The core of my second Postcard from Malawi, without the anecdotes and illustration:
The nuclear family it seems, despite its much reduced social network, is a more efficient economic unit. This is perhaps one of the brakes that slow up Malawian entrepreneurship. It is an interesting observation that while small scale native Malawian enterprise is evident everywhere, large scale enterprise isn’t, and it is the Indian and immigrant populations who have most visibly built small businesses into large companies and who have become the entrepreneurial business class. Of course many factors help explain this situation. Malawian history plays its part; Hastings Banda’s regime can’t be said to have stimulated free thinking entrepreneurs. Lack of access to capital is also obviously crucial. Less obvious, and more deep-rooted, is the lasting effect of colonial and missionary influence on education. In schools you find even now that white collar occupations are valued and initiative is positively discouraged.
These factors combine into and are magnified by a further factor, a feature, I suspect, of poverty anywhere in the world: a bias in favour of the immediate, the today, and against planning for the future. This is partly a response to reality; subsistence living by definition does not leave any slack for insuring against or capitalising on the future. Even when living is somewhat above subsistence, however, the mindset persists – fatalistic, short termist, suited to survival but not to aspiration.
This is the greatest, and most delicate, complaint levied against the Malawian situation. I hear it everywhere and observe its effects. It is a delicate complaint because it tight-ropes between reality, stereotype, and patronising western attitudes. But if things are to improve Malawians must learn the lessons of commercial
Blantyre and the Indian entrepreneurs. Personal aspiration may be better served by entrepreneurship than handouts or politics.