Lerato Honde is a visual artist and a junior architect. Through her work she seeks to address issues pertaining to identity, empowerment, and self-worth. Her work encompasses a wide range of media including animation, paint, design, writing, and sculpting. Lerato is the co-founder of an arts Collective called Wona Collective which seeks to shed light on the lived experiences of Malawians, with a special emphasis on women and marginalized groups.
At its core, the Covid-19 Corona Virus is nothing but a micro-organism in an urban ecosystem. It acquires its significance from the ways in which it permeates the lives of its human contexts, influencing day-to-day lifestyles. The urban plan of a city is merely a utopia, a backbone model for the manifestation of socio-politics. We all partake in the making of a city. Our response to the socio-political structures that are put in place, how we appropriate them, and design our lifestyles around them enhance the experience of a city. We create invisible cities through the ways in which we collectively interact with the built environment around us. These invisible cities are not always evident on paper but are tangible on the ground. With the rise of globalization, urban ecosystems quite easily infiltrate into each other, no wonder Covid-19 is spreading at breakneck speed. Ultimately, Covid-19 is multiplying itself through space, reshaping urban ecology as we know it.
Experts described the Champions League football match between Valencia and Alalanta as a ‘biological bomb’. The match was attended by thousands of supporters from Italy and Spain, catapulting the spread of the virus in both countries. It is no doubt that Covid-19 is a natural disaster, like a fatal earthquake with several epicenters. Covid-19 may not be apparent in the physical but its presence can definitely be felt. Since the exponential rise in the number of cases around the world, experts have expressed their concern on the impacts the virus could have on the African continent. “Africa is not reporting cases because it doesn’t have enough testing kits”, “Africa will be the next epicenter of Covid-19”, “Trade between China and Africa could cause an exponential rise in the number of cases”.
If that is the case then the political rallies attended by thousands of people in Malawi would definitely be a breeding ground for the virus. Malawi will be having its re-elections on the 23rd of June after the court declared last year’s elections “null and void”. Social distancing seems to have taken a backseat as citizens prepare for the long-awaited re-run. The presence of Covid-19 Awareness messages painted on the radio and on National Television is contrasted with images of people assembling in crowds, anticipating what could be a revolutionary moment in the history of Malawi.
For two weeks, Malawi was one of only six countries in Africa with no reported Covid-19 cases. Days leading up to the official announcement of the first three cases, rumors of reports were flying around; Covid-19 was the talk of the town. During a morning walk, I overheard two men laughing after greeting each other, shaking hands saying “Corona sinafike” – “Corona hasn’t arrived”. The day the first cases were announced during a presidential address, there was a lot of anticipation on social media. I saw a comment on Twitter saying “Coco the international item has landed”. ‘International Item’ is the slang term for someone living abroad. What first seemed distant quickly became a reality, like a reminder that Malawi is actually part of the global community.
Shortly after the official announcement of the first cases, the president of Malawi announced a national lockdown. Plans for a lockdown were immediately met with resistance in the form of protests and a court injunction as the conditions of the lockdown would not effectively protect the poor. Supermarkets were soon crowded with people wearing face masks buying food in bulk. The urban poor saw the panic as a profitable opportunity. Vendors continued to roam the streets, now selling facemasks and gloves along with their regular commodities. I met a vendor selling face masks outside a supermarket who said he would rather die of Corona than let his children die of hunger.
Up to 40% of Lilongwe’s city dwellers live in informal settlements with unreliable access routes, substandard waste systems, and a poor supply of water. When the first cases were reported, there was a general concern that the virus would wreak havoc in marginalized areas where diseases such as Malaria, HIV, and TB are already common. Disadvantaged city dwellers such as the vendor I met are left with little remorse and no choice but to settle on marginal vacant land, usually as illegal occupants.
Governments generally fail to adopt tenure policies which recognise the right of usage in these areas. There is very little public intervention in the real-estate market when attempting to provide sustainable and accessible low-income housing for the poor. Minor improvements in living and construction practices in these areas could make an important difference in the quality of living and combat the spread of diseases such as Covid-19. These areas, recognised as townships or slum settlements easily stand out as ‘invisible cities’; they shelter a significant amount of the city’s population but are quite easily sidelined. Imposing a lockdown on informal settlements raises questions on the difference between ‘equity’ and ‘equality’. One can relate the preposition for a lockdown in a largely informal economy to a parent trying to discipline a child who’s been made to feel estranged from the family.
Unemployment vs. Recruitment
Bingu National Stadium and Bingu International Conference Centre easily stand out in the urban landscape of Lilongwe. These structures are among a new wave of development characterized by Chinese Investment. They represent a progression towards ideal urban living standards on paper but are underutilized in reality. Public schools and hospitals are underequipped and overcrowded, yet a new stadium always seems to be a trendy presidential campaign manifesto. Last week Kamuzu Stadium in Blantyre (Malawi’s commercial capital) was used as a quarantine center for arriving repatriates. Within 24 hours, the repatriates fled the stadium following complaints of poor sanitation facilities and a shortage of food and water.
