Mary Lingisoni, 11, lives with her two older sisters, Agnes and Ellen, father and stepmother in a township on the edge of Lilongwe. It’s a very normal Malawian set up. The family rent a small brick two-bedroom house, with a sparsely furnished lounge and front porch. The girls sleep in one room and their parents in the other. Their father does odd jobs in construction. The township is like a dense village, with narrow dirt roads weaving between tightly packed houses. Chickens and goats roam freely and women walk to water kiosks with large plastic buckets on their heads.
But Mary’s life has been anything but normal. Her mother died soon after she was born. In the local culture, children are seen as belonging to the mother’s family, so Mary and her siblings moved to her maternal grandparents’ house. But they were old, in poor health and couldn’t manage to look after them. So their grandmother visited children’s home Village of Hope and asked for them to be admitted. Village of Hope agreed and the girls remained for the next seven years. Two brothers went to another children’s home.
Mary’s father, Lingisoni Mandiza, agreed to send the children away. “We sent them because of poverty,” he says. “Their grandmother was very old and I was struggling financially. I earn around 30,000 kwacha [$41 USD] a month and couldn’t afford to send the children to school. I felt happy that they were at Village of Hope. My main aim was for them to get an education.”
In Malawi, sending children to live in an orphanage or children’s home is often seen as a solution to poverty. Most children living in institutions have living relatives, in some case parents. The main reason cited by families is access to education. However, children in larger institutions often live in dormitories and miss out on the one-to-one care that parents provide, which is critical for healthy brain and emotional development, especially in the first few years of life.
For this reason, UNICEF has supported the Government of Malawi to reintegrate children from child care organizations to parents, relatives or foster families. UNICEF funds 16 social workers in four districts to support reintegrated children through case management – a systematic way of providing children and their families a holistic package of care and support. Village of Hope was an early adopter of this new approach and in three years has returned 72 of their 81 children to family homes.
“We know from research and evidence in many countries that family-based care is best for children,” UNICEF’s Chief of Child Protection Afrooz Kaviani-Johnson says. “However,for reintegration to succeed it is crucial that families are supported so that they don’t end up back in the same situation. Poverty and economic disadvantage should not be a main reason to separate a child from her or his family. We hope that Village of Hope’s example will inspire other organisations to go down the same path. This is a good thing for Mary and hundreds of other children like her.”
Unlike some of the children at Village of Hope, Mary never lost touch with her family. During school holidays, she and her sisters returned to their grandparents’ home.Their father also visited them regularly at Village of Hope to make sure they were okay. When the organisation started planning reintegration, they initially contacted the girls’ maternal grandparents. “I heard that the children were being sent home,” Mary’s father says. “I was worried that their grandparents were too old to look after them, so I asked if they could come here.”
The main barrier for the family was financial. Once Lingisoni learned that Village of Hope would continue to cover the children’s education costs, including school fees, uniforms and shoes, his concerns disappeared. The organisation also provides the family with a 12,000 kwacha [$16 USD] cash payment per child per month, a 10 kg bag of maize flour every quarter and school supplies.
“I am very happy that Mary and her sisters are back at home with us,” he says. “I am so glad to be close to the children, and to be able to guide them. I would have taken them back even without financial support, but it would have been very difficult for us to cope. I have no worries now.”
The girls’stepmother, Enifa Lingisoni, is also pleased with the arrangement. “I’m happy to have the girls staying with us,” she says. “I have no children of my own.Our home is much livelier with them here.”
A new hope
Renatta Walton is Administrator at Village of Hope. She joined four years ago when it was still a residential organization. But she has spent the last three years reintegrating children with families. There are now just nine children left, staying in one of the 12 children’s homes. The large compound feels strangely silent, with 11 empty houses and a deserted playground. Soon Village of Hope will relocate to much smaller premises and concentrate on their community-based work.
“I won’t miss it here,”Renatta says. “These are just buildings. It’s the children that are important. We know that family based care will be better for them, and now we can help even more children.”
When Village of Hope started family reintegration in 2015,the approach was not well-known in Malawi. “However,once we explained it to people, most families were very welcoming,” Renatta says. “The main concern we encountered was that people thought the children would not be educated outside the organization,but once we explained that was not the case they were happy.”
Village of Hope has now returned 68 children to relatives,while four are with foster families. As well as supporting the children who have been reintegrated, the organisation is now funding a primary school and feeding programme in the nearby township of Kauma.
“Most children were here because of poverty, because their families couldn’t afford education, health care or food,”Renatta says. “So when we reintegrate children,we continue to support them financially until they’ve finished secondary school. We meet the children at home four times a year to ensure they are being well looked after. And we visit schools to check that their fees are being paid and that they have school uniforms.”
As well as the Malawian families, Village of Hope had to educate their donors in Canada about the new approach. “We explained the benefits of family based care and told them that this is a Government-led initiative,” Renatta says. “It also costs a lot less, so with the same funds we can support ten times as many children. Our donors were happy to continue funding us on this basis.”
Back to school
Since returning home, Mary has been attending Muzu Primary School, where she is in Standard 4. She sits with other learners in the shade of a large tree. Her teacher, Charity Chagwira, writes questions on a blackboard leant against the tree trunk. In the distance behind the school, the modern Bingu International Stadium dominates the skyline.
Charity is clearly fond of her student. “Mary is doing better than last year,” she says. “She is a bit behind and cannot read and write properly. But she’s smart and I’m confident she can catch up.”
Mary is glad to be home. “I’m happy living here with my Dad,” she says. “It’s nice to be together. I chat with my sisters about lots of things. I like going to school. They teach well and my teacher is nice. My friends are Jacque and Ruth.We play throw and catch the ball together.”
Her sister Agnes adds that since coming home “our father has introduced us to relatives we didn’t even know existed.”
As UNICEF’s visit draws to a close, children start shouting from the street outside. “Mary, Mary,” they call. “Come and play ball with us.” Mary says goodbye to the visitors and, with a broad smile, runs off to join her new friends.
This story was first published in The Nation.