Heaven Sent

Baby Emma came into the world on this day four years ago. Although, maybe it was four years tomorrow. No one is quite sure if it was the first or the second of June 2012, only that she arrived very quickly… and that the next day her mother was dead.

Arriving at HOH

I was volunteering at the orphanage the day the tiny baby arrived. Dressed in a purple taffeta dolls dress that was too big for her little limbs and wrapped neatly in a chitenje and big blue blanket. Her father had ridden for eight hours, with his mother sitting on the back of the bicycle holding Emma, to come and ask for help. Emma was twelve days old. Her family could not get her to drink the cow’s milk that one of their neighbours in the village shared with them. They could not afford formula. Sitting in Agogo’s lounge room opposite the grieving family and sleeping baby, I was brought to tears. And it was in this moment, as the cliché goes, my life changed forever.

The arrival of little Emma signaled a shift in my understanding of some of the issues faced in Malawi. It cemented my relationship with the orphanage and the vision that one day these children might not end up in an orphanage, instead living their days with their family because their parents weren’t dying from illness, child-birth, malnutrition or disease. The arrival of Emma also brought a purpose back to my life. For the first few days of her arrival she was in my care, until we could arrange another caregiver for her. The first 24 hours were touch and go. She slept almost the entire time and was barely taking in any formula. After twelve days of life she weighed less than 1.5kg. One afternoon, while struggling to feed Emma, my sister suggested using a syringe. We filled it up to 5mL and squirted 1mL in her mouth. She cried out and in doing so gulped the liquid down. We did it again. And finally she latched her little lips around the syringe and guzzled the entire 5mL.

Bath time

Curling up with Emma that night in bed, the smell of soap and milk lingering on her skin, I listened to her breathing. Unable to sleep, in case the soft little puffs of air suddenly stopped. My heart ached. It ached for the loss of a mother who would never see her baby grow up. It ached for a little baby who might not survive until the morning. It ached for all the children I’d met and spent time with at the orphanage who shared a similar story to Emma, or in some cases, far more horrific stories of their own arrival into the world.

That night, my heart also ached for myself. As the intricacies of my life were thrust into the spotlight of my consciousness to finally start to deal with, I realized that I needed to care about something again. I’d fallen off the rails at home: I’d left a few relationships in the space of a couple of years; been in a domestic violence situation; I’d lost an incredible friend to a plane crash; and I drank enough everyday to keep the grief, hurt and memories at bay. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the most pleasant drunk person either. I’d turned into someone I no longer recognized and I couldn’t stand the person I’d become.

Another favourite chill out spot

Maybe Agogo had sensed this and that was his reason for bringing little Emma and I together. Maybe it was God. Or the universe. Or whatever greater force it is that is out there orchestrating these moments that ultimately change our lives. Whatever it was, I’m grateful for it. I am grateful that four years on Emma is healthy and happy and loving life.

Emma 3 years

While we live in different countries, and I don’t get to visit as often as I did in her first two years of life, Emma and I will forever be linked. She may not realize it yet, and every time I do visit I have to work to regain her friendship and trust, but Emma inspired a dream that will, one day, improve the lives for lots of other babies and children in Malawi. Each year a team of dedicated people, that grows daily, come together to change the lives of women and children in Malawi. Firstly, through the sewing project to teach secondary school graduates sewing skills that could allow them to generate income, which led to the sanitary pad project, and now the Emergency Baby Home. Each step has been devised in partnership with the young women of the orphanage, providing them with support to make the choices in their lives. The Emergency Baby Care Home is not just a place for orphaned babies to live, as ultimately the next generation of young women would like to live for a long time and watch their children grow old. It’s a safe space for women to meet, to learn about pre-natal and ante-natal care, nutrition and health for women, and baby care. It’s a safe space for babies whose mothers perhaps cannot look after them because the mother needs support and care herself or the baby comes from a particularly vulnerable situation and requires high-needs care.

By the time Emma grows up, hopefully she will have the opportunity to choose for herself how the rest of her story goes. Hopefully she will be educated and able to step up and question the choices available to her. Deciding what is best for her future and re-writing her families ending, so that she too doesn’t die in child-birth leaving a baby motherless in this world.

Emma 19 months

Happy 4th birthday Emma. May your life continue to shine brightly upon this world. xx

If you would like to help mothers in Malawi to live long and healthy lives, or babies – like Emma – in emergency situations please consider donating to the Emergency Baby Care Home fundraising campaign.

em and em

Washing Day

A short piece of creative non-fiction published on the Stilts Journal website, August 20, 2014

 

