Author Archives: Andrea Lynett

About Andrea Lynett

Andrea Lynett has a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in English and History from Carleton University and a Masters in Journalism from the University of Wollongong in Australia. She has studied a variety of topics throughout her formal educational training, ranging from religion and law, to politics, women's history and human rights. Prior to obtaining a position with jhr as a Rights Media Intern in Malawi, Andrea worked in various roles within the media sector in Canada and abroad. Her broadcast training began as an intern with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in local radio, before returning to Canada to work with the Canadian Olympic Foundation in communications. Most recently, Andrea worked for a television production company as a casting agent for a popular Canadian show. Her international experience of living, studying and travelling abroad has provided her with the necessary tools to adapt to new cultures, religions and ways of life. She feels fortunate to be given this opportunity and is excited about the adventures that await her in Africa.

Poaching in Tanzania’s game parks

Tanzania's elephant population fell by 24 per cent from 2006 to 2009, yet patrolling of game parks is lax and park official deny poaching is a problem

With cameras in tow and binoculars ready, I embrace the Tanzanian tourist trap I fell into and peer out the roof of our truck to admire two lions and four baby cubs relaxing in the midday sun, not far from their zebra leftovers.

As amusing as this rare sighting is, I’m aware of the darker side of animal parks. To kill and be killed may be the nature of wildlife, but poaching should not be a part of the game. Though Tanzanian park officials deny the problem still exists, recent newspaper coverage and an investigation by the international organization, Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), suggest otherwise.

“So what can you tell me about the latest poaching of elephants in Tanzania?” I ask our safari guide as we circle down a windy road toward the crater floor.

Caught off guard by my question, he mumbles back with hesitation, “Oh, that’s not a problem. We don’t have poaching in our country anymore.”

Someone should tell my driver he’s been misinformed—in 2009 alone, about 11,678 kilograms of seized African ivory originated in Tanzania. On top of that, all of sub-Saharan Africa was targeted for mass seizures between January and November of the same year, totaling over 20,000 kilograms.

What’s more, a 2010 report released by EIA documents discussions between Tanzanian traders and ivory dealers about how they illegally smuggle ivory using bribes to quiet officials. According to the organization, Tanzania’s elephant population fell by 24 per cent between 2006 and 2009—more than 33,000 elephants in total.

After viewing the lax security at the park gates—a few rangers and the odd ranger car patrolling the grounds—it’s evident how poaching persists.

Sadly, when the sun sets on the Serengeti plains and camera-toting tourists disperse, some animals have more than nature’s predators to fear with poachers on the prowl.

Tanzania’s main trading partner in the smuggling of illegal ivory is a country that has had its own poaching problems in the past: China. About two years ago, China faced accusations when ivory from 11,000 elephants mysteriously disappeared into the country’s black markets.

Fears of illegal ivory trading became the focal point of discussion at this year’s International Elephant Conservation and Research Symposium in January, when Tanzania and Zambia presented a proposal to alter their elephant populations from Appendix I, which bans commercial trade, to Appendix II, which allows regulated trade subject to certain conditions.

Tanzania’s request was not granted, but there is still a long way to go regarding illegal trading. On Sept. 9, 2010, a shipment of 1,550 kg of ivory tusks was confiscated by port officials in Hong Kong. The ivory originated from Tanzania.

It would be a lie to say the safari wasn’t an amazing experience, but part of me still wonders, if poaching continues at this rate, how many elephants will I see roaming Tanzania’s supposedly protected game parks in five years?

Finding justice in Rwanda’s hidden horrors

At the International Criminal Court in Tanzania, Rwanda's genocide masterminds are brought to justice.

“In our home, we would rise and kill Tutsis before we got on the truck,” says an anonymous witness about the lorry he rode to find their next victims during the 1994 Rwanda genocide. “And please do not be surprised, even when we came back from church, we killed people.”

Disturbing testimony from a killer about the 100 days where innocent civilians lost their lives over Rwanda’s deeply imbedded ethnic tensions has been all too common since the United Nation’s International Criminal Tribunal (ICTR) began in 1995.

