Author Archives: Desiree Buitenbos

About Desiree Buitenbos

Democracy cannot function without a free and vigilant press – and there can be no press when journalists live in conditions of corruption and fear. This is the belief that fuels Desiree’s commitment to reporting on social justice issues. Desiree was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa and moved to Toronto in 2003. While based in Amsterdam in 2010 she worked as the producer at Radio Netherlands Worldwide, an award-winning human rights broadcast station. Desiree has also worked as a producer’s assistant with the CBC in Toronto. She completed her degree in journalism at Ryerson University. She plans to continue her work as a socially conscious journalist as the Rights Media Radio Intern at Zodiac Radio in Lilongwe, Malawi.

Take it slow, my Canadian friend.

The snail symbolizes the impression Malawi has left on me.

I’ll never forget my first day in a Malawian newsroom.

I came in eager, ready to utilize countless hours of preparation and training done in Toronto. I was rushing around like a mad woman, introducing and explaining myself to everyone. I figured first impressions were the key to success in any new job.

I wanted instant gratification.

I wanted results.

After all, there were gripping stories everywhere I looked, and my inner-journalist wanted to start telling them immediately. I thought I was doing everything right until an editor pulled me aside, and said,

“You’ll have to be patient. We move at a much slower pace here.”

I was speechless.

It was my first day, and I had already overlooked a key intercultural difference – the value of time.

In Malawi, things get done when they get done. Time is not the tool used to structure, plot and organize because you are in a constant battle with resources. Anything and everything has the potential to backfire due to factors beyond your control.

There may be no fuel for transport, no phone cards to call sources, no recorders for your looming radio report, no internet for research and no electricity to write your script.

People are also speed bumps. If I’ve learnt anything, it’s that functions never start when they’re supposed to, and sources to be interviewed have a 49 per cent chance of showing up.

Malawian journalism is slow journalism; an oxymoron that’s taken me months to wrap my head around.

The western stereotype of over-caffeinated reporters anxiously chasing deadlines doesn’t exist here, and as a results-driven individual, it was difficult not to resent this. But those words kept running through my head: “We move at a much slower pace here.”

With patience, understanding, and laughter, working as a journalist in Malawi has taught me to appreciate the journey and not the destination.

It’s in the moments where the odds are stacked against you that you are able to surprise yourself. You compromise, you make backup plans, you adapt. But most importantly, when you learn to move slow your happiness stems from the process, and not the end result. Think of the snail seeing the beauty in every inch of its tedious movement.

I’ll always remember a day I spent out in the field with one of my colleagues. We knew our seven minute special report was due imminently, yet we had no interviews for a variety of reasons, mostly sources not honoring time commitments. On this particular afternoon, there was enough fuel for us to take a motorbike out for interviews. As we cruised down the tree-lined streets of Lilongwe with the wind blowing in our faces, we were grinning from ear to ear because we were so grateful to be out there.

But this is Africa where nothing is predictable.

The bike broke down.

We were stranded.

In this moment, we were given a choice: either we give up, or we soldier on.

We chose the latter, and spent nearly two hours in scorching heat with a group of good humored villagers helping us push-start the bike. When we finally heard the rattle of the engine, we felt untouchable, invincible, elated. It was a small win, seemingly insignificant, but it spoke volumes about our commitment to getting the story.

Our report (which almost missed deadline and was severely lacking in resources) was honored with an award from the Media Institute of Southern Africa, Malawi Chapter. But even if it hadn’t won, I would’ve been content with the memories of producing it despite the overwhelming obstacles.

This experience was one of many that radically altered my perspective on North America.

In Canada, the paradox of our society flooded with endless resources is that we have more conveniences, but less time. Our unlimited access to technology is supposed to makes our lives easier, but it just means we can do more things at once. We are too afraid of slowing down, of being confronted by life without distraction.  The ultimate goal of accomplishment is our main motivating factor, so much so that we forget to stop and smell the roses along the way.

Now, when I walk to work or to the grocery store, I don’t speed walk like I would on the bustling streets of downtown Toronto. Instead, I casually stroll and allow my surroundings to leave an impression.

