Malawi Children Cleaning

Field Notes


If you just look, make yourself look, at the curious pileup of thin little faces, you might forget that, as poet Rumi observes that “The Soul is Here For its Own Joy.” We are drawn to these 130 little souls, in falling apart clothing, faded to the color of old lion’s mane with yellowed eyes and mucus-crusted fulcrums that dip into beautiful full lips. A teacher in a calico shirt gathers the children with a silent signal and they glom together in a small triangle, tallest boys at the back. With each one in their place, the children begin to sing and smile their way through a Chichewa welcome song.

The singing startles me in its cadence and rhythm, reminding me that, indeed, every soul is here, irascibly still here, with some irreversible measure of joy, even beyond the golden eyes of hepatitis and HIV.

My daughter and I are here in a village in southern Malawi, because our yearning to give in areas where people struggle on a daily basis has created a new road map for our lives. Ananda Foundation funds small projects in Africa; in other areas of Malawi, as well as Kenya, Ethiopia and Zambia.

We are here in M’chenga because a woman named Ellen McCurley asked us to come and visit the community-based organization which consists of twenty-two villages. The village chiefs had formed their CBO but were lacking resources to help meet the needs of their people.

Ellen is the executive director of The Pendulum Project, a nonprofit based in Boston that works with women and children affected by HIV in Malawi. Ellen had met Ananda Foundation’s executive director on an autumn day and shared her experiences as a clinical social worker, public health specialist, and grassroots advocate. It was clear to Levani that Ellen was doing “good work.”

As a result Ananda Foundation funded a project called Paradiso Home which provides a communal place where women can come together and talk about issues they face in being HIV+. At Paradiso, the women leaders are trained to go into their communities with home-based care kits that they use to help provide supplementary care for HIV+ women. We came to Malawi to visit this project and Ellen asked us to visit M’chenga, a project in it’s first stage of identifying community needs.

So we have come from Hawaii, to nearly our islands’ antipodal point, five kilometers off a dirt road to a non descript flat patch of parched clay. M’chenga is one of community based organizations in catchments areas identified locally as “having needs.” Almost everywhere in Malawi, there are needs. While their exhausted grannies, aunties and other caregivers tend to the daily sustenance of life with limited food, the little ones are brought here. It gives the families a few hours respite from childcare.

Under a single scratchy tree, giving the land a bit of green, there is one structure. The earthen brick is neatly laid, patted into place by leathered hands. The inside of the building is faded and white-washed, cracking lime and gray concrete. It is a square and lifeless with peeling walls and a framework without any doors. The struggling tree and the building are the only features on the landscape beside our hired car.

There is a high rough step up to go inside. I ask Levani, cheerful and wearing her favorite Wonder Woman Tee shirt, to go inside. She comes back out a few minutes later, a little ashen; to tell me quietly that there is nothing inside, there is nothing, simply nothing. No ball, no toy, no colorful alphabet poster on the wall. There is no money to beautify this place There is nothing inside! It is an empty room, like an abandoned barn, guttered out and containing only the echoes of small, hungry children, trying to sing away their appetites.

Levani asks the teacher, “What do the children do for the day at the orphan center?”

“We pray and play and sing,” smiles the teacher. It is a simple statement, with no shred of self-pity. She is proud that the community has banded together to somehow provide distraction and a half-cup of gruel for each of the one hundred and thirty orphaned children.

Propping her infant on one hip, the volunteer shifts her weight a little and tells us that the children come at 7:30 a.m., and are served a small half cup of mini-meal (corn ground and cooked with a little sugar). The food is funded by a small amount of money that is donated by community members and a traditional leader is responsible to collect and store meal from the villagers – for the benefit of the children. The volunteer teacher herds them into a neat little map-like shape and they obediently sing one more song, oblivious to the burning heat of the day.

In the shade deemed by the position of the sun shadowing down on the concrete, we are asked to sit. There are twenty-two chiefs, assembled with their hands folded, quietly eyeing us as we sit, sill crisp from the air conditioned vehicle, on foldout chairs. The men are dignified and honorable, dressed in a mismatch of pareos, old shirts and navy trousers mended at the seams of the legs, and pinned together over the broken zippers that hold up the pants on the thin frames of their bodies. There are no overweight Malawians.

No one has a timetable for survival. Life is all walking and working and hoeing the soil and trudging buckets of water and heavy logs and sticks and wobbling bags filled with mystery, piled on a woman’s skull.

Now the children forget their shyness, and crowd around us likes little black shadows, curious about these two women from nowhere who are sitting patiently through the translations from the village headmen. For one luxurious moment, the drone reminds me of the talking chiefs of the much heavier, rounder Samoans, leading into praise and oratory. There is no such fashion to these speeches, beyond the polite welcome to these foreigners; the need is very simply and matter-of-factly expressed.

The rains were coming, they said. They only asked for two things:

Seed and fertilizer. The magic crops – maize, groundnuts, Soya beans.

“We, the people of Likuni, have formed, this CBO (Community-based organization), to help our villages together.”
The parents, another chief explains, “they cannot pay school fees, examination fees, charges for maintaining toilets. Many young girls are marrying because there is no other way to support them. The nearest clinic is eight kilometres away and without a car or an ambulance bicycle, a sick or bedridden person has to be carried to the hospital in Likuni.”

A giddy young boy who looks about seven years old with an eye disfigurement grabs his own chair and sits with us, interrupting the oratory. The chief smiled with patience and says, “This boy is mentally challenged orphan. His parents have both died and has no one. The chiefs are taking care of him, and he wanders from house to house. Everyone tries to feed and shelter this child, but it is hard when there is not enough.”

There was one more shy request of the chiefs: Could we donate an ambulance bicycle? (since the only method of transport was by carrying someone who was sick).

We began with the basics: an Ananda “hurry-up” grant for seed and fertilizer for twenty-two villages. The rains started a week after we left Africa.

— Fieldnotes by Sheree