I set off to Malawi with this idea that I wanted to document some of the orphans stories. Share what they have gone through at such an early age. But as I started reading and talking to the children, caregivers, local villagers and Malawians, my idea grew into sharing the stories of some of the women of Malawi. The women who are working hard to empower a country and change the course of the future for themselves and the next generation. The women who are left behind due to lack of services, education and health problems. The mix is vast, but there is a definite shift in the driving force behind empowering the country, particularly with the death of previous President Bingu wa Mutharika in April and the second woman head of state in Africa, Joyce Banda stepping up to lead the Republic of Malawi in a new direction.
Initially it was the children’s stories that provoked my interest in the women of Malawi. Children orphaned from parents dying of HIV/AIDs; babies buried alive at one day old with their deceased mother to prevent the mother’s spirit from being angered; babies orphaned as their extended family handed over the child as the mentally ill mother was raped and after the child’s birth the mother tried to kill the baby; a 9 year-old girl running a child-headed household on a social welfare payment of 2000 Kw a month ($7.39 USD) to provide food and other needs for her and her 5 & 6 year-old siblings; a 16 year-old girl fortunate enough to attend high school with the dream to be a Pastor, except in Malawian culture they do not allow women Pastor’s so instead she aims to study nursing after completing school. This is just the beginning of the stories shared. And they are horrifying and heart breaking stories, but after years listed as one of the poorest nations in the world and with global development indexes ranking very low in all areas of education, health, life expectancy, etc, there are many people working hard to change the outcomes for future generations.
Magret is 12 years-old when I meet her. She is the leader of her choir group and loves singing. She is in Standard 6 and after school loves to hang out with her friends Dorothy and Ezalina. They help with feeding the younger babies or like to draw with their colouring in pencils. When Magret finishes school she would like to go to college to study to be a Secretary. Singing though is what makes her the happiest in the world. Margret knows that her mother died while giving birth to her. She also knows that her extended family buried her with her mother the following day. She is fortunate that one relative was upset by her baby cries that day and had the graveyard boys dig her back up, and immediately took her to the orphanage so that she could have a chance at life. Magret smiles while answering my questions and when I ask if I can take her photo she beams and begins posing with her friends and by her self, not shy of the spot light.
Female school attendance after the age of 14 is fairly uncommon. It is the females place to stay at home and help with the care of younger children or tending to the crops to help with providing an income for the family. This skill on the land though is being used in a new business strategy by women in the villages. A co-operative formed of women from the Sampha, Chalendewa and Kalumba villages outside Lilongwe, has a plot of land in the Sampha village where they grow organic Aromatherapy crops. Aromatherapy crops have the potential to bring in four times the income of Tobacco as they can harvest several times a year and co-plant other food crops in amongst the aromatherapy crops. This adds an additional source of income through food crops the women can sell at the market. The women’s co-operative has a workshop set up with a lab and distillation equipment in the process of being set up this month. They have received training through Build A School UK to use the equipment and are negotiating export of their organic fair trade oils and products in the UK and throughout Africa.
As of April this year, the second female head-of-state in Africa, Mrs Joyce Banda has already begun leading the nation in an attempt to empower the people. Firstly selling off the presidential jet and 60 Mercedes limousines in an attempt to redirect the priorities of the government towards the needs of the people. The fact that the Republic of Malawi is lead by a woman is a huge step in overcoming cultural inequalities faced by the 7.6 million females of Malawi.
Mental health seems to be a common factor amongst reasons for orphaned children. In my short time visiting the country and reading through 600 of the almost 1 million orphans stories mental illness was a recurring issue. The mother was often noted to “go mad” after giving birth and either tried to kill her baby or herself. Suicide was a recurring reason for the mother’s death. The type of mental illness never specified. Mostly due to the lack of training of health officials (Malawi now has two qualified Psychologists) in being able to diagnose and treat Post Natal Depression or other pre-existing mental illnesses or conditions, these women are suffering silently. Their extended family often caring for the mother and her new-born baby, as the mother cannot cope or doesn’t want the baby. It is in this way that babies like 4 month-old Hugh end up in an orphanage after his mother repeatedly tried to kill him by flushing him down a toilet or attempting to put him in a pot of boiling water when he was less than a month old.
Malawi has a long way to go. But as more schools become available to support female attendance and health care improves the country is slowly improving its rank on the UN human development index. After years of oppression the women in the villages are empowering themselves, their families, communities and the future generation of women to come, through education and support from the government and many NGO’s. This is just the beginning of the story. It’s the tip of the research I’ve conducted for a longer piece I need to do at university this upcoming semester. The more people share with me about their lives, dreams and the future they are working towards the more I want to know. The more I want to return to Malawi and keep learning and being involved.