Praisewell Ayishoshe, 9, sits outside the home he shares with his uncle, Chikumbutso Jamu, and his new wife in an urban township on the edge of Lilongwe. Chikumbutso is a DJ who makes music and video CDs for a living, which he sells at the local market. In the lounge is a sound system and laptop that he uses to make the discs. A compilation of Nigerian and South African hip-hop music is in progress. Praisewell, or Praise for short, has his own bedroom and goes to a local school.
Praisewell has been living with his uncle since 2016. Before that, he lived at Village of Hope children’s home. His mother died soon after giving birth to him and he lived at the home from the age of six months to seven years, when the organisation began reintegrating children to their extended families. Although Praise has good memories from his time at Village of Hope, it’s clear where his heart is.
“I like living with my uncle. It makes me happy to see him,” Praise says. “I was very excited to come here. My school is good and I have lots of friends. I can go out and play with them. Before, I couldn’t go out as much. My best friends are Haji, Lucky and Donea. We play football together and watch the traditional dancers that practice nearby. My auntie buys me clothes and shoes and I’m allowed to make my own orange squash.”
There is an evident warmth between nephew and uncle. As Chikumbutso starts to speak, it becomes clear why: they are the last surviving members of their family. He breaks down when describing the death of his sister from pneumonia in 2009, at the age of 20. “She died in Mzuzu, just a few months after giving birth to Praise,” he says, speaking with difficulty. “It was very sad. Our parents had already passed away. We had a grandmother still living but she was too old to take care of Praise. I realised I had to take care of him. There was nowhere else for him to go.”
At first, Chikumbutso brought Praise to Lilongwe, but there was no-one who could look after him properly. Chikumbutso was just 22-years-old, single, and without a stable job. “I began to look for ways to support him, and that’s when I heard about Village of Hope.”
Like many families who send their children to live in children’s homes and other institutions, the underlying driver was poverty, rather than a lack of interest in the child. “I visited Praise regularly while he was there,” Chikumbutso said. “When they asked me to take him home, I was very happy. My only concern was financial. I wanted to make sure I could take care of him properly. There had been a fire at the market and I lost a lot of the goods at my shop.”
As part of the reintegration process, Village of Hope offered to help Chikumbutso with food, health care and school fees for Praisewell. “I very much appreciated that, especially the school fees,” he says. “It helps us a lot.”
Driven by poverty
In Malawi, sending children to live in a children’s home or orphanage is often seen as a solution to poverty. Most children living in institutions have living relatives. 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 years of life.
For this reason, UNICEF has supported the Government of Malawi to reintegrate children from child care organisations 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.
“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 reason to separate a child from his or her family.”
Village of Hope was an early adopter of this new approach. In just three years, the organisation has returned 73 of their 81 children to family homes, mainly with relatives. Village of Hope Administrator Renatta Walton explains: “Most children were here because their families couldn’t afford education, health care. So when children are reunited with their families, we continue to support them financially until they’ve finished secondary school.”
A new vision
Another benefit of the reintegration approach is that the support provided to families costs Village of Hope less than half of what it used to cost to look after the same children at the children’s home. This frees up money for other activities.
In the case of Village of Hope, the organisation has bought new land in the urban township of Kauma, where it is building a preschool and primary school for children from the poorest families. This helps address one of underlying reasons children were being sent to the children’s home in the first place – lack of access to education.
On the same day that UNICEF visited Praisewell at his new home, around 140 children were attending the new school. The kindergarten class is in a noisy church hall, where around 35 four-year-olds are learning about shapes and colours. Unlike government schools, where children often sit on the floor under trees or in basic classrooms, these children all have a chair, table and new school uniform. They are happy and active. At one table, four children proudly show off their crayon drawings of different shapes, which they can already name in English.
At 9am the lesson ends, and the children run outside, where they line up to wash their hands. Volunteer women from the local community, who are also parents or guardians of children at the school, carry in a heavy caldron of porridge, which they had been cooking outside. They pour this into plastic bowls for the children, who return to their tables to eat.
“The school has been very successful,” Renatta says. “We work with community leaders to select 35-40 children each year from the poorest families, prioritising orphans and those with only one parents. Children get free uniforms, school supplies and a nutritious meal every day. We recruit the best teachers: they have to have a degree or teacher training certificate.”
Renatta is clear that the Kauma school and feeding programme would not have happened without reintegration. “It released both the money and vision for this,” she says. “Village of Hope is much more integrated in the community now, and our staff are like different people. It’s been very motivating for everyone.”
Tying the knot
For Praisewell, reintegration has given him a real family of his own for the first time. Last year, Chikumbutso got married and he wanted to make Praise a big part of the ceremony. There was lots of dancing and Praise and his uncle wore matching outfits to celebrate the occasion. Praisewell’s friends from Village of Hope were also invited and joined in the celebrations.
“I wanted Praise to have a big role in the ceremony, so I got matching outfits made for both of us,” Chikumbutso recalls. “It was a special arrangement. I felt like there was no-one else there for him. I wanted him to know that he will always be part of our family. My wife and I hope to have children, and they will be like brothers and sisters to him.”
The wedding day was also a special moment for Praise. “I liked being part of the wedding,” he says. I wore the same clothes as my uncle. First, we wore yellow shirts and black trousers. Then we changed into white shirts and white trousers. It was so much fun.”
This story was first published in The Nation.