The trials serve as an attempt by the international community to bring the masterminds and their accomplices to justice and provide victims with a sense of closure to a horrific past.

During the genocide, 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutu’s lost their lives. As Richard Dowden, a British correspondent wrote, “Rwanda’s horrors made a mockery of the media clichés of death and destruction.”

“Let me warn you please, you will not be able to pick up my file, it is too heavy,” says the anonymous witness, referring to all the crimes he committed. “I have no interest to hide anything. I am ready to pour everything out of my heart and admit all that I did.”

The case is known as the Ndahimena trial. At the centre of the case is a once-popular businessman who has been accused of being the ringleader behind the deaths of over 2000 Tutsis’s who sought refuge at a church compound in Kivumu district, Ruhengeri, on an April morning in 1994.

Looking sharp in a freshly pressed blue pin stripped suit, the accused sat attentively behind his lead lawyer during the anonymous witness’s testimony, smirk on his face.

“I blundered, I killed, I destroyed. I had the right to do all that,” he says. “There were people who considered me an accomplice and if you killed anyone, you were free of suspicion.”

And so the killings continued.

Understandably, in order to bring majority of the genocidal architects to justice, one would need years and sufficient manpower. Recognizing the difficulties this particular situation poses, the UN gained the assistance of a different type of justice system designed to hold those accountable for their crimes.

In 2001, the Rwandan government set up open-air community trials, called the Gacaca courts, to judge those responsible for crimes during the genocide.  As of 2009, the traditional justice system had tried about 1.5 million cases, with about 4000 still pending when they wound up in June of last year.

Critics feel the traditional courts strip an accused of a fair trial under international law, since they do not follow the same procedures and consequently put survivors and at times, an accused, at risk of retribution. According to UN news, a genocide survivor, whose parents died in 1994, was killed under suspicious circumstances shortly after testifying at one of the trials.

Similarly, the ICTR has faced its own set of challenges over the years, with the exorbitant amount of cases, length of trial proceedings—one trial started in 2003 and spanned 404 trial days—and budgetaryconstraints, to list a few.

However, both may serve as a warning to those muddling over committing atrocities, and hopefully these trials will assist in preventing future genocide.

“Each year Rwanda is marking genocide day, so embassies and the UN organize events to remember those who died,” explains Kapana, a Tanzanian reporter I befriended at the trials. “We take as an example as what [we should do] to make sure genocide does not ever happen in our country.”

Touring Colonial Quelimane

Quelimane in northern Mozambique is dotted with historic colonial buildings

Following a minibus breakdown in the middle of nowhere and two transport truck rides in the dark packed with strangers, a road sign reading “Quelimane—30 km” was enough to reignite my excitement to reach Mozambique.

“You’ll love Quelimane,” my friend tells me before I leave Malawi for the land of seafood, Portuguese music and Indian Ocean beaches.

Rarely do I use the four-letter word in relation to a city overrun with dilapidated colonial buildings and dirt roads that exhibit little sign of modern development. But nonetheless, Quelimane is unique.

Upon exploration, it’s easy to see how one can develop a fascination for the city, with its rich colonial legacy that permeates all facets of society even after 35 years of independence. Whether it’s the prevalence of the Portuguese language, the city’s strong resemblance to an old trading route and or the smell of local patisseries located on almost every corner, it’s hard to not feel as if you’re in Europe. 

The first encounter with the remnants of colonialism presented itself during a meal at a local snack bar recommended by our hospitable hotel concierge—the entire menu was overflowing with Portuguese terminology.

Immediately, my eyes inspect the food list for English words, but I turn up empty.

“What’s does ‘queijo’ mean,” I ask my travel companion with a puzzled expression.

“I don’t know,” she says. “I can’t understand any of this.” The only word that resonates with me is “tostas,” because I’ve visited Portugal twice before.

When traveling through Mozambique, it’s important to keep in mind that the country’s 22.9 million inhabitants communicate in the official Portuguese language, just like their European colonial decedents.

