Frontline Stories

Not Helpless but Hopeful

By Charles Kabena (World Vision Malawi)

For the rest of my life, I will never forget the day I met Leonard, a 13-year-old boy who had his life and dreams turned upside down because of hunger.

Leonard’s face is burnt in my memory and I remember every time I think of children and their needs. His village in eastern Malawi was the capital city during the British colonial days, but today it looks increasingly empty.

2.8 million Malawians are hungry this year. A flood, followed up by a drought in the 2014 to 2015 farming season, proved to be too much for poor farmers who ended up losing most of their crops.

Mango for Lunch

When I arrived at their home, it was lunchtime. Little Janet, aged four, and her siblings were eating mangoes. None of them looked healthy. Mangoes had been their breakfast, lunch, and supper for two weeks. They had no idea if or when help would come.

I learned that Fanny, their mother, was working in people’s gardens and received mangoes as payment. That was how Janet got the meal she was eating. Janet looked at me and smiled, helping herself to a mango. My heart broke.

The sun was scorching hot that day. One of Janet’s brothers, 10-year-old Lojasi, lay on the veranda in pain. He had been sick for over a week and their mother did not know what to do. “We are just waiting for God to touch him,” Leonard said.

In the absence of their father, Leonard had assumed a paternal role at an early age. He had abandoned his classes to help his mother find the next meal for him and his siblings. “I couldn’t concentrate in class while knowing my mother was going through pain to find food,” he said. Their father left home and abandoned them as soon as Janet, the youngest, was born. Although Leonard was crying, he didn’t blame his father for the situation his family was in. “God planned it all and he knows when to turn things better,” he said.

I had to give Leonard hope that everything would be all right even though I didn’t know how or when. I felt obligated to assure Fanny that the world had enough to share with her and that her children would grow to realise their full potential.

But they were hungry; they needed more than just words.

I looked at Leonard’s mother. Just like my mother when I was small, she wanted the best for her children, but circumstances were beyond her control.

Saved to Dream Again

Two months later, I returned to see my friend Leonard. Leonard and his dreams were back on track toward a promising future. He told me that soon after my visit, World Vision had registered community members for a Food for Work programme in his village. His mother, Fanny, was one of them. Through the programme, she was planting trees and maintaining forests in return for a 50 kilogramme bag of maize, six kilogrammes of beans, and two litres of vegetable oil per month.

When we went home at the end of lessons that day, there was maize porridge waiting for them. “Your friends don’t eat mangoes for lunch anymore,” joked Fanny. For the first time, I saw her smiling.

At the table, Janet was smiling at me as she ate with her hands, mopping up the beans on her plate with maize. Outside their small grass-thatched house was maize that looked so green. If the rain keeps falling, the family might grow some maize later in the year.

Leonard was still the father of the house. He still helped his mother in the garden and he advised the other children that they must work hard too.

My life and Leonard’s life are similar in many ways.

The worst hunger I have known was in 2002 when Malawi had to import maize from Mozambique. While the government told us every day that people would not die, one or two lives were lost each day – lives of people I knew.

I recall that World Vision helped then as they are helping now by providing food and planting materials to the community.

Time flies and it heals broken souls. 14 years later, I am a Communicator for World Vision in southern Malawi, a region that is usually oscillating between disasters: floods and droughts, rendering a lot of children and families.

Living in the village away from the city, life is hard for Leonard, as it was for me also. While education seems to be the only vehicle to get him out of poverty, he dropped out of school to work and help feed his siblings – a huge sacrifice from a boy so young.

I remembered the hopeless days before my World Vision sponsor transformed my life by offering me an opportunity to attend high school when every reality around us said aloud “impossible”. It was this opportunity that brought me to where I am today.

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