In this dispatch, Joanna introduces Rosemary Makandanje, Maness Kamwaza and Ruth Maulana from Consol Homes in Malawi; and shares Nkulie and Regina’s thoughts about their time on the Caravan.
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Well, I am back on the road. As the Caravan winds it way through the magnificent Canadian Shield ablaze with colours signalling the transition into a new season, I find myself contemplating the many transformations I am witnessing; from the landscape, to the communities we visit, as well as the individuals on the Caravan, including myself.
The faces on the Caravan have changed of course. The Malawians have joined us and we have Rosemary Makandanje (54, grandmother), Maness Kamwaza (18, grand daughter) and Ruth Maulana (27, Programme Officer) from Consol Homes in Malawi. We had Moni Kim (Programme Officer from SLF) and now Tamai Kobayashi (Dare Supporter) taking on the role of “logistical nurse” – we even have a new driver: Johanna Leroux who is also a volunteer through CAW and will be taking us from Toronto to Shellbrook Saskatchewan over these three weeks while Jack takes a well-deserved break to spend time with family over this Thanksgiving season.
I have been on the road with this new team since we left Toronto and once again I have the privilege of getting to know these incredible women as we begin our journey north and westward headed for to the prairies. This week has been full of all the expected surprises, adjustments, culture shock, delight, jet lag and learning that come with the first week on the Caravan – perhaps for Maness more than any other.
At 18 years old, this is Maness’ first trip and coming from a more rural and isolated region – Maness has spent a lot of her time quietly taking everything in. Canadian English has been a bit difficult for her ear so she is adjusting to this as well. Despite all of this, Maness stands up in front of a wide range of audiences almost every day to share her story and represent the youth from her community in Malawi. (A number of event organizers have discovered that Maness has a certain weakness for ice cream and an irrepressible love of dancing, two things that have a way of lifting Maness’ spirits and lighting her face!)
Similar to Nkulie, I have been caught breathless at how quickly Maness has managed to find her feet and her voice. At first Maness spoke primarily her local language – Chichewa – and managed only a few sentences before returning to her seat. Despite assurances that it was wonderful to hear her speak in Chichewa, it has been obvious that she wanted to address everyone directly in English. In Sault Ste Marie, Maness stood tall and delivered a full speech that she had written in English and you could see the pride written all over her face and a couple of tears on mine. Having accomplished this feat, it seems she has settled into a beautiful balance of Chichewa and English which she delivers with such self assurance one might not guess how hard she has worked for it. We have nicknamed her “The President.”
She speaks about her involvement with the Orphans Affairs Unit (OAU) one of Consol Homes’ core programmes that is funded by the Stephen Lewis Foundation. When Maness was 10 her father passed away (Due to the stigma around AIDS she is still very sensitive about speaking about the cause of his death.). Her mother’s property was seized by the father’s relatives and Maness’ family had to move back to their mother’s home village. As the oldest girl still living at home Maness had to drop out of school to help raise her five younger siblings. There was a childcare centre run by Consol Homes in this village that Maness started visiting in order to get some support. When the young people of the Orphans Affairs Unit (aged 10 – 18) saw Maness’ situation they collectively decided to do extra agricultural piece-work so they could raise money to buy the school supplies Maness needed to go back to school and stay in school. She is proud to share that she is completing secondary school this year.
Maness herself is now a peer educator within the OAU, supporting, mentoring and educating other vulnerable youth in her community. The more I learn about the OAU the more I realize this reinvestment back into the community is the norm rather than the exception. For example, OAU youth also identify the grandmothers in the community that are raising children and assist them with gardening, washing, maintaining their home – even building them new homes when necessary (making the bricks themselves!). The children also build youth community centres in areas that do not have a place for young people to gather, and raise money for an emergency fund should unexpected expenses come up for children who are members, such as medical care.
At 18, this is Maness’ final year in OAU, but she plans on becoming a doctor and returning to her village to practice.
Rosemary, as I wrote above, is the new Caravan grandmother. This trip also marks Rosemary’s first journey out of her country and she too spends a great deal of her day processing the many new things around her. Luckily for us, Rosemary’s processing also happens to be remarkably animated and colourful and she contributes much to our on-road entertainment during our long hours on the road.
Rosemary exudes warmth from her every pore and is so quick to laugh – at times it is hard to believe she has come through so many hardships and carries so many responsibilities on her shoulders such as singlehandedly caring for her 94 year old father, her three grandchildren (3, 6 and 8), three teenage boys (17, 18, 19) who lost their parents to AIDS, as well as putting her grown daughter through school. Rosemary describes her life as long days that end at midnight; she wakes at three to checks the house and the children, goes back to bed and rises early to start the day again.
