Published on 6 October 2013

Marinda Van Zyl

Words & photos:

Malawi: Poverty Viewed Through a Western Lens

As I was finishing the last editing on the shoot I’d just done of various schools in Malawi, I came across an image that brought tears to my eyes. A little boy’s hands are holding a pen, resting on his notebook. The pages are dirty and dog-eared. His tiny hands are dusty, his nails unkempt. The image screams poverty, yet he is more privileged than most of the Malawian youth. He is one of the lucky few that are able to attend a school that is sponsored by my client, a corporate giant. The rest are not that lucky. They peer through the gate as the chosen are educated. So close, yet so far. The heartbreaking reality is that not everyone can be accommodated.

According to The World Bank, 50.7% of Malawians live below the national poverty line. The streets of Malawi are filled with vendors who try to flog anything from sweets to charcoal in the hope of making a living.

Charcoal is used as fuel, and as a result, deforestation is a growing concern. There are vast expanses of barren land, with only a few twigs as a reminder of the forest that once was.

Here and there you’ll see brick-making kilns, where men converge to make bricks that they will use to build houses. Most houses don’t have windows, but empty spaces left where windows should have been. It's hardly protection from the rain or from the cold. There is electricity in the more affluent areas near the tea plantations, where workers earn their wages by picking tea leaves. Rural homesteads don’t have electricity, and water is only available at boreholes that are spaced one kilometre apart.

Malawian hawkers trying to make a living

Homes are not furnished; most don’t even have beds to sleep on. Those who are lucky enough to be given a school uniform have the option of rolling it up and using it as a pillow at night. Others don’t have that luxury.


Transportation is by foot or bicycle. Some school-going children get up at 4am and walk to school to arrive at 7am. People in the rural areas are not accustomed to seeing white people. A little boy yelled ‘Mzungu’ at the top of his lungs when he saw us driving by. ‘Mzungu’ means a white person, clearly a novelty in the area.


The majority of children in the rural areas have never even seen their reflection in a mirror; they would not be able to identify themselves in a photo. Coming from the developed world obsessed with self, this is unthinkable. There is a desperate need for sanitary pads, and girls are unable to attend school while on their period. Should you discard your tissues at the side of the road, it will be collected and used by girls as sanitary protection.

I once heard a saying that stuck with me: ‘Poverty breeds children’. I assumed this was due to lack of education. In Malawi I realised that that wasn’t necessarily the case.


Children are a status symbol, and the more children you have, the more your status increases. Girls are often married off before they’re 18, and that they’ll have children soon after is a given. A girl who has ambitions to better herself and delay marriage may be given to a man who will rape her, and then take her as his wife, as anything else would be a disgrace to the family. Compounding this is the fact that many Malawians are Catholic, and the Catholic Church forbids the use of contraception. So the cycle continues.


The corporate group that I accompanied on the trip is making a difference in the lives of many children. I was touched to see that it is not just a financial endeavour for them, but that they are emotionally invested in growing education and improving the lives of these children. Copyright restrictions prevent me from publishing the official photos taken as part of the project, and mentioning the company’s name. I’ve included a few photos taken around Malawi. Where I would ordinarily use imagery to depict a situation, words will have to suffice this time.


Despite the abject poverty, Malawians are friendly and welcoming. It is my hope that these words will inspire change in the world, perhaps financially, but certainly in the minds of those who have so much more to be thankful for.

Workers in a Malawian tea plantation
Malawian tea plantation
Broken down buildings are a common sight in Malawi
A roadside vendor stand
A blackboard inside a classroom
Bicycles are used for transporting people and goods