Destitute and homeless

It can happen at any time

One day in 2008, Bertha Likeke woke up thinking it was going to be just another day for her, her husband and their five children. By the end of it, nothing was the same. Her husband died suddenly. And, because of local customs and laws, Bertha and her five children were left homeless and destitute.

With the loss of the family’s sole breadwinner, Bertha had to return to her birthplace, Nthiramanja, in southern Malawi’s Mulanje district. She accepted the only accommodation the village could provide--a one-room mud-brick and thatched-roof structure where Bertha and her children lived and cooked. They also shared the house with their goats who slept with them and made it impossible to keep the mud-floor house clean. Being ill became a fact of life with the family constantly sick with diarrhea and malaria.

old house
Bertha and her children in front of their old mud-floor house.

A life of constant stress

The four-month rainy season’s heavy downpours also made the thatched roof leak. “When it rained,” says Bertha, “we used to pack up all our things as if we were leaving. We did this to protect our belongings from getting wet.”

Rain, pouring through the leaky roof, soaked the children’s school books, ruining them completely. Unable to use them, the children eventually stopped attending school.

The rain also took its toll on the mud-walled toilet pit latrine. The toilet floor rotted away and finally, the toilet collapsed. It was a life of constant stress.

This isn’t unusual in Malawi. Since the 1990s, Malawi has ranked as one of the world’s least developed countries according to the United Nation’s Human Development Index. Over half the population lives on less than USD$1 a day. But for the most vulnerable, the ‘usual’ can and often does get worse. This was the driving force behind Habitat for Humanity Malawi’s (HFHM) Orphans and Vulnerable Groups program (OVG) that started in 2009.

housing facts inforaphics
Due to the custom laws, Bertha and her children were left homeless after the death of Bertha’s husband.

A model that works

HFHM works in consultation with local chiefs. They identify the neediest and most vulnerable people in an area. In Bertha’s case, Chief Nthiramanja felt her and her children were in the most need.

Through HFHM’s Global Village program more than 200 homes, each with a ventilated pit latrine, have been built. Ranging in size from two, three and four room houses, the program is fully subsidized through donor funding.

Working in six communities and seeking to branch out even more, HFHM’s Global Village program combines international and local volunteers who help families build homes. Volunteers are encouraged to deepen their experience by working and living within the community. This helps build a bond between volunteers and the community and gives the volunteers a better understanding of what the community has to deal with every day.

“When we heard that Habitat was coming, we were so happy. They brought the bricks and the people to help us build the house.” — Alick, Bertha’s son

Bertha and her family consider her new four-room house and toilet a “miracle”. She couldn’t believe it was hers until she was handed the keys and spent the first night there. “When we received this gift, our hearts were full of joy. We won’t stop taking care of the house. We treat it as a child.”

Bertha’s new ‘child’ was tested one month later. In January 2015, southern Malawi was devastated by floods. Some areas had 400% higher rainfalls than normal.

“When the floods came, I wasn’t worried because the rain couldn’t come inside the house,” said Bertha. “That made me feel secure. We didn’t have any problems.”

The Likeke family’s home has helped them rebuild their lives. For Bertha, the biggest relief is that the children are back at school. The new house provides a space that allows Alick to study and keep his books dry. The cleaner living environment has meant fewer sick days and higher school attendance.

Bertha and her children
Bertha and her children in front of their new home.

“We went through health, sanitation and malaria training,” Bertha recalls. HFHM also provided three insecticide-treated mosquito nets to each family. Malaria infects almost 5 million Malawians annually and is one of the leading killers of children under the age of five. Since receiving the nets, no one in the Likeke family has had a case of malaria.

Another vital part of the HFHM’s OVC program is its property and inheritance rights training. In traditional societies, many women just like Bertha are regularly disinherited after the death of their husbands. Children, too, are vulnerable to dispossession and homelessness on the death of their parents. HFHM ensures continuing security for children by giving them ownership of the house.

“I knew I could be at peace because the children will own the house,” says Bertha. “I am so happy because I know the children are secure, rather than if I were to die leaving them without a proper house. This great gift we’ve been given is for the kids.”

Bertha's family
Bertha’s family relaxing on a porch of their new home.

With HFHM’s help, Bertha drew up a will of her own for the first time and is now safe in the knowledge that her children will receive her most valuable belongings. One copy of the will remains with Bertha, another with Habitat for Humanity, and a third with the local government authority.

“People from the outside can’t just make decisions for us,” says Alick, “because the papers specify what belongs to whom.”
The impact of HFHM’s work is noticeable. Emory University conducted an evaluation of the program and found that children under five years living in HFHM houses had 44% less malaria, respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases compared to children living in traditional houses. Physical safety, education, and job prospects all improve significantly for families in HFHM houses.

Anecdotal evidence also shown that providing a secure home gives a family an increased sense of pride and confidence in the future. It also led to an increased status in the community enabling family members to participate in community activities at a higher level.

Learn more about Habitat for Humanity’s work in Malawi.