I’m in southern Malawi today, where I have been participating in a review of some of Habitat’s programs. As I mentioned in the post about Ghana, Habitat for Humanity has a number of different ways that they work internationally, as opposed to the traditional interest-free mortgage loan that is the hallmark of Habitat in the US. One of those programs that is mostly exclusive to Africa is the Vulnerable Group Housing program, also known as the Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC) Program, because in most cases the program works with orphans who are victims of HIV/Aids.
What Habitat does for these children is give them a house. It is usually small, and sometimes they have to help in the building process by carrying water or sand to the building site, but we give them the house – no loan payback or anything else. We also build a toilet (pit latrine), and provide some other services like training in wills, in malaria prevention and we provide them with treated mosquito nets. Habitat also works with other partner agencies to provide health and psychological support, and other things like fruit trees.
I spent the day meeting three house recipient families and interviewing them about their experiences with Habitat as part of our program review. Often the children have been adopted into extended family networks, or they may still have a living parent, but sometimes the household is run by the oldest living child. This is something that I knew existed, but I wasn’t ready for it when I met Fanny Balauti this morning for my first interview. When I first was introduced to Fanny, I knew that she was one of the children that lived in the house, but I did not realize at first that she was the head of household until the Habitat manager that I was with started the interview. She looked to be no older than 15, although, when I asked, she said she was 20. Both of her parents had died of Aids, and she was left alone to care for her 4 younger brothers and sisters.
Although she had relatives all around in the community, she never received or receives any help from them. Her parents left a plot of land with a mud hut that had a leaky roof on it, and nothing else. She is very grateful to Habitat for the house that was given to her and her siblings because they used to spend a lot of time re-thatching the roof or recovering from their possessions getting soaked every time it rained. Now she has more time to tend her garden, tend the one acre of corn she has planted, and to do piece work on farms in the community to provide for the family. She has managed to keep her younger siblings in school (all of them are primary school age) although she dropped out after 8th grade. She actually manages to make ends meet for her family on 20 cents a day. That’s right – her total monthly income is about $6.00 a month. (Development organizations that work for the “Poorest of the Poor” talk about serving people that make less than $1.25 a day – Fanny earns less than 25% of that standard)
Fanny really impressed me – not only by the obvious hard work that she does every day to take care of her younger brothers and sisters, but by the strength of will and character that came out during the interview. She has volunteered to help cook for visiting Habitat groups, and she expressed a willingness to help other families with construction of a new house – even though no one helped her – because she knew first-hand how important it would be to that family, and that she would need to show the same love to others that was shown to her.
After the interview I was to do an inspection of the construction of the house. We had been sitting on her front porch while we talked, and she showed me inside. The house was built well – it was not unlike a Habitat house that I lived in for three years in Zambia, except for one thing. There was almost nothing inside. There were two mosquito nets hanging from the rafters in the two bedrooms. There were two, single, 2 ½ inch-thick foam rubber mattresses that had been given them by another agency, a few clothes, and a few pots and pans and a small bag of corn meal in the corner. And that was it. No furniture, no radio, no candles or lantern (no electricity), no stools – nothing. The old house which is partially falling down is used as a kitchen – nothing. They had absolutely nothing, except a goat that was left by a family that had moved away – in an arrangement where if the goat had any babies fanny would get half of them in exchange for taking care of it. That’s all.
Fanny on her porch with a friend. The hut on the left (which is partially collapsed) is where she and her siblings lived before. it is now used as a kitchen (they cook over open flames) and the goat lives in the collapsed part.
I have seen poor, rural African poverty, but this just blew me away. This was by far the poorest family I have ever met, but even so this young woman had strength and a spirit of perseverance that was almost difficult to view, and gratefulness to Habitat that made me appreciate the fact that I am associated with this organization. I know my words don’t do this experience justice – but the title of this post comes from the TV series and book, “A Band of Brothers” – specifically from the episode near the end of the Second World War when the American troops encountered the Nazi death camps and in the process of liberating them, the troops realized what they had been fighting for.
Today, I realized what I am fighting for…..