2006.03.21: March 21, 2006: Headlines: COS - Malawi: Service: Anchorage Daily News: RPCV Tom Nighswander says: Actions prove halfway 'round the world isn't really that far

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Malawi: Peace Corps Malawi : The Peace Corps in Malawi: 2006.03.07: March 7, 2006: Headlines: COS - Malawi: Service: Return to our COS - Malawi: Anchorage Daily News: RPCVs Dr. Tom Nighswander and his wife Ruth return to Malawi to work at Malawi Children's Village, a home for orphans whose parents have died from AIDS : 2006.03.21: March 21, 2006: Headlines: COS - Malawi: Service: Anchorage Daily News: RPCV Tom Nighswander says: Actions prove halfway 'round the world isn't really that far

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RPCV Tom Nighswander says: Actions prove halfway 'round the world isn't really that far

RPCV Tom Nighswander says: Actions prove halfway 'round the world isn't really that far

This is one of the friendliest places you will every visit. You are greeted warmly, and smiles are enthusiastically returned. This continues today in spite of a 20 to 30 percent HIV infection rate in the population and an estimated three quarters of a million HIV/AIDS orphans in a country populated by 12 million people.

RPCV Tom Nighswander says: Actions prove halfway 'round the world isn't really that far

Actions prove halfway 'round the world isn't really that far


Daily News correspondent

Published: March 21, 2006
Last Modified: March 21, 2006 at 01:37 AM

Editor's note: This is the third of four columns provided by Dr. Tom Nighswander of Anchorage, detailing work at the Malawi Children's Village, a home for orphans whose parents have died from AIDS. Nighswander and his wife, Ruth, were Peace Corps volunteers in Malawi in the '60s.

MANGOCHI, Malawi --As I write this, Anchorage is under my feet. Get a globe, put one finger on Alaska and the other on the opposite side, and you are just about pointing to Malawi.

Malawi is familiar to many in Anchorage, especially the 20 or so volunteers from Anchorage who have visited Malawi to work at the Malawi Children's Village.

This is one of the friendliest places you will every visit. You are greeted warmly, and smiles are enthusiastically returned. This continues today in spite of a 20 to 30 percent HIV infection rate in the population and an estimated three quarters of a million HIV/AIDS orphans in a country populated by 12 million people.

Growing up without parents is the pits anywhere. In Malawi, it is a matter of life and death. In subsistence cultures, if there is no one to tend the maize, catch the fish or gather thatch to repair the roof of your mud-wall house, your life collapses. And so it has been for too many Malawi children. Here there is no safety net, except for your extended family. Unfortunately many of the able-bodied in the extended family also have succumbed to AIDS.

It has been left to the grandparents and villagers who have volunteered as guardians to care for those orphaned. It is not an easy task ... another mouth to feed, a child to clothe and an extra mat for sleeping on an already crowded dirt floor, plus school fees to pay for anyone eligible for secondary school.

Enter the Malawi Children's Village, a Malawian-run, home-based HIV/AIDS orphan program that serves a population of 30,000 in 37 villages of the Yao tribe at the southern tip of Lake Malawi. It was conceived in 1997 by an inspired Malawian and a former Peace Corps volunteer who was stationed in the area in the '60s. It receives no government funding or funding from any donor agency. Its support comes from returned Malawi Peace Corps volunteers, Rotary clubs in the United States and other friends of Malawi -- many who live in Alaska. In truth, it is a community development program whose focus is the 2,400 orphans in the area.

At home we say it takes a village to raise a child. It is not a metaphor here. It means food to eat, clothes to wear, a roof to sleep under, a school to go to, a safe and supportive environment to live in. This is what the children's village is about. Seventy-four Malawian volunteers in nearby villages monitor the well-being of the orphans in the villages. If you care for orphans, your family gets supplemental food, the children receive clothes, your house is repaired and school fees are paid.

Wilford Piyo is 78, lives in the nearby village and is feeding 10 children. He also cooks for us each evening. His is the usual story. His daughter died last November at age 37. Her husband died in May 2001. They left behind six children, now orphans. They were both victims of AIDS.

The father of the children was a member of the Malawi Army. Men in both the Malawi Army and the police move around the country and are away from home for some length of time. They are at high risk for becoming AIDS positive, because here almost all transmission of the virus is through heterosexual sex. AIDS is so rampant in both the army and police that both are chronically short of men in the 19- to 35-year-old age group.

Wilford, well past retirement age and still with a sharp mind, has a stooped gate and slow, steady walk. He must continue to work. Originally he had an assortment of four children he was providing for; two months ago the number swelled by six. Now, because of the children's village project, he will receive housing assistance, clothes, supplemental food and maize seed for the essential gardens that everyone must have. In addition, the children will sleep under a bed net to protect them from malaria-transmitting mosquitoes. (Bed nets have the potential to reduce by half the 20 percent under-5 death rate.) Plus, he will receive school fees for his two grandchildren who are eligible for secondary school.

The physical headquarters of the children's village is an active center. It contains a residential nutritional nursery for orphan infants and those younger than age 3, experimental gardens, three in-production fish ponds, vocational training school (for carpentry, tailoring, auto/diesel mechanics, soon expanding to include brick-laying and plumbing) and the first year of a secondary school that is expanding to four years, a library, and studio for singing and video production.

Both the vocational school and a significant part of the secondary school have been built by donations from Anchorage. The Downtown Rotary just contributed $13,000 for a backup diesel generator to run the compound during the frequent power outages.

That is not all. Four Anchorage schools have adopted four of the seven primary schools in the children's village area. They've not only collected money for each school's self-identified priority needs (pit latrines) but have set up letter exchanges. St. Mary's Episcopal Church has become a sister church to the nine Anglican village churches in the parish that covers the children's village project. (Malawi was a former British colony). Several Anchorage Presbyterians and Catholic churches are seeking partner churches here now.

As anyone from home who has been here can attest, the Malawians are almost embarrassingly appreciative of this support. We all have been prayed for, blessed by Allah by the Muslims, given small gifts and always bring home dozens of letters written to their Anchorage friends.

To the Anchorage community we have been asked to say to you "Zikomo Kwambili" (Thank you very much).

Next: Buying our first goat, and saying goodbye.

Tom and Ruth Nighswander have lived in Anchorage for 34 years. They were Peace Corps volunteers in Malawi in the '60s and took a sabbatical year in Malawi in 1984-85. They have been returning annually for the past six years.

When this story was posted in March 2006, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: Anchorage Daily News

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