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Malawi 2014

Elmdon to Nkope

By - Ginny Elam

Nkope? Where’s that, you ask. Well, it’s a village in Malawi, a few miles South of the tourist resort of Monkey Bay, on the West bank of Lake Malawi. This little community gave us an amazing insight into rural life in one of Africa’s poorest countries. Having wanted to visit Africa for many years, it finally became a reality for myself and partner this summer. We returned only a few days ago flying in from Lilongwe having had one of the most memorable travel experiences of our lives. We hope to return and to somehow form a link between Elmdon and Nkope. The “warm heart of Africa” is certainly an accurate way of describing Malawi - the people have constant smiles, welcome you with song and share with you whatever little they have.

We travelled as part of an 11 strong working party for MACS (The Malawi Association for Christian Support). MACS is a charity that works alongside people in Malawi by responding to a wide range of requests for support from some of the poorest rural communities. Through the education of children, the training of adults, improved healthcare and support for parishes and communities MACS aims to help people change their lives. A tight programme had been put together by Richard Barton (Chairman of MACS) and Grafiud Tione (MACS rep in Malawi). We visited and worked at projects around the Southern end of Lake Malawi that forms the border with Mozambique and Tanzania.

Planting lemon grass and vitiver and building flood defences from locally-sourced hardcore and plastic sheeting was a good way to build relationships with the people of Nkope. The work was needed to prevent the MACS-funded health centre from collapse. How strong are the Malawian women, carrying great buckets of bricks and sand on their heads! We Brits all needed reviving slugs of Malawi Gin and delicious Jambo fish, fresh from Lake Malawi! Other diversions included beach football at sunset with crowds of local children and perusing the products of local wood carvers.

We also had fun and games, running classes at the local primary school (class sizes average over 100 students!). School buildings are constructed of locally-made bricks but when we were invited into peoples’ homes for Sunday lunch the simplicity of life in a rural home brought home the poverty of most Malawians’ lives. We sat on rush mats eating seema (maize pulp and stewed leaves with ground peanuts) and relish. We were lucky to have the local headmistress, who spoke good English, with us and learnt a lot about our host’s sadness at losing family members to AIDS.

With joyful song from the Mothers’ Union, we left Nkope and headed for Lulanga, a village more than 30 miles from either a tarmac road or mains electricity. There we saw a recently completed MACS project, a maternity hostel. Expectant mothers from surrounding villages may have to walk several miles to reach the health centre. The hostel provides somewhere for them to stay. The simply built structures and sparsely furnished rooms are a shock at first, medical equipment is minimal and the dental surgery at one hospital quite the subject of nightmares. Yet the people are grateful and seem determined to improve their lot. A meeting with a Dutch doctor, the Medical Director of St Luke’s Hospital at Chilema, gave us a true picture of providing medical care with such few medical resources. We also visited projects in Milosa, Malindi and Mpondas, where MACS is building a kitchen for the girls’ hostel of a secondary school. The provision of hostel accommodation for girls at secondary schools addresses the long commute – many miles on foot – and hence vulnerability of many girls.

The “retail experience” in rural Malawi is at an altogether different level from what we are used to in the UK. Even the range of fruit and vegetables is surprisingly limited and many other goods are second hand. A particular bright spot however is the wonderful material wraps that women everywhere wear – “Chitenge” which capture the colours of Malawi . I hope to have a display and sale of these in the village hall in the autumn so look out for news of this and do come and support it. For further information about MACS, and ways you can support their work, please visit http://www.malawimacs.org/

Some stats:

Malawi is the 4th poorest country in Africa, with average incomes around 1% of those in the UK and many goods costing more than in the UK. Only 15% of the adult population is in paid employment – the rest are subsistence farmers or small business entrepreneurs. Life expectancy is 42 (UK 80). Malaria and HIV/AIDs are the main killers. It is estimated that there are 1 million orphans, 650,000 of whom orphaned by AIDS. Despite huge challenges there has been an improvement in the Under 5 mortality rate, which is now 110 in every 1,000 live births (UK 6).

Ginny Elam