We awoke to a major storm, as the weather was making the change from the rainy season to sunshine. Breakfast was early, with some of the group taking walks by the Lakeside. Monkeys were all over the garden, trying to snatch food from the tables.
It all seemed so peaceful.
Yet like everything else here, nothing was totally obvious. The monkeys probably carry rabies, and 1 in 5 of the youths at the front of the hotel selling woodcarvings and trinkets are almost certainly HIV positive. It might look like a resort hotel, but in reality it is an island in a difficult sea.
This morning we needed to break into three groups, to be sure that we got a good understanding of the breadth of the programs in Malawi, as well as to be a less threatening number of visitors. More details of the groups are in the visit itinerary. My chosen trip was the one going up into the hills, to Namwera and the adjoining villages. Wishart Malinga was our chief guide – he joined Save the Children as the HIV/Aids Coordinator fairly recently, but still knew his stuff.
We drove south along the lakeshore towards Mangochi, past the impressive Catholic Bishop’s House, and across the new bridge opened only one month ago. Whilst many people are Christian, 70-80% of the population are Muslim, and Mosques were frequently seen – often painted in shades of blue or green. Yet we also drove past the most impressive St. Paul’s Catholic Seminary, nestling in the hills. It has been there over ten years, and has a spectacular view over Lake Malombe, Lake Malawi’s smaller sister. There was a lot of road construction going on, as the Korean’s were creating an upgrade across the hills to Namwera. One look at the map shows that this is the only way into the area adjoining Mozambique and behind the Lakes.
En route we passed the Majuni Secondary School, not yet officially open, but already with an estimated 400 students – who board there. It was a symbol that the Government are serious about their young people, even if strapped for resource.
In 1996, Save the Children brought people of the Mangochi District together to decide on a community response to the Aids pandemic. Village Chiefs attended, and other concerned parties.
The main result was the setting up of Village Action Committees (VAC’s). In Mangochi there are 112 communities now involved, and 4 major Community Centres.
Namwera was the first Save the Children “COPE” project, and has moved into self-sufficiency.
A significant response grew in Namwera, where, helped by the leadership of “Sister” Rita (a wonderful Italian lady who has been in and out of Malawi since 1974), the NACC (Namwera Aids Coordinating Committee) was formed. NACC has helped create 40 Village AIDS Committees, and has helped upwards of 2500 orphans and 520 patients. They distributed 27 tonnes of maize (the staple food) in earlier this year to Jalasi are villages, helped in large measure by the “Friends of NACC”, a Canadian group. NACC has the “Graziano” school for day care and for orphans to age 5 ½ – after that, the kids go into primary school. The Centre recently added a large Community Hall, courtesy of the American Embassy in Lilongwe.
We arrived at NACC to find fewer people to meet with us than had been planned – because one of the young workers had just died of Aids, and the funeral was today. Wherever we went, the reminders were always present.
We heard many times that the people of Malawi “always starve” in the December – March period, just before the new harvest ripens. Later we also learnt that the shortage of funds for fertilizer, and the inefficiency of the farming system (little or no crop rotation) are the root causes.
NACC is moving into teenage skills training (sewing lessons, typing skills, and metalworking) – although right now they are under threat of loosing their budget from the Catholic Diocese in Mangochi, a sad story of politics and personal interests, as far as we could tell. Rita gets paid a token 1,000 Kwacha a month by the Diocese (less than US$140) – the Centre and the 28 employees cost about US$7/8 K per year. The staff were rightly proud of the fact that their local fund raising netted 136,000 Kwacha in 2000.
To move forward, NACC would now like to open HIV testing (“VCT” = Voluntary Counselling & Testing) at the local Clinic. This would require little money, but does need Government authorization. NACC would also like to expand their activities into more Communities – right now they are involved in directly helping about 40 of a possible “Jalasi catchment area” of 121 villages.
Another dream for Rita is to replace the impending closure of the Catholic Alleluya Orphanage – but that is a much more expensive proposition, which we calculated roughly at US$33 K per year in running costs, plus of course the cost of building. We heard separately that the Bishop of Mangochi had sold off the existing Orphanage premises (to a Mining concern?).
Lots of food for thought
In any event, it was now time for lunch at the Neptune – a traditional meal of staple dishes. The maize (nsima – a kind of paste) reminded some of our American contingent of “grits”, something I cannot testify to! Ironically, the chicken was tough, but the just-killed goat in a stew was very tender.