A helpful tip would be to invest in a Portuguese dictionary, as finding an English-speaking local is difficult. But on the plus side, everyone is extremely friendly and willing to help bridge the language gap. It also makes for hilarious stories, as most conversations between locals and tourists, myself included, often mirror charades.

Unable to communicate with words, I would often act out a person eating for a restaurant or put my palms together against my ear to show we needed a place to sleep.

Additionally, for travelers looking to experience what’s left of the European architecture in the city, a visit to the oldest cathedral situated across from the bank of Rio dos Bons Sinais (or river of good signs) is a must-see. A stand-alone building with walls over run by vibrant green vines and beautiful pink flowers, its very presence takes one back to ancient times.

At present, the cathedral structure leaves something to be desired, mainly because it bares the wounds of a 16-year civil war and serves as a night haven for the homeless.

Yet, with a little imagination, it is easy to picture the once pristine stucco walls, untouched stain glass window frames and intricate biblical engravings that ultimately made this cathedral a one-of-a-kind in its day.

Unfortunately, the main reason for architectural demise in the city is periodical flooding and not simply lack of structural attention. In 2000 and 2001, Mozambique was hit by floods that affected about a quarter of the population and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure. Since Quelimane is a seaport, it was one of the worst affected areas.

After taking a stroll along the rivers edge, smelling the baker’s fresh bread and Portuguese style pastries and taking in the multicoloured pastel housing along the dirt roads, it is almost certain you will leave Quelimane satisfied.

“I love this city,” says my friend as we board another mini-bus for our next destination.

I don’t love it, but it’s definitely a sight to see.

Mob (In)justice

 

 

In Malawi, incidents of mob justice most often occur in densely populated cities

“I was driving right behind the car when I saw it all happen,” my roommate tells me. “An old man was on his bike coming out of the gas station. The car in front of me didn’t see him until the last second—they tried to swerve, but they hit him.”

Within seconds, a mob descended on the scene. The driver tossed the man into the back of the car before witnesses could attack.

Sometimes after car accidents or incidents of street theft in Malawi crowds beat the suspected criminal—at times to death—in a practice known as mob justice. It’s driven by citizens’ lack of faith in law enforcement and a misunderstanding of legal systems.

“We’ve had numerous incidents of mob justice,” says George Mhango, a veteran reporter in Malawi. “There’s even been many times where groups of people catch thieves and burn them to death.”

Between January and October this year there were 13 reported cases of mob justice in Malawi, most of which occurred in cities, where the population is denser.

According to Davie Chingwalu, public relations officer for southern region police, citizens resort to mob justice when a suspect is released from prison on bail. “They think that means we are setting the suspect free,” he says.

Vigilante justice also occurs when individuals are accused of practising witchcraft, according to an article by Chingwalu published in The Daily Times. “Many suspected witches and wizards are assaulted, killed or their houses and property are torched,” he writes. “Witchcraft cases are very difficult to prove in a court of law because of lack of tangible evidence that can be seen or produced. Hence innocent people are likely to suffer for merely suspecting them to be [guilty].”

The Malawian Constitution clearly states that an accused person is entitled to a fair trial and shall be presumed innocent until proven guilty. But when mob justice occurs, the accused is stripped of these legal rights.

It appears the court system is failing to adequately assist; the country has only one lawyer for every 37,000 Malawians, a stark contrast to Canada, which, according to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, has for every 345 citizens.

With a backlog in the court system, funding constraints and few practising lawyers in the country, the majority of Malawians, especially the poor, wait months or even years for their cases to be heard before a judge. The Malawi Human Rights Commission recorded over 150 complaints in one year related to limited access to or unfair administrative justice.

However, as Chingwalu argues, this does not give citizens the right to interfere before the law has time to intervene. When they do, “the legal practice is derailed, [which] brings about investigation deficiencies.”

Just two weeks ago, police were called anonymously to Ndirande Township in Blantyre after a mob killed two people who were caught robbing a house. “The mob followed the suspects to their own home and murdered them right on their doorstep. They hacked them to death,” Chingwalu says. It was the worst case he’s seen yet.

Nonetheless, he says he’s noticed an overall decline in mob justice over the past three years. In his opinion, the downward trend is taking place because Malawians are becoming better educated about their legal rights.

