A teacher once told me that development starts with the education of women. But when there is a lack of support and education for women, how can this happen? - Especially women living with HIV.
This is where people like Lexa Mkandewire are fantastic.
After living in England for a while, Lexa returned to Mzimba, Malawi in 2001 and soon became aware again of the issues women face in the area. She noticed many didn’t do a lot in the day time, many were single parents, most only met at funerals and most of them needed an outlet.
In 2002 she invited many women who had HIV for a simple chat. However, this soon turned into a meeting on nutrition as she realised many had a poor nutritional diet when they brought in food from home to share. Good nutrition is vitally important for people with HIV as they need 30-50% more energy compared to a person without HIV. She began to run classes on cooking and making the most of the ingredients available and had an emphasis on women enjoying it. In 9 months there were 37 frequent members and the Kurya Ndiko Uku support group started.
Sadly, even with donations, there wasn’t enough money to continue. They decided to start baking for an income. The members had never baked before and in her words, the first two months were “a disaster”- they didn’t sell well. However they continued and started vegetable gardens and made their own recipes.
In 2010 they became a registered CBO and offered more services on gender equality, child support and HIV awareness. Their food soon started to win culture shows and they received coverage on TV and radio leading to them gaining a reputation and funding for buildings and materials.
I was impressed by the buildings that this support group had built. However, Lexa explained the difficulties they had with building them. Firstly, Local builders refused to work for her as they believed that they wouldn’t get paid and the women had to carry the building materials themselves to the site from where they were bought in town. It took them 2 years to gather enough funds for the first building. When we arrived they were busy working on a new building as the current building wasn’t big enough for their business growth. This was good to see.
Last week my group and I visited Lexa where their latest business venture is to make bags made from Chinthenje (local colourful materials). 40% of profits go to the maker and 60% goes to the work of the CBO. What we saw was a fun and warm community of women who are now living healthy and happy lives while coping with HIV. They were open and willing to discuss their HIV status and laugh with us, which was a real inspiration to our group. The fact that this group had started from nothing and had grown to be a real success in Malawi was amazing to hear about.
This past weekend our group went back to visit Lexa’s support group and ran sessions on stigma and child support. Next week we hope that one of the group members will teach us about how to deliver a session on nutrition- after all, they are the experts.
Their group moto spoke loudly of everything we have learnt from them.
“From the cradle to grave, we will look after you”
Blog written by Nick White
Photo by Ruth Clayden
Photo: group with Lexa (centre left).