The street vendors sometimes laugh, and say,

“Hey! My sistah! Why you not rushing like the other Mzungu’s?”

It makes me smile.

Understanding the link between gender and climate change

A common sight in Malawi: Young girls carry heavy loads of firewood. Photo by Desiree Buitenbos

When I met 16-year-old Chikondi Phiri, she was struggling to lift a weighty load of firewood on top of her head. I offered her a helping hand, and initiated a conversation about why she was carrying the wood in the first place.

“It’s for my family,” she said proudly.

I could hardly hide the perplexity on my face. Chikondi’s slender frame and youthful appearance had me questioning what sort of family would make such a slight girl perform such a laborious mission?

Sweat poured from Chikondi’s brow as we attempted to lift a heavy bunch of branches in scorching heat, and when the task was completed, she walked off with the balance of a high-wire artist, and said, “See you”.

In Malawi, I see girls like Chikondi all the time. They’re usually either collecting water from a polluted river or carrying wood with babies bouncing on their backs.

According to the United Nations, women in sub-Saharan Africa spend 40 billion hours every year collecting water and up to 9 hours a day collecting firewood. Not only do the latter play a huge role in contributing to the 41 million girls’ worldwide not attending school; but also it is one of the many reasons why African women will likely be hardest hit by the impact of climate change.

My interest in understanding the link between gender and climate change in Malawi took me from Lilongwe to Kasungu, a northern rural town, where rainfalls have become increasingly far apart. In 2002, over 100 residents died in a famine brought on by drought, and the community has been picking up the pieces ever since.

On a visit to Nkhamenya Girls Secondary School,  I spoke to a group of students about their daily “female” chores and what they knew about climate change. Many said the temperatures continued to drop over the years, forcing more girls out in search of wood to heat up their homes. Others said they knew children who had died due to smoke inhalation. In fact, worldwide, pollution in homes caused by burning wood kills about two million women and children a year.

Sitting there, listening to these stories, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of guilt when one girl asked me, “What is causing this climate change?”

I took a second to gather my thoughts before saying,

“Well, climate change is caused by human action, more specifically, the burning of fossil fuels which contribute to global warming – the heating of the Earth’s temperature.”

They just stared blankly. I knew I had to define it on more simple terms.

“You know those big cars that people drive here in Malawi?” I said, “Those cars burn poisonous gases which make the Earth hotter. You know those big factories with black smoke coming out of them? It’s the same thing.”

I further expanded on the greenhouse effect, and they seemed to get it. But trying to define climate change to Malawian school girls was like trying to paint a picture of hyper-industrialization in a country where vast, barren landscapes and an indigenous way of life are the norm.

Climate change is a condition not of Malawi’s creation – less than 0.1 metric tons per capita of carbon emissions, while Canada contributes 16.3 metric tons. Yet there are NGO’s working in Malawi who are promoting an idea that locals are somehow responsible. They implement projects to plants trees, and raise awareness about the issue. But where are the solutions?

The NGO focus on climate change in developing countries should not be on deflecting the problem, but rather figuring out ways for locals to cope with the change.  Farmers will benefit more from learning to adapt to the temperamental weather, while girls would benefit from a cleaner energy source which would not involve collecting firewood.

As I left the school, I realized the weight and the importance of my visit.

To see a different perspective is the very reason we travel, we explore, and meet people like Chikondi who inspire us to comprehend a new outlook of the places we come from and the things we do.

How Malawi will remember late president Bingu Wa Mutharika

Bingu Mutharika passed away after suffering cardiac arrest on April 05, 2012

Bingu Wa Mutharika, former president of Malawi, died after suffering cardiac arrest on April 5, 2012. Photo by Desiree Buitenbos

The flag flies at half mast outside Malawi’s parliament building where thousands of civilians have braved long line-ups in smoldering hot sunshine to view the body of late president, Bingu Wa Mutharika, who died after suffering cardiac arrest on April 5, 2012.

To an outsider, this seems like a country truly mourning the loss of their beloved leader. Radio stations and newspapers are bombarded with messages of condolence, while government offices have shut down for the next 30 days.

And though some might argue that the sheer turnout to see Mutharika’s body is evidence of his vast popularity, there are others who say that nothing could be farther from the truth.

