Malawi: Where People Live on a Euro a Day

They make for a depressing read, Malawi’s facts of life – a life expectancy of 38 years, an infant mortality rate of about 25 percent, unemployment at over 80 percent and three quarters of the population living on less than a Euro a day. It is the kind of crushing poverty that we in Ireland can barely imagine. But to witness it firsthand, as I did recently, is enough to make you weep. Malawi is a landlocked country in South-East Africa with the dubious honour of being ranked the 4 th poorest country in the world. Along with the problems caused by endemic poverty, the devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic in Malawi has, in the past few years, claimed over 650,000 lives. Today, AIDS-related illnesses kill a dozen people every few hours, they are the leading cause of death amongst adults and a major factor in the country’s low life expectancy. Out of a population of just over 13 million people, 1.1 million people in Malawi live with HIV/AIDS.  Most Malawians live below the poverty line in the slums, shantytowns and rural villages that line the roads. But shantytowns are not unique to the landscape of Malawi. Over 187 million Africans live in slums and they, in turn, are only part of the 990 million strong group of people living in slums worldwide.  Shantytowns have no running water, no sanitation, no electricity and, often, little hope. Houses are constructed from scrap-board, mud and iron sheets, usually a tattered piece of fabric hangs in place of a door. Along the shantytown’s narrow streets and pathways wander the dogs, cats, chickens, goats and other vermin the residents share what little space they have with; everyone is searching for something to eat.  The HIV/AIDS crisis is just one of a multitude of problems Malawians face; poverty, food insecurity and diseases such as malaria can seem like insurmountable obstacles. The problems of poverty are all linked, something that Malawi’s government has decided to recognise, and tackle with a multifaceted attack. GOAL provides just such an approach in Blantyre, Balaka and Nsange, its areas of operations.  In Nsanje, the southern region I visited, GOAL implements HIV/AIDS, nutrition, livelihoods, food and education programmes. Arriving in Nsanje after an exhausting 36 hour trip was surreal. Behind me lay my family, my friends and the comforts of modern Irish life, ahead, a starkly different world. All the photographs and reports I had studied before I left could not have prepared me for what I was about to see.  In 2006 a deadly combination of chronic poverty, bad weather and yet another bad harvest left almost five million people in need of food aid. GOAL responded by distributing maize, oil and beans to over 34,000 affected families in the Nsanje district. Today, GOAL’s wider programme aims to make Malawi self-sufficient, introducing winter cropping, growing techniques designed to increase crop diversification, small scale irrigation projects, soil and water conservation, compost-making and about 40 tree nurseries, which produce more than 500,000 saplings. GOAL also implements HIV/AIDS programmes in Blantyre and Balaka districts to support, treat and care for those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. In order to reduce the spread of HIV in our target communities, GOAL has a HIV/AIDS prevention, positive living and empowerment programme. Average school classes can be as big as 100, or more, pupils and many schools lack even desks and blackboards. Worse still, the absence of adequate toilet facilities and clean drinking water poses a real danger to the health of the pupils.  GOAL is constructing over 100 houses for orphaned children and feeding over 1,000 orphans while carrying out a large scale school building and rehabilitation programme in the Nsanje district where the charity hopes to build and rehabilitate up to 80 schools. Colaiste Lurgan in Inverin in Galway have funded 2 of these schools. Each school has the capacity to educate 800 children.  GOAL’s REFLECT literacy circles have been very successful in enabling local communities to develop their own solutions to the problems that confront them.  As part of the programme, men and women meet in a circle at the heart of their villages to discuss their problems, and the ways in which the entire community can help solve them. Though I saw much tragedy, sadness and suffering on my trip to Malawi, I also met some truly beautiful people – all of them friendly and welcoming. I came away feeling richly blessed to have met them and as though I was the one being helped, not the other way round. By an accident of birth I am Irish, but I could have just as easily been Malawian. My trip made me realise the numerous similarities there are between us all. We breathe the same air. We walk the same way. Our spirits need love and acceptance. Our bodies need food, water and sleep. We share the same humanity. We are really not so different.  My lasting impression of Malawi was not the scale of its poverty, but the spirit of its people. War, hunger and physical suffering have not stolen their hope. They remain joyful when they have every reason to be depressed. You can hear hope in their songs: My thoughts often go back to the beautiful children I saw at the GOAL projects I visited, where people are being given life-saving techniques. It brings me great comfort to know that these children will have the opportunity to grow up, thanks to GOAL’s and other Irish NGO’s and Irish Missionaries efforts. Children are a precious human resource and it is in children that any country has its future. As the saying goes, ‘A forest without young trees today will never be a forest tomorrow’. It is imperative that children born today in Malawi must survive, grow and develop to their fullest potential in order for her to prosper as a nation, but right now unacceptable levels of poverty, food insecurity, abuse and deprivation are causing untold suffering to the children of Malawi. Those with the knowledge to help, such as the trained nurses and doctors, are leaving in droves to make more money in Europe. We in the West must call a halt to this trend.  There is, unquestionably, a long way to go before Malawi’s children enjoy a childhood free from labour, toil and abuse. In the meantime it is salutary to remember that most of these children and people do find a way to survive the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves. They may be uncomfortable reminders of the society’s inability to look after its own, but they nonetheless bear witness to the endurance and potential of the human spirit. If the international community just learns to listen to the people of Malawi, and those who advocate on their behalf, then the first, most important step will have been taken. For many of these people and for millions of others across sub-Saharan Africa in places like Niger, Uganda, Darfur and Chad, tomorrow will be too late. GOAL’s work in Malawi may seem like a drop in the ocean, but we are committed to the poorest of the poor and we’re in this for the long-haul.  GOAL’s work in Malawi, and in the ten other developing countries we operate in, including the Sudan’s war-torn Darfur province and the Horn of Africa, where chronic drought and food shortages prevent development, is dependant on the support of the Irish public. On behalf of my colleagues here in GOAL, and the poorest of the poor throughout the developing world, I would like to express my gratitude for your generosity, not just over the past year but throughout GOAL’s 30 years of operation.  GOAL prides itself on the fact that throughout its 30 year history our administration costs have never exceeded 5 percent, maximising the amount of money that goes directly to the field, and to the poorest of the poor. Rest assured that if you can give it, GOAL will get it there. To help or support GOAL with a fundraiser, phone (091) 587901 or (01) 2809779, or send what you can to GOAL, Unit 13, Enterprise Centre, Westside, Galway. Because the needs of the poor are ongoing, the ideal way of supporting GOAL is by setting up a monthly standing order with your bank.  Alternatively, if you have a relevant skill and would consider giving at least a year of your life to us, GOAL is always looking for skilled professional to join our GOALie team. For details contact GOAL’s personnel department on (01) 2809779 or see www.GOAL.ie for details of current vacancies.