Some of the children, between the ages of two and five, cried uncontrollably. They could not believe their eyes and, yet, they could not look at what they were seeing; this must be the real end of the world.
Olle Haglund, 42, who was the only old face among these five Swedish citizens pressed on, nevertheless bewildered by the persistent cries in the air: were they welcome to Malawi, the self-acclaimed warm heart of Africa? Were the children in agony, confirming what they are told across the waters about Africa being the epitome of trouble and her children always in dire need of help? Was the hospitality-catch just another gimmick?
He was leading four women and a man, all of them less than 20 years, on a fact finding mission to Malawi this Monday, January 26. This trip was partly a learning mission, but also a fact finding one. While his group walked the semi-sand soils of Chadzunda in Blantyre, others were in Lilongwe, learning about the challenges faced by children there. Their problems were Malawian problem.
“Worry not about the crying, most of these children have never seen a Mzungu (white man) before. They are just afraid, the way children behave,” said Grace Mbiri, executive director for Peace in God Organisation (Pigo), the destination of this group of inquisitive citizens from Sweden.
The children might have been worried that Mbiri was flanked by Willy Gazlin, her Projects Officer. It seemed like that arrangement was logical, aimed at protecting Mbiri from the Azungu, and so the cries continued, soon to be diluted in happy songs of welcome to the visitors.
To communities around Chadzunda, this was no ordinary day. That is why village heads came in good number; village headmen Jana, Malonga, Sukali, Mwamadi, and head woman Kuntonda could not let this moment pass by, and were here to support peace in God.
As Kuntonda later said, she was here because she saw opportunities for her subjects in the trip. She saw help, in whatever form, coming. Children would no longer mire in perpetual poverty because this ‘delegation’ had power to influence change back home, even power to convince their leaders to consider Ntonda for infrastructural and material help.
“You see, it is true that we have problems getting the things other nations across the oceans take for merely life’s basics. Even water seems to be a problem. Imagine, you wake up in the morning, and it consciously hits you- it’s just like a big hand that takes your hand and squeezes it- because you don’t know what the day is going to bring. Hunger, or you don’t know,” said Kuntonda.
A problem made worse, she added, by the fact that the communal-spirit of Malawi is less today than it was during first president, Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s days. Parents and extended family members could team together in those days, living in shacks or thatched houses as Kamuzu wanted, selling corn flitters and bananas so their children could go to school. Everyone’s child was everybody’s child, pride.
Now those days are past the last step of the door, that Kuntonda laughingly enthuses that the dictatorship days might have been good, after all.
The semi-literate woman chief must have a sound philosophy, one Haglund shares.
He said: “I don’t think people were put on earth to suffer. That is a whole lot f nonsense. I think we (people) are the highest development on the earth, and we were put here to live and be happy, to enjoy everything that is here.”
Haglund, a teacher in Sweden, hoped that the visit to Pigo could be the beginning of a longtime partnership, that, perhaps, it would herald the beginning of ties that hinge on help for the children. He and members of the group he led were so touched by the challenges the 200 or so children faced- almost all of them united by the death of one or both parents, or, for a few of the kids, their living parents had no resources to sustain them in terms of food or materials. They heard these from parents, porridge cooks and chiefs.
Mbiri , Pigo’s overseer said children in Chadzunda faced a lot of challenges, and that the organisation was only running on hope. It was getting increasingly had to get help, save for the Church of Central African Presbyterian Blantyre Synod and Feed the Children Malawi, who have always remembered the children and routinely donate materials and food. Otherwise, assistance is hard to come.
She also hoped that the Swedish will remember Chadzunda and its children, and help source funding for its activities, even bring in volunteers to teach vocational skills. What skills, when the only sewing machine they were using is now grounded? No spare parts. When the pigs they rear have been reduced to two, the rest having been sold to pay for 10 children from this facility who are doing secondary education. The brilliance of these children was far more important than the pigs, so the controversial mammals were sold out, a little bit faster than they could reproduce.
Pigo is a community based organisation established in 1997, working with the National Youth Council, Blantyre District Social Welfare office, among other organisations. The CBO operates in two catchment areas; Chadzunda, in the area of Traditional Authority Somba specifically in Group Village Headman Mwangata’s domain, which covers 32 villages and in Blantyre semi-urban.
In all these areas, it runs community based child care centres, with a total number of 1,364 children. It hopes that, through these humble initiatives, it would contribute towards sustainable, social-economic development.
So far, the organisation has provided tailoring training to 40 children, paid school fees for 64, empowered 100 caregivers with piggery knowledge as well as 75 guardians in goat farming, but still struggles to make things work. According to Mbiri and Gazlin, there is always food shortage, lack of shelter, water scarcity, insufficient resources from which to pull school fees for orphaned children, and no guardian empowerment.
Challenges Haglund and Tonte Master, one of the delegation members, but also a student in Sweden, promised to report back home.
“Only that, unfortunately, Malawi is one of the countries the Swedish government wants to stop helping; so, there are no prospects of the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida) helping on this one. It is a case (our new relationship with Pigo) of a story that begins with the end. It is always a sad story,’ said Haglund.
So, all the build up, the hype, the songs by Malawian women was building the end? African Network for the Protection and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (Anppcan) Malawi Chapter- an organisation that facilitated the trip- did not want to believe it.
Kenwilliams Mhango, Anppcan executive director, said the Swedish were cheating themselves by deciding to leave Malawi in the cold. “They will come back; even if it takes a century They will come back!”
But the children, whose prospects for a proper future sticks gloom in their face: will they still be there, as children? Still in school? Common sense would dictate otherwise.