Precious Gondwe, 34, has been waiting in a queue to enter parliament for nearly two hours, and her determination to view Mutharika’s embalmed body is fuelled by a desire for closure rather than respect.

“I came here to see with my own eyes that our president is no longer with us,” says Gondwe, “It’s funny that we are lining up to see him when he is the reason we line up for essentials like petrol and sugar.”

Gondwe’s views are not uncommon.

According to Chijere Chirwa, a politics professor at Malawi’s Chancellor College, the lack of mourning among some Malawians can be characterized as “strange” but not unexpected considering the recent failures of Mutharika’s regime to uphold democratic ideals and improve the living conditions for the 74 per cent of the population who survive on less than a $1.25 per day.

“A lot of the critical minds would regard the current economic, social and political situation as developments closely connected with the president,” says Chirwa.

For the past two years, Mutharika, once hailed by the World Bank for his successful fertilizer subsidy program, steered Malawi’s economy into steep decline by telling foreign donors who contribute 40 per cent of the annual budget to “go to hell”.

His dismissal of aid catapulted the government into the adoption of a zero deficit budget which subsequently affirmed that the small landlocked country couldn’t self-sustain with limited resources.

More than 80 per cent of Malawians rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, and tobacco is the country’s main crop, as well as its primary generator of foreign currency. But since 2011, sales of the golden leaf have plummeted by a dismal 57 per cent resulting in reduced finances to purchase fuel from suppliers like Saudi Arabia. This scarcity coupled with a fixed exchange rate has increased consumer inflation to a staggering 10.9 per cent.

According to Voice Mhone, chairperson for the Malawian Civil Society Organizations, the months leading up to Mutharika’s death were overshadowed by rampant dissatisfaction.

“I think the political landscape, as well as the economic situation in Malawi kept on deteriorating,” says Mhone.

“Staying in a queue for fuel is now part of our daily life, and if you look at the price of sugar and other essential commodities they have all skyrocketed.”

On July 20, 2011, the anger and frustration surrounding the country’s economic crisis culminated in mass demonstrations calling for the president’s resignation. These peaceful protests soon turned into bloody riots when police opened fire on innocent crowds leaving 19 people dead and scores of others injured.

But Mutharika didn’t accept blame for the deaths, nor did he take the public criticism to heart; instead he began a vigorous campaign to clampdown on critics, media and opposition leaders.

Reverend Macdonald Sembereka, a civil and human rights activist who played an instrumental role in organizing the protests, had his home petrol bombed by suspected government youth cadets last September. But he says that while the nation has gone through a turbulent time, he has no hard feelings towards Mutharika.

“He did contribute what he could contribute. If he failed that would be part of human nature,” says Sembereka. “I’ll remember him as a person who stuck to his guns. When he wanted to do something, he would stick to it, even though the whole world would stand on the opposite side.”

At Mutharika’s funeral in the southern region of Thyolo, recently inaugurated president, Joyce Banda summed up his life with the sentiment of the nation, saying, “He was not an angel, he made mistakes”.

For Banda, Malawi’s first female president, the road ahead is littered with the legacy of those mistakes, and the latter has prompted her government to resume donor talks with the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank.

Children in Malawi run away due to lack of food

Tikhala Chilembwe - former street kid turned aspiring doctor

Tikhala Chilembwe used to be one of many street children in Malawi, but he has since returned to school. Photo by Desiree Buitenbos

Co-written with Sibongele Zgambo from Zodiak Broadcasting Station 

Its 10 p.m. in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, and the nighttime vultures that characterize the city at night are out in full force.

Prostitutes prey on drunk men stumbling out of dimly lit bars, while stray dogs are on the hunt for scraps leftover from the hustle and bustle of daylight hours. These desolate streets are no place for a child to grow up, yet many often do.

A 10-year-old boy who didn’t want to give his name says he has been sleeping in a gutter outside a popular grocery store for the past three years. He says poverty pushed him into the streets after he lost both his parents to AIDS.

“Most of the time, I beg for money to buy food because I have no one to look after me,” he says. “The problem is some men at night will beat us up and take all that we have sourced throughout the day, leaving us with nothing at all”

Chimwemwe, 12, also left home with dreams of finding a better life in the big city, but his experience has been more comparable to a recurring nightmare.

