Bringing hope to Malawi
Ahead of Christian Aid Week in May, I visited Malawi to see some of the projec change, two problems that were impossible to avoid in the area of Africa I visit
After three aeroplanes, two cars and 24 hours in transit, I finally arrived in Malawi - and the ‘warm heart of Africa’ did not let us down. Welcomed by everyone and surrounded by lush green scenery, it is easy to see why aid workers who come here often spend a lot longer in the country than they planned. We travelled from the capital Lilongwe to the southern city of Blantyre and checked in to the first hotel of our trip for a much-needed night’s sleep.
But there was no chance of a lay in; at 8:30 we were entering gated Government buildings. We were there to meet the Director of Climate Change and Weather at the Meteorological Department. Twelve of the hottest years since records began have happened in the last 20 years in Malawi.
The rainy season, once predictable and consistent, is now erratic and inconsistent. Flash floods wash away crops and flood roads and buildings. Climate change is having a devastating effect on this already poor country, causing destruction to the 90 per cent of the 40 million population who rely on agriculture for living.
Chief Meteorologist, Winston Chimuaza, explained the changes the country is facing. “What normally happens is the rainy season starts from November and proceeds up to March or even May,” he said. “But these days it’s very difficult.” Farmers are now noticing the rains beginning as late as December and stopping in February.
But there is hope, with the introduction of a Christian Aid project in partnership with the Department, farmers can now easily access a five-day forecast, helping them plan when to weed their fields, plant their crops and organise their agricultural plan. A text from Christian Aid brings some assurance in an everchanging climate, and the farmers are experiencing the benefits firsthand.
We then drove to one of these affected areas to see the challenges caused by the effects of climate change for ourselves. About 100 kilometres from the city lies a building belonging to a coalition of charities, CARD, Act Alliance and others, organised and funded by Christian Aid. The staff inside are keen to show the help they are giving to some of the country’s poorest communities.
We set out to visit a village in the shadow of the mountain that has been taught to deal with the effects of global warming by installing an irrigation system on their land. Villagers spoke of a complete change in farming there, helping them to manage the effects of flash floods and unpredictable rains.
Grant, the project leader in the area, explained what Christian Aid’s money was doing. “The community has been trained in how to use the irrigation system, how to do business and marketing.” The big companies who visit the villages here try to get the already small prices lowered even more, and in difficult times, villagers give in to this. But the project is teaching the farmers to work together to keep prices at reasonable levels.
During droughts families went to bed hungry and women left their children from 5
in the morning to at least six at night to work in the tea estates - an hour-and-a-half walk away. But now, the farmers were proud to say, they can grow enough food to look after their children, and even grow a little surplus to sell.
“Now that this scheme is here it will change our lives,” Maggie Mweka, one such farmer in the village said.
The story of climate change is a painful one in Malawi, but steps are being taken to lessen the effects and ensure food security for those who need it most.
We were then taken to Mathiya Village to see a very different project. Greeted by dancing and songs, we were told the people had prepared a demonstration for us to explain the Christian Aid-funded scheme that was helping them improve the quality of their lives.
Tilimbike Village Savings and Loans is a community bank, helping villagers collecting the savings they have each week and enabling them to borrow from each other. We were shown how a meeting of the members usually goes. There are now seven such groups in the area, with 154 members – all of whom attended this demonstration, proud to tell us of their successes.
The interest collected on the loans means an emergency fund is reserved, helping villagers are time of severe need such as illness and death in the family. Tshebily Mandawala received the fund when her son was rushed to hospital with a broken leg. “It was going to be extremely difficult,” she said, “I do not know how I would have managed.”
A bumpy road lined by people walking home from a day at work took us back to city while we eat cooked maize, the staple food in Malawi, prepared for us by the villagers.
The next day was another early start, heading into the countryside to visit Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi schemes, supported by Christian Aid. We travelled along an unbelievably bad road to reach a community that is reaping the effects of bee-keeping. The group that tends to the bees told us of the vast increase in their income since receiving the hives from the charity. Not only this, but the benefit of both the bees and the honey they produce means not only financial rewards for the bee keepers, but also medicinal perks.
The profit on each bottle of honey sold is such that they are now able to support five HIV orphans in the village, providing them with soap, school uniforms and other necessities.
The last destination on our tour was to meet a group who have formed a brew house for banana wine. Leading this was Gertrude, an HIV-positive 30-year-old who was ridiculed by the village when she announced in 2003 she had contracted the virus. After this, she found it hard to find work and therefore could not afford the food needed to keep her healthy.
Gertrude explained: “There is a stigma where people in the village think you are already dead and you can be discriminated against.” But this project had made her feel part of the community again, she said, and provided her with enough money to go back to school to take the last of her exams, hopefully meaning she can fulfil her dream of becoming a school teacher.
Each village contained stories of hunger and poverty, yet everyone welcomed us with laughter and smiles.
Travelling north next to Karonga, a 12-hour car journey took us to a village of HIV-positive families attending support groups and learning how to manage the virus in Tubakisane, near Lake Malawi. The ‘Let’s help each other’ support group are taught the SAVE approach, advising on Safer practices, Available medicine, Voluntary counselling and Empowerment. While the majority of children who parents were HIV-positive were also carriers, these rates are vastly improving thanks to drugs and education.
The couples here were proud to tell us how the lessons learned in the group means their children have been born negative. Austen and Efness Simbeye, whose daughter Anastasia is now 2 years and 8 months old, is healthy HIV-free, despite being breastfed. “We were advised on proper prevention of mother-to-child transmission,” Efness explained. Going to hospital early on in labour is a crucial part of preventing the unborn child from contracting HIV, and the women in the area are beginning to take note as the see the stories of success around them.
While the stories we heard on this trip were of hunger, illness and often death, the people we met were full of hope. Every village greeted us with songs and happiness, and many gave us gifts when we left, despite owning so little.
Read more about these people and their stories in more detail next month.
Gertrude holding the produce, which is earning enough money to help her go back to school despite living with HIV
The irrigation system being installed after work had to stop during the rainy season
Villagers enjoying the new irrigation system that will change the way they live their lives
The banana wine being made in the brew house
Right, Two members of the bee keeping group using equipment donated by the project
Members of the community banking group demonstrating the scheme