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Last Updated: Friday, 16 May, 2003, 16:08 GMT 17:08 UK
Diary of an aid worker

By Anita Payne
Malawi

Tearfund aid worker Anita Payne writes about her experiences in Malawi as she works with local churches assisting people coping with floods following a major drought.

May 2003

The Nissan swerves and skids as I fight to control the one tonne vehicle on a track, riven with deep gullies, filled with water and thick clinging red mud. At least the four-wheel drive is keeping us on the track.

I slow down when passing villagers on their way to market, terrified that I might skid into the mothers and children.

Help pulling the four wheel drive out
Four wheels were not enough at this spot
I smile to myself and think that this is not what most Grandmas do for a living and try to picture myself living a quiet life back home in England.

I'm on my way to remote villages around Khosolo to see how the maize seeds we donated last October are faring.

Our visits last October showed us that 70% of the villagers did not have any maize seed to plant so the churches provided bags of seed and fertiliser.

I'm now returning to our field sites around the country to assess the crop yields. Some parts of Malawi are expecting better harvests than last year and will have enough to see them through the year.

Others were hit by drought or floods in January and February. Some lost all their maize, whilst others will have a very small crop.

End of distributions

Many of the people I meet are affected by HIV/Aids, either ill themselves or caring for others. Some are too weak to work in their fields.

UN food distributions, in which we have been involved, are finishing this month as harvest times nears.

We have to assess the level of continuing need and what action we will take in the coming months.

Certainly a major disaster has been averted, famine halted and lives saved.

An 'Ethiopia' has been prevented. We haven't been forced to see agonising pictures of dying children and adults.

We are quietly glad to have played a very small part in what has been a major logistical achievement, feeding more than three million people - almost a third of Malawi's population.

However, with unfavourable global trade opportunities, the grinding poverty, lack of investment in agriculture and the HIV/Aids epidemic affecting 16% of the population, we are still facing an uncertain future.

We slither down a steep hill and I see the narrow bridge of tree trunks down in the valley ahead of me with some trepidation. The steep track on the other side of the bridge looks even worse, cut by even deeper gullies.

I decide that discretion is the better part of valour and the time has come for the expert to take over.

I stop before the bridge and hand over the wheel to Dingi, one of our Malawi Programme Officers.

We crawl over the bridge with a few inches to spare either side.

Stuck

The bridge sinks under our weight, but we just about make it across. We start on the steep climb but this time we don't make it.

Our vehicle slithers irresistibly into a deep gully. Local farmers, off hunting small game with their dogs stop to help us.

Out come the panga knives and the towing ropes.

The men are busy cutting down branches to put under the wheels, cutting away the edges of the gullies, whilst Wezi, Hannah and I tie the ropes on firmly to the front rails.

I try and remember by knots from my days as a Brownie!

Two hours later a cheer goes up as 15 of us push and pull the vehicle out. Congratulations all round!

The dogs perk up, ready to resume their hunting trip. We thank our rescuers and give them a gift. Dingi turns the vehicle round.

We pray hard as he retraces the route, down the steep defile, across the bridge to relative safety.

The bridge starts to give way and he urges the Nissan over, just in time. We survey each other, spattered with mud and wet from the rain.

We look a sorry sight. We leave the vehicle, grab some water bottles, biscuits and umbrellas and start off on foot to reach the next village to start our day's work.

Village checks

We sit together with the women under the welcome shade of the tree. The goats wander past and eye the water buckets at the village pump. The men sit together by the shady tree nursery, checking the water committee's accounts with our Programme Officer, Limbi.

Borehole
No cholera incidents since the borehole began working
The borehole we sank last year is working well, no cholera deaths this year, not even one case identified.

The village water committee have been charging 100 kwacha per year for the use of the water (less than $1.50).

They have collected several thousand kwacha; saving it in a tin, ready to purchase any spare parts that might be needed.

The harvest in this region has been poor due to both drought and flood.

Some villagers here believe that the floods represent the angered ancestors, sending a snake (flood water) to warn the villagers of their wrongdoing.

Most believe that they have eroded their riverbanks by intensive farming and so they started the tree nursery.

All the saplings have now been transplanted along the nearby banks, to help bind the soil. The nursery, corralled against the omnivorous goats, now stands empty save for a few empty black plastic pots.

To help with their lack of food EAM agree to provide them with sweet potato vines - providing them with food in between the annual maize harvests.

Beatings

One of the women sits silently, head hanging down. She tells us her story. Her husband beat her so fiercely that she was taken to hospital - some distance away. But it was too late to save her eye.

"Was he punished?" we ask.

"No", they reply. He was arrested for three days then they let him return home to live again with his wife. She looks on impassively.

"Do other women get beaten here?" we ask. "Of course" they respond.

"Would it help if the women got together and supported each other?" They respond with concern, "No, if the men thought we were even talking together about it, then we would each be beaten in our own homes".

This is a very real issue for many women, not just in Malawi. Our church based development programme includes helping disadvantaged groups to advocate for change, attempting to reduce inequalities.

However, one of the risks is that the disadvantaged will suffer even more if action is taken. 'Breaking the silence' is an issue not just for HIV/Aids.

Some 80% of the food grown in Malawi is provided by women farmers like these sitting here talking with me, yet few have the right even to make decisions in their own homes and many are abused.

The task of development work is often complex, addressing sensitive issues, working within different cultural practices but challenging the accepted 'norms' that oppress some and advantage others. We still have a long way to go.




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