When my roommate saw the cyclist collide with the car, his first instinct wasn’t to run. “I wanted to help,” he explains. “But I watched this women try to help the old man and the crowd surrounded her. If I helped, the same thing would happen to me and it’s best to just stay away.”

I guess you never know what a crowd is capable of.

Malawi Soccer: Underpaid and Overplayed

In Malawi, soccer players don't get paid if they lose a match

Clad in black and red with vuvuzelas in tow, droves of soccer fans dawn their team’s colours and flood Blantyre’s Kamuzu Stadium to witness the showdown between Malawi and Botswana.

Fellow reporters and I watch from the sidelines in the cold and pouring rain for more than two hours. As I complain about my lifeless limbs, the Malawians I’m with focus on one thing: the game.

Cheers for the country’s soccer idols rock the stands. In those freezing hours, I feel as though I’m at a Rolling Stones concert in New York City, not a national soccer game at a run-down stadium in Blantyre.

In retrospect, the difference is that the Stones are paid for their performances, good or bad, unlike national soccer players who barely make enough money to get by: US$150 if they win, US$75 if they tie and nothing at all if they lose. (The number of games played a month varies from four in the down season to 10 or more during tournaments.)

In Malawi, multimillion-dollar contracts are as rare as snowfall in a tropical climate. Some believe players earn so little because soccer is undervalued in the country. Others say it’s simply because there’s no money in the country to pay them more. 

“We are among the least paid in Southern Africa,” says 10-year veteran player, Hellings Mwakasungula. When asked why he chose a career with such a meagre salary, he laughs, and then says unsurely, “I guess it’s what I do best.”

Mwakasungula says Malawi “can do better” in terms of the support it provides to players.

Presently, the main funder of Malawi’s national team, the Flames, is the cash-strapped government agency, the Football Association of Malawi (FAM).

“Soccer isn’t valued. We have to change the mindset from administration to players,” says Mwakasungula, referring to the attitude of FAM.

Before the Malawi versus Botswana match, the consensus was that Malawi would defeat the younger, less experienced Botswana squad. In the end, the score was tied 1-1. Mwakasungula says his team’s poor performance is due in part to the lack of monetary assistance from FAM.

Fortunately for some Malawian soccer players, extra cash can be earned from playing for club teams, like the Bullets or Wanderers, rather than solely relying on getting paid for the games they play with the national squad.

In Canada, national soccer players receive an annual guaranteed minimum salary of around $18,000CDN—not princely, but nonetheless existent—regardless of how many games they win or lose. And just as it is in Canada, players in Malawi are aware that prosperous and lucrative soccer careers lie beyond the country’s borders. In Europe, for example, where football reigns, financial rewards are greater than in Canada and Malawi.

Unfortunately, it’s not only the players who are underpaid. Flames’ head coach, Kinnah Phiri recently told Malawi’s Capital FM that his salary also falls below the ideal. Although he believes it would have been unpatriotic to ask FAM for the same amount given to his predecessor, who hails from the UK.

Looking ahead, as many African nations vie for a coveted spot in the 2012 African Cup of Nations, it is questionable if Malawi will be able to reproduce the same type of 3-0 humiliation they inflicted on fan favourites, Algeria, during the 2010 African Cup.

The sentiment from Mwakasungula is that the team “has really improved. We are far better and we’ve tried to put the country on the map.” It’s just too bad this hasn’t been reflected in their salaries.

Ultimately, the question remains that if professional sport is driven by profit and athletes in turn produce positive results for their country, should their pay not reflect the efforts displayed?

According to Mwakasungula, the answer is yes.

“We need to change the mentality towards soccer if the situation is to improve.”

Cash for Coverage: Malawian Media Ethics

Underpaid journalists in Malawi debate the ethics of accepting envelopes of cash at press conferences

Following a three-day training session about climate change reporting hosted by a local environmental NGO in Blantyre, Malawi, organizers say their closing remarks to a packed house of over 250 journalists. Soon after, the guests rise to leave.