Every Sunday afternoon since they were little girls they had completed this ritual. Dirty clothes are gathered and tied up in chitenjes. The bundles are balanced on heads before the group slowly sets off from the dusty village–where the men sit drinking home-brewed beer and playing bowa–and head towards the sand dunes.
The women take the well-worn path between the holiday houses lining the lakeshore, where beach shacks are surrounded by rusty metal six-foot fences and topped with shattered glass and barbed wire. The women chat. One points out a scattering of hippo droppings and the group sway to the left to avoid stepping in the fresh dung.
At the water’s edge the women remove the bundles from their heads and empty the contents onto the wet sand. Their own clothes are stripped off and added to the pile. They wrap chitenjes around their bodies, knotted loosely at the front or with the corners hooked over the top edge of the fabric in a way only they know how to keep secure.
As the first woman tentatively steps into the gently lapping water, she glances around. Further down the shoreline the sand disappears out of sight and is replaced by reeds and tall grass–home to a family of hippo and the occasional crocodile. A toddler runs splashing into the shallows, trips, belly flops. The women are sprayed with drops of fresh water and a shriek erupts, followed by laughter. They sink into the shallows beside the toddler and begin to wash.
Bright greenish-blue bars of u-clean soap are used to scrub arms and legs, are lathered between calloused palms and the suds massaged into each other’s hair. They lather again and scrub the greyish foam into the folds of dirty clothes. Bits of gossip are traded between the sound of water being poured over heads to wash away the suds: Mary’s child is doing well at school; Alepha’s daughter has secured a proposal from a good family; did everyone hear about Charity from a few villages over? She had run away, leaving her husband and children behind. Younger girls from the village join the group on the lakeshore. After bathing, they help spread out the washed clothes on the dry sand closer to the dunes.
When everyone and everything is washed, the women move out of the shallows to dry in the warm afternoon sun. One starts humming, and soon two more join in singing a hymn from church that morning. The girls stay in the water and swim and play, splashing each other and throwing a ball made out of lots of pieces of plastic tied together and wrapped around each other.
Spread out among the washing on the beach, the women comb each other’s hair or massage sand against the cracked, dead skin of the soles of their feet. The toddler’s snores echo softly against the sand, rolling in time with the waves that lap at the lakeshore.

A day with an orphanage Director

Lucy Chipeta texts me to arrange my collection from Lilongwe. After some back and forth texts we agree on 10 am Thursday. When Thursday rolls around I am ready at 8am. This is Malawi after all and time means very little. At 10.45am Lucy arrives.

“How are you Emma? Sorry I am late. Malawi time.” She says, while texting on her phone and directing Joe the house boy to put my bags in the appropriate place in her car.

“Ok.” She says when my bags are loaded. “Can we go.”

I nod. Although I don’t think it was actually a question. Western world habit, I suppose, to answer a statement, or feel as though I need to give some sort of feedback or contribution to the conversation.

Samson, opens the front gate for us, and salutes smartly as we drive out. Lucy confirms my list of jobs to do in Lilongwe and then makes a plan of how these can fit in with her business in town. Considering the impact of Malawi time into her calculations to get us through the required jobs for Home of Hope and on the road out to Mchinji before the sun starts to set. Driving west into an African sunset is one of the most stunning sights I’ve ever come across, it is also one of the most dangerous things to do in Africa.

First stop is Xerographics, a computer and copier store, to buy more photocopier toner. It is examination time in the Secondary school at Home of Hope and they have run out of toner to print more exams. After 20 minutes of being shuffled from sales assistant to the manager and back again, we are informed that the toner is in the warehouse, but they will send for it and the toner will be at the store soon.

“Be here soon means it could take a while.” Lucy says. “Malawi time.” She reminds me. “Let’s go to Office Works while we are waiting.”

We drive down a dirt road parallel to the main road. The pot holes are quite small, about the size and depth of a metal trash can lid.

“Do you remember this road from last time you were here?”

“Is this the road from this time last year, when we went to the farm supply shop?”

“Yes, this is that road. They have fixed it. See there are no pot holes now.” Lucy says.

The pot holes last year had been craters that could have easily fit half a cow, or at least a very large goat. The road had definitely been improved somewhat.

We pull up at Office Works and squeeze through the front door as a man is stacking piles of Lever Arch files along one side of the entrance wall. Lucy heads in to pay the orphanage’s stationary account and pick up her order of envelopes and reams of paper. I ask how much the Lever Arch folders are. 850 MK. I had paid 1500 MK for the same thing at Mchinji Boma the week before. I get two.

Lucy is followed out with a man loaded up with cartons full of her purchases. Lucy tells him in Chichewa of our other items still to collect and he arranges the boxes on the floor of the back seat of our car.

Back to Xerographics. Collect the toner.

Quick stop at Steers for takeaway lunch. 10 minute wait on the burgers, 5 minutes on the chicken and chips. We are on a deadline. Chicken and chips it is.

We have to make it to the Cowbell warehouse before noon. The orphanage has run out of powdered milk and the milking cows are out of action. One with calf, the other off with a local steer in attempt to expand the current dairy farm from 2 milking cows to 4.

IMG_1212At Cowbell, they give us a donation of 18 cartons of little packets of sweetened powdered milk. It can be mixed in with Phala, the breakfast maize based porridge, to help give it a little flavour. We also buy a 25kg bag of powdered milk. Lucy needs to get more, but her car is already full. There is only room in the front seats and if the rear doors are opened it looks as though boxes of milk will come cascading out.

Our lunch, which has been stashed in the paper bag on the passenger side floor, is now dished out. We are just finishing eating as we drive past a van that has rolled off the main road and into a ditch. Lucy pulls over and talks to the large crowd of locals gathered around. The kids wave at IMG_1215me, giggling when I wave back. I hear them mutter azungu – white person – to each other in between giggles. The ambulance has already taken the driver to hospital. It was his third car accident in a month.

We hop back in the car and Lucy starts telling me about the dangers of driving in Malawi. The main roads are used by cars, trucks, buses, oxen carts, bicycles, and people walking, goats, dogs and children cross at random without looking for on coming traffic. Vehicle maintenance is poor. Most people, if they have a vehicle, usually can’t afford the repairs.

A kilometre down the road the police pull us over in a speed trap they are operating. Another of the dangers of driving on Malawi roads – no one does the speed limit in Malawi either. We pay the fine and the woman police officer tries to  trade me my skirt and my earrings for a skirt she will give me next time we meet. I decline her generous offer.

IMG_1222Another half hour down the road and we arrive at the government cattle farm. We enquire about purchasing some cattle, using a donation of money that arrives next week. After some initial confusion about what we are after, we are informed that there are only 2 cows we can buy and they are not ready until next week. Also we must fill out a form at the DODA office and then come back to the farm for the farm manager to sign off on. Finally, Lucy will need to take the form into Lilongwe and have some one from the Ministry for Health or Agriculture also sign the form, before returning to the farm to finalise payment for the cattle and arrange a collection date.

