Once upon a saga - Malawi

Published: 24 June 2016 8:00 CET

Torbjørn C. Pedersen, a goodwill ambassador with the Danish Red Cross, is currently travelling the world, aiming to visit all 190 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Travelling on a budget of just $20 USD per day, Tor is undertaking his journey without the convenience of air travel, something no one has ever achieved. While visiting the Malawi Red Cross Society, Tor sees the impact small-scale interventions are having on the health of communities. To learn more about Tor’s journey, visit: http://www.onceuponasaga.dk/. 

Malawi is somewhat of a paradox. If you pulled out a map and looked down on it from above, you would discover that 25 per cent of the country is a deep blue, freshwater lake. And if you plant your feet in the warm white sand in front of Lake Malawi, you might for a second think you are at the ocean, although it is a landlocked country. 

And here is the paradox: many Malawians are hurting from a lack of clean fresh water! 

"Welcome to Malawi, the warm heart of Africa" is how I am greeted as I am ushered into the office of the Secretary General of the Malawi Red Cross Society. With professionalism and kindness in her voice, Ethel Kaimila Namaliya comes across as a strong, capable woman who has been with the Red Cross for more than a decade. She introduces me to Hastings Kandaya, Director of Programmes and Development, who, in the matter of a few minutes, briefs me on  their strategic plan for 2015 - 2019 which covers four focus areas: 1) humanitarian diplomacy, 2) health and social services, 3) disaster management and 4) first aid and blood donor recruitment.  

At this point my head is already spinning as I rapidly become aware that the Malawi Red Cross is at the centre of a country where there is much to be done - and where much is already being done.  

We enter a warehouse where I meet George Mwimaniwa who tells me about his work with orphans and vulnerable children (OVC). Malawi is a country with 17 million people. An estimated 1.8 million are OVCs, largely as a result of tuberculosis and HIV which leave many children parentless. 

In another cubicle I meet another man who is dressed for business. In a suit behind his desk Taonga Nyekanyeka tells me he is the Humanitarian Diplomacy and Innovative Partnership Manager. Wow! What a title! But as Taonga starts explaining, I begin to see the genius of his work. Taonga liaises with politicians, leaders and various powerful figures within society. Through his diplomacy he is able to create partnerships, connections and a platform for donations by showing the neutral commitment of the Red Cross, which is making a difference to millions of people every day. 

Many handshakes later, I am introduced to Lalou at the Danish Red Cross, which had been responsible for the construction of the headquarters, a reminder that the Malawi Red Cross is celebrating its 50th anniversary!  Lalou is actually "Isabella Holdt" but no one calls her that. She is an intern at the Danish Red Cross and joins me on a field trip to nearby Dowa. 

Seeing, first hand, the impact of Red Cross interventions 

In Dowa we sit with the executive division of the Red Cross branch, inside a red brick building on top of a hill with a spectacular view. This was in fact the very first headquarters for the Malawi Red Cross many years ago. We are told about their engagement in the local community with social welfare activities, promotion of blood drives, food assistance, school fees to vulnerable children, promotion of the seven Fundamental Principles, and first aid trainings. We make a short stop at a nearby school to visit students and greet the Red Cross School Clubs. After a group photo we proceed to a small rural neighbourhood where a handful of local woman sing and dance to mark our arrival. We are shown an example of the Red Cross work, where volunteers had constructed a small red brick house for an elderly woman who had nothing. Inside, we meet this woman who is excited about all the action our visit is bringing to her small house in the village. 

The next day, we visit the Salima division which, with the support of the Swiss Red Cross, has made tremendous strides in improving water, health and sanitation in the area. We inspect the latrines of Mpondanjanti school, a small rural school with 296 boys and 272 girls. 

Latrines and school attendance 

Before the latrines were built, open defecation in the nearby bushes was common. In fact there was previously no other option! At the Mpondanjanti school, many students periodically had to stay away due to diarrhoea. Girls would commonly stay away during their menstruation each month. Needless to say, this was massively damaging towards their education. But now, with the latrines, things have changed. Sometimes it takes so little to change so much. Some students formed a hygiene club, which helped advance the understanding of bacteria and proper hygiene. As we move towards a newly installed borehole, a crowd of children follows us over the dusty dirt schoolyard.

This borehole is one of 22 boreholes in the district. Six are newly drilled, and 16 are rehabilitated. Each has a committee to manage economy, water quality, distribution and maintenance. In connection with that, 121 men and 121 women attended training before the boreholes were handed over. 

At another borehole, a village chief sincerely thanks us for the change these boreholes have brought to the community. If his smile grows any bigger, I fear his teeth will fall out! A few Red Cross volunteers stand nearby two Red Cross bicycles while the chief explains, "now we only need to reach the other villages."

That is the paradox of Malawi for me. A country with an enormous resource of fresh water, is also a country with a large engagement of water, sanitation and health projects. From the south to the north, boreholes are being drilled, while the National Society battles poor hygiene and sanitation. The involvement of partnering National Societies from Finland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Denmark, is making the efforts of the Malawi Red Cross strong and noticeable.

In Malawi there can be no doubt, the Red Cross is - always present.