While most of my photography for UNICEF focuses on children, I’ve also taken portraits of the adults who work with and care for them in schools, health centres and elsewhere. Malawians are generally friendly and welcoming and make good subjects for photos. Older people in particular have faces full of character, although unlike children they take photos very seriously and have to be coaxed into providing a smile. People dress very smartly, like the headmaster above, even if they live in remote rural areas without water or electricity.
Amina James, 19, with her baby boy in Nsomba village, Mangochi. Amina’s mother died when she was 14 and she dropped out of school to help her grandmother on the family farm. Now she attends a UNICEF-supported literacy class for adolescent girls. “I am so happy that I can now read and write,” Amina says. “My life has changed. I can go into town on my own and read the shop signs. I would like to be a nurse.”
Chief Bwananyambi of Chowe, Mangochi District, in her ceremonial robes. With her is Edna, one of over 30 girls she has saved from child marriage. Malawians now elect their President and local MPs, but traditional chiefs still wield much power in communities. “Our by-laws might look straightforward but enforcing them against deep-rooted traditions requires a lot of sensitivity,” Bwananyambi says. “You need to counsel the parents to convince them that not all our cultural practices are beneficial. I am very proud of all the children we are returning to school.”
A farmer drives a cart drawn by cows at Kasungu airfield, where UNICEF is operating a humanitarian drone testing corridor. Horse, cow and donkey-drawn carts are a common sight in Malawi, even in the capital city Lilongwe. I sometimes pass them when I’m driving home from work on my motorbike.
Esther Ndiwo Banda, 30, is a teacher at Makankhula Primary School in Dedza. She works with the local community to identify children at risk of dropping out of school. “If we notice students are not coming to school, we go to their house to find out why,” Esther says. “We tell the parents about the importance of education. We talk about the problems they’re facing and help them find solutions.”
I have several freelancers that I work with in Malawi, but the most regular is Eldson Chagara. He’s always good company on the road and a dedicated professional. Here, we had stopped at a rural crossroads to pick up a local health worker. Eldson found a temporary perch on a tractor tyre and got to work on his laptop, editing photos of the family we had just visited.
Best friends Fannie and Tiffany, 18, both dropped out of secondary school because of poverty but later went back to school with UNICEF scholarships. Now they have finished school and are studying at Chancellor College, one of Malawi’s most prestigious universities. “When my teacher told me about the scholarship, I was so excited and grateful,” Tiffany says. “I started a new chapter since then. Getting the scholarship made me work even harder. I was determined to pass. As much as I had a chance from UNICEF, I knew that I could do it. So here I am.”
At the bottom of the hill from Chancellor College is Sisters’ Wish salon, a tiny roadside booth, where Fannie’s aunt Londly cuts and braids the hair of university students. “I’ve taken care of Fannie since she was very small. She is like a daughter to me,” Londly says. “I felt so bad when she was sent home from school but there was nothing I could do. We had no money. I was so happy when she got the scholarship, and I couldn’t believe it when she got into Chancellor College. I never imagined that someone from my family would study there.”
When I stay at Lake Malawi, I like to run along the shoreline at sunrise and sunset. Once I came across a ship yard. There were no buildings or cranes, just the metal frames of around a dozen large boats rising up from the sand like the skeletons of beached whales. I struck up a conversation with a shipwright who, like many older Malawians, spoke excellent English. “My name is John Kalengo,” he said. “I’m from Zomba. I came to Mangochi 20 years ago to build boats. These are fishing boats. They take about six months to complete. That one is my favourite boat. I like the curve at the front. It’s very elegant. But now they say I am too old to work, so soon I will go back home to Zomba.”
UNICEF supports national immunisation days in Malawi, when armies of health workers are mobilised to go to schools and communities to carry out routine immunisation. This is a key way to safeguard children from preventable disease. I was visiting this school for another story but took a few photos of the vaccinations. Here, I caught the moment of apprehension just before the needle goes in.
A traditional dancer wearing animal skins welcomes us to a children’s corner in Mchinji. Children’s corners provide a safe space for children to play and learn, including those who have dropped out of school.
Loyce James, 35, is a mother of four children including Sositeni, 11. She has struggled to take care of them since their father abandoned the family a few years ago to go to Mozambique. “I sell firewood and banana fritters for a living,” she says. “This earns me about 1,000 kwacha [$1.37] on a good day. The children’s corner gives Sositeni something good to do. I want him to have a good future and take care of me when I’m old.”
After the 2019 floods in southern Malawi, UNICEF supported mobile health clinics to visit evacuation camps daily, providing services for pregnant women and children. This team of health professionals included a clinician, nurse, midwife and three health surveillance assistants.
Villages near Lake Chilwa were hard hit by the floods, with many homes destroyed. But when we visited four weeks after the floods, new houses were already beginning to go up. Jali Sumbuleta, 76, was rebuilding his home in Mangoli village with help from two nephews, who clambered across the top of the house, making a wooden frame for a thatched roof. “It’s expensive to buy housing materials,” Jali says. “But my nephew has helped me and I’ve borrowed some money from our local MP.”
Ethel had been staying at an evacuation camp in Kathebwe school with her one-month old daughter Patricia since the floods. “I lost a lot of things in the floods including crops, kitchen utensils, clothes and documents,” she says. “Our house was damaged and needs a lot of work before we can return. Luckily, my husband is now fixing the house.”