We arrange to return to the farm the following day with the forms.

At 2.35pm Lucy and I arrive at the Ministry for Agriculture and Food Security office in Mchinji. The offices are empty, except for a secretary who has Malawian gospel music blaring from a computer speaker. We enquire into the whereabouts of the person we need to meet with. The secretary turns the music down as we turn to leave her office.

IMG_1224Sitting in the shade on the steps to the office, Lucy makes a few phone calls and 10 minutes later the officer arrives. He goes into his office to find the forms and came back empty-handed. He is all out of copies. Can we wait while he goes and makes some copies at the Boma?

Lucy offers to do this for him. “Who know how long it will take him to copy the form. This way we can go and get it done and come straight back. No waiting.” Lucy says.

The photocopy stall in the Boma runs off six copies and we drive back up the bumpy road to the office. He fills in the form, using pieces of carbon copy patch-worked together to make the required duplicates.

Six hours after leaving Lilongwe, Lucy and I take the turn off to Home of Hope, happy to have beat the setting sun to the mountain range and avoiding the blinding rays that will glare down on the main road from now until dusk. I think back over the list of tasks Lucy had to do today. In the west, this list would have probably taken half the time to accomplish. But, this is Africa. Nothing is a simple as it could be and obstacles to achieving anything are a normal part of the process. If you get frustrated or expect to get certain results in a particular time frame then you will be left disappointed. But if you except that it is the way it is, all of the seemingly random, frustrating asides, become an enjoyable part of the process. An entertaining add-on to what would otherwise be boring work.

“It’s Malawi time.” Lucy reminds me.

I nod, laughing with her at the craziness she must deal with each and every day just to manage the basic operations of the orphanage.

For more on Home of Hope visit http://homeofhopemalawi.org or www.facebook.com/homeofhopemalawi

Fountain of Life

Africa has a unique blend of issues and challenges. HIV/AIDS, malnutrition, maternal mortality, malaria, and lack of education mixed with traditional cultures, extreme poverty, and an enormous amount of NGO’s, CBO’s, governments and donors all suggesting ways to address these problems. But once you scratch the surface of the issues and challenges that are constantly in the media and on the agenda of most NGO’s and donors, you come to the issues of critical importance to a country and it’s people. Issues and challenges that are so entwined with every element of daily life that once you become aware of them, you wonder how they have been kept quiet for so long.

Fountain of Life Centre, Lilongwe, Malawi

Fountain of Life Centre, Lilongwe, Malawi

Child trafficking, mental illness, rape, and sexual assault. The buy products of poverty, malnutrition, lack of education, desperation, and a complex web of social, economical, and cultural factors. According to a 2011 report, 3% of sexually abused children aged 12-18 years reported the abuse, while 55% of cases go unreported. Trying to find a figure on rape and sexual abuse cases in Malawi is impossible. The Malawi Police, Victim Support Unit, acknowledged yesterday that in most cases a victim does not report a case of rape or sexual assault for three main reasons. One: they are afraid of going to the police; two: the victim’s family convinces them not to report the incident; or three: the victim is fearful for their life and the repercussions in their village, among their peers and family, if they report the incident. But the police are working with local schools and communities across Malawi to try to change the perceptions of Malawians when it comes to rape and sexual assault.

Victims Support Unit Officer explaining the current rape and sexual assault reporting procedures

Victims Support Unit Officer explaining the current rape and sexual assault reporting procedures

Yesterday marked the official opening of the Fountain of Life Resource Centre in Lilongwe. The centre is a partnership between the Police Victim Support Unit, Malawi government, hospitals, and other donors that provides resources and culturally appropriate care, support and protection to victims of rape and sexual abuse. The centre is part of an ongoing chain of support for victims. Even though it is the first 48-72 hours that are crucial in terms of trauma counselling for a victim, the ongoing counselling and support is just as vital. The ongoing support is something that Malawi’s Director of Social Welfare acknowledged as an area that the government and all involved parties needed to work together to improve.

The Director also acknowledged the Police Victims Support Unit’s (VSU) lack of resources to implement current programs to change the Malawi people’s perceptions of the country’s police officers. The Police VSU over the past 12 months had gone into schools, church congregations and rural communities to raise awareness of rape and sexual assault issues in Malawi and how the Police unit is able to help victims. This engagement with Malawians is something that the Fountain of Life centre will join forces with the police to extend on, with a series of DVD’s, books and brochures under development to inform Malawians of ways to deal with sexual abuse, support people who have suffered sexual abuse, and to promote positive and safe interactions between people. The VSU has been separated from the general police stations in Malawi to provide victims with an environment that feels less threatening. Police have also undergone customer services training and trauma training to improve their skills in supporting victims of rape and sexual assault. But after a victim has completed the report of an incident with police and undergone a medical they can now access continued support from the counsellors at Fountain of Life.

Trauma counselling workshops to train more Malawians to support victims of rape and sexual assault

Trauma counselling workshops to train more Malawians to support victims of rape and sexual assault

This partnership between government, Police, and follow-up trauma care and counselling is a step in the right direction for addressing one of the largest, and also quietest, issues in Malawi. The country is still a long way off having solutions to the challenging nature of the issue, but at least now victims will have further support to help them in moving on after such horrific experiences. And hopefully, with the growth of the awareness campaign, their will be a decrease in cases of rape, sexual assault, gender based violence or incest, or at least an increase in reporting, so that perpetrators are held accountable for their actions.

