeks of sustained pressure and vitriolic press editorials, the story lost steam and the fickle populace moved on as another pressing issue captured news headlines to distract Malawi's 15 million citizens.

Fortunately for homeless Malawians, some anti-homelessness activists have proved immune to the resultant apathy.

The Christian relief and development agency, Tearfund, is one of these activists. Tearfund works hand-in-glove with a number of partners around Malawi and alongside them; it has toiled to ensure that the issue of homelessness retains the spotlight it so crucially deserves.

Nelson Mkandawire, Director of Tearfund partner Chisomo Children's Club, fears that the humanitarian problem occasioned by homelessness is becoming worse with each passing year.

"The food crisis couldn't have come at a worse time," he explains. "With no food at home, many people, especially children were forced onto the street to beg. For many it was their only option."

So desperate was the crisis that at one point, the Chisomo Children's Club reported over a 150% increase in the number of children storming Malawian streets.

"We saw approximately 40 new children coming onto the streets every month, and in December that figure doubled," recalls Mkandawire. "These figures only included unaccompanied children under 14 years of age, but if you included older children and also those who come onto the streets with their parents to beg during the day and go home at night, the true picture was much worse."

Unsurprisingly, NGOs fear that the increase in the number of people on the streets perpetuates the old vicious cycle of a proportionate rise in sexual abuse and subsequently in HIV/AIDS.

"It's undeniable. Once on the street, homeless people are vulnerable to sexual abuse. They are so desperate to make ends meet that they are often lured by the promise of money into questionable sexual vices. This inevitably increases case of sexual abuse and subsequently HIV/AIDS."

The whole affair isn't helped by the fact that Malawi remains one of the ten poorest countries in the world, with more than a third of the population illiterate and life expectancy stuck at around 47 years. With the increased prevalence of HIV/AIDS, it is estimated that over half a million children are orphans.

Local activists and the government's efforts to curb the problem of Malawian street beggars have been further hampered by the fact that most of the homeless people now consider begging a lucrative, more viable option to any further alternatives offered.

"Some people think that they help homeless people by giving them money, but that undermines our objective, which is to reintegrate them into society," Jolyne Kululanga, the Vendor Recruitment Officer at The Big Issue offices in Lilogwe confides. "Parents no longer have authority over their children because they can too easily obtain money by begging. Other parents encourage their children to beg because they receive more than adults do in their work."

To hit two birds with one stone, NGOs like The Big Issue have tried to sensitize the public about using their money, not to encourage begging, but to inspire reformed homeless beggars into more orthodox enterprising schemes.

"We frown upon begging," Kululanga reaffirms. "As our motto states, we encourage 'Working Not Begging.' Our vendors are expressly forbidden from begging. We try to sensitize the public to support us and our vendors by buying the magazines instead of giving money directly to them. This way, the public supports a good cause while also empowering the beneficiaries."

Vendors of The Big Issue Magazine are paid as they work, retaining 50% of the proceeds from the sale of the magazines they vend.

The Big Issue's approach has been emulated by other NGOs like Tikondane which urges members of the public to take a proactive stance in fighting homelessness, instead of the hand-off approach of simply donating money to whichever beggar they come across.

Such simple but empowerment-driven solutions might need sustained effort to pull off.

But no one within the NGO community doubts they could be the perfect antidote to the dangerous scourge of homelessness that has wreaked havoc across Malawi.

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