An article appeared on a South African news site this morning. As I read it I was both horrified and impressed. Malawi is a country whose politics and beliefs never cease to surprise me.
Prostitution itself is not illegal in Malawi. Their Penal Code prohibits a woman from living off the earnings from prostitution. This provision is the loop hole that allows police to arrest women seen to be working in the sex trade. Recently in the southern part of Malawi 11 sex workers were arrested and charged. WHile in police custody these women were taken to the government hospital and forced to undergo HIV testing. They did not consent to these tests. The results of these tests were disclosed in open court.
Although HIV is prevalent in Malawi there is still a stigma attached to it. In the villages people are ostracized and left to suffer alone for fear that the virus is a curse that might spread to innocent victims. Things are better in the cities where people tend to be more educated and open-minded about the virus.
The sex trade is fairly open and accepted in Malawi. I have been at my fair share of “bottle stores” (bars) in Malawi where prostitutes were easily interacting with all patrons. There didn’t seem to be any stigma or judgment about their chosen professions. Prostitutes are seen at all hours of the day, generally in the bottle stores. Their children will sometimes be nearby, playing with old bottles or other “toys.” I have never heard a negative comment about a sex worker. Malawians seem to understand and accept that survival is paramount and anyone who can run a business and earn a living is doing their best.
This story is interesting to me on another level too. Both the judge and the lawyers in the case were female. In Malawi as I’ve often written before, women have a hard life. They are primary care givers for their families. They cook, clean, shop, do laundry and work in the fields. This is true of all women I have met, with the exception of a few of the wealthier ones who do not have fields to work in. Often in Malawi the family roles are similar to those in North America in the time of Leave it to Beaver. Men are in charge in the home. Men are expected to be the bread winners. I’m pleased whenever I read of a woman who has abandoned those traditional roles. It’s not uncommon for a woman to hold a position of power or authority. For a while Malawi had a female president. I guess it’s just hard for me to wrap my head around the traditional homes I’ve seen and the idea of females in power positions.
The constant dichotomy of life and roles in Malawi is just one reason why I seem to never be able to get enough of this place.
The article I referenced can be found here
My first trip to Malawi was in July of 2007 where I was part of a professional development program sponsored by the Canadian Teacher’s Federation and the Canadian International Development Agency. I didn’t intend to return. Malawi was not a place I’d ever planned to visit. The dedication of the teachers in that country, their warmth and kindness made me want to make a deeper connection. It was easy for me to see that the needs in Malawi are great and the resources are limited. In consultation with some colleagues there I decided I could help in my own way by starting an Orphan Care facility which would provide food and school assistance to girls.
Itatu began a year later and had a rocky start. After a year I had to fire the manager when Ilearned he was stealing and lying. I was fortunate to have befriended Azikiwe who saw the value in what I was trying to accomplish and stepped in to help. Azikiwe is the most trustworthy and honest person I’ve ever met. He takes pride in his work and commands respect from all who meet him. Our partnership was sound. We worked very well together and Itatu flourished.
The thing about Malawi is that nothing is secure. I live in Toronto and I can live here until I no longer want to do so but that is not the case for most Malawians. Anyone in Malawi who works in the public sector or in a business with multiple locations is at the mercy of their employer. After working in Ntcheu for several years Azikiwe was moved. This made it very challenging to oversee the Orphan Care reliably. Communication between him and the girls and the caregivers became more sporadic. After a while it just became too frustrating for me to try to get information from Azikiwe as he was only able to visit the girls once a month.
Itatu is no longer supporting the girls on a daily basis but there is still a fund for them to access if they need money. This year we bought each of them a uniform and school supplies. At first I felt as if I had failed but I now realize I gave it more than I’ve given to anything else in my life. The fact that I kept returning to Malawi after theft, cheating, threat of deportation and stress tells me that this is my passion. My life there is often dull. My accommodations are basic. I have no privacy. I am often frustrated and annoyed. I feel dirty and I am constantly on display. Communication back home is challenging. Communication with friends who don’t speak English as a first language can be challenging. All of this is true and yet I long to return.
I’ve been speaking with Azikiwe and other friends in Malawi. I’ve spoken to friends and family here in Canada and I am ready to try again. I really hope you, who have been so supportive in the past will continue to be so. Itatu will be different. It will not be located in one spot. The typ of support we provide will be different than it has been. I plan to take the things I have learned from my first attempt and improve the role that this organization has. Please share your comments. I’m open to them all.