Seventy politicians, civil servants and business people are standing trial in Malawi charged with stealing $100 million (£60 million) of government money months before a general election in May 2014. Foreign powers, who provide 40% of the nation’s budget, the largest part from the UK, are withholding $150 million in foreign aid until this scandal (dubbed 'Cashgate') has been resolved. Below this depressing crisis, however, lie the promising shoots of a grassroots movement that is bringing hope to vulnerable families is one of Africa’s poorest nations.
Tumpe Kire was 10 when she was sold to pay for her own medical bills. Her father, unable to pay the 20,000 kwacha (£30) fee, gave his ill daughter to the traditional healer to settle the bill. For six months she lived and laboured for the man; the length of time which, by local custom, she should have qualified as the healer’s wife. Before this happened, a local Mother and Father group discussed the case and pressurised the father to sell some of his livestock to buy his daughter back. This is but one example of the pioneering work by the Livingstonia Synod Aids Program (LISAP), a local charity, which focussed on helping the 16,000 children most at risk from underage marriage, child labour and other harmful traditional practices in northern Malawi. Word is spreading with more and more community groups keen to see change.
Against unenviable odds, one woman and her small team of workers have a successful solution that appears tantalisingly simple- showing local people how to take action for themselves. Mphatso Nguluwe began her work when she came upon a girl selling home-made beer at a road side. The former nurse was working for local humanitarian charity LISAP when she saw the need to go deeper to challenge the traditional beliefs that lock children into the cycle of poverty associated with HIV/Aids in the most remote regions. Underage marriage traditions predate the arrival of missionary explorer Dr David Livingstone- the man who ‘discovered’ Lake Malawi over 150 years ago. This natural wonder covers a quarter of Malawi’s surface area and draws tourists to watch from the shore as fishermen undertake their nightly commute into dangerous waters over the horizon. Below the surface of this placid scene, however, lie stories of children as young as nine paddling to the point of exhaustion through lethal offshore currents.
The recent discovery of oil in the lake bed underlines the fact that this small country is blessed with an abundance of riches. But Malawi's majority subsistence farming population remains untouched by the profits from exports of tobacco, tea and sugar. Development is stunted by systemic poverty as harmful traditional beliefs prevent children from going to school, sometimes enslaving them in early marriages. Mother and Father groups are part of the Girls and Boys Empowerment project, revolutionising the lives of children through positive pressure of parents and life skills education for children. Elders and local chiefs are encouraged to create bylaws that allow the necessary leverage to bring about change. Chief Mwakaboko, a strong opponent won round to Mphatso’s vision, knew of only five educated women in his area when this work began. Now he hopes that this will change. “They are not putting money in their pockets but putting money with the people” he says encouragingly.