Helping hand for Malawi's orphan breadwinners

News and Press Release
Originally published
by Pia Casperson in Mazengela, Malawi
In his worn out red T-shirt and yellow shorts the 15-year-old Shafi is easy to spot on the shore of Lake Malawi. With his bare hands he is digging for worms that he will be using as bait for fishing.

This is the third largest lake in Africa and was once an important source of food and income for many people in Malawi. But this is a country where too many people have to share too few resources. One of the consequences has been overfishing - and it is getting more and more difficult to catch fish in Lake Malawi.

Shafi wades out until he is knee-deep in the water. With a simple fishing rod he tries his luck, but after half an hour he decides to give up. His day's catch is disappointing - two tiny fish - nowhere near enough to feed his three younger brothers who are waiting for him back in the village.

Shafi is one of many Malawian kids, who have become the breadwinner of their families. In the last three years, he has lost both parents. He and his brothers, aged 12, 10 and five, are among the growing number of orphans left by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. In some areas of Malawi, as many as 25 per cent of the adult population is infected by the disease.

"You will not find anybody here who has not lost a loved one," says the Secretary General of the Malawi Red Cross, McBain Kanongodza. "More or less every day you will meet somebody on his way to a funeral. The people dying are not the old or the weak ones, but adults at their best age. The worst thing is this huge number of orphans left behind."

Shafi's world changed when his mother died four months ago. His father passed away three years earlier. Now he is the head of the family.

"I just accepted what happened. I knew that I was the eldest and that I should take care of everybody," he says as his five-year-old brother cuddles up to him.

They are sitting outside a square clay hut in Mazengela village. Shafi opens the door and explains that they sleep on mats directly on the ground, and even if the thatched roof needs to be repaired it gives them shelter from the rain. Apart from a few kitchen items and a clothes-line with shirts there is nothing to see inside the hut.

"I usually weave mats and sell them to get some money to buy food for my brothers. But sometimes I have no money - no food - and then we have to go to sleep without anything to eat," Shafi explains.

Malawi has suffered from a chronic lack of food for years. Now this situation has worsened due to the drought and the AIDS pandemic, which has resulted in a serious shortage of manpower. More than three million Malawians are facing starvation. Many of them are now being supported by International Federation and other relief organizations.

"Of course it is not possible for us to reach everybody who needs assistance. We have to focus on the most vulnerable. That means the elderly, the disabled, families affected by HIV/AIDS and the many child-headed households," Kanongodza says.

Shafi and his brothers are among those who receive a food ration every month. They have just fetched a 50 kilogramme bag of maize from the Red Cross distribution point near Nkhotakota. Now it is time for Shafi to cook nzima, the maize porridge that represents the basic food for all Malawians.

Within a few seconds Shafi has lit the fire. He adds maize meal to the boiling water in the pot and stirs gently. In the meantime his two other brothers have entered the yard behind the clay hut. Asked about their family's plight, 10-year-old Makata adopts a serious expression.

"Compared to other families we are okay, because we eat nzima," he says. "But we don't have enough clothes because the money that our brother earns has to be spent on food."

With his faded green shirt full of holes, Makata does not have to say any more about their lack of clothes. He helps his older brother to prepare the meal, explaining: "We share responsibilities. I can clean the plates, and I am also the one who usually draws water and sometimes also pounds the maize so we can prepare the nzima."

But even if Shafi is trying hard to keep his family going, it is difficult for him to find casual work or other ways of getting money. The only relative he can ask for help is an aunt living in the village, but he prefers to be on his own.

"Sometimes my younger brothers just keep quiet - and when I ask them I find out that they are sick and then I take them to the clinic. That is how I manage to take care of my brothers," he says.

The three older brothers are still going to school. But after grade seven - the class Shafi is in - he will have to pay a fee, and that means he will have to leave school.

"I would have liked to continue at school and find a good job as a driver or teacher so I could earn money and feed my brothers," he says sadly. "But there is no way I can get money to pay for school - so I will never get an education."

With his big, trusting eyes, Shafi still looks like a child. But the way he talks and the way he acts reveal a child forced to become an adult over night. One of the neighbours explains that even if it looks like Shafi is able to take care of his family, it is very difficult for him. And the question is for how much longer the 15-year-old boy will be able to cope with the food crisis.

"I often think of my parents, because I feel they could have been advising me," he says. "Now there is nobody to advise me and I just have to sort out things myself. Sometimes I really wish they were still here."