For more information on Fountain of Life visit their website:

www.mwfountainoflife.org

Note: Rape and sexual assault are complex issues that I am not an expert on. I have not even begun to scratch the surface of either of these, but am merely reporting on an open forum held between government, police, locals, and Fountain of Life founders and psychologists to continue the conversation on the issue and to raise awareness of what is happening to address a major challenge faced by Malawians.

 

Buried Alive

This is a piece I wrote for university this semester and part of a larger work on the Women of Malawi.

 

‘Do you ever think about your mother? Wonder what it would be like to have one?’ I asked.

‘No,’ Margret said.

‘Why?’

‘I never met her. I never knew her,’ she said. ‘I have always been at Home of Hope. This is my family.’

 ***

I had read about Margret Soko before I met her.

When I met Margret for the first time when she was thirteen-years-old, I asked how she was and if I could take her photograph, she giggled, her shoulders scrunching up tightly. She wanted a photo with her friends, and then another photo just of her. Margret posed with her arms around the shoulders of her friends, white teeth catching the sunshine that broke through the leaves and branches from above. The glare from the sun showed up in the photos, and I had to ask her to move over into the shadow of the tree to see her face clearly.

Margret’s face, round and full, had plump protruding lips and a broad nose. She wore a white top, something I don’t think I’ll ever understand in Malawi. The red dust quickly turns anything white into a mottled reddish-brown colour. Kind of like the colour old crocheted doilies turn with years of dust, sunlight and spilt cups of tea.

I suppose though, when you might only have two or three sets of clothes to choose from and all of them have been donated by people from developed countries the choice in the colour of your clothes is probably not a high priority. The top had pink embroidered flowers around the neckline and Margret wore a matching pink elastic headband around her head, gently sinking into half an inch of tight curly black hair. Her pink skirt sat just below the knee. The pink headband seemed to pull her facial features into proportion.

I showed Margret and her friends the photos afterwards on the tiny little screen. They shrieked laughing into each other’s shoulders, pointing at themselves on the little display screen as I scrolled through the half a dozen images.

The Margret I met was gorgeous. Her big brown eyes shone vibrantly and her personality was out for all to see. She would talk, getting louder and faster as she went, becoming more and more excited, until eventually she talked so fast that nothing made sense, so she ended in giggles. Her hands flew to her mouth feigning shyness, and she slumped against one of her friends who also giggled uncontrollably.

The Margret I had read about and the Margret I met could not be the same person. One was a bubbly teenager, surrounded by loving friends and enjoying life. The other was an abandoned child, orphaned in distressing circumstances

A dusty piece of typed-on paper, in the middle of a folder full of similar pieces of dusty paper, outlining in one short paragraph the events of Margret’s earliest days. Orphaned children’s stories – a catalogue the orphanage had collected during each child’s admission process, or from further investigations to try to fill in the gaps that existed in most orphaned children’s histories.

On the top half of the piece of paper was a photograph. Next to the photo, there was a note scrawled in blue pen that said “wrong photo”. The skinny child in the picture looked to be the right age, but was possibly a boy. It was hard to tell from the grainy black and white print out. All the children have their heads shaved, making it nearly impossible to tell them apart, unless they happened to be standing in front of you and you could distinguish actual facial details. At the dining room table of the Volunteers House, I read Margret’s dust covered story. Kathleen, a teacher from America, sat opposite me flipping through photo albums previous volunteers had compiled and left on the bookshelves of the volunteer house.

‘Kathleen, listen to this one.’ I said.

 

Margret is 11 years old (Born 1999) and comes from Chileka (Chiwe). Her mother died soon after delivery and all the extended relatives agreed to bury Maggie with her dead mother since everyone from the family refused to take care of her, and it was also their belief to bury a child if it’s one day old when a mother dies being afraid of the mother’s spirit. Margret was also wrapped as a corpse and taken together to the graveyard with her dead mother. When they wanted to bury Margret she cried louder from the grave and one woman courageously enough stood up and told the graveyard boys to take Maggie out from the grave saying she will take care of her but people from Maggie’s family still didn’t want Maggie out and said if she will be taken out they not be responsible and the woman agreed that they would not be. The woman left the very moment when Margret was taken out and took her straight to the orphanage since she heard of Home of Hope before.

Since Maggie came to Home of Hope none has visited her and always spend her holidays at Home of Hope. We hope without Home of Hope Maggie could not be alive today since the woman said she took a risk because she knew about Home of Hope and that Maggie would not be sent back.’

We sat in silence, Kathleen’s eyes shiny with tears. Neither of us spoke. Outside, the lunch bell clanged and children ran squealing towards the kitchen.

I couldn’t bring myself to turn the page. I re-read the blurb out loud again, hoping to make some sort of sense out of it all.

I stared silently at the photograph labelled Margret Soko, that was, in fact, not Margret Soko. I wondered what sort of person I would have grown up to be had I started life-like Margret. For some reason this seemed like the only way to try to comprehend what had happened to her.

I couldn’t begin to imagine it though.

Did Margret know what had happened to her in her first few days of life? And if she did know about being buried alive, what impact had it made on her? Was she angry? And how does one adjust to hearing this kind of information?

 ***

 When a child grows up in a rural village in Malawi the basic necessities of life are not always met. Mothers die in childbirth, leaving fathers and extended family to care for newborn babies. Or both parents die: some from malnutrition, some from HIV/AIDS. Sometimes mothers give birth to a child conceived from rape. Sometimes mothers commit suicide or try to kill their baby due to undiagnosed and untreated mental illnesses that can result from malnutrition. Sometimes great-grandparents care for a new-born and other times the oldest surviving sibling is left to raise the family.

