The beggar who became a professional carpenter
Living in a refugee camp is a tough experience and Butoto Cloncho is one of the numerous displaced people who bear witness to the ordeal. He has passed through what he describes as “an agonizing life” in Dzaleka refugee camp. He arrived in the camp in 2015 from DR Congo, having travelled through Burundi and Tanzania. Butoto had left his family back in DRC and he was literary alone with no relatives to welcome and give him shelter in the new home. He was a total stranger in a strange country and surrounded by new faces that hardly knew him.
The only possession that the young man had were the clothes he was wearing when he arrived in Malawi. But that was not the worst part – the worst bit was that he had no means of survival, he was jobless and he realized that since, according to refugee laws in Malawi, his movement was restricted within the camp, obtaining employment was out of the question. To find food, he resorted to begging for alms.
“I didn’t have anywhere to go and I didn’t know anyone that could help me earn money so I was forced to become a beggar,” Butoto recalls with sadness. Begging was not the solution because the most he could get from Good Samaritans who sympathized with him was a mere MK100 (around 7 Cents) a day and at times he never got anything. That amount was ridiculously low to keep him going. Circumstances were getting painfully hard for Butoto. Most often he could go for days without eating anything. During those times, he explained, the hunger was intense and he could barely sleep at night.
Butoto realized that he could not depend on begging so he decided to act. His wish was to at least learn a trade that he could use to make his own money. He approached one carpenter, a fellow refugee, who owned a carpentry shop in the camp. Butoto’s idea was to ask the carpenter to teach him the basics of carpentry so that Butoto could use the skills to make products he could sell to earn revenues. Unknown to Butoto, the man he approached is a volunteer Carpentry teacher at our vocational training centre.
“The man informed me about some vocational training opportunities at There is Hope and encouraged me to apply for a carpentry course.” Butoto recollected. In 2017, two years after arriving in Dzaleka camp, he was among the successful students that we selected for the carpentry intake of that year. That was Butoto’s little step that led to a giant leap in his livelihood.
“I knew that this was the moment I had been searching for. I also knew that if I completed the course, I would be a qualified carpenter and that was enough to help me escape the misery I had endured for the 2 years I was in the camp.” Butoto explained. His sentiments came true when he graduated six months later. Carpentry business is one of the growing businesses in Dzaleka refugee camp and attaining a recognized qualification in the trade is a gateway towards economic independence for refugees residing there. Demand for carpentry services in the camp is high, meaning that there is a great opportunity of making good money from the trade.
When Butoto completed his course, he started receiving customers looking for carpentry products. That was the beginning of his breakthrough and gradual improvement to his living standards. For the first time since arriving in the Dzaleka camp, Butoto had achieved a means of making his own money. It was a wonderful feeling.
“I could now buy whatever I wanted. I was no longer a beggar and I could afford to eat.” He smiled as he explained, adding that he perceives this as a “big change” because he no longer goes to bed with an empty stomach. He proudly revealed that he can earn MK15,000 and sometimes up to MK20,000. For someone who got a mere MK100 from begging, this is a notable transformation to Butoto.
Apart from making carpentry products for private customers, Butoto now works part-time in the carpentry workshop owned by the teacher who introduced him to There is Hope. He receives payment from every piece of work he does in the workshop and this is further improving his living conditions.
“When I arrived in the camp, I had no shoes. I used to walk barefooted. I have some pair of shoes now and I bought some clothes.” Butoto grinned, showing off a shirt he was wearing.
Butoto was determined to upgrade his carpentry skills to an advanced level. His vision, he explained, was to be an expert in the use of both traditional and power tools of carpentry. Fortunately for Butoto, the EU funded us a grant to implement a project aimed at enhancing our vocational training programme. Through the funding, we introduced 3 additional courses in our programme which included Carpentry Level 2. This is a course that trained our carpentry students on the use of advanced power tools. In 2018, Butoto enrolled in the course. He completed the training the same year and launched his own carpentry bench at Dzaleka Trading Centre, very close to Dzaleka Camp.
The earnings Butoto is realizing from the small business has furthered his self-reliance. To a refugee, this is one step towards achieving dignity. Many refugees in Dzaleka have no means of income and they heavily depend on assistance from aid agencies. Most of the times, the aid they receive barely last a month. Since Butoto has an alternative source of income, he is now capable of supplementing his financial status.
Butoto’s story is an inspiring tale of someone who moved from rags to clothes. Everyone in Dzaleka camp knew him as a beggar but now they recognize him with a new title – a professional carpenter.
This project is funded by the European Union (EU).