November 5, 2004
I have never been one who has been moved by the ads that you see in the back of magazines with pictures of big eyed, grubby children entreating you to give funds. I turn to the next channel when I see infomercials pleading for money to care for needy children too. It is not that I don’t care, because the Merry family has supported Compassion children for decades, maybe I just refuse to be seduced by the blatantly emotional media appeals. However, I have to tell you, that when you see these children in person it is an entirely different matter. It rips your heart apart.
Each Tuesday afternoon since we arrived in Malawi, the girls and I go two kilometers down the road to the slum known as Ndirande. Fifty thousand people are crowed into makeshift brick, tin and cardboard shelters with no running water, sewers or electricity. Several years ago a Canadian Presbyterian missionary started a program for the handicapped people of Ndirande once a week. Young and old they come in to the Holy Ghost Roman Catholic Church Hall on crutches, in makeshift wheelchairs and bikes or in the arms of a caregiver. Ndirande is where some of the poorest people in Malawi live, and the handicapped are some of the worst off.
Although everyone in Malawi is guaranteed an elementary education, some of these children have disabilities that prevent them from going to school. For instance, one boy who comes is deaf, and the only school for the deaf is in the northern region of Malawi and it is overflowing with students already. Other children have deformed hands or legs and can’t attend school. Others, who have handicapped parents, are just too impoverished to pay the $4 school fee or buy the $1 uniform.
So the Tuesday afternoon program was set up to give them a bit of a break from the tedium and toil of life. The women that come have been taught to knit and are given yarn. Therefore, some of the babies are clothed in beautifully knitted caps, booties and sweaters. The children do a simple craft, and then everyone is given a nutritious snack. It may not seem like much but each week over 80 people show up to take advantage of this program.
In the states, I am used to seeing handicapped children tool around the halls of my daughters’schools in high tech wheelchairs. There are ramps on every public building, and specially equipped bathrooms to accommodate people with disabilities. This is not true in Malawi. The handicapped are ignored and unfortunately, often taken advantage of or mistreated. As a result they are the saddest, poorest people that I have ever seen. When I came home from our first visit to Ndirande, I cried for two hours.
Then I decided to do something. So, each Tuesday Heather and Brooke and I go up to Ndirande to help out at the afternoon sessions. My mission each week is to bring a bit of sunshine into each participant’s life. It is not easy. These are not happy people, their lives are hard, and there is little joy. For two weeks in a row, I tried to get one little girl to smile. She has a deformed hand, and I would help her cut out cards or color pictures, but no matter what I tried, she would not smile. Then Heather walked by and tickled her –and she giggled! Then I watched Brooke pick up a little girl with Downs Syndrome and give her a crayon. The child waved it joyfully. So, I took a cue from my kids and became a bit more interactive. Now we are pretty good at eliciting smiles each week. I can not tell you how good it makes us feel.
I would like to tell you about each of the wonderful people we have encountered there each week, so I will do so one or two at a time in upcoming journal entries. It has taken me three months to get up the courage to talk about this experience because it has been the most powerful and challenging thing that I have done since we arrived. But I am determined to tell you what it is like to visit Ndirande once a week.