Among the Chewa, Alinafe means God is with us. However, some women at Mponela say it is a beacon of hope, unity and entrepreneurship in times of HIV and Aids.
Adrina Maseko, 50 was diagnosed with HIV in 2006. Her friends, relatives and neighbours believed she might die, but she survived.
The small-scale businesswoman, who sells farm produce at Mponela Trading Centre in Dowa, is now a member of Alinafe Women’s Group. The group, an off-shoot of Passion for Souls Ministries, was established to give widows living with the virus and their orphans a platform to share experiences and pray together.
She thanks the group, whose membership has swelled from 10 to 80 in the past decade, for helping her accept the results of her HIV status and coping with the aftermaths of life without her husband who died in 2007, the year Alinafe was formed.
“With the support and open discussion that guide our sessions, I quickly accepted the results and I have never stopped taking life-prolonging drugs,” says Maseko.
Now that she is undergoing antiretroviral therapy (ART) and spiritual support, she hopes to live longer and see her children grow into productive citizens.
“With HIV and Aids, life changes tremendously. If you do not know your sero-status, go and get tested for survival,” she says.
Such are messages of wellness that run through the community-based organisation whose members have emerged shining stars in implementing the Corridor Economic Empowerment Project (CEEP) being executed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
At the trading centre, loans from the economic empowerment innovation targeting vulnerable populations are dramatically transforming lives of Alinafe members who have cultivated a history of savings and entrepreneurship.
From a walk around the market, faces behind the success story flash past. These include women doing an array of small-scale businesses: tailoring, baking, knitting, vending farm produce, running restaurants, opening grocery shops and beaming movies.
The small-scale businesses are not small to the vulnerable women. Such is the multiplier effect that widows are building houses, some are paying school fees for orphans and the 40 members living with HIV can afford nutritious food necessary for drugs to work.
“Our lives have changed dramatically,” says Elizabeth Muonjeza-Banda, “Raising children single-handedly has never been easy.”
Since the death of her husband, Monjeza-Banda has learnt to recite the plight of widows and orphans like a poem.
She recounts what it meant to lose a breadwinner, the harm of cultural practices that compel the husband’s next of kin to grab property meant for his wife and children and how all this deepens poverty; and forces the orphans to drop out of school because their families cannot afford fees.
“With all property gone, hopes of education dim and the lack of basic necessities gnawing, most widows and orphans, especially females resort to risky sexual encounters just for a penny or two. However, this may only land them in the cobweb of diseases that killed their breadwinners,” says Monjeza-Banda.
The farming town of Mponela lies along M1, Malawi’s largest tarmac which connects to four major transport corridors where ILO is implementing the economic approach to reduce HIV infections among the most vulnerable groups, particularly vulnerable women and girls.
The transport network includes the Dar-as-salaam Corridor connecting to Songwe Border in the North; the Durban Corridor covering part of the South through the Mwanza Border; Nacala corridor affecting the rest of the area stretching to Mloza border post in Mulanje, Chiponde in Mangochi and Mchinji in the Centre.
The United Nations (UN) agency is also implementing CEEP along a domestic corridor which passes through Salima, Nkhotakota and Nkhata Bay along Lake Malawi.
For Alinafe chairperson Maggie Nyama, the people, business and travel that happen on the country’s largest transport corridor has left roadside communities of Mponela at the receiving end of HIV infections.
“Poor women and girls are the worst hit because they are powerless when their short-time partners demand unprotected sex,” says Nyama.
In this regard, she salutes ILO for reinforcing their economic empowerment initiatives that have accorded them the zeal to engage in decent business and cutting back on the path that plunges many to get infected with HIV.
Coming after the beneficiaries two-week business management training, the loans ILO disbursed through the National Association of Business Women (Nabw) was just an icing on the cake.
In their struggle for parity, the enterprising group has put in place a village savings and loan initiative which enables them put together part of their earnings and lend each other savings for business growth.
From the businesses and savings, they have also established an emergency fund which acts as their insurance, a fund that helps when a member is faced with emergency occurrences, including funerals and hospitalisation.
Apart from the savings, the group also runs adult literacy classes for those who prematurely quit school.
“An opinion is growing that without business you are a loser. Staying idle does not help widows and other people in poverty; it usually leaves them sorrowful, sorry and poorer,” says the group leader.
The group’s rise and diversity is a fairytale to the Reverend William Musongole who founded it.
“In the beginning we had 10 widows who were either infected or affected by HIV. Now we have members whose marriages are still intact for equality’s sake,” says Musongole, who saw the group’s membership rise to 150 before it slumped to 80 due to deaths, transfers and other factors.
Joseph Ajakaye, chief technical adviser of CEEP in six countries, says the dedication of Mponela residents is a praiseworthy testimony that HIV infection and Aids-related deaths are not the end of life.
“I salute the courage and dedication of the women and it is not surprising to hear that their lives are changing every day,” says Ajakaye.
Interestingly, the head of CEEP in Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe is not new to the plight of widows and orphans. He believes every parentless child has a hope for a brighter future.
He related: “I was only two years old when my mother became a widow and I know what she went through. A woman who never stepped in a field started farming.”
With CEEP-powered economic empowerment and their hard work, women are happy to see poverty on the wane—and it is clear their vulnerability to HIV and Aids is no longer on the increase.
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