“Some men rape us night,” he says “Others beat us and tell us to go away saying that we are thieves in town”

According to UNICEF, there are approximately 8,000 children living on the streets in Malawi’s major urban centers. Most of them are boys, and 80 per cent are AIDS orphans. These youngsters are often labelled by locals as purse-snatching, thugs, but the reality is that many of them have suffered unimaginable physical and sexual abuses.

Dr. Joseph Bandawe, a clinical psychologist at the Malawi College of Medicine, says that homelessness disrupts the sense of safety and security that children need, and as a result, they wander through life lacking self-confidence and being wary of adults.

“The trust and confidence that good things will happen to them is not there,” Bandawe says.

“This affects their social interactions – defining the way they’re able to relate to other people, and the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not.”

Bandawe’s explanation might explain why many of Malawi’s street kids are tempted by a life of crime, but he also suggests that building trust and restoring family ties is imperative when returning troubled kids to school.

Chisomo Childrens Club is a local non-profit working on child poverty issues, and their main mission is to integrate youth back into an ordinary way of life. According to Irene Ngumano, a senior social worker for Chisomo, the biggest challenge in terms of rehabilitation is working with families who were willing to let their children go in the first place.

“Many families that we are working with are poverty stricken families who typically don’t have three meals a day,” says Ngumano.

With Malawi’s escalating economic problems, inflation now stands at a staggering 10.9 per cent, causing the prices of essential commodities like bread and sugar to skyrocket. This implies one thing: the number of street children is set to increase unless there is radical policy change.

But Ngumano adds that if families are facing financial difficulties, Chisomo provides monetary assistance which enables them, at the very least, to feed their dependents.

Such was the case with 17-year-old Tikhala Chilembwe who ran away from home in Grade 3. He slept under a bridge for years, until he was discovered by Chisomo social workers who reunited him with his legal guardians and resumed his education.

“My life is okay right now,” says Tikhala, with a smile. “When I’m finished school, I want to become a doctor and I am going to work hard to achieve my goals.”

Malawi’s fisherman more likely to catch HIV: Reports

Malawian Fishermen

Lake Chilwa’s fishermen lead risky lifestyles that increase their chances of contracting and spreading HIV. Photo by Desiree Buitenbos

Ronald Gomo, 37, is a fisherman who would rather live alone than associate with the other fishermen who reside on the shorelines of Malawi’s Lake Chilwa.

“Before, when I was living over there [with the other men], I spent all my earnings on having sex with prostitutes.”He says, “Now, that I stay here, I am able to keep my money.”

Gomo has been living in relative isolation for the past seven years in a floating house he built himself. There is no running water, electricity or formal toilet.

He chooses to live under these conditions because it prevents his self-described “womanizing ways”.

Like many of Malawi’s 50,000 fishermen, Gomo is married. In fact, he has two wives. However, that never stopped him from hiring prostitutes when the catch was good, and the alcohol was flowing.

“It was too easy,” he laughs, “some women there were even willing to give sex for fish”

If Gomo knows one thing, it’s that he doesn’t want to return to his former ways. But it’s what he doesn’t know that’s cause for concern. Gomo has never undergone an HIV test which is worrying considering 17 per cent of the population surrounding Lake Chilwa is infected.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, fisherman in developing countries suffer from a high HIV prevalence, often five-to-ten times higher than the general population.

Their vulnerability to the virus can be attributed to numerous factors, including their mobile lifestyles, long months spent away from home, access to daily cash income, readily available commercial sex, and the hyper-masculine fishing subculture which promotes risky behaviours such as unprotected sex and substance abuse.

Little research has been done on just how many fishermen at Lake Chilwa are HIV positive, but some academic papers have studied the correlation between the lake’s high water levels during the rainy season and an increase in reported infections.

When water levels are low, fish are harder to find which results in a food shortage for small pockets of the surrounding population. It’s during these times that women will offer themselves in return for the catch of the day.

