March 20 , 2007: Chinseu
Noel Banda's Map to Chinseu
UPDATE: Photos of June 2007 visit to Chinseu to announce sponsorship of tailoring project to benefit orphanage
Each time Noel Banda comes to visit me at work, he rides 3 hours on his bike. The first time he came to Story Workshop, the Malawian NGO where I work, he requested print materials for a community event he was organizing in his village to educate people on human rights. He had heard that we might have some copies of the Malawi Constitution in Chichewa, the local language, left over from a project we did a few years ago. Also, he asked, did we have any comic books?
I hadn’t seen the booklets, but I said I would look. I told him to come back in a week or so. The conversation lasted about 5 minutes. I had no idea how far he had traveled to get there. But he smiled and waved goodbye as he headed out the gate and home – 3 more hours on his single-speed bike.
Exactly one week later, he was there waiting for me when I came into work. I had found the Constitutions and gave him 50 copies, along with some comic books. It was a substantial stack; in fact, I had to make two trips to bring them out to the porch where he was waiting. I asked him how he would carry them, and he said no problem, he had his bike.
About two weeks later, he was back. This time, he had “dropped by” to bring me some photos from the human rights event. In the photo, the organizers and participants were holding the booklets and smiling. He pointed out himself, his village chief – a woman with a colorful skirt and a headscarf – and another organizer of his local volunteer group, called Chinseu Community Based Organization.
I was curious about his organization, so I asked him for some information. My request was met with another visit, where he gave me several hand-written pages of neatly drawn tables and maps, indicating the areas and activities of the organization, as well as the numbers of children, orphans, sick relatives of children, elderly-headed households, chronically ill children and other “vulnerable people” (likely those sick from HIV/AIDS) in his area.
Chinseu CBO serves 11 villages, with a population of about 50,000 people, in a semi-rural area of southern Malawi. The organization was founded by Noel in 2000, and its mission includes looking after orphans through preschools, supporting bedridden community members with AIDS, and conducting educational campaigns about human and child rights throughout those 11 villages.
In 2000, Noel founded the organization after his stepsister became ill. While she was sick, her husband left her, forcing Noel and his wife to care for her five children. After she died, another family with an orphan approached him to care for their child – and then another and another. Soon, Noel was caring for 10 children, in addition to one of his own, who was only a baby at the time.
Noel was not a rich man, but in recent years he had been blessed by the goodwill of others. Growing up in Zambiri village, his family had been poor. His father died when he was a boy, but his mother became determined that her 6 children would attend a good secondary school, which she hoped would put them on a path to creating a better future for themselves.
Noel was the firstborn, and when he was in primary school, she began brewing and selling the local beer called kachasu. Eventually in 1994, she had collected enough money to pay his first years’ school fees to Zomba Catholic School, a well-known secondary school about 50 miles away from Zambiri. Noel left home with big dreams of becoming a businessman.
At the end of his first year, however, Noel got a message that his mother had passed away. There was no money for school fees; the little that was left would be needed for the funeral. He went to the headmaster, intending to withdraw from school, but the headmaster refused. Instead, he sent Noel to see the head of the Lions’ Club in Zomba, a branch of the international organization that gives deserving students scholarships to secondary school.
Noel went to meet the man at his office in Chancellor College, and explained his situation. The man agreed that the Lions Club would provide Noel a scholarship to finish his secondary school certificate, which he completed in 1998. When Noel speaks about that scholarship today, he smiles broadly, calling what the Lions Club did for him “a very big job to me.” Last year, he went to visit his benefactor to tell him about Chinseu CBO; Noel told the man that everything he was doing now to help his community was because of what had been done for him.
After moving back to his home village after secondary school, Noel got married and began goat farming to raise money for his ever-growing household. Eventually, he accrued 11 goats and 6 pigs, which he sold for income or used to make milk when times were tight. In 2003, once the number of children in his household outgrew the capacity of his walls, he sought help from the Group Village Headman of the area to start an organization that could help pool money from well wishers in the area and help all of the orphans in the 11 surrounding villages, not just the ones in his own home.
The GVH agreed and began spreading the word about the organization. By 2003, the community was contributing with maize, groundnuts (peanuts) and pigeon peas. Today in 2007, the organization cares for 1,356 orphans through day care centers; visits about 300 sick community members to offer whatever is available – soft drinks, painkillers, or simply comfort; holds community “sensitization” events on human rights; and collects money from locals to pay school fees for about 5 secondary school students (at $20/year).
Over Christmas, I pooled some donations from home and also from my colleagues. We went to a wholesaler of grains and cereals and bought 50kg of corn, several big bags of Likuni Phala (a fortified cereal for children), and 3 10kg bags of rice. At the plastics factory, we picked up bowls and cups for about 100 kids and then went to the grocery story for Sobo, a sickly sweet thick orange liquid that is diluted with water to the taste of a soft drink. In Malawi, Sobo is the gift of choice for anyone suffering any ailment – from bereavement to malaria. Then we made the trip to Zimbiri village, where Chinseu CBO is located, on the morning of the last day of work before Christmas holidays to drop off the gifts.
Chinseu’s “headquarters” are housed in simple one-room brick building with a thatched roof and open windows. There is one wooden table inside, with a few chairs. The closest peri-urban center is called Lunzu, which is a market town about 20 kilometers away from Blantyre. To get to Chinseu, you turn left at the Lunzu “boma,” or town center, on a potholed dirt road. Traveling down that road for about 20 more kilometers, you pass clusters of thatched huts and a few brick houses, boreholes with pumps where ladies line up to fill tin buckets, men carrying towering loads of firewood on bicycles, several churches in various states of disrepair, and school buildings where children in blue and white school clothes spill out of overcrowded classrooms (in Malawi, one teacher is usually responsible for about 80-100 children).
Zimbiri village sits in a geographic area balanced on the edge of an escarpment. This crevasse in the earth’s skin is part of the African Rift Valley, and it plunges from a high point near Lunzu down to the Shire River, Malawi’s largest river. The Shire eventually meets the Zambezi down south in Mozambique and, further on, makes its way to the Indian Ocean.
Because of good rains this year, the land around Zambiri village was green when we visited in December. Everywhere, small gardens and fields of corn – Malawi’s primary crop and food source of food – were growing, their tassel-y tops waving in the sunshine. People waved from their gardens or under trees as we passed by; small children stared and shouted “Azungu! Azungu!” (“White person! White person!”).
At the CBO, scores of children sat on a dirt floor, eating corn mash from shared plates and looking up at us with wide eyes. A few women volunteers played with the children and served them food, while villagers rushed to help us unload the foodstuffs from the car. Some teenage boys begged someone with a camera to photograph them next to the car we had arrived in; when I looked, they were posing with arms folded and shoulders tilted like hip-hop artists next to the driver’s side window. Once the photo was taken, they doubled over in laughter, thrilled with their moment of cool.
Noel told us that Chinseu CBO has a continued need for food, clothes, educational materials, and school fees for secondary students. The organization also wants to start a tailoring business to generate a consistent income flow that can be put towards caring for needy children and their families, but so far they have not been able to find a donor that can provide them with about $800 for the five tailoring machines and cloth they estimate that they need to get the business going.
I told Noel that I would put the word out that Chinseu would welcome any donors from abroad that are willing to help. If you are interested, you can contact Noel through me by email.
Or you can send a letter to:
Chinseu Community Based Organization
PO Box 165