Author: Wojtek Stępniak
Edited: Jessica Lemire
"It's pretty good job" he gushed.
"I push trolley of tobacco for 12 hours and I get a dollar”.
I listened. I was shocked. 12 hours of work for just one dollar?
I'm in Malawi. Malawi is a landlocked country in Southern Central Africa, in the Great Rift Valley, on the western shore of Lake Nyasa. It is a beautiful, diverse country of 17 million people, stunning landscapes, and amongst some, overwhelming hardship.
I exhausted the limited tourist attractions of Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe quicker than I anticipated. And I was left wondering how to spend the rest of my time in this bustling and unique city. Walking through the streets you can’t help but notice an unsubtle in-your-face approach to the sale of tobacco, the narrow streets are walled with bags full of it. Having seen porters pushing around burly 500-600 pound trolleys of tobacco, the idea of visiting where it originated perked my interests.
The warehouse was huge and dusty, made of corrugated iron and sheet metal. The sooty air reeked of Malawian “green gold”. Inside the warehouse were thousands of bags full of sorted and soon to be sorted tobacco leaves. The atmosphere was hazy and thick with dust. Within seconds of being inside the building, I was gasping for air. Wheezy and teary, my guide offered me a cigarette- “when you smoke you can’t feel the dust” he exclaimed.
Within minutes, I felt the dense particles of dried tobacco leaves stain my hair and clothing. I soon tasted it inside my mouth. I couldn’t stop coughing and I started to feel weak. Within 10 minutes my head was in agony. I felt sick and lethargic. I was left wondering what it’s like for the people who work there for 12 hours per day.
Steven, my guide abruptly shoves me to the side, interrupting me from my thoughts: “be careful, they can hit you”. It is then that I see a porter thrusting a bulging trolley towards us. The trolleys are so heavy they can’t safely steer or even stop them. In fact, every year multiple people die from being hit by these trolleys.
From what I have seen porters don't wear protective masks, in fact, they don’t wear protective gear. Their tattered, worn clothing, are spent from walking 12 hours per day along dusty roads under a blistering sun. An unmistakable sign of hard work and little pay.
"How much does the average porter or factory worker earn?” I ask.
"Monthly? $30. It's quite much for them, as they have no qualifications or education” explains Steven.
"How long they can work in this way?”
I ask because I already know that the average life expectancy of a Malawian is quite low. According to UN statistics, in 2015 the average life expectancy was approximately 60 years old.
"Not long. Usually three or four years before being diagnosed with cancer or pneumoconiosis.”
During my stay in Malawi, I haven't seen a single person who to me looks as though they would be more than 40 years old.
After visiting the factory we visited a Tobacco Auction market. Noise is an inherent and unavoidable feature of auctions. Everybody screams and argues for the best price. For one kilo of tobacco, it costs ten American cents. While I was visiting the tobacco auction there was a white man from the UK. Apparently, he was the boss of a tobacco cartel. He charges $6.50 per kilo in his home market.
Green gold is one of the main exports in Malawi. According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC) raw tobacco accounts for 55% of the countries exports but the booming tobacco industry occurs at the expense of vulnerable people and the environment. Efforts from organizations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) are working towards fairer employment and payment for farmers, educating the population on the dangers of tobacco and de-incentivising the public towards consuming tobacco though there is a long way yet to go.
Upon returning home I began to notice cigarettes and tobacco products being dispersed; as a non-smoker, something I never noticed before. Looking at the neatly wrapped packages perfectly presented for consumption, I saw the plantations, porters, factories, and markets. The behind-the-scenes of the cleverly packaged cigarette. Images of poverty, corruption, hard working people, decimated land flooded my mind, and at the center of it, a ton of tobacco leaves.
I am a dreamer. I believe that if you really want something, you have to believe in it. Everyday make it my goal to experience new things. I am a traveler from Poland, always looking for new places, wherever I may be.
Currently I'm study Diplomacy and International Relations but always working towards my dream to own a small house on a tropical island in the Pacific.