From Malawi to the Conservative Movement

Martha Njolomole is one of the most extraordinary people I know. She grew up in Malawi, in East Africa. Her family was poor, although not particularly so by Malawian standards. Her home had neither electricity nor running water. She walked a considerable distance to and from school, and when she got home she walked a mile or two to a well for water, which she carried home in a bucket on her head. (Obviously, her family owned no vehicle.) That was drinking water; her family washed their clothes in a nearby river. They had no means but candles to light their home after dark. Martha loved to read, but her family owned no books, so she obsessively read scraps of newspapers that she found lying about.

At age 16, Martha won a scholarship to study in the United States. She was lucky–the top seven finishers on the national test won scholarships to study in China. She was one of three runners-up. Having never traveled far from the town where she grew up, Martha boarded an airplane for a 30-hour journey to Alabama, where she enrolled at Troy University. Nine years went by before she saw her family again.

Malawi is essentially a socialist country, with the government providing pretty much all services. Very badly. Martha’s original idea was that she would study economics so that she could return to Malawi and help the government to do things more efficiently. Happily, at Troy she found herself in an economics department that subscribes to the Austrian school. Her curriculum was heavy on Hayek and von Mises, with a liberal dose of Friedman. She was good at math, and excelled in econometrics. She stayed on at Troy to get her master’s degree in economics.

Upon getting her master’s degree, Martha looked for a job in a conservative or libertarian think tank. John Phelan (himself an immigrant) and I interviewed her via Zoom and liked her a lot. Since 2019 or so she has done terrific work for American Experiment as an economist.

It is hard for an American to appreciate that during her six years as a student in Alabama, Martha had no money. For the first four years she didn’t own a cell phone, and communication with her family was only occasional. An airplane ticket was out of the question. Going to work for us, she finally had an income and was able to save some money. She wanted to visit her family in 2020, but was stymied by covid shutdowns. She finally made the trip last year and, among other things, saw for the first time a younger brother who had been born while she was in the U.S.

In a recent edition of the American Experiment podcast, I interviewed Martha. We talked about her extraordinary life, and at one point I asked what she thinks when she sees young Americans saying they want our country to go socialist. She said that, having grown up in a socialist country, she finds such sentiments heartbreaking. It is our constitutional framework, our free enterprise system and the rule of law that enable us to live in a land of plenty rather than a land of grinding poverty. Maybe you have to come from that kind of background to fully understand the insanity of socialism.

Here is the podcast:

Martha writes frequently at Her recent research papers cover such topics as occupational licensing reform here and here, how excessive regulation drives the high cost of child care in Minnesota, and the folly of rent control. Within the next couple of weeks, she will release a major study of welfare spending in Minnesota.

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