With heavy eyes and empty pockets, the media attendees assemble their notepads and pens–courtesy of event coordinators–while chatting in Chichewa (Malawi’s local language) with their colleagues. As the journalists file out of the banquet hall, organizers discretely pass each of them a tiny brown envelope, a gift many have come to expect, before parting ways.

Over the past few decades, the process known as “chequebook journalism” has been on the rise in Malawi. “The biggest challenge we face here is that of accepting,” says Jika Nkolokosa, acting executive director at the Malawi Institute of Journalism (MIJ). He says the role of the journalists is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

As a seasoned industry professional with over 40 years experience, Nkolokosa explains that this expectation of payment by young journalists is new and one that he has trouble comprehending. He wonders how it is possible to be completely ethical when one accepts money for a story.

The Media Council of Malawi clearly outlines in their code of ethics under subsection 1.7, that “a journalist shall not offer, demand or accept payment in order to include or exclude material on a story he/she is writing.” Although this subject is clearly referenced by the council, the topic continues to remain contentious among journalists.

After holding various private discussions with my colleagues pertaining to the issue, it was evident that many conflicting opinions prevailed within newsrooms on whether or not accepting payment from organizations or subjects is considered unethical. In order to openly address this issue, it seemed rather essential to host an informal discussion at my media house.

On Friday July 24, 2010, Capital FM’s newsroom hosted about 14 reporters, most of them casually reclining in their busted wheelie chairs, flipping through their code of ethics handout while intently listening to Nkolokosa speak about the importance of producing stories that are accurate, fair and balanced.

Everything appeared to be under control until Nkolokosa said, “it’s not for you [the journalist] to start playing public relations officer for whomever out there—you are a news house and you are out there to dig.”

To my surprise, the tame discussion quickly turned into a heated debate as one of the younger, more impressionable journalists, Margaret Mvura challenged his “old school” opinion. She questioned what was so wrong with accepting money for transport and food from event organizers, if the journalist has more than one mouth to feed at home, bills and rent to pay, while in turn living on a meager salary of only 20,000 kwa (approximately $145 CAD) per month provided by their employer.

With a husky laugh, Nkolokosa replied “my dear, the salary I get today is not enough to get me from one week to the next, so never mind what I was getting then.” He went on to say, “most of us live from hand to mouth, right, but that’s no reason why I should join the troupe of reporters at MIJ and go to every function and collect payment for a story.”

Voices erupted from every corner of the room, with journalists fighting amongst each other to get their opinions across to a man whom they believe is from a starkly different news era. Most journalists in the room suspect he has never faced the hardships and poor wages that are all too common at private news organizations today.

After assessing the time and noticing that the one-hour discussion had rapidly transformed into a three-hour-long debate, the question still remains as to whether or not the young journalists, if presented with the opportunity to add a few extra kwacha to their monthly salary, would accept the elusive brown envelope.

But if they did, would you blame them?

Breaking Down Barriers

Women are often seen as inferior to men in Malawi

It’s been known to cripple entire families, cut off economic productivity and destroy relationships.

AIDS.

In the past, the focus of NGOs in Malawi has been directed towards providing patient care to those affected by HIV, a necessary and dignified goal. But there’s one organization in Malawi that has expanded this focus to improve the socio-economic position of those who are not necessarily infected, but often bear the brunt of the epidemic: the wives and widows of AIDS sufferers.

The idea: to provide women with financial grants to start their own businesses and increase their standard of living.

What started as a small women’s support group, mostly widows, infected and affected with HIV, in Chirimba—a rural township outside Blantyre—Women for Fair Development (WOFAD) quickly took off. It has transformed into an organization focused on awareness campaigns, home-based care, group therapy, social counseling and female empowerment initiatives.

“We started going door to door to the widows and they were explaining more about what happened, how the man got sick and the symptoms,” says Matanya. The group surveyed the villages of Suya, Mdala, Mwachade and Chatha in Blantyre, discovering that 85 per cent of the widows were also HIV-positive.

At times it appears funerals outnumber weddings and baby showers here. Among survivors, the question of how to remain economically productive often looms large.

