(currently on educational leave of absence but works during holidays)
It doesn’t take any kind of genius or perception to realise that Malawi will sink or swim on whether it’s women get opportunities currently denied them. What brought us back to Malawi and inspired us form the organisation Wells for Zoë, was its women and girls. We were inspired for two reasons. Primarily we saw the unnecessary drudgery involved with hauling, dirty water for miles every day but also their ability to cope, compromise, adjust and react to unbelievable circumstances. We realised that if we were to remove the water obstacle, we could unleash unbelievable latent energy which with a little push-off, could radically change their lives but also that of their communities. I am certain that we always knew that bringing clean water would change things like better health, more availability to work, girls getting to go to school, but in reality, it does much more. It changes everything. We have witnessed it as a game changer.
Women all over the developing world bear remarkable burdens, hardship, and treachery and regularly, given the slightest chance, come out the other side, to achieve the unbelievable.
It is not surprising so that we have now found the vehicle, Women’s Self Help Groups (SHGs) where very poor women come together to save, lend to each other, do a little business and change their lives. When they have gained a voice and a vision, we are waiting and available to assist.
They all want clean water as a first, then Nutrition, Preschools and Adult Education. It’s a match made in Heaven and it’s exciting to watch, empowerment in action. It has very little to do with us, its all about them. We inspire them to hope and dream dreams, but very differently THEIR dreams.
Miriam Banda is one of our women, the gentlest soul you are ever likely to meet, but made of real steel, which endures. When I first met her she was tending to about 80 cabbage plants in a tiny plot she had rented in one of the most deprived slums in Mzuzu. She was, as she always is, quiet spoken, pleasant and smiling, despite the fact that she lived, with her husband and son, in a rented, one roomed, mud hut, perilously close to the edge of existence.Stanleyher son attended a preschool we had built next door to her garden. We needed someone to look after a school garden, so I asked her to help us on a voluntary basis. Anyway Mary decided to discover her natural ability to teach and I had to look for another gardener. Of course she was on the gardening as well.
As a teacher of teachers, Mary lectured for nine years in Trinity College, Dublin and in the three weeks that followed, she did an intensive training course with Miriam and eight others. Miriam and Casca starred and she sent them on a preschool training course. Miriam later did a course in Adult Education, where she also excelled. She then went on to give a series of courses for women in the local area. Not alone did she achieve excellence in English, Chichewa and Maths, she put on a drama with her group which won the Regional competition for Adult Literacy groups. The slightest whisper about SHGs and she came to a meeting in Doroba with us, took her notes, did her research and now is the leading light in the Salisbury Line SHG. In the past Year she has set up her own preschool with over eighty little ones attending, in an adjoining area. It is a model school, where others carers are made to feel so welcome to come and learn.
This would be a wonderful story if it happened in a well off suburb of a city in the developed world, but its all the more amazing when the women she’s working with are widowed, deserted, prostitutes, battered and beaten down at every availability opportunity by culture, tradition, bureaucracy and a male dominated world in general.
Nineteen of these women began their SHG in August 2011 with savings on 20 Kw each per week, and by the sweat of their brow had a loan book of 191,000, by the end of 2011 all lent within the group and making 20% for the group all the time.
Miriam is an inspiring woman, a real leader who cares for her people. Recently she, with her group, took on the Mzuzu City Assembly about the quality of water in the local standpipe. She got her day in court and won. I know none of the details, because they did this in their own, the Malawian way. Of course, if we knew, we could have paid for an expensive lawyer to fight the case; but this would neither be their way, or the right way, and it would have no possibility of empowering anyone.
When I picture all the other women in the group and consider the progress they have made, I’m in awe. They are frightening in their ability to develop coping mechanisms, but I suppose you either get tough or die, literally. Without seeing these changes, I would find them hard to believe, but these very poor women will soon, with the support of each other, make their voice heard. A real bottom-up development, if I need to throw in a much maligned cliché.
All it took is for me to take an interest in what she was doing that first day, to light the spark. With the right spark of inspiration anything is possible.
Miriam is now an ever increasingly important part of our Malawi team. She has a good job. Stanley is bright enough to do very well in school. Joe her husband is a good man and they have every chance of a much better life, and so do all those with whom she journeys.