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New possibilities -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

New possibilities

Susan Chimaliro, 13, is a voracious reader and writer. She studies not only the local Chichewa language, but also English and math.
©Chris Mattle/Habitat for Humanity International

Improved health and safety at home lead to more education and bigger dreams in Malawi
By Phillip Jordan


Chief Chimaliro is not a chief. That can be confusing in Mulanje, a district in southern Malawi, where every area has a traditional elder leader.

“It was given to me as a joke,” says 17-year-old Chief. “A chief here gave me the name at birth because he said I looked like one already.”

As a boy, Chief dreamed of being a civil servant, a steady government job that he knew would provide a dependable income. But when his father died, Chief had to drop out of school.

“I had new responsibility,” he says. “I had to help my mother with the money needed to support the family.”

He picked up whatever odd jobs he could. He was an errand runner, a brickmaker and a subsistence farmer of sweet potatoes, corn and rice.

All the while, his family kept dwindling. His father died of cholera. A younger sister died of malaria, and his younger brother contracted stomach problems that eventually led to his death. All were preventable diseases.

Now, Chief’s immediate family includes only his 13-year-old sister, Susan, and his mother, Annie. For a long time, the family’s home was a windowless structure with mud walls, a patchwork thatch roof, and a dirt floor that turned to muck whenever it rained.

‘We are not suffering’

Early in 2010, Annie and her children qualified for a house through Habitat for Humanity Malawi’s Orphans and Vulnerable Groups program. Annie helped gather supplies needed for construction and joined Habitat volunteers from Ireland who traveled to Malawi on a Global Village trip to help complete the house.

By July of that year, the family had moved into a house with concrete floors and a solid roof made of iron sheeting. Sheets hang from the two bedrooms to offer extra privacy for Susan and Annie. Chief sleeps in the large sitting room, where a picture of the Habitat Ireland volunteers still hangs on one wall.

“In our old house, we used to be sick often, with malaria,” says Annie. “In this house, that has changed. We are not suffering. We have malaria nets and were taught how to use them. We have not had malaria once since we moved here.”

As she talks inside her Habitat house, rain keeps an irregular rhythm on the roof overhead.

“We would have been standing so as not to be on the mud, getting soaked in our old house in rain like this,” Annie says. “Our old house leaked a lot. Our clothes, the flour — we used to make all our food — everything would get wet. Now, everything stays dry. We don’t have to worry about everything.”

A brighter future

With stability at home, Chief is able to concentrate more on farming and doesn’t have to leave his mother and sister for long stretches finding work elsewhere. He has also thought about a new career possibility. His father was gifted with his hands and earned extra income as a basket weaver. It’s a skill Chief didn’t learn before his father died, but the son thinks he could use his hands for something else: mechanic work.

“I’d like to go to a vocational school, if I can save up for it,” he says. “I want to learn how to work on cars, carts and motorbikes. My father was a caring man who tried his best for his family. I want to do the same.”

A solid  and dry  foundation has also helped Chief’s younger sister, Susan. She is a voracious reader and writer. When visitors ask to hear some of her writing, she reads aloud three of her poems  about education and her community  tracing neat lines with the index finger of her right hand to keep her place.

A wish for other families

Susan has studied not only the local Chichewa language, but also English and math. When asked what she likes to do outside of school, she smiles shyly.

“I like to learn new things,” she says softly. “When I’m out of school, what I like to do is study the things I’ve not done well in — or don’t get to study in school.”

Sometimes, Susan dreams of being a teacher. Other times she considers being a poet or perhaps a nurse — an interest surely sparked by an all-too-personal knowledge of disease and death.

“If people have medical issues and I have medical knowledge, maybe when some of your family members are sick, you have the knowledge to take care of them,” she says.

For Annie, the simple fact that her children can dream such dreams and pursue more education is measure enough of a life transformed.

“Seeing how much has changed for us and how encouraged my children are, I am even more happy now with this house than when we first moved,” she says. “We are thankful. My wish is that this good fortune would not end with us — that other families would experience this as well.”

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