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What it means to be an orphan in Malawi

Thu, Jan 3, 2013

The brazen midday sun is hanging perilously above a sprawling vista of brightly painted shacks and bustling market stalls. This is the rural town of Salima and our 4×4 is heading for the GTOC, a small orphan care center founded in 2003. The paint on this simple, white-washed bungalow is beginning to peel in the unforgiving heat but distinguishable is jubilant orange lettering that reads, “Glad Tidings Orphan Care.”

This is one of the many centers across Malawi that provides orphans with food, educational programs on AIDS and agricultural methodology and, perhaps, most important, a chance to breathe and understand themselves better.

Tradition dictates that if a child loses its parents, other members of the family step in. The lack of government programs as a safety net causes serious problems.

Nearly half Malawi’s population is under age 15 and a staggering 13 percent, almost two million, have lost one or both parents. Yet there is little constructive government policy, so the mountainous task of ensuring their care often falls upon the shoulders of donation-backed NGOs such as Mary’s Meals.

Unfortunately, it is easy for progress to stagnate when working within a donation-backed system that relies upon superficial, short-term solutions rather than tackling the root issues. Sometimes the money reaches the wrong hands, so that the community loses faith in the centers.

The core issue remains the education of the children. The percentage enrolled in primary school, according to UNICEF, is 76 percent for boys and 74 percent for girls. But only 24 percent of boys and 19 percent of girls continue to secondary school.

The reason is less scholastic performance than it is fees too high even for families to pay. Many children finish primary school unsure of how to make a living. They migrate to the cities only to find little opportunity and many other rural migrants like themselves.

Within Malawi, an orphan is defined as anybody under the age of 18 who has lost either one or both parents. Orphans who have lost their extended family are largely unprotected once they reach 18, which makes education so important.

Centers such as the GTOC teach both the children and the wider community more efficient and ecological farming methods, without pesticides and with crop rotation. These are imperative as they not only produce more proliferous harvests but also help to rebuild the links between young adults and the land.

Written by Ayesha Swinson,
The Big Issue Malawi

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