Most villagers farm only enough to feed themselves. If the rains come too early or too late it changes the entire harvest or destroys crops completely. Clean water can be half a day’s walk away, and health clinics, a full day’s.

When a child goes to live at the Home of Hope orphanage he or she has a bed, a blanket, and a mosquito net. There is soap and running water. There is food, access to medical care, and the certainty of an education. There is safety, security, and the sense of hope that comes with the empowerment of each child through their gratitude of a better life.

When Margret was 12 years old, her eldest brother, Losho, arrived at the orphanage. It had taken Linda and the other Home of Hope staff 12 years to track down any of Margret’s relatives. And after endless phone calls, and tracing leads through hospital records, social welfare office records and questioning villagers, Home of Hope convinced the family to send a relative to the orphanage to meet Margret. This was the first time since being separated from her family as a newborn that Margret learnt of her relatives, and of her abandonment as a baby.

Losho was at least six-foot tall. He was skinny, with knobbly elbows poking out beneath the sleeves of his t-shirt. His cheeks and nose though were full and round like Margret’s. The skin beneath his eyes had sunk inwards and his eyes were creamy white, covered in a web of blood-shot lines that spread out from glazed pupils. The effects of malnutrition were definitely visible. Losho’s visit allowed Linda and the other administration staff to find answers to the questions they had about Margret’s birth and subsequent arrival at the orphanage. Losho filled them in on the version of Margret’s story that had been shared through the family, particularly the story of her abandonment and the cause of her mother’s death.

Losho told Linda that Margret’s parents had been working as tenants on a tobacco farm in Mkanda, in Mchinji district, about 35 kilometres from the orphanage. While Margret’s mother was pregnant with her, Margret’s father died from HIV/AIDS. Soon after giving birth, Margret’s mother passed away from HIV/AIDS as well. The women from the farm who had delivered Margret decided to bury her with her mother, not because they thought the mother’s spirit would be angry, but because the baby Margret would be HIV positive too. It didn’t matter that Margret might not be HIV positive. The decision was made on the assumption that Margret’s parents were HIV positive, therefore Margret was. Margret was buried alive with her dead mother, but saved by a woman working on the tobacco farm who couldn’t bear the sound of Margret’s cries from underground.

Unable to care for the rescued baby the woman from the farm took baby Margret to a nearby clinic: a tiny, one room mud brick building that serviced the surrounding villages and left the baby with the nurse. The nurse took the baby Margret into Mchinji, getting a lift in the back of a lorry to the district hospital, where the nurse then left the baby. After two weeks in hospital, undergoing treatment and monitoring from the doctor, an officer from Social Welfare drove Margret through the market place and across the unused train tracks, then half an hour down the dirt road to Home of Hope. She was just over two weeks old by the time she first arrived at the orphanage. The Christmas of 2012 was the first time Margret would ever leave the orphanage for the school holidays. She travelled two hours on the bus from Mchinji to the capital Lilongwe, before swapping buses to go the next five and a half hours to Chileka, 520km south-east of Home of Hope.

That Christmas, Margret stayed with her oldest sister for the first two days of her visit to Chileka and then with Losho. Her sister stayed at home looking after children and the extended family. Losho repaired bicycles during the day and drank at night. Margret slept on a thin mattress on the floor with no blanket or mosquito net. It was two days before the tears began. Two more days and Margret boarded a bus back to Home of Hope.

‘Why did you leave so soon?’ I asked her two weeks later, sitting on the front porch of the Volunteer House.

‘There was no electricity, no iron sheets on the roof. When it rained I got wet. When I was hungry I had to go and find food. There was not enough food at my sister’s house.’ Margret said.

‘Where did you have to go to find food?’

‘I would go out in to my sister and my brother’s gardens. But they don’t have a big garden and a lot of the plants have just been planted and have not grown any vegetables to eat yet.’

‘Do you think you will go back to your village again?’ I asked.

‘No.’

Margret stared at her hands. They were wound in a tight knot in her lap. Except for one finger, which picked at her nails, slipping and scratching her skin. There was a long pause, the sound of her nails clicking together nervously.

‘I’ve asked my relatives to come here and visit me,’ she said.

Linda had been translating for Margret and me. Linda spoke for long periods of time in Chichewa, repeating my questions and possibly adding her own version to the original questions. Margret didn’t look at either of us. Her hands or occasionally her feet, which are bare, hold all of her attention. Her shoes sit neatly at the bottom of the porch, a cultural custom in Malawi to prevent dirt from being dragged inside or onto places reserved for sitting. Every once in a while Margret will nod her head or mumble softly in reply to the Chichewa translation from Linda. Rarely does she respond with more than a few words. When she does though, the English translation is short and I’m not sure if I am missing out on the full story.

‘Do you ever think about your mother? Wonder what it would be like to have one?’ I ask.

Another long pause. I wonder if I’ve overstepped some invisible line with this question: the line between what is acceptable to ask about one’s dead mother and what is not. Although, I’m not sure there are any guidelines or rules, so I asked on the chance that Margret might actually answer yes. That she might say more than yes, and her answer would help me make sense of a horrific situation, that is unfortunately common place among children in Malawi.

A few days earlier, while asking Linda about Margret’s birth, I’d been told that Margret knew the details of her birth, burial, and arrival at Home of Hope, and that she was fine with it. I couldn’t understand how Margret could be fine with the whole thing. After 12 years her family finally appears. She doesn’t know them, but now she has to go and stay with them for her school holidays. The fear and anxiety Margret must have experienced was beyond comprehension.

Yet as Linda translated my question, Margret continued to pick at her nails, the inside of her hands glowed white, as she balled them into tighter fists. Maybe Margret was not as dealing as well with the arrival of her biological family as I’d been lead to believe.

