Tales from Malawi: Blog #3

Earlier in 2017, Lucy and Gussie visited Malawi. Here is Lucy's third blog about what they got up to on their visit:

Today was heartbreaking to the point that it is almost too hard to put into words. But there are stories here that need to be told, and if my humble blog can achieve anything, I hope it is that I might share some of those stories with you.

This morning we met an incredible Iranian man by the name of Farshid. Farshid's story, and how our paths crossed today, requires a little context. Farshid is a herbologist, and has an acute knowledge on many subjects but especially on medicinal plants. We walked around the back of his property and into a dark room below his house. The sharp, fresh smell of artemisia greeted our nostrils and as my eyes adjusted, I could see rows of dried herbs lining the walls. Farshid cleared the table and made us tea (a kind of minty concoction with honey). Ann then explained how one of the first projects she and Grieve started in Malawi was a Women's Co-operative, which provided training and a source of income to women who learnt how to make soap from essential oils, and sold it. The micro-finance initiative was considered a way to divert women from working in the unsafe and unhealthy tobacco industry (which is huge here in Malawi). Farshid, with his understanding of essential oil plants, was a great help to the co-operative in its early days.

Furthermore, Farshid's daughter works for the Jesuit Refugee Service, and is involved intensively at the nearest refugee camp, which we visited later today. We talked firstly about girls' education and the great vulnerability of the Malawian girl. Grieve had tears in his eyes as he described visiting a girls "hostel" near the school EGG is funding construction for. He told us that five girls slept on the floor of a room no bigger than a chicken hut; and that the previous night, someone had tried to break in and rape the girls. "Looking at those girls, I could not help but think, that could have been my daughter" he told us. Conversation moved to the Dzaleka refugee camp, where we were to visit soon. Farshid and Grieve explained where the refugees had come from (Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia and the Congo) and the kinds of devastation and genocide many of them have left behind. I looked at Farshid as he shook his head, and said softly "the camp is a beautiful place...a catastrophic beauty you only see in the desperation of man to survive." We left, and thanked Farshid for his tea and his wisdom.

Our first stop was at an orphanage for babies up to the age of 18 months. We had bought a donation of nappies and baby care stuff which we left at reception, before having the chance to go in and see the infants. The poor wee things were overwhelmingly excited to see us and be picked up, but it quickly became clear that they were attention-deprived and knew that everyone who comes into the nursery must also leave. Any time we tried to place one down in a cot, they would start crying and holding their arms out to be picked up again. It was quite distressing to see that they were already conditioned to know they would be left behind (at the age of 1 or even younger). There are many orphans in Malawi, because the life expectancy is low (54 years on average) and parents die young from HIV, malaria, or any other disease spread through poor sanitation.

We got some lunch and drove to Dzaleka refugee camp. The camp was established by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1994. Prior to becoming a refugee camp, the Dzaleka facility had served as a political prison. We parked the car and walked between the walls of mud-brick huts, into the camp. Immediately I was struck by the poor conditions the people within the camp were living in. As we walked by, children flocked in the doorways of huts that looked as if they could collapse at any minute. The roofs of the shacks were thatched with plastic sheets and grass. Everywhere, people walked over rubbish and filth that had nowhere else to go. The stench of animal manure and pollution rose from the muddy ground.

We quickly found ourselves in a maze of tracks that wound past hundreds and hundreds of shacks. At each house, at every corner, children waved, smiled and laughed at us. It was a joy to hear their voices amidst such a dreary setting. We came to the house of a man named David. David's story is an incredible one of survival and hope; yet his story is one of thousands. David is Congolese, and he spent three months escaping the horrors there (including being chased through the forest) to get to the camp. He was a qualified teacher and tax revenue professional and now he does not even have the freedom of starting a family, for fear that he cannot support one.

David showed us around the camp that seemed to stretch on forever. He took us into a classroom that he was involved in starting up. It was a small, dark room but he told us he can teach up to 79 children in it. We discussed the challenges of gaining an education in this place, and how difficult it is for teachers and students alike. We walked through the camp and came to a clearing where a mob of people were crowded around a water pump. Women shouted angrily at each other, pulling and pushing their buckets underneath the meagre stream. I asked David what the fuss was about - he told me that they were arguing about who was next in line. "Some people wait a whole night beside the pump so they are first in the morning", he said.

We saw the place where food is given out monthly. The place was desolate; the last rations brought a week ago. David said that the shipments of maize sometimes missed a month or two. "What do you do when they do not bring food?", we asked. But we already knew the answer.

There is something seriously wrong with the world when you have 32,000 (!!) people living in a place like this. The struggles of the people here are beyond the understanding of those of us who live in the first world. I needed to see what I saw today to truly appreciate how fortunate we are and how little we are doing to provide relief for refugees worldwide. The global crisis isn't apparent until you see it firsthand, but it is just horrific. We met some Congolese men who had been educated in geology and biology at university, and were smartly dressed as if for an office, but were hanging around the camp with nothing to do. I found it so shocking - and utterly depressing - that such highly educated and well-spoken men had no way of securing a job like they had in the Congo, and now had to rely on monthly shipments of maize to survive. They could be me or you - educated and excited about the opportunities of the world - only to have no choice but to run from true horrors and seek refuge in a crowded camp.

There are thousands more stories to be told from Dzaleka but the glimpse we had today was truly eye opening. There is great sadness in the suffering these people have to endure, but as Farshid so eloquently put it, there is something hopeful about the desperation to survive. Always, there is the expectation that life will improve, that even this is better than where they were before. 

 Water pumps have become a communal hub inside the refugee camp. 

Water pumps have become a communal hub inside the refugee camp. 

 Child walks her water  back home. 

Child walks her water  back home. 

 David (left), a resident from Dzaleka, and Grieve (right), guide us around the camp.

David (left), a resident from Dzaleka, and Grieve (right), guide us around the camp.

 The entrance to Dzaleka refugee camp, where 32,000 people reside. 

The entrance to Dzaleka refugee camp, where 32,000 people reside. 

Lucy Tothill