The last week of work in Malawi

It is very hard to believe that it is already the last week for my work in Malawi. The time has passed by quickly.

Monday I focussed on the final preparation of my powerpoint presentation for the advocacy workshop on Tuesday. I dropped into the WUSC office on the way to the COWLHA office and was able to get confirmation that the budget proposed for the workshop had been approved. We called Daphne right away so that the money could be transferred to the COWLHA account and plans could be put in place for all the logistics. I was also able to borrow WUSC’s computer projector.

Grace, the receptionist at the WUSC office – who is an incredibly kind person and a life-line for so many different things – arrived to the office sick with malaria. She looked awful and had a terrible night’s sleep. Grace was going to head to the hospital to get medication and then head home to see if she could rest. I was quite concerned about her. By Wednesday, when I saw her again, the medication had already taken effect and she was doing so much better!

Tuesday was the day of the workshop. There were 12 participants, including Daphne and Victoria. All of them are “positive”….they have tested positive for HIV. Two of them came from outside Lilongwe and had to travel by bus for many hours to be able to attend. Overall, I think it went well. If only I could have spoken Chichewa, it would have been better. While everyone could understand English, mine is weighed by a heavy Canadian accent (…at least to Malawian ears), and they can speak more readily in Chichewa. We managed, however, and Daphne helped with translation – “my” English to Chichewa and Chichewa to English.

One of the best parts of the workshop was a little ice-breaker exercise I did with them. I asked them to draw the design they would like to have on their chitenje (skirt wrap worn by all Malawian women, particularly for ceremonies and official events). The women all participated and then got up and explained their design. Through their descriptions I learned a lot about their feelings towards being “positive”, their dreams for themselves and for others with HIV/AIDS and their commitment to building better conditions for Malawian women.

Later during the workshop, I was able to sit and talk with some of the women. They shared some of their stories. They told me about the struggle of coming to terms with having HIV, the challenges brought by the stigma it carries, the positive things they are doing in their lives to live fully, and the feelings of empowerment they have gained through membership in COWLHA. It was tremendously moving….but I dared not let a tear come to my eye. The last thing they want is for someone to feel sorry for them……they are busy living and seeking to be respected as human beings first, as mothers, daughters, friends, co-workers….and only subsequently, as victims of HIV.

The status of women in Malawi leaves a lot……a whole lot…..to be desired. It is a huge obstacle for women living with AIDS/HIV – it is probably the most serious underlying challenge to getting an appropriate response to their needs and circumstances. As a Canadian woman, I ache to see what they must contend with and the basic assumptions about my way of living that cannot be applied to life as a Malawian woman. There seems to be a mood for change among the leadership….but there are signs that the support may be somewhat more superficial in its application. One senses there is also a strong resistance to upsetting any circumstances that allow men to remain firmly in control of leadership in most of the critical aspects of Malawian society. There is so much work to be done……

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