Malawi is called the Warm Heart of Africa, and this week on my most recent project monitoring trip, I was embraced by that warm heart. People greeted us warmly, sang for us, and even gave us flowers. The land itself is also gorgeous – with mountains and high plateaus rising above the savanna dotted with baobab trees.
Despite the beauty of its people and land, surviving in Malawi is extremely difficult. It is one of the world’s least developed countries with a life expectancy of only 53.5 years and a poverty rate of 52%. Complicating life even further, over the past two years inflation rates have climbed by almost 30% each month and prices have soared. This makes our work of implementing projects in Malawi very complicated. The Malawi staff and I are constantly scrambling to re-write budgets that are entirely irrelevant a mere six months after their creation. For instance when writing a two-year budget for our bicycle workshop, the exchange rate for the first year was 160 kwacha per $1, but by the second year the rate was 320 kwacha per $1. The price of diesel fuel was around 210 kwacha per litre for the first year and currently stands at 610 kwacha per litre (or $7.20 per gallon).
Those of us who live in stable economies cannot comprehend such insecurity. Imagine saving $10,000 over two years, which by the end of those two years was worth only $5,000, while your living costs have tripled.
In these desperate circumstances, children especially suffer. The most vulnerable children, often orphans, are promised better lives and spending money if they go to work in the tobacco fields in neighboring Zambia. Girls are also sold into prostitution while boys are taken out of school to herd cattle. The Salvation Army has established a centre in Mchinji, Malawi to provide a safe refuge and support network to those children who are rescued from trafficking. The Centre works with the local authorities and volunteers to reunite the children with their families or send them to a more permanent facility for orphans.
Here are some of the stories these children shared with me:
Dimison Jamus, 13 years old
My mother passed away and my father married another wife. Then my father passed away, so I was left with my step-mother. I wasn’t allowed to go to school by my step-mom. I was told to go to the garden and do some work. I left school after standard 5, last year. My step-mother chased me away. I went to search for a job in Mchinji. I was given a job cattle-herding by a well-wisher. Than a community member found me and brought me here.
I am very happy here, I can go to school and play with my friends. After school I play with my friends, sometimes a teacher comes to teach me. Last year I started to play music at church. I saw someone at church playing the guitar, so I decided to construct one for myself. Now I make up my own songs. One of the songs I made up a song which says, ‘My mother has died, my father died, now we are alone. Being an orphan is very hard, and I am very grateful to Salvation Army for rescuing me.’ Someday I want to be a musician when I grow up.
Dzidseni, 12 years old
I was staying with my parents who are communal farmers when my elder sister (distant relative) found me at our home and told me to accompany her to Zambia to look after her baby. My sister is older and married. Her husband is from Zambia so the husband’s relatives are there. So we boarded a bus to go to Zambia. Fortunately, the bus we boarded also a Mchinji Centre Staff member was on board. She started to ask me some questions about where I was going and why. Then she took me to police station. My sister was sent home and I was brought here to the Centre.
I like being at Mchinji and can see a big difference between here and at home. At home my parents were not paying the school fees so I could not sit for examinations. In the afternoon we play football and sometimes I do homework.