Our special gues blogger Angelina Namiba reports on her trip to Malawi.
In July this year, I received an invitation from Liz Hanpeter, Senior Manager for Global Projects at AbbVie:.The invitation was to join her and a small delegation of advocacy leaders interested in global HIV and health issues, to see some of the work that the AbbVie foundation supports in Malawi and Kenya.
So I responded with a ‘yes please, thank you very much’. Little did I know that this was going to turn out to be one of the most moving, informative, intense and incredibly humbling journeys I have ever been on.
On the 14th of September I duly set off on a trip that would see me take 8 flights and touch down in 5 countries in as many days!
We started off by visiting projects in Malawi. Malawi is a small landlocked country in southern Africa. It has a population of 15 million and an HIV/AIDS prevalence of 11%.
On the first day, we visited the Baylor College of Medicine/Texas Children’s hospital/Abbvie Foundation Children’s centre of Excellence for Paediatric HIV http://www.bipai.org/Malawi/
The clinic has about 3,000 patients on their books and see about 100 patients on any one given day. They provide a range of services and care and one of their key projects is the Teen Club project where they work with 700 adolescents.
We met with the adolescent team who took us through all the wonderful work that they do with the young people, in particular the Teen Club project. A mentoring project where they provide young people with a range of services including peer support, adherence support, life skills training and leadership. They also run an annual camp. Camp Hope is a 5 day outdoor therapeutic, recreational and educational experience/programme for young people. Camp values are: love, respect and safety. The goals of the camp are to Inspire hope; teach life and leadership skills and education around living positively with HIV and reducing stigma. The club also has a dedicated Teen Support Helpline which provides psychosocial support for the young people in between Teen Club times.
Whilst in Malawi, we also visited the Lighthouse Clinic, the Kamuzu Central Hospital and we also met with Malla Mabona, Acting country director for FHI 360 and Clive Bacon, Country director for PACT. I also had the opportunity to meet with the lovely Annie Banda National Co-ordinator of COWLHA .
However, what stood out for me from our visit to Malawi, was the opportunity to visit the MASO project in Mvera district. The district is an hour’s drive away from Lilongwe. At Maso, we were scheduled to meet with the village chief, project activity leaders and programme beneficiaries including guardians and children. As we set off, I had no idea that this would turn out to be one of the most challenging, humbling and moving experiences I have had in my life!
As we drove out of Lilongwe, the landscape began to change. The buildings changed to small houses with thatched roofs. The land became drier. Dwellings became few and far apart. On the drive there I spoke at length to one of our Malawi colleagues Bertha Sefu, Board Chair, Malawi Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (MANET+); Board Member, Network of African People Living with HIV (NAP+), Southern Africa; and Board Member, Global Network of People Living with HIV and AIDS (GNP+), who talked about lots of issues including the high rate of sexual and domestic violence. She also spoke about how although when children start school, the ratio is more or less equal for boys and girls, as they grow older, more girls tend to drop out. I asked her why this was the case and before she could, and as if by serendipity, we drove past a group of young women balancing heavy containers of water on their heads. In response to my question, Bertha simply pointed to the group of girls and said, “girls drop out because they have to do that!”
We arrived at the village and were greeted by a procession of women and men chanting “takulandirani ku Malawi. Welcome our visitors, we have been expecting you!’ despite the circumstances, I have to say that I felt like a right royal! We were then invited to sit down on the verandah of one of the houses, with the thatched roof shielding us from the hot sun. Most of the villagers sat on the ground. The project co-ordinator welcomed us and introduced the first beneficiary. The moment the young teen and his guardian stood up I nearly lost my cool. I had to keep biting my lip to stop myself from crying. The boy’s story was so sad, so moving! His guardian thanked AbbVie for the support they have received.
However, when I looked at their clothes, I could see all the suffering, hardship, tolerance, patience, pain you name it, that they clearly still endure on a day to day basis! A number of other beneficiaries also stood up and told their stories. These included a couple of young girls who had just completed their primary education and other young men, majority of whom were orphans. Their stories were not much different.
What also stood out for me was that, throughout their presentation, they kept asking for other practical support for the project including more support towards facilitating training and workshops to motivate the home based careworkers; seeds and fertiliser so they could plant crops and be self sustainable; bicycles and support towards educating more of the children in the village. Things that many of us either would not think twice about or tend to unintentionally take for granted. Thankfully, Jeff promised that he would contact other partners who had more expertise around the other support they needed, to see if they could provide them with the other forms of support. So for instance the bicycles and farming material.
By some stroke of fate, a young mother with a very new born baby chose to sit right next to me! I smiled to myself and wondered whether she sensed that I was involved in Positively UK’s From Pregnancy to Baby and Beyond project ! She thankfully allowed me to hold the baby for most of the meeting. Which was a really welcome distraction as it took my focus away from wanting to burst into tears each time a beneficiary stood up to share their story.
Finally, after the speeches, the chief gave a vote of thanks and took us on a tour of the village which would culminate at his house.
What a welcome break. The houses and huts along the way were well organised and clean, despite the abundant red dust. There were chicken and goats as we walked along. We also came across a very well nourished pig and Liz looked at me with longing in her eyes. I had to quickly say to her to stop imagining the poor pig on a pit roast!
The whole village accompanied us on the walk to the chief’s house. At the meeting, there had been a few children. However, all of a sudden a huge group of them emerged from nowhere and followed us along. I stopped and spoke to them, Majority were articulate and even laughed at my lame jokes. I took some pictures with two little girls aged about 2 or 3. They happily posed with me. When it was Ignacio’s turn, the two little ones took one look at him, started crying and ran off in the opposite direction. It was so funny! I laughed so much. Partly because I wasn’t sure who to feel more sorry for! That little episode provided us both with just the right touch of humour/relief that we needed after such a heavy and moving meeting.
As we approached the chief’s house, I stopped in my tracks. Right there, in the middle of the village, surrounded by thatched houses and dusty red roads, was his house, complete with solar panel and a huge television aerial!
For me, it was a sign that even amongst all that extreme hardship, there can be hope. Not that the TV would solve the villagers’ problems or indeed meet their needs. For me it was a symbol which reminded me that anything is possible, no matter how hard the circumstances.
I would like to say a huge Zikomo (thank you in Chichewa – one of Malawi’s languages), to AbbVie for giving me the opportunity to experience this life changing journey.
Other members of the delegation included: Filippo von Schloesser, President, Nadir Onlus (Italy) http://www.nadironlus.org/ and; Jolene Donatelli, Programme Manager. CTAC (Canada) http://www.ctac.ca/; Jeff Richardson, VP, AbbVie Foundation and Ignacio Andress Gessler, Senior Manager, Patient Relations, AbbVie.