After a good night's sleep, without being bitten by mosquitoes, we started with a tour of the medical centre, where we were shown the physio department for severely physically and mentally disabled children. There were about 20 mothers with their under fives who were in walking or standing frames, or being given some other form of stimulation. With only one physiotherapist in charge, extraordinary dedication, commitment and very basic equipment, it was a tear-jerking moment.
This is a good preventative program as the mothers here are from the wider community around the SOS Village - as far as 20 miles away. A lot of them get rejected by their husbands when it turns out that their child is handicapped. This programme helps the child to develop, become independent, and gives hope which stops the family falling apart.
Inventiveness and dedication
Most people here are so poor they can’t even afford the bus ride to the centre or don’t live along a bus route and have to be collected by the SOS minibus. At present there is much upset about SOS having to stop this service due to it's cost. We moved on to the occupational therapy department, and again we were amazed at the inventiveness and dedication (with minimal resources) to get these children to a stage where they can attend the special needs school - which is where we went next.
Eighteen children to one teacher, the ages range from 6-5 years old, and their conditions include Downs syndrome, ADHD, severe learning disability and blind. When we walked in they were having an English lesson. English is their second language, and their mother tongue is ‘Chichewa’. Yet they all understood the lesson, and were able to introduce themselves and attempt to read and write. Some of the more able children will eventually be integrated into the mainstream school.
An SOS education
On our way out we meet the headteacher of the primary school who tell us there are 800 children in the primary: 50 per class! In the yard on the way back to the medical centre, there is a lady cooking potato chips. A portion costs 50 kwacha - that is less than 20p. It turns out she is given the opportunity to earn some money selling chips for lunch, maybe so she can send her child to school. This place doesn’t just look after orphans, it goes way beyond!
SOS Children sets up schools, and provides well-regarded education. The schools educate SOS orphans and the wider community, and in this way keeps the orphans integrated within the community. The founder of SOS Children, Herman Gmeiner, was a true visionary and it looks like every donated penny is put to good use. Evidence of this is also the auditor who has been working his way through the accounts since last week and was still here.
Orphans becoming adults
Next we met the head of the Secondary School. She has a great sense of humour and is not shy about her age - in fact it is the first thing she divulges after her name. I was almost tempted to do the same, but I let her carry on with the introductions. After we have met all the teachers (and a head reeling with unusual names) we continued to the SOS nursery. It was quiet, as most of the pupils are having an afternoon nap.
Then at last we were taken to the SOS Village Chief. She is very welcoming and very busy with assessments for prospective new orphans to join the community. They need to do thorough checks as many parents like their children to be taken care of here, and may try and pass them off as an orphan.
Three children came in with their drawings for appraisal while we were seeing ‘the Chief’: She looked at their work, signed it, and gave them a small reward in the form of a sweet. We got presented with their work for signing too. In her free time she is increasingly asked to attend weddings and christenings - as some of the orphans are now becoming adults.
What an incredible organization and charity this is!
This SOS Children’s Village in Malawi opened in 1996, with new facilities like the medical centre and vocational centre added at later dates. SOS takes their responsibility as ‘parent’ seriously: prospective husbands/ wives and their families get vetted to make sure that their tribe is culturally compatible, just like any good parent would be concerned about their offspring.
We visit one of the family houses. The ‘mother’ takes us around. There were boys bedrooms with 4 bunks, and the girls bedroom with 5 bunks at the opposite end of the house. It is tidy for that number of people to a room - they all take a turn at cleaning and cooking duty.
When they reach the age of 15 they move into a youth house a few hundred yards away, so they become more independent but remain in touch with their ‘mothers’. Here they remain until they go to university or vocational training. They are looked after by SOS until the age of 23 when they have finished their studies and look after themselves.
Find out more about our work in Malawi
Although SOS Children doesn't take overseas volunteers, it is sometimes possible to visit the Children's Village where your sponsored child lives.