The Face of Poverty

Structural poverty: Dickson, a hamlet in Malawi.

In May 2005, on an assignment for the Dutch magazine “M”, monthly of the daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad, Jan Banning and journalist Dick Wittenberg travelled to Malawi. They stayed for two weeks in the tiny hamlet of Dickson, a tiny village at 75 kilometers, partly along unpaved sand roads, from the capital Lilongwe. It has 45 huts with some 250 inhabitants who live in a state of chronic poverty. The people of Dickson can be considered to live the life of the mayority of the 11.2 million Malawians – and of many Africans.

Bad harvests and the threat of famine

When we arrived, the harvests of both the food crop (mainly corn) and  the cash crop (tobacco) had been very bad: most inhabitants had had no money for fertilizer and the rains had stopped too early. Because in previous years, the harvests had been bad as well, the village had absolutely run aground. To avoid starvation, most villagers had sold all reserves such as goats, chickens, tin roofs, bicycles or radios. The prospect for mopst inhabitants was: starvation in the short or the longer run of the coming year.

Bad harvests and famines have hit Malawi more and more regularly in recent years. While Malawi’s population has nearly doubled since the 1970s, farm productivity has hardly grown. Unlike the arid Sahel countries, Malawi could very well feed itself with the help of irrigation and improved farming techniques. But for decades, government and foreign donors have worked at cross purposes. Corruption plays a destructive role, as does inflation: prices for tobacco, the country’s main cash crop, have fallen, while higher oil prices have fuelled the prices of fertiliser and commodities. Another factor is shortage of strong and capable labour caused by HIV/AIDS. Adverse weather conditions are the final contributor.

Publication and aftermath

In September 2005, M Magazine published the reportage over 19 pages. In the period after the publication, M Magazine received over 600 letters from readers, an absolute record for this paper. A group of readers started to collect money for the village and by late 2008, this amounted to over € 65,000.

In November 2005, the photographer and the journalist returned to Dickson. By then, Malawi was suffering from the worst famine since 1992. According to official statistics,  more than 4.7 million Malawians, out of a population of 12 million, were suffering. People in the villages around Dickson were eating one meal of chaff a day.

In Dickson itself, because of the readers’ gifts, there was food, and fertilizer for the planting season. Because of the readers’ gifts, no ‘Dicksonians’ died that year, in spite of the miserable harvest. The gift of bags of fertilizer – and the fortune of good rains – brought them an excellent harvest in April 2006: more than six times a much tobacco and seven times a much maize. The poorest man in the village, who has lepra had succesfully speculated with his harvest and has since bought a second-hand oxcart.

Dickson’s vicious circle seems to have been broken. A village committee has been set up, which realised a common garden for the needy; and it created the possibility of small loans for the villagers.

Postscriptum: stylistics

At the time of publication, copies of ‘M’, portraits, and a group photo for each of the families also arrived as presents in Dickson.

Generally, photographers apply the ‘fly on the wall’ principle: an apparently invisible person catches images of people, seemingly unconscious of his presence. When Banning returned to Dickson, he was confronted with the traces of his first visit: again photographing inside the houses, he came across copies of the M Magazine and of his own photos, polaroids (shot during his first stay) that had been stuck on walls etc. Not interfering meant, in this case, letting the signs of his earlier “interference” show. It made sense to accept this, as it seemed an interesting correspondence with the content of the story: the white men’s presence had influenced developments in the village.

December 2005.

Exhibition

48 photos, 60 x 60 cm, with an introduction and captions.