I will remember forever the first time I met Mary. She was thin, scrawny, fragile, timid and very afraid. Maybe she was afraid of me, being white, because at that time she had probably seen very few white faces. White people, even now are rarely seen in villages and even less likely to be found working in a field or conversing with the locals. Desperation has driven her to come seeking a job, having no education, little skill or knowledge of farming. Harisen had his doubts as to her ability to work, more likely to drop down in a weakness, and we had employed two other, day workers, that day on the farm in Lusangazi. I suggested that whatever about the job, she needed the money. By day’s end she got paid her 150 Mk (about 70 cent), as did the others. She wanted to buy a bunch of bananas, because herself and her family were starving) costing 100 Mk so we gave them to her, free. Maybe it was the best day of her 28 years, the first time she had money, the first time she had a job and the first time she had hope for tomorrow.
Now I know that she had five children, a husband with a liking for the drink, mother, father and relations, living about a kilometre away and all waiting for her to return. If you have a job in Malawi you find that all your relations turn up for assistance.
Mary Mwanza is still working on the farm, five years later. Even though she has added two more children, she looks great, hardly recognisable.
Of course life is still at a subsistence level, but she has enough food, her children go to school, she has great friends on the farm and if there is any shock, Wells for Zoë help her to absorb it. When we take on employees in Malawi we are there for them in their difficulties, because that is the way we choose to be, in the absence of any type of social welfare.
Mary is the longest serving employee on the farm and is highly respected by her peers. At the beginning of 2012 we initiated a savings scheme, by increasing wages by 1000 Mk (4 Euros) per month, while insisting that it be saved. Then when they had saved 50000 Mk, they could start lending to group members. This farm fund is managed by the workers. They decide on loans, terms and interest.
The fund has two trustees, who make sure that everything is fair and honest. Even though she never got to primary school, can’t read or write, can’t count money, she has been elected by the fourteen staff to mind their money. This is the ultimate honour from one’s peers.
I thought it a ridiculous decision and quietly asked why. Because she is totally honest, and would never tell a lie and says it as it is. Every day I live with these people, I am taught the most amazing lessons. Ironically this lesson it is to keep the accountants and bean counters away from our money and leave the money to honest souls. The financial world would do well to consult with Mary Mwanza.