On Monday, hundreds of job seekers were injured in stampedes at walk-in recruitment drives hosted by the Ministry of Health. Thousands of people flocked interview venues across the country, violating social distancing guidelines in response to job vacancies for MSCE (Secondary School Certificate) holders. In fear of the unanticipated numbers, officials handling the interviews threw registration forms into the crowds whilst police officers used teargas to disperse the stampedes. Between May and November 2019, main roads were blocked by periodic anti-government protests. Thousands of people took to the streets, disrupting movement in major cities across the country demanding a rerun in the presidential elections. Crowds jeered as billboards were taken down and buildings were vandalised.
The riotous occupation of these spaces is a result of sheer desperation. The repatriates who fled the stadium were desperate for better hospitality. The thousands of people that showed up at the walk-in recruitment drives were desperate for employment. Moreover, the thousands of marchers that took to the streets were desperate for change. Poor consideration of context, longevity, and capacity in the public sector leaves marginalized city dwellers feeling resentful. The desperation of these city dwellers is depicted in the transient occupation of the built environment, the unforgettable short-lived moments where marginalized city dwellers collectively reclaim ownership of the city.
The architect can only suggest ways in which a space can be occupied. Whilst different aspects of design might enhance these suggestions, the unintentional evolution of the meaning and use of a space must be considered through a slightly passive hand of the architect – an approach in which architects and occupants collaborate in the design of spaces. In an interview with WBUR-FM, Michael Murphy, founding director of MASS Design Group stresses the importance of adaptability in the designs of schools and hospitals post-Covid-19. Small changes in the programmatic layouts of hospitals can allow hospitals to create temporary isolation spaces in the outbreak of a highly transmittable disease like Covid-19. In addition to upscaling, natural lighting, improved ventilation, and better accessibility can improve the efficiency of hospital spaces in the country. A building should be perceived as an evolving entity in which aspects of every-day life can be enhanced, and not merely a means to an end.
On average, Malawians use more than $12 (about MK8760) a month on mobile phones, the primary means of accessing the internet. That is a third of the minimum wage salary. In the presence of globalization, my device is like a passport, it affords me the privilege of travelling the world through the lens of the people I connect with. I am a dual citizen of the Digital City and my inherent tangible city – Lilongwe. According to the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), only 14 percent of Malawians have access to the internet – only 14 percent of Malawians are occupants of the Digital City. A greater percentage of people in more developed countries have access to the Digital City. This means a greater percentage of people in developed countries are afforded the opportunity to work and learn online in the event of a lockdown. The presence of the Digital City means an institution no longer has to be confined to the bounds of a building.
It has been a couple of weeks since the first cases of COVID-19 were announced in Malawi and I have taken it upon myself to stay at home. Being online has made it easier to connect with my colleagues and friends. I passively scroll through my Facebook News Feed and see a screenshot my friend shared of a lecture taking place on Zoom, I immediately recognise some old classmates. I see an advert “Here are 450 Ivy League courses you can take online right now for free”. I attended my first online concert last Friday. I got to watch some of my favourite artists perform from the comfort of my own home. The internet is truly a world of its own. The abundance of information and the ability to connect with anyone behind a device opens up a whirlwind of opportunities many can only dream of. It is not long before I get a message from my service provider notifying me that I have almost depleted by data bundle. After I top up, I get another message from my service provider telling me to “Remember to observe social distancing” and to “Wash your hands regularly”.
I continue scrolling through my Facebook News Feed where I see a link to an article from a local media house: ‘Returnees Protest against Covid-19 at Mwanza Border, 1 Jumps Fence’. I am quickly drawn to a comment by another user: “Why not just turn Mwanza Secondary School into a quarantine center?” ‘Why not just turn a building which is so critical to the livelihood of the students at Mwanza Secondary School into a quarantine center for people entering the country to ease the spread of Covid-19?’ I thought to myself. Even though this would be a temporary measure whilst schools are closed, this could quite easily create long-term challenges for youth in the area. The building that is Mwanza Secondary School is an institution. Like other school buildings in the country, it is a place where children have access to free meals, and can escape the burden of violence, child labor, early pregnancies, and child marriages. In countries where the internet is more accessible, buildings can be designed with the intent of adaptability; Buildings can be designed to accommodate several functions at the same time, for example, where working and living spaces can co-exist. In a country where access to the internet is exclusive, a lockdown entails the closure of institutions such as schools. This could birth long-term socio-economic repercussions which could be difficult to salvage.