‘No.’

‘Why?’

‘I never met her. I never knew her.’ She said ‘I have always been at Home of Hope. This is my family.’

I understood. The people and the place had a way of engulfing you. It became your whole world. Where nothing else existed outside of the glass-topped, seven-foot double brick wall that surrounded the village compound. Home of Hope was more than an orphanage. It was a home for displaced souls, abandoned wives, disjointed families, and starving babies. It was a place where laughter echoed off the protective hills rising up behind the village wall, where everybody pitched in with daily chores, and no one complained. Because here they were safe; here they were taken care of; and most importantly, here they were alive, healthy, and loved.

Here they had hope.

The home started when the Reverend Chipeta and his wife took in ten of their grandchildren after the death of the children’s’ parents to HIV/AIDS. Home of Hope grew to become a huge extended family of Malawi’s most vulnerable, drawn together by the horrific circumstances faced by an incredibly poor country. Malnutrition and HIV/AIDS had all but wiped out an entire generation, leaving 46% of the 16 million Malawians under the age of 14 years old. Traditional families could no longer cope with the pressures of caring for young children and babies, especially with so many of those families reduced to single parent or child-headed households.

During Margret’s four-day visit to the village, she met her maternal grandmother as well as four of her twelve siblings.

‘What was it like meeting the family that gave you up?’

Margret’s right leg was twitching and jerking, bouncing her tightly balled hands in her lap, while she tried to dig away at her nails.

‘I felt happy to meet them.’ She said. ‘I felt sorry for them too. Sorry for the poor conditions they live in.’

At this point, both her legs twitched and jerked up and down.

I decided to head the conversation towards a lighter subject. Stick to the easier topics of Margret’s school life, friends, and her hobbies. When the school year started in a couple of weeks, Margret would be in standard seven, her first year in the Secondary School.

‘If you were still living in your village do you think you would get to go to school?’ I asked, prompted by the Home of Hope school uniform, a deep blue tunic that Margret wore even though it was the holidays.

‘I think so. But it would be difficult. I might not have a school uniform and I would have to walk a long way to the school.’

Linda added that Margret’s sister had stopped attending school at 15 years old. The family had no money to pay for the school fees.

‘Do you like going to school?’

The orphanage had a Primary and Secondary School built at opposite ends of the village. In the Secondary School, the classrooms were filled with lopsided rusty single student desks and there were not enough chairs for each desk in the classrooms. Some of the chairs had four legs, while others wobbled on three legs and with the back panel or even the seat missing. A wobbly frame broken long ago by a boisterous teenager or the wood panels pried off the seat for a fire to cook someone’s dinner. The front wall of each classroom was covered by a chalkboard. The class timetable and examination timetable were tacked to the end closest to the door.

‘Yes. I like being with my friends and I like learning Mathematics.’ She said, ‘I like singing in the choir.’

Margret looked up from her hands. She’d stopped scratching.

‘I’m the head of our choir.’ She smiled softly.

‘What would you like to do when you finish school?’

‘I want to be a nurse.’

This is a future occupation I had read on many of the children’s files.

Most of them wanted to be a nurse or a police officer/soldier.

‘Why would you like to be a nurse?’

‘I admire the people who are nurses,’ she said, continuing to look at

me, the smile spreading as she spoke. ‘They help the sick people. I want to help people too.’

Linda and Margret talked some more in Chichewa without my questions to prompt them. I listened, unable to understand all but two or three words of the conversation, while scrawling some notes on the paper in front of me.

‘Do you have any more questions?’ Linda asked. ‘Margret has chores she wants to go and finish.’

‘No, it’s ok. We can finish up now.’ I said to Linda.

I turned to Margret and took her chipped nails and leathery hands, worn rough from the day-to-day domestic duties of peeling kernels off maize cobs and hand washing clothes, in mine.

‘Zikomo kwambili.’ Thank you very much.

 ***

A mosquito buzzed around my forearm on the porch the next morning. Following it as closely as I could with a baby resting on my lap, I slapped my hand down hard and fast against my arm. The mosquito lay splattered in a mess of bright red blood and black tangled body parts on my skin.

‘Bloody rainy season.’

The rain had finally eased off after almost 26 days straight of thick globular rain that continued all day and all night and created red rivers of slush along the side of the roads and down the middle of pathways.

I sat on the front porch, a bag of baby supplies and camera equipment, beside me. Baby Emma hadn’t stirred on my lap during the mosquito death. Her bloated belly swelling with each breath under her new, milk stained, lavender sweatshirt (a present from my mother), which had the slogan pretty like my mummy embroidered across her chest.

Linda came towards us across the lawn, an umbrella tucked under her arm.

‘Good morning Linda, thank goodness the rain has stopped today.’

‘Good morning Emma and Baby Emma,’ Linda said. ‘It has stopped for now, but we’ll see.’

Linda stroked Baby Emma’s hand and clucked over her.

‘She is such a messy eater. Look at all this milk on her,’ Linda said.

‘She sure does like her food now, and her naps after her food. At least she’ll sleep most of the trip to Margret’s village.’

‘Ah, I have bad news Emma. The four-wheel drive is broken again. So we will not be able to go.’

‘Can’t we take another car?’

‘No the roads are too muddy. We have had so much rain this season, the roads out to the villages are full of holes, so the only way we could get there is by four-wheel drive or in the lorry.’

‘Is the lorry free?’ I said.

‘No. Agogo needs it at the farm today,’ Linda said. ‘I’m sorry, Emma, I know you wanted to go and visit with Margret’s family. Maybe if you can come back in February we will have the four-wheel drive fixed. But now with the rain the roads out to the villages are terrible.’

