In Thambani Village east of Mwanza town, villagers get jittery at the mention of Covid-19 vaccination.
As in most Malawian villages, religious conservatism, rumour-mongering and cultural resistance have conjured skepticism around the jab.
Thambani lies along a smugglers’ route close to the western border between Malawi and Mozambique. The high traffic on this unmonitored trade route exposes the community to the highly contagious coronavirus disease discovered in December 2019.
This do-or-die scenario prompted group village head (GVH) Chimlango to take action, becoming one of the country’s biggest advocates for Covid-19 vaccination.
The traditional leader drive is spurred by the ‘Support the Rollout of Malawi’s Covid-19 National Vaccination Campaign’ implemented nationwide with support from the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (Echo) to reduce further spread of the virus.
The country’s vaccine uptake remains low due to widespread skepticism. The government has a target to vaccinate 11 million adults by December 31, but only 800 000 had received at least one dose by end October.
In Chief Chimlango’s territory, 1 240 of 2 160 eligible adults have been vaccinated, representing over 57 percent of the target population. This supersedes the national average of 7.3 percent and Mwanza’s uptake of 10 percent.
Save the Children project manager Harrison Sikalamwa pays tribute to community champions such as Chimlango.
“At district level, we are engaging community leaders, starting with the traditional authorities, to encourage their communities to be vaccinated,” he says.
Yet, it was never going to be easy for the chief whose 17 villages where misconceptions and myths about Covid-19 vaccination abound.
“First, I went to all the villages and explained to the people what Covid-19 was and told them that although we have had no confirmed cases in the area, all of us were vulnerable if we did not get vaccinated,” Chimlango explains.
The traditional leader also summoned village committees—from the church, mother groups, the youth, traditional leaders, community-based organisations, disaster management and even the traditional gule wamkulu cult—to discuss the pandemic.
He recalls: “I explained to them that although we had not been affected, we needed to take preventive measures to protect ourselves and the best preventive measure is to be vaccinated.
“There was a lot of resistance in the area due to certain engrained beliefs. This is why it was important for me and the other leaders to step in.”
On any given day, one will find GVH Chimlango at the back of an open car, megaphone in hand, rallying his community to take the life-saving vaccines. At times, he goes door-to-door, joining health workers in administering Covid-19 vaccines to his subjects.
“If you were elected a leader, it is important to delegate responsibilities. I realised that because I had been assigned on this mission by Senior Chief Nthache, I have an enormous responsibility on my shoulders,” he says.
Chimlango urges fellow leaders that it is important to get vaccinated so that when they get infected, their bodies will be fully protected.
“As chiefs, we have been using all available platforms to preach about Covid-19. Even at weddings and funerals, wherever we are given the platform, we educate our people about this vaccine and we will not stop until government tells us to,” he says.
‘I’ve a job to do’
The traditional leader even ventures into the sacred initiation camps to educate his subjects.
“I am not shy or ashamed; I have a job to do,” he explains. “I am doing this because my area sits on the border with Mozambique and all these people without passports who come in from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique use this route. So, if there is any place that is vulnerable, it is here.”
Vene Chipangula, who leads a community-based organisation, was an early doubter of the Covid-19 vaccination.
“When the chief approached me, I told him I would not get vaccinated. There were rumours that if you got vaccinated, you would not conceive again. I am young and I am not done giving birth so I was really worried. But the chief explained to me and cleared all misconceptions for me and gave me confidence to get vaccinated,” she said.
An example to emulate
Frank Kaswell, the district’s assistant environment health officer in Mwanza, hails the role traditional leaders have played in rallying their communities to get Covid-19 vaccines.
He states: “These initiatives helped improve the uptake of Covid-19 vaccines across the district. The chiefs have understood the importance of the vaccine and they have been rallying their people.
“We have a good example of GVH Chimlango who has impressed with his advocacy and his area has one of the highest numbers of vaccine uptake in the district.”
The year-long project is being implemented in Mzimba North, Lilongwe Urban and Rural, Dowa, Dedza, Mangochi, Blantyre, Mwanza and Mangochi since July.
Save the Children is leading implementation in the Southern Region with Cooperazione Internazionale (Coopi) in the Centre and North.
Partners in the consortium include Care, Oxfam, Catholic Relief Services, TroCaire, Goal, Concern Worldwide, United Purpose, Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, Cadecom and the Catholic Health Commission.