March 24, 2005
When someone says the word “orphans” to you, what image comes to mind? If you are like me, you probably think of shabbily dressed small children that are covered with a considerable amount of dirt. There are thousands upon thousands of young children like that here in Malawi. Their adorable faces and wide eyes sear your soul.
The trend is to phase out true orphanages, where children are cared for 24/7. Development workers have found that it is much better for the children to be raised by family members in their communities. This is sometimes an aunt or uncle, but more often a grandparent. Blantyre Synod has recently closed its last orphanage, and now concentrates on home based care and day care centers. Guardians can bring children to the “orphanages” (day care centers) while they go and work. The children are fed and do a variety of skill building activities that prepare them for school. The Synod programs that I have visited are well run and the children flourish. But what happens when children graduate from these programs?
Unfortunately, they are often overlooked once they start school. Older orphans may not be as cute and cuddly as the young children, but their needs are just as great. Here in Malawi, children are forced to grow up much faster than in other countries because of the harsh realities of life. If their guardian dies (which happens very often) the children are left to fend on their own. Most of them are forced to drop out of school and try and make some money for food and shelter. A teenager may be the head of a household with many younger children. Many of the young girls turn to prostitution, because it is a quick way to make money. With an HIV/AIDS rate in excess of 15%, it is often deadly.
The Projects Office of Blantyre Synod tries to identify these children, labels them “at risk” orphans, and looks after them in special ways. Home visits are made, school fees are sometimes paid and food is provided when necessary.
For instance, there is one family that they look after that is headed by a 17 year old girl. She had dropped out of school to care for her two sisters, but the Synod has paid her school fees and she is doing well in school now. Her two sisters are still at risk, however. Her 15 year old sister is mentally retarded and must be watched constantly. When she was left alone for an hour a few weeks ago, she ran away and was lost for three days. So the 14 year old sister now keeps vigil. Aid workers are afraid that she will turn to prostitution. They want to get her into school again, but must find a care center for the 15 year old, which is not easy.
Another example is two brothers that attend our Tuesday sessions in Ndirande. George is 16 and Clement is 15. Their handicapped mother raised them well, and they are bright, articulate, hard working young men. However, she died several years ago and they have been on their own, struggling to make ends meet, since then. They managed to stay in school, and earned top grades, because missionaries provided some funding for food each week. Recently they received a grant from a church foundation in the Netherlands and are now attending Henry Henderson Institute (HHI) which is an excellent Blantyre Synod Secondary School. A missionary family has taken them under their wing, giving them school uniforms and providing odd jobs for them to do on weekends, so they have enough money for living expenses. Their future, while not secure, is now much brighter.
Both of these sets of orphans are being rescued from their plights, but there are thousands of others who are still “at risk.” The problems and obstacles are monumental, but it is a challenge that needs to be addressed. These older orphans may not be as adorable and huggable as the younger ones, but their needs are just as great. We can’t forget about them.