Determination and hard work or wealth-gulping python?
By MIKE McGRAW
Thomas Banda was an earnest young Malawian, physically fit, strong and determined. He was a thatcher, a tradesman that had learned the craft of Swazi-thatching in South Africa; cutting and layering tight bundles of grass, creating the beautiful roofs characteristic of African safari lodges.
When I met Thomas, he was one of about 30 local villagers employed at Lake Malawi National Park on a development project sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). I was a recent college graduate and a newly minted Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) directed to oversee a project requiring brick layers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers and thatchers. I had no ability, let alone skills in any of these trades, yet I was to act as a supervisor, overseeing a work crew, purchasing materials and judiciously accounting for how the WWF money was spent.
Thomas worked hard — an exceptional employee, toiling on roof tops, exposed completely to the equatorial sun. The salary for such work would not even be considered meager by Western standards. Yet, all the employees on the project were paid at or above the minimum wage for Malawi. The villagers hired were grateful for the employment and being able to generate an income beyond the subsistence livelihood of fishing and farming. Wages were paid at the end of each month, in cash, handed out in the national currency, the Kwacha. The typical monthly salary was equivalent to about $35.
The income the men generated was important to their families but also easily squandered. The wives of a couple employees would intercept me on “pay day,” collecting their husband’s salaries before it could be spent on locally fermented and distilled spirits. Financial and familial irresponsibility, especially as it related to alcohol, was not uncommon. I could easily have a third of the work crew out for one or two days after being paid and another third coming to work nursing a hangover. Thomas, as far as I knew, had no predilection for alcohol overconsumption. He showed up to work with regularity and collected his pay as an accomplished thatcher, entitling him to a boost in salary beyond that of a general laborer.
I finished my two-year Peace Corps assignment at Lake Malawi National Park at the end of 1992. Since that time, I’ve had several opportunities to go back to Malawi, revisiting the park, the adjacent village of Chembe and the many friends I had made while working as a PCV. Each return visit allowed a new glimpse of the individuals I had worked and socialized with. Most project employees had returned to prior occupations of fisherman and farmer, melding back into village life. A couple folks, predictably, had descended into full-blown alcoholism. The trajectory of Thomas’s life was very different from the rest.
I reconnected with Thomas seven years after I had been his supervisor. We met in Monkey Bay, a very small port town along the Southern shore of the lake. I had my backpack on, waiting roadside for a bus that would take me the remaining 10 miles to my destination Chembe Village and Lake Malawi National Park. Thomas drove up in a well-worn 1980’s Toyota pickup loaded with people and supplies. He got out of the truck he was driving, a man recognizable but physically at odds with the thatcher I had known. As if to acknowledge my surprise, he accentuated his girth with a hearty, if not jolly handshake.
Thomas was now a big man in stature and social standing. He no longer was a thatcher and by his own admission, might crash through a roof if he attempted to get up on one. Thatching, however, is what Thomas parlayed into entrepreneurship. He had taken his skill, marketed it and, unlike anyone else on the WWF project, saved money to reinvest in more profitable endeavors. The beat-up pickup was a testament to his new success as a business owner. In a country where one person in 2,000 might own a vehicle, he stood apart in the traffic of human foot travel. The truck was an important part of his success, the tool needed to transport supplies to his store and guesthouse in Chembe. I jumped into the bed of the truck and sat on a sack of maize flour for a ride down a much improved road to the village.
Travelers in increasing number were discovering the beauty and tranquility of Lake Malawi and Thomas had positioned himself to accommodate them. His guesthouse seemed to be a work in progress — new rooms being added to existing buildings with each successive order of bricks. No need to have a guesthouse fully completed before visitors can be welcomed. Better to build a business in stages, generating income that can continually be reinvested.
Thomas’s store was a very modest affair, stocked with provisions that both a traveler and local villager might want. I bought a bottle of Coca Cola from his refrigerated cooler and he told me his plans to add a restaurant to his fiefdom. Thomas was a success, a man of enhancing fortunes.
His success, as I was to learn during my stay in Chembe, was not necessarily a source of pride by others in the village. “Local kid makes good” would be a qualified statement. Hard work was regarded as a secondary reason for what Thomas had accomplished. I had the impression that some saw him in the same way that 19th Century cartoonists depicted “robber barons” in America: bloated capitalists crushing the little guy in the pursuit of great fortune. This stereotype was untrue except for the bloated part (Thomas’s belly was proof of a comfortable, calorie-rich life; a visual contrast to the nutritional struggles of many Malawians). I did not have the impression that Thomas had hobbled others by what he had accomplished.
A person’s achievements in a Malawian village are seldom attributed to hard work, but rather selfishness. The extended family and village becomes a burden to the entrepreneur, creating demands on financial resources, diluting wealth, making it difficult to reinvest and grow a business. For Thomas to succeed, he had to be selfish, dismissing requests for money and, in turn, experiencing the scorn of family and neighbors.
Thomas, though, was not close to being wholly selfish. He contributed to the community as an employer and source of transportation to and from Monkey Bay. He “gave back,” but the gossip in the village said it was insufficient for a man of his means, leaving some to make the premature judgment that this young man would not be adequately mourned in death. I had the sense that a deceased selfish man should fear the indifference of the living more than the wrath of God in an afterlife.
Besides perceived selfishness, one other thing was a source of alienation between Thomas and the community. In a Malawian village, witchcraft contributes to success or failure as much as motivation, discipline and the ability to delay gratification. Three different people on the three different occasions told me the “true story” for Thomas’s prosperity. It involved black magic or the juju of a feared Singanga in Chembe.
Thomas apparently sought the assistance of the Singanga, appealing to him for help with his business. The help came in the form of a massive python. To generate the cash Thomas needed, the Singanga elicited the help of the snake, guiding it secretly into village huts at night to swallow the wealth of its sleeping residents. The engorged python would then be directed to Thomas’s home, where it would regurgitate what it had taken. Thomas, in this way, acquired a growing fortune by the misfortunes of others. Increased success at the perceived expense of neighbors conjures envy-generated pythons. It is easier to blame hardship on malevolent spirits outside of personal control.
The village environment regulates behavior, checking individual enrichment for the cohesion of the community and the necessity of reciprocity. Thomas, it seems, had strayed too far in his ambitions. A rising tide would need to raise all boats (or at least a middle class of boats) before his could be accepted in a loftier position. However, as an American friend, I admired Thomas’s tenacity and willingness to better himself, confronting with determination the great challenges of living and succeeding in a developing country.