March 21, 2005
Masaula is a village in the Chingale region. We traveled about 40 miles off the main tarmac road to get to this remote region. I can’t even say that this road was full of potholes, because the ditches, ruts and mud holes in this road were mammoth. To say it was a bumpy ride does not even begin to describe the way the car maneuvered through gullies and fishtailed through massive mud puddles. But we arrived safely and with the truck still intact.
As I have already noted, most people in remote regions such as this are subsistence farmers. The one industry in the area, a cement factory, closed several years ago, leaving a scarred and barren landscape. There are no rivers or major sources of water, so when the rains fail, so do crops. Out in the bush, the effects of this are felt immediately.
We visited a clinic in Masaula Village which tries to alleviate some of the suffering. The clinic nurses and healthcare workers divide the people into groups. It reminded me of triage. There were 50 kilo (about 100 lbs.) bags of maize to be given out to the people that needed it the most.
The people who were first in line were women who had babies that were malnourished. Many of the women themselves were in distress and did not have enough milk to nurse their babies, which compounded the problem. There was also a line of pregnant women who were losing, instead of gaining, weight. The nurse, Julie, just shook her head at the people in the third line. “Here is a baby who is brain damaged and is running a high fever. There is really no hope for him,” she told us. Then she pointed out another mother and child. The mother was emaciated and had sunken cheeks. She was clutching a tiny baby that looked about 3 months old. “That child is over a year old,” Julie noted.
I will not even attempt to tell you what goes through your heart and mind when these people look at you with desperation. As you can imagine, it is heartbreaking.
Then we were ushered into a brick building. The first room was filled with AIDS patients. I have never seen such a disease racked group of people in my life. Most of them were young, and you could tell that they had been vibrant and strong, but the disease had ravaged their bodies and left sickly shells. They were all sitting on the floor, except for those that were too weak to even sit up. Their vapid expressions and vacant stares will stay with me until the day I die.
The next room was jammed with elderly patients. Some were blind or lame. All of them looked forlorn. They have seen their families and crops decimated by disease and drought. They know from experience that things are going to get worse as the year progresses. There is little hope. Yet they come to the clinic because it offers a respite, a bit of food and some solace for their souls. To say that life is hard in Malawi does not even begin to describe what we saw at the Masaula clinic.
However, our next stop was much more encouraging. Malawians realize that one of the ways to begin solving their country’s massive problems is through education. That is why they are eager to learn about crop diversity, animal husbandry, and children’s healthcare. The thirst for knowledge extends beyond that, however. Since many children in poverty stricken areas are forced to drop out of school to help support their families, illiteracy is a huge problem. To combat it, PDA and other NGOs have banded together to fund adult literacy classes. These classes are very popular and the student’s thirst for knowledge is not dampened by the lack of basic supplies such as books, paper and pens. The teacher walks 5 miles to get to the classroom. Mothers nurse their babies as they practice writing. Men learn to read in the afternoons, after they have worked all morning. Their dedication to and enthusiasm for learning is inspirational.
During our visit, one student proudly read a letter, with a bit of coaxing from her teacher, that informed us about the basic tenants of the program. As we left the dark, dingy classroom, the students erupted in song. They escorted us to the truck, jubilantly singing and clapping. As we drove past the huts, withered fields of maize and ancient baobab trees we could still hear the sound of hope echoing in our ears.