After talking to the widows, Matanya wondered to herself, “What next will these woman do—prostitute? They don’t do anything, they don’t do any business, they don’t have any way of getting income for their families.”

In a patriarchal society such as Malawi, women are often economically, socially and politically subservient to men. A woman’s role is to take care of the home, while a man’s role is outside the home. Wives are not only expected to be accountable to their husbands, they are financially and socially dependent too, typically due to a lack of education.

“Certain measures have to be put in place by women activists, like creating educational campaigns that show women how to be innovative and get out of poverty,” says Margaret Mvula, a Zimbabwean reporter working in Malawi. “They still live in a cocoon because of cultural restraints.”

With financial backing provided by the U.S. Embassy, WOFAD has been able to allot 20 women small grants to buy and sell timber as a business, says Jacob Mapemba, country director for World University Service of Canada (WUSC), which oversees the project. He says providing women access to income ultimately “reduces their dependency on men and increases their ability to make decisions.”

“We are the first women’s group in Malawi to do this type of business,” says Matanya proudly. The one-of-a-kind initiative, allows women combine their profits to acquire basic necessities such as food—which ultimately improves their health—shelter and clothing. The women also use the money to pay school fees for their children.

What really makes this program unique is that women initiated the project, manage it and determine the activities. According to Mapemba, other projects that focus on female empowerment often allow “men to take the lead in the decision making,” not women.

Previously, the females who participated in the timber project were living on approximately $5 CAD per day. They now bring home around $14 CAD daily—three times as much as a journalist makes in this country.

Even though women gain a newfound independence by participating in the project, discrimination against HIV-positive individuals still exists in Malawi. By promoting openness in declaring ones status and persuading others to go for testing, another WOFAD objective, the organization runs the risk of tearing apart relationships and alienating victims in a society where talking about the disease is taboo.

As the international community comes together this week to review the 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in New York, all eyes are on developing nations such as Malawi to see if they achieve certain goals, namely decreasing the percentage of women in informal employment and improving the knowledge around HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. WOFAD is helping some women in Malawi inch closer to achieving those goals.

The timber project may be a sufficient way to combat poverty issues, but as Mapemba explains, “combating discrimination requires change in mindset, attitude and knowledge of those involved.”

Malawian children from Nancholi district

See our World: Hear our Voice

I’m grateful. Simply put, I grew up in a world where opportunities to express myself, whether it be through sport, music, drama and or the written word, were endless. It was not natural for me to sit and look pretty as a child, or hold my emotions inside. On the contrary, if I was silent, there was something wrong. As a result, I (perhaps naively) thought a child’s curious nature and imaginary ideas were something to be cherished and accepted.

Malawian children from Nancholi district

In Malawi, a silent cultural norm envelops the country, placing children in a category where they should only to be seen and not heard. This type of belief system is hard to comprehend, as my privileged childhood was inclusive of classical repertoire, endless travel and copious amounts of books encouraging critical analysis.

It never occurred to me that kids in other parts of the world were being muted.

On the bright side, organizations like Plan International have been implementing programs designed to address child rights issues, specifically relating to health, access to education, food security and the silencing of youth. According to their website, “Plan Malawi seeks to support government efforts to bring about lasting improvements in the quality of life of disadvantaged children,” through awareness raising and capacity building.

Since 2007, the well-known non-governmental organization has used its extensive reach to bring child rights abuses to the forefront by providing youth with a platform where they can vocalize their concerns. Their solution: radio programs. Plan’s ultimate goal is to “enable [children] and show them their full potential.”

With funding provided by Plan Malawi, Timveni, or “hear us out” as the program is fittingly called, was started by a Canadian journalist named Tiferaji Aryee. Founders, along with Plan, outline that “an essential part of their work is to create spaces for children and young people to discuss together the issues which affect their lives, then ensure adults respect their views so that children may be involved in community decision-making.”

An intern at Capital FM conducting a radio interview

With Plan’s financial contributions, organizers tackled the situation by empowering youth with media skills, giving them the opportunity to create and produce radio programs throughout the country on child rights issues, like child trafficking, malnutrition and HIV/AIDS that negatively affect them. The thought behind the radio project was to have media produced that is by the children and for the children.

