Meria Maulana is a small, shrunken old lady sitting on a mat outside a mudbrick house. Behind her, a makeshift football field has been set up on a cleared square of bare earth, with goal posts made from bamboo poles. A group of small children kick around a homemade football, ingeniously made from plastic bags wrapped in elastic bands.
It’s a cold morning in the middle of winter, and Meria wears a fleece jacket, headscarf and chitenje wrap. She appears frail but has a surprising amount of energy, optimism and a mischievous sense of humour. She frequently breaks into laughter or a broad gap-toothed smile. Meria doesn’t know her own age but says that she was 3 in 1949, which makes her 71. “My husband passed away a long time ago,” she says. “I don’t remember when. It was before my grandchildren were born.”
Meria’s son also passed away after a short illness. She now looks after her two grandchildren: Estere, 12, and Francis, 11. Meria used to be a maize farmer, but is unable to work the fields as much as in the past, because of an asthmatic cough. “This year I harvested one bag of maize, one of peas and one of beans,” she says. “My field is in a swampy area and we were hit hard by the floods. I had five ducks but I sold two of them.”
Looking after two young children is hard work for an old woman, but things got better in 2014. Meria started receiving 4,100 kwacha per month under a social cash transfer programme, supported by UNICEF and implemented by the Government of Malawi. “The money helped me so much,” Meria recalls. “I used it to buy livestock, school uniforms and food for my grandchildren during the droughts.”
In Meria’s community there is a village bank, where people can save money and take out small loans. “I really appreciate the village bank. I’d never banked before in my life,” she says. “I didn’t trust banks. I used to tie money in my chitenje.”
Meria saved some of her monthly cash transfer and took out a loan to start a small business making homebrew beer from surplus maize. In Malawi, brewing spirits at home is illegal, but traditional beer is permitted. The business helps Meria supplement her farming income and look after her grandchildren.
“I make the best homebrew in this area,” Meria says proudly. “We play a drum to let people know when it’s ready. Everyone comes here first. I don’t know if it is as good as Carlsberg, but I can tell you it is good.” She laughs and adds: “I wish I had some to serve you now. You shouldn’t be sitting there without a beer!”
Meria’s granddaughter Estere helps her brew the beer, although she’s not allowed to drink it. “I’m in Standard 4 at school,” she says. “My favourite subjects are English and Chichewa. I like reading. When I grow up I would like to be a radio reporter. I like it when they are reading the news. I like finding out what is happening in other countries.”
Estere is smartly dressed after attending a friend’s birthday party. Her brightly coloured chitenje is illustrated with a picture of a woman carrying a baby. She likes living with her grandmother. “Granny tells me stories from local folklore,” she says. “My favourite story is about a girl who finds an egg in the forest. There’s an argument about who owns it. When it hatches, there are two cows inside. The girl sings and the cows follow her, so everyone knows that they’re hers.”
Estere struggled during the hunger crisis. “Sometimes I would go to bed without eating because we had no maize flour,” she says. “But I would still go to school. They gave us porridge at lunch time. It’s much better now. We have enough to eat. I fetch water and help Granny brew the beer. She says I’m her right hand woman.”
Social cash transfer
UNICEF is supporting the Government of Malawi to implement the Social Cash Transfer Programme, also called ‘Mtukula Pakhomo’ in Chichewa. Funded by the EU, German government, Irish Aid, World Bank and the Government of Malawi, it currently reaches the poorest 10 percent of families, targeting those who cannot work due to factors like disability or old age. Beneficiaries receive a small monthly allowance which varies, depending on the number of family members and school-aged children.
“A central idea of cash transfers is that families are best placed to know what they need,” UNICEF’s Chief of Social Policy Edward Archibald says. “For some families it’s food, for others housing and transport, and for others education and medical expenses. By giving cash, the families can spend it on whatever they need most. The evidence shows that virtually no beneficiaries will spend it on the wrong things and that, overall, this is one of the most effective ways to help vulnerable families.”
Counting the coin
Petro Nambawani, 72, is the treasurer of the village bank in Meria’s area. Like her, he supports two grandchildren, plus a disabled wife. “As a young man, I worked for a mining company in South Africa. My role was to show visitors round the mine. I used the money I earned to build this house,” he says, proudly showing off a large brick house with several rooms and a terrace. It is three or four times the size of Meria’s dwelling.
Alongside the cash transfers, the village bank promotes a culture of saving and entrepreneurship. “Every month people pay money into the bank,” Petro explains. “We then loan the money out to bank members. They pay it back at the end of the month plus ten percent interest, which is shared out between everyone who paid money in. My job is to count the money and make sure the books balance.”
The social cash transfers, village bank and food aid all contribute to helping families like Meria’s to withstand and recover from shocks like the past hunger crisis and become resilient. By saving money and investing in her own business, Meria has become self-sufficient. She no longer relies on subsistence farming, which is difficult for a woman of her age and vulnerable to droughts and floods.
Within a few years, her grandchildren will be able to help support the family. By supporting their education, Meria is also maximising their future earnings — if Estere becomes a radio journalist, she will earn much more than a farmer.
Recently, many social cash transfer households in Meria’s district also received an energy efficient cooking stove and a solar powered lamp from Irish Aid. Meria is thrilled with the lamp, which Estere and Francis use to read and do their homework in the evenings. “I never dreamed that I could own something like this,” she says happily.
This story first appeared in the Sunday Times