Feeling refreshed, we drove further into the hills, to visit Ngowo VAC, at Chiumbangame Village. NACC had helped set this up. The villagers were not only patiently waiting for us, but broke out into traditional song as we arrived. This was a COPE village, and it showed.
A “COPE” Village
Chiumbangame Village has a population of 3200, with 50% under 15 years old, and 137 orphans. Like many others, the estimate was that there were 7 to 10 times more orphans than 10 years ago, and life expectancy was dropping for all.
Whilst the death rate was depressing, and the orphan count high, the Village was taking its future into its own hands. There was lots of laughter as short speeches on progress were given by the VAC Chairman and Secretary – although with an even bigger smile we all realized that it was one of the mothers that is the critical player in driving the VAC forward. Whenever a question needed answering, she was the one to cover the issues in the most detail – even as she breast fed her baby. Later, she proudly introduced us to a terminal Aids patient who, through good home care, was at least enjoying a non-stigmatised life in her Community.
Part of my self-appointed role on this trip is to photograph and record the events. But as I photographed the village activist, I could not help thinking that this lady – a mother of nine – had just lost her husband to Aids. What will become of her and her children, and her village? How can I photograph that?
Even so, how can I not photograph the crowds of smiling and laughing children? Like kids everywhere, they love posing for the camera, pushing in front of each other, shouting and pulling faces. And when we show them their pictures (on the back of the digital cameras, or via Polaroid pictures), they go crazy! Mob Scenes. Funny scenes. Poignant scenes. Life.
The way a VAC works is for each member to contribute what they can in cash (usually about 2 Kwacha per month), donate spare clothes and what food they have, and then use their time to help others. The Committee meets every week, organizes a patient visit roster, and an orphan care plan. In the first years they managed to buy some painkillers and extra food for the orphans, but there is not enough money available this year.
The VAC is now busy donating bricks to build a Community Centre to replace the current grass-roofed hut, not least so that children can play together and the orphans can be probably integrated in the community. Communal gardens are also being constructed to grow more maize. There is an active Youth Group, who sang us their songs about HIV, safe sex and helping others. We all wondered whether the kids at home could (or would) do that.
But it is time to move on. Handshakes, individual farewells across the language barrier, songs, and promises for the future.
Next stop is to go with Rita to the Alleluya Orphanage – although none of us are sure what we can do. And, much as we admire the work, instinctively we all feel that Community & home based solutions are best for the kids if that can be achieved.
A “Non-COPE” Village
Now we drive closer to Mozambique, to what is billed as “the last village in Malawi” by the Save Staff.
This was a real eye opener. A non-COPE Village.
Having all got together inside the school building, the usual introductory speeches were given. But then one of the teenagers (dressed in a bright red sweat shirt, New York style) started to speak. I named him chief of the local punks, for reasons that will become clear – they seem to exist everywhere.
“There is no Aids in our village – we are not promiscuous”. Would the concept of self-interest be at play here?
Try again. So “what is killing your people”? “Hunger”. Bull.
Once more, this time to the Chief of the Village, “How many Orphans do you have now compared with five years ago”? Talking about Orphans opened the floodgates, and everyone spoke at once.
“Many, many more”.
“Does anyone know why”? This time, the village teacher spoke up. “We always starve in December – March. That is not the reason. We all know we have a new problem. But we do not know why or what to do”.
“Does anyone know what Aids is”? No. “Well, it kills by letting other diseases kill you faster and more effectively”. Diarrhoea, hunger, malaria, TB.
“Does anyone know how to stop it”? No.
At the end of an hour, we agreed that Save would go back to help the Village leaders set up a VAC and learn how to COPE. The headman was relieved, and the teachers smiled.
Only the punks were encouraging us to move on – “You leave now”? – as we played with the kids on the hillside.
Anyway, we did leave, to wind our way back to the Lake. We were late, and the sun was setting fast. No lights on the road. No signs on the road works. Twists and turns, and steep cliffs. People walking all the way up the hillside to get home, as we sat in the comfort of a four wheel drive. Our group was the last to return to the hotel, but none of us cared.
We all managed to be deep in thought and engaged in conversation at the same time. And this was just the first full day in the Villages.