Each year, 25 deserving boys and girls across the country are nominated by their schools to partake in the radio project. “First, you have classes educating you on Plan Malawi’s initiatives, then you learn about human rights and child rights and then broadcasting skills,” says Beatrice Mfune, one of the first female participants, selected at the age of 14. “After two weeks, we record programs and we make programs completely about children,” she says.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the project “was receiving letters from kids who heard our programs and liked them,” says Mfune. Before this opportunity, she admits to her oblivion regarding what constituted children’s rights, what type of treatment is considered an infringement of their rights and where a child could voice their concerns without fear of retaliation.

According to Plan, some organizers recognized that there was still an educational gap on the ground. Children, particularly those living in rural areas, were not being actively engaged in the Timveni radio programs. As a solution to this problem, Timveni organizers got together and created what they call the “Listeners’ Clubs.”

Most Listeners’ Clubs consist of 15 to 20 children that meet every day to hear the youth designed programs. If they have any questions or concerns about the content, typically relating to child rights, they formulate letters with a Plan representative and mail them to presenters, who in turn read them on air.

Currently 18 years old, Mfune somberly reflects on her first excursion with the Timveni project. It was early morning when their bus pulled up to the front doors of Lilongwe Central Hospital. Silently, Mfune and her colleagues followed organizers down a long corridor leading to the children’s ward. They were completely unaware of how this experience would change their outlook forever. “There were kids with burns everywhere and some weren’t accidental,” she explains. “For some children, if they took K20 ($0.12 CDN) from their parents, they would burn them.”

After a thoughtful glance, Mfune turns to me and exclaims in a soft voice that it was in that moment at the hospital where “it made [her] feel like [she] could do something for people in need.”

Creating a Sustainable Childhood

“I don’t want to grow up, I’m a Toys R Us kid”- does this jingle ring a bell? Sadly, for most children in Malawi, the opportunity to play with Barbie dolls, G.I. Joes and remote-control cars is not a widespread reality. Instead, due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic that has swept the country, many children have been left to deal with the loss of a parent, or worse, have been orphaned by the rampant disease.

It’s this harsh reality that prompted Scottish university student Caroline Dickson to take action. Her love for children and the ‘warm heart of Africa,’ as Malawi is fondly referred to, began during her gap year. Starting in 2005, she volunteered at a local orphanage on the outskirts of Blantyre and was immediately enveloped by the unfortunate plight facing many Malawian children.

While I was engrossed in my university sports career, cramming for exams and worrying about which shirt looked better with my new pair of skinny jeans, Dickson, her father Garry and her close friend Abigail Higgins were busy starting a charity.

Basically, all it took to hook me to the cause was a Scottish accent, a green and orange Lance Armstrong look-alike bracelet and the words ‘orphans’ and ‘sustainability.’

Kenyawi Kids, as the founders have called their charity, is a Scottish-based charity designed to create self-sustainable orphan care in Kenya and Malawi.

One of the most recent projects started by Kenyawi Kids deals with sustainable farming. The charity purchased some farmland and a few chickens so the orphans could produce and sell their own products. Kenyawi-kids’ new trustee, David Macdonald, says “rather than looking for money from donors, as there’s a lot less money floating about due to the recession,” their mandate is to provide orphans with tools and skills for the future.

Over the last 10 years, Malawi has seen a 75 percent increase in adult deaths according to the 2002 National AIDS Commission statistics. These AIDS-deaths have orphaned 1.2 Malawian children. The severity of the issue is crystal clear and that’s why Kenyawi Kids focuses on providing “children with life skills that will help them become self-sufficient when they leave the orphanages.”

As most charities can probably attest, there are always challenges faced when doing development work and Africa is no exception. “Things seem to happen very slow [in Malawi and Kenya], whereas back home, if you want something done, you go out and get it done,” says Macdonald. In addition to that, “there’s also this idea of African corruption, so we’re always trying to make sure that the money goes to the right place and trying to be as transparent as we can, [as well as with] the organizations that we work with.”

