Being young can be tough. But if one is 19, from a poor background and has just failed to qualify for the University of Malawi after sitting for Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examinations, youth can stink.
“My parents did not have enough money to send me to a private college to pursue tertiary education. So, I found myself at a crossroads, not sure which way to go.
“Yet, as I stood there, I still needed good clothes, I still needed soap and I still needed all the basic amenities that make every growing young man to make a good impression and live a decent life,” says George Nedi, who is based in Nancholi, Blantyre.
Nedi’s story was also similar to that of his two friends from Nancholi: Watson Shuzi and Moses Makeza.
The three, in their search for a means of survival, could have ended up with the wrong crowds. But their story does not end that way.
“In 2003, we formed Nancholi Youth Club. We managed to create a forum for about 37 youths. We could meet under a tree and discuss issues affecting us such as HIV and Aids, reproductive health, orphan hood and poverty,” says Nedi.
The growth of their club was not just in creating a forum where youths could meet, play different games and discuss issues affecting them. The club also started to get concerned and involved in issues affecting their community.
“We rolled out a volunteering initiative where we would help the sick, orphans and the elderly with household chores. We used to draw water for them, do their dishes and wash their clothes,” says Nedi.
Over the years, the club got featured on youth radio programmes such as Youth Alert supported by the National Aids Commission (NAC). It is through such interaction that Nedi and friends started thinking big. In 2004, they registered a non-governmental organisation under the banner Nancholi Youth Organisation (Nayo).
“Our objective was to help promote and protect living standards of the youth by equipping them with appropriate information and skills,” says Nedi.
NAC came in to support them in December 2006 by financing a six-month Sexual Reproductive Health (SRH) project.
“We opened an office where we bought a variety of books for the youths to use like a library. Apart from that, we held a number of trainings for youths in Nancholi on SRH,” continues Nedi, adding their voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) campaign reached out to many youths.
But after the project phased out mid-2007, the NGO stayed broke for almost three years. But in all these years, with support from fellow youths, they did not give up. They continued with their volunteering spirit of helping those in need.
In 2010, they received volunteers from Canada.
“After noting our work, they were quite impressed and they sought funding for us from Canada,” adds Nedi.
Today, the NGO is running three projects in Nancholi in the areas of HIV and Aids, early childhood education and youths and vocational skills.
Ellen Mikola from Chimire Village, T/A Nsomba, Blantyre, is one of the beneficiaries of the HIV and Aids project.
“My husband died five years ago, leaving me with five children,” she says.
Mikola, who says she is HIV-positive, adds that being sick and jobless while raising the family was tough on her until Nayo came to her rescue.
“A year ago, they gave me a loan and a pig to start a small business. Though I cannot say that my life has completely changed for the better, I can assure you I am not as miserable as I was before. I can now buy soap, sugar, salt and many other basic needs. I am better off,” she says.
Mikola—who also said that for the first time in her life, she opened a bank account—is not the only one. They are almost 150 people in Nancholi who share her story and they are being helped by Nayo’s home-based care approach to disadvantaged families. These are families that Nedi and friends used to voluntarily help with household chores.
“We have two communal gardens which produce 32 bags of maize yearly, which we distribute to people living with HIV and Aids (PLWHA) and two community-based childcare centres. Apart from constructing a clinic at Mchokera Village, we feel as youths, we have played a big role in our community,” continues Nedi.
According to Nedi, Nayo carried out a baseline survey in the area to understand the situation of children in the area. Their findings were that most children are orphans who live with poor grandparents.
“The challenge with these children is that they do not have access to education,” he says.
In response, Nayo is working in Nancholi’s three villages where they are supporting four community-based care centres (CBCC). One of them is Mkoka CBCC which started in 2007 and now has 62 children.
Children learn in a building that was built by Mary’s Meals for their projects. When the owners need it, the children learn under a tree.
“The challenge we always face is feeding these children and also classrooms,” says Sam Mkoka, one of the 10 caregivers.
But according to Mkoka, Nayo has always been helping them with food. It has been buying them food and also farm inputs for a field where Nayo’s volunteers grows maize to support the CBCC.
“The community has moulded 40 000 bricks to build a new centre for the children. But we still lack funds to take off,” says Mkoka.
However, despite these challenges and looking at how far they have come, Nedi is upbeat that nothing is impossible.
“I think where there is will, patience and perseverance, there is always a way. Most of us youths need things to happen instantly. That is why we get corrupted by politicians who abuse us sometimes. Some of us rejected that and here we are supporting ourselves and even the community,” says Nedi.
Theirs is a lesson that other youths need to learn from.