A few days earlier during my drive from Lilongwe to Mchinji, we had stopped to visit Chimbuka village. A short drive down the tarred road from Home of Hope, before a 45 minute first gear crawl along the severely eroded dirt track, or more precisely, beside the dirt track. For long stretches the road simply disappeared. In some places it was under wide, murky puddles of rainwater and in others the road had caved in on itself. Giant potholes the size of a full-grown cow scattered haphazardly every few metres.

I’d stopped to pick up supplies at the market before we went to Chimbuka. So for 45 minutes I balanced an open cardboard tray of 30 eggs in my hands, silently praying that we didn’t lurch forward into a cow sized pothole. Or the eggs didn’t jump free of their flimsy package and on to my only skirt for my entire stay in Malawi.

Linda said she had to go and meet with Agogo, but would be back soon to continue working with me. As she leant over to say goodbye to Baby Emma, heavy drumming started on the iron sheets above us. Linda laughed.

‘It is the rainy season, Emma, it never stops for long.’

 ***

After all this time I still hadn’t quite adjusted to the constant rearranging of plans and schedules that take place on a daily basis in Malawi. Cars break, a person you are due to have a meeting with comes down with Malaria, or people forget and turn up three days later, with no excuses or reasons. They have arrived now and the meeting will go ahead and that is all that matters.

I suppose though that with the lingering certainty of death always present, it makes sense to live each day as it happens, regardless of western notions of time and politeness to keep an appointment or meeting schedule. Western time considerations don’t apply in Malawi, because most Malawians don’t have the luxury of time. The Malawi life expectancy rate is half of that in the western world. Every day Malawians are forced to deal with the effects of HIV/AIDS and malnutrition. Finding food is more important than getting the car fixed. Getting their monthly course of ARV’s from the hospital is more important than turning up to a meeting on time. Watches and clocks were non-essential items when it comes to day-to-day survival.

With a trip to Margret’s village ruled out, I decided to go to the orphanage clinic and visit Dolly, the nurse. It was a short walk through the centre of the village, just outside the main houses, but before the start of the slope towards the primary school. I wanted to ask her about Margret’s medical records, particularly about Margret’s HIV status. It was the only question that remained unanswered.

She looked so healthy, and she was such a happy young girl, that it had never crossed my mind that she could be HIV positive.

***

Dolly sat behind her desk, her arms folded gently across her round belly. Her white nurses uniform, starched and pressed, stood out against the backdrop of the bright blue wall. She smiled warmly as she gestured for me to enter her office. The walls of the clinic were covered in government, UNICEF, and World Health Organisation posters. The words on each poster are in Chichewa, but the illustrations were clear: Know your HIV status; vaccinations save lives; and mosquito nets prevent malaria.

‘Hello Emma and Baby Emma. Have you come to weigh Baby Emma today?’ Dolly asked, as she stood up and reached across the desk to tickle Baby Emma under the chin.

‘Not today, Dolly. I was hoping you could tell me a bit about Margret Soko. Were you at the orphanage when she was brought in by the social welfare officers?’

Dolly shuffled past her desk and out through a side door in her office. Through the doorway I can hear her opening and closing metal filing cabinet draws. The unmistakable screech of overloaded files, in overloaded draws, sagging and buckling the metal runners under the weight of too many records, too many orphaned children.

‘Margret was a little baby when she arrived at Home of Hope,’ Dolly said, walking slowly back through the doorway. ‘Two weeks old I think.’

Dolly rounded the desk and sat back down in her chair. Her movements were slow. Not old-age slow, just no-need-to-rush slow. The children had already received their ARV’s and other HIV treatments early that morning, so the clinic was quiet. The odd child walked in to have a cut or scratch attended to, but otherwise it was just Dolly, Baby Emma, and me.

‘I remember the social welfare officers bringing her to the clinic with her medical records from the hospital in Mchinji,’ said Dolly. ‘She was a very healthy little baby.’

‘Was Margret HIV positive like her mother?’

‘You know the testing for HIV takes a long time to know for sure,’ Dolly said, flipping through the file in front of her. ‘Ah, here it is.’

Dolly turned the file around on the desk and pushed it across to me. She came around the desk and picked up Baby Emma from my lap.

‘Margret was first tested at Mchinji hospital using the HIV viral load test, a blood test for HIV. When she was six weeks old, we took Margret back into Mchinji for the second blood test,’ Dolly said, undressing Baby Emma and putting her on the scales. ‘At 12 weeks old we took Margret in for the last blood test.’

‘I thought that it wasn’t until last year that Home of Hope found out Margret’s parents were HIV positive?’ I asked, looking up from the page I was skimming over.

‘We didn’t. But if we know that both of a baby’s parents have died, then usually it is from AIDs. The first test was documented in her records also, so we continued with the testing the hospital had started.’

Baby Emma squirmed on the scales, the plastic tray cold against her skin.

‘She is growing very well,’ Dolly said, writing down the weight on a piece of paper beside the scales before taking Baby Emma off and re-dressing her in the two layers of clothes and the two chitenjes she’d arrived at my front door dressed in that morning. ‘When Margret was 18 months old we had to take her once again to Mchinji hospital for the last test to make sure she wasn’t HIV positive.’

Dolly cooed at Baby Emma and put her back in my lap.

‘The HIV antibody test has to be done last. It can only be done on a child once they are over 18 months old, as any antibodies that could have crossed from the mother to the baby through the placenta, might still show up. These antibodies don’t mean the child is HIV positive though,’ Dolly said, finding Baby Emma’s health book in the card file on her desk and writing the number from the scales in the weight section. ‘It just takes up to 18 months for any antibodies from the mother’s blood to leave the babies system. If at 18 months the antibody test comes back negative, along with all the viral load tests, then you know for certain that the baby is not HIV positive.’