The Convention on the Rights of the Child preamble states, “in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations has proclaimed that childhood is entitled to special care and assistance.” Furthermore, it outlines that “the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community.”

Unfortunately, unlike most North American households, children in developing countries are often deprived of the basic human rights of education, shelter and proper nutrition. Many are malnourished, underdeveloped and dependent on themselves for survival in a world often unforgiving to those who lack one of the basic support systems – a family.

“The ideal situation would be that every orphan in Malawi in Kenya is properly fed and cared for,” Macdonald says. “But we’re such a small organization, so obviously that is a lofty goal.” For now, he’s back on Scottish soil with the rest of the team, tirelessly juggling university studies with Kenyawi Kids’ future sustainable initiatives.

Politics at Play, Information Astray

Tuesday morning began like any other day. All of the reporters were gathered in Capital FM’s barebones newsroom discussing the top stories of the day, when a colleague of mine directed my attention towards his laptop. Slightly annoyed by the interruption, but curious at the same time, I obliged to his request.

With a mischievous grin plastered across his face, it immediately became apparent that I wouldn’t be disappointed by the information he wished to share with me. There, in big bold letters displayed on the popular online publication known as the Nyasa Times, was this headline: “Minister storms out of radio interview.”

Ironically, the government official who stormed out after 21 minutes into his one-on-one interview, was none other than the new Minister of Information and Civic Education, Mr. Symon Vuwa Kaunda.

Capital FM's broadcasting studio

The government spokesperson was being interviewed by my colleague, Brian Banda, for his half hour analytical program Straight Talk on Capital FM. According to Banda, Kaunda became enraged when he started citing examples of biased reporting on MBC-TV, Malawi’s public television station, which recently merged with the state radio station.

“He was aware that I was asking him for a full interview of 30 minutes,” says Banda. “And when I began to probe him on how the public radio, especially the public media was handling the country’s issues [like the changes to the national flag and political endorsements of family members by the President], he had problems with that.”

More specifically, Banda grilled the minister on how the government-owned media is showing signs of biased reporting in favour of the ruling party. He cited a recent example in which the director of the state-run radio station publicly endorsed the brother of the current president for the 2014 Presidential elections on national television.

“I was asking [the minister] if it was proper for a chief executive of a public radio station to do this type of thing when it is run on tax payers money,” Banda explains. “[Kaunda] said he was not aware of these things and I knew he was lying because as the minister responsible [for information] and somebody who is in Malawi, he’s seeing how the public media is handling issues and the debate of the president’s brother succeeding him in 2014.”

Evasiveness by government officials and consistent unwillingness to comment on tough issues plagues all facets of Malawian society. On August 10, 2010, The Daily Times reported that President Bingu wa Mutharika fired four key ministers and “assigned the First Lady Callitsa to the portfolio of Maternal, Infant and Child Health (Safe Motherhood)” to the cabinet.

Malawian citizens were outraged about this appointment, as they saw this particular cabinet shuffle as just another way the President could control the political landscape. According to my colleagues, immediate family members of past presidents acted more as figureheads, rather than key political players.

For whatever reason, it appears the Malawian public has been left in the dark pertaining to the rationale behind government decisions. Hence, it is troublesome to find the one person elusive, whose main role is
to disseminate information and make sure that the government remains completely transparent to the public.

Most people understand that “the Minister of Information is first of all, the mouthpiece of government,” says Banda. “If any journalist, if any media house wants to get facts as far as the whole government is concerned, the Minister of Information is suppose to give answers.”

So what good is it to have an Access to Information Bill tabled by the Parliament of Malawi, which outlines one of its roles as “promot[ing] transparency and accountability of public officers,” when it clearly exists as a guideline for those in power. What, or shall I say who, is preventing this act from becoming law?

“[Kaunda] said I was difficult, that I was asking tough questions and he just left me there,” says Banda. “What kind of government do we have when the minister who is suppose to give details and facts to media, fails to do so?”

Unfortunately, sometimes Straight Talk doesn’t always produce straight answers.