But my difficulty with reconciling these seemingly dissonant pieces of Rosemary’s character and life – dissipate completely when Rosemary steps up to the podium and begins to speak. I love listening to Rosemary talk – I could do it all night. To hear her is to know that her joy is embedded in strength of experience and her laughter hard won through learning to overcome anything life throws at her. To share just a few of her words of wisdom:
“AIDS has caused heartache all throughout Africa but we must move on.
The question ‘why’ is a question that will keep you standing still. ‘Why is this happening to me? Why did this happen to my family, my village, my country?’ No, the question cannot be ‘why?’ the questions must be ‘what next?’ this is the only way you can keep moving forward.”
“We are proud to be the grandmothers with courage. Every problem is also a stepping stone that can provide the next step. We have solutions. We know what we want. We know what to do. We just need support. When you help someone it is not to get back something, it is because of compassion and love. When you know someone is suffering, you do something – this is what I live myself and this is what I know.”
Finally there is Ruth, a Programme Officer with Consol Homes who has been the constant support behind Maness and Rosemary as they negotiate these early days on the road with the Caravan. Just 27, Ruth is already an internationally recognized expert in her field of Early Childhood Development. Ruth speaks about how young girls are particularly impacted by HIV and AIDS and her passion for this topic is rooted in professional as well as personal experience. At just 14 Ruth found herself the primary caregiver to her seven other siblings including a newborn when her mother had to leave to care for her dying brother (Ruth had already lost her father at this time).
Ruth speaks of balancing this incredible responsibility with full-time studies and succeeding in doing both thanks to the support of her community and family. When she finished her secondary school she immediately began to volunteer for Consol Homes because she believed she had much to give back to her own community and would be able to inspire other young girls.
“After what I have been through, after I have been helped – I can in turn do something for those who are also suffering. I can teach them that where there is a bending that doesn’t mean this is the end of the road. You have to have courage and face what is beyond the bend and find your way through. Eventually you will see the way ahead once more.”
After being with Consol Homes for over seven years, Ruth is now seeing the early participants of the youth programmes returning home as leaders and community builders. A few of them have even returned to work at Consol Homes.
Between the three of them, Maness, Rosemary and Ruth exemplify beautifully the transformation of lives and communities that is taking place within Malawi and across the continent. They represent the different responsibilities, roles and impacts of the pandemic, but they also share the same sense of ownership and vision for the future. As they tell their stories one can see how their various responses overlap with each other; the grandmothers are taking in the children, the older children are in turn, caring for the grandmothers in the community, and Consol Homes provides the on-going support and visionary programmes.
As we travel from community to community on the Caravan, these three women continue to sow the seeds of transformation. After their first event in Barrie Ontario the event was closed with heartfelt thanks from one of the women who had come to hear them speak. She rose, came to the front and addressed Maness, Rosemary and Ruth with the simple words: “Thank you. You are my heroes. You make me a better person.”
There seems so much more I could write about these women, but I cannot possibly close this piece about transformation without returning for a brief moment to Regina and Nkulie.
Before the Caravan departed Toronto with Maness, Ruth, and Rosemary aboard, I did have a moment to sit down with Regina and Nkulie individually and ask them to reflect on their 23 days, 16 communities and 30 events with the AfriGrand Caravan.
As both Regina and Nkulie shared their various stories and reflections, one question in particular seemed to evoke a passionate response from both of them:
“What have you learned about yourself on this journey?”
When this question was posed to Regina she sat back in her chair and reflected for several moments before answering: “You know I am 68 years old. And I never thought I would learn so many new things at this age! I didn’t know there were communities like this – so far away, but working side by side with me. This gives me strength and I am anxious to share this with all the workers at Tateni.”
True to form, Regina also remarked on how she is planning on applying what she has learned to the youth programmes she is running at home.
“When I watched Nkulie go for the first time to the airport, I realized it is important to expose our youth to the larger world. We don’t have to take them on planes, but what does it cost to take them to the international airport so they can say ‘we have set foot there, we have seen airplanes, we have seen people coming and going from all over the world’ and they can have a vision of larger things and roads they can someday travel?”
When Nkulie was asked the question her eyes and face became so animated, words tumbled out of her mouth rapid fire without hesitation:
“I now know that anything can happen in this life and that I can do things I never knew I could do. Before this started I didn’t know I had the power to hypnotise people, because sometimes that how it feels – the power of words are so big. I didn’t know I had that.”
“I know more about social justice and dignity. I know it is my right to have education, to have all the choices available for my life; for me and all the young people.”
“I didn’t know that this support exists in Canada. I didn’t know I had a bond of love with the Canadian grandmothers. I tell you truly, each and every pillow that I have slept on I have left my heart there with unconditional love.”
She paused here and stared dreamily into space for a few moments while I supposed she reviewed her nights staying in the homes of the grandmothers. When she finally remembered I was still in the room, she grew serious and finished with this thought:
“I know we are going to continue on from here – working together, the Canadians and Africans. We are doing something so big here. We are importing and exporting love, support, strength and hope”