KASUNGU ( John Vidal, the Guardian) -Innocent Smoke, born in the shadow of Malawi’s biggest tobacco factory in 2005, is one of those rare African lads who love football but who have never watched it on television or even heard of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Now he is fighting for his sight – a battle that may determine the rest of his life.
Nine years ago, Innocent’s family moved from a small farming community on the outskirts of the burgeoning capital, Lilongwe, to try their hand growing maize and tobacco in the rolling hills near the remote village of Simulemba, north of Kasungu, where land is good and still cheap.
With money from a redundancy, Innocent’s father, Boy, made 4,000 bricks by hand and built a two-bedroom house. Together, the family has laboured to open up four acres of land to farm. This year, the rains were bad and they harvested just 50 bags of maize instead of the 100 they hoped for, and cropped only four bales of Burley tobacco.
“Perhaps it was climate change,” says Boy, “but in the past five years we have had only one good harvest.”
The Smokes’ early enthusiasm for farming has gone. Now, chastened by only two years with good rains, the family of nine plans to sell up, or rent the house out and return to Area 25 in Lilongwe, where Boy – perhaps optimistically – believes he can triple his money by building another house.
Lenita, Innocent’s mother, is also keen to leave. The children will have more of a chance in life in the city, she says. Lenita hopes to open a tailoring shop to make shirts and dresses. She has been trained, she says, but needs a machine.
Innocent spends his days playing football with friends like Abat, Kenneth and James. In common with other boys, he also helps his father to weed and harvest maize and tobacco in the fields. He walks a mile to collect water for the family every day, and further to get to school or the health clinic.
So far, Innocent has little idea of the world beyond the village of Simulemba and the trading post. “Once a week I see a bit of television but, because we have to pay 50 kwacha [9 cents], it is not often. I have never seen football on television,” he says.
But he has seen enough to know what he wants to do. “I was watching television and we saw a big aeroplane. I would like to be a pilot. Or a doctor,” he says.
For the moment, “Inno”, as the family calls him, is a sensitive country boy with all the advantages of a safe outdoor life, but with the disadvantages that come from living in a remote area of Malawi, far from decent health services, transport and good schools.
His primary schooling has been basic, if not rudimentary. The teachers are not all qualified, the classes are big and the children have few textbooks or materials like pens and pencils to work with.
But for three years Innocent did well. “I like school. In my first year I was fourth in the class. I can read Chichewa but I can’t really speak English yet,” he says.
Then, last year, Innocent started to get headaches and pains in his eyes, keeping him away from school for weeks at a time. He fell behind and has had to repeat year three.
He was diagnosed at a local clinic with the early stages of trachoma, a painful eye condition that his parents know will slowly attack his eyelids and then his veins and muscles, inevitably blinding him over a period of 10 years if he does not get the right treatment. He has been given drops but so far he has not responded, says Lenita. “At night I am in pain,” he says.
To have any chance, Innocent’s parents have been told they must get him to a specialist clinic at the central hospital in Lilongwe. Because the condition has been caught early, hopefully he will not need surgery and the ointments and eyedrops should be enough to save his sight. But it will cost the family nearly $5 to see a specialist, a sum beyond what they can afford.
The next five years will determine whether Innocent moves to the city or remains in the country, gets an education or is effectively condemned to working the fields. They may also determine whether or not he ever sees Messi and Ronaldo or watches a game of football on television.
Percentage of children enrolled in primary school: 97 (2009, no gender ratio available)