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MALAWI: Rural Communities Jointly Care for Orphans

Claire Ngozo

LILONGWE, Mar 15 2010 (IPS) - At the age of 66, village headman Kamwala of Dedza district in central Malawi is starting to feel the effects of ageing. He gets tired easily and needs frequent naps but says he cannot afford this luxury. He and his wife are caregivers to a one-year-old orphan.

Headmen Kamwala (r) and Mphunda (l) ensure the welfare of orphans in their villages.  Credit: Claire Ngozo/IPS

Headmen Kamwala (r) and Mphunda (l) ensure the welfare of orphans in their villages. Credit: Claire Ngozo/IPS

Despite having ten children of his own, who are between eight and 34 years old, the village chief has taken in three orphans below the age of eight over the past five years.

“I don’t have a choice but to take these children under my wing. They lost both their parents, and I can’t leave them to roam around the village, without parental care,” Kamwala told IPS.

There are no orphanages in this area, and thus families have resorted to integrating orphans into households. This has become a common practice across Malawi’s rural areas, due to a strong sense of community values.

Extended families choose to live close to each other, and neighbours, even if not related, help each other out. There is also a general belief that children do not belong to their parents alone, but are the responsibility of the entire village.

Malawi has almost a million orphans, who have lost either one or both parents, according to 2009 United Nations statistics. The 2008 Malawi Population and Housing Census puts the number of orphans at a little less, 837,300, with almost all of them, 714,741, living in rural areas.

More than half a million children have been orphaned by AIDS in Malawi, according to international non-profit organisation ActionAid.

Kamwala confirmed that there are many deaths in his village due to AIDS-related illnesses, which leave large numbers of children without family members, not even relatives.

“It has now become a norm for families around the village to take in orphans. It does not matter whether they are related to them or not. I adopted three children to set an example,” he explained.

Villagers take turns looking after the children. Throughout the village, small groups of children gather under trees or sit in grass-thatched shelters where they meet to play games, share meals or listen to folklore stories told by elders of the village.

Unemployed Georgina Kagwa, 28, volunteers in this community initiative. “I teach the children how to read and write as they gather in play groups. We also ensure that every child starts primary school when it turns six,” she said.

Kagwa and fellow volunteers also identify families that can provide homes for orphans and check up on their well-being. “We hold village meetings to ensure that all orphans are treated well,” explained Kagwa.

The village’s orphan initiative is a welcome development in a country where up to 65 percent of Malawi’s 13.1 million people live below the poverty line of less than a dollar per day, according to government statistics.

The people of Kamwala’s village see their efforts as a complement to the country’s Early Childhood Development (ECD) policy. It was developed in 2003 by the Department of Gender, Child Welfare and Community Services to encourage local communities assist government with the provision of childcare and community-based projects.

Up to 400 community-based childcare centres (CBCCs) have been set up around the country in the last two years, catering for 400,000 orphans, the department’s 2010 statistics claim. In addition, the department developed a set of training modules on childcare practices for municipal and provincial government officials, volunteer caregivers and foster parents.

CBCCs are aimed at integrating orphaned and non-orphaned children to reduce discrimination and stigmatisation of orphans.

The country’s vice president, Joyce Banda, is lobbying for more resources from within and outside Malawi to improve the lives of orphans and other vulnerable children. The Department of Gender, Child Welfare and Community Services does not disclose how much of its budget goes towards its childcare budget, but social experts believe that more than two thirds are provided by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Village headman Mphunda, 49, also of Dedza district, has also set up centres in his village where children – both orphans and non-orphans – learn, play and receive health care.

“Every child is treated equally. Before we started this initiative, most orphans were hungry and poor. We have now been trained by government, and we know how best to implement the projects,” Mphunda told IPS. “We also know how to make the project sustainable by working as one instead of each family operating in isolation.”

He said the villagers donate food, like soya beans, maize flour, vegetables and meat, so that centre staff can prepare meals for the children: “We also ensure that very poor households that are keeping orphans are provided with clothes for the children.”

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