‘Did Margret’s test come back negative?’

‘Yes, Margret was a very lucky baby,’ Dolly said. ‘She has been very healthy ever since. No major sicknesses and only malaria once.

‘Wow,’ I muttered more to Baby Emma than to Dolly. ‘I hope you stay that healthy little miss.’

‘Ah, I pray to God also that Baby Emma stays this healthy,’ Dolly said, ‘with how much food she eats, I think this should not be a problem.’

Dolly chuckled and stood up behind her desk. She filed the health book away and closed Margret’s file.

‘Thank you, Dolly.’

‘That is ok. Thank you, Emma and Baby Emma for visiting.’ Dolly walked around the desk and tickled Baby Emma on the cheek as she walked past to the side room to the saggy filing cabinet.

***

At least 20 of us sat on the grass out the front of the volunteer’s house. Children that had no family to visit for the holidays, or the children that were too young to travel alone. Plus Baby Emma and me. The wind that had been gusting through the village all morning had settled into a light breeze as the afternoon wore on. We had gathered to take full advantage of the late afternoon winter sunshine, soaking it up through dry and cracked skin, warming deep into our bones.

Margret sat beside me with her friends Ezalina and Chisomo. Chisomo fussed with Margret’s hair, twisting the short tight curls into even tighter little nodes on her head. Ezalina was slouched against Margret, but reached out one hand to softly stroke Baby Emma’s hand.

Smith, one of the poster children for Home of Hope, ran over to us.

“Emma. Emma. Come. Garden,” he said, pointing eagerly in the direction of the village gate.

“Are we allowed out in the garden?”

“Yes, yes, yes, yes. Come.”

“Ok. I’m just going to leave Baby Emma in the house though. It’s starting to get a bit cold for her out here.”

After bundling Baby Emma up in an extra blanket and leaving her in the care of a volunteer, I grabbed both my cameras and a jumper and went back out to meet the group of children. Word had spread quickly and there were now twice as many children noisily gathered on the outside of the volunteer house fence.

I found Margret standing on one side of the gate waiting for me, and Smith on the other.

“Here you go,” I said, pressing the on button and passing my shockproof camera to Margret. “Push down on this button to take a Jumbula. Photo.”

Margret hooked the camera strap around her wrist, as children started crowding around her shouting Jumbula, photo, and pulling on her sleeves.

I hooked my camera strap over my shoulder and Smith slid his hand into mine. With his other hand he pushed the squabbling children away from my camera and led the way towards the gate.

Margret held the camera up at arm’s length from her face. Ezalina and Chisomo, and a tag along of younger children ran ahead of Margret, stopping to pose for a photo, before running forward again. I suspect they were trying to keep ahead of the group, so the photos didn’t end up bombarded by the other children.

Ezalina struck a pose. Margret stood still behind the camera and pressed the button. The flash went off. A look of horror crossed Ezalina’s face and six-year-old Joel went flying in between Ezalina and the camera, his mouth open wide, his arms outstretched, thumbs poking up.

I laughed.

Margret and Ezalina rapidly fired off words in Chichewa at Joel and swatted at him. Joel ducked and weaved between the older girls, a cheeky grin on his face. He ran until the girls stopped chasing him.

Margret hustled the girls back together. Chichewa instructions, mixed with the occasional angry word in the younger boys direction. Hands on hips, arms around shoulders, the girls smiled deeply and Margret took their photo. As soon as the flash had gone, the girls rushed up to Margret to get a look at the screen. They shrieked, pointing to each other’s image on the display screen.

Margret turned the camera around and held it up high. The three girls squashed in together. Arms around each other, big smiles, and Margret pressed the button. It seemed the art of taking a “selfie” photograph comes naturally to teenage girls.

This was Margret’s family. The girls she had grown up with. Sisters not by blood, but by shared abandonment, circumstance, and survival.

I waved at the girls to stay together in a group. I fiddled with the settings on my SLR camera getting them in focus. The girls smiled. Margret raised the little handheld camera up and we both clicked the button.

The girls, and the children who had watched us, split between the two cameras to look at the display screens. There was a hectic moment as they all ran to swap cameras. There were shrieks of laughter and pointing to those who had made it into the photographs of Margret and myself taking a photo of each other taking a photo. Margret jostled up beside me and stuck her head in front of mine to look at herself on the screen. She wrapped her arm around my shoulder and laughed.

 

Malawi: a whirlwind tour by a volunteer

Malawi has become my second home. I venture over at least every six months now. And every visit is different. Some times I’ll spend all of my time at one project or orphanage and other times, I will go to several different villages, projects, orphanages, etc. I’ll sit through meetings, miss other meetings due to good old “Malawian time”, or get distracted by one thing or another, because there is always so much to see and do.

Earlier this year I spent 10 days touring around visiting projects and villages. It was a rewarding and incredibly positive experience, especially seeing programs I had heard about or read about in action.

 

Never too old to learn

The last few weeks have disappeared in a flash of assignments, work and preparation for summer wakeboarding season. But with a week-long break for mid-semester and an exam and four assignments handed in recently, I decided to give myself a break from studying and teach myself how to edit video footage. I’d collected a fair amount while in Malawi on my cheap little video recorder and this is the result of that footage, plus a few hours on a Thursday night teaching myself to edit it all together into a little clip…

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/49873084″>Home of Hope</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user13618104″>Emma Makepeace</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Home of Hope from Emma Makepeace on Vimeo.

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