However, when the levels are stable, the fishermen recover from a short-term economic slump and earn massive profits. Ultimately, they become icons of prosperity in their impoverished communities. This allows them to frequent prostitutes and have several wives or girlfriends, but it also implies that they’re playing key roles in spreading the infection.

According to Clement Mwazumbumba, Lake Chilwa’s District AIDS Coordinator, many of the men don’t know their HIV status because access to clinics is limited due to the very nature of the fishing industry.

“Fishing is a daily engagement, and everything you do depends on your catch” He says, “It would take a lot of planning for someone to abandon their work, go to the shore and travel some kilometers away just to undergo a test.”

Mwazumbumba adds that entering the secluded pockets where fisherman work is a challenge.

“We have tried to penetrate the lakeshore area with services, but it’s expensive to a mount mobile clinic,” he says “I think if we had very aggressive focus on the area, maybe more people would know their status.”

The children of Zion Bata

A young member of the Zion Bata church lies on the floor covering her ears. Photo by Desiree Buitenbos

The children of Kachitsa Village, a small village of 1,000 in the northern outskirts of Lilongwe, Malawi, are adamant about their religious beliefs. Mention God and their shy, soft-spoken demeanor converts to self-assurance and poise.

These children are members of a church called Zion Bata which preaches that prayer is the only effective method for healing the sick.

“Since I was born I have never had any drugs,” says 10-year-old Rezina Emphraim “It would therefore be wrong if I had any vaccination because we made a promise to God that we will never take medicine.”

All members of the Zion Bata church, including 600 children, are forbidden access to modern medical care. Those who do seek treatment for sickness are heavily judged and ultimately kicked out of the  community.

For the children of Kachitsa, their parents’ decision to join Zion Bata has influenced every aspect of their lives.

“When a child is born, we give him blessed water first before he takes anything of this world,” says Mrs. Chigona, the community midwife who would only give her last name “He is blessed first and then he can be breastfed.”

Some members of Zion Bata have never spoken to the media before, largely because their beliefs are highly controversial in Malawi.

In 2011, when the Malawian government made the measles vaccination mandatory, health officials visited the village and found not a child in sight. It was later discovered that they ran away to a nearby mountain to avoid any wrongdoing.

“If I took drugs, it would be a sin against God,” says 13-year-old Enelesi Haswel, “It is not right that I should receive any medicine.”

To an outsider, it seems like the strong commitment to the church is governed by a fear of relinquishment. But the leader of church, Inspector Jamieson Ofesi, says that members have free choice to take medicine.

“If a person has little faith, he can use drugs. We do not prevent them from taking drugs. But if they do [take drugs] we excommunicate them because we know that they do not have faith.”

According the World Health Organization, 110 out of every 1,000 children born in Malawi will die before the age of five.  And for every eight that die, one will be the result of a preventable disease such as malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia, or measles. Which prompts the question: Can the children of Katchitsa risk never seeing a doctor?

The physical appearance of the kids in this village is a testimony to the effects of prohibited healthcare.

The majority of them have scars, wounds or ring worms, and sitting in on the Sunday service is like sitting in a hospital waiting room. Young infants have worrying chesty coughs comparable to adults with bronchitis.

Malawian authorities have done little for the children of Zion Bata because the grey area between freedom of religion and the rights of the child is not yet defined.

Malawi practices religious tolerance, but children’s rights are a fairly recent phenomenon. The country only passed its first comprehensive act on child protection in 2010. Known as the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act, Article 80 states that “no person shall subject a child to a social or customary practice that is harmful to the health and general development of the child”.  Those found in breach of the article will land 10 years in prison.

Nonetheless, no arrests under this act have been made at Zion Bata.

Grace Malera is the executive secretary of the Malawian Human Rights Commission, and she admits to facing difficulties in taking a proactive stance toward investigating whether the children are severely suffering due to their parents’ personal choices.

“A matter like this one needs further and comprehensive research because that kind of research will enable to us to generate evidence which could then in turn inform relevant policy and program interventions.” Says Malera

For child’s rights activists like George Kayange, who is the founder of the Child Rights Information and Documentation Centre, the central focus is the government’s role as a duty-bearer who has ratified the UN convention of the rights of the child.

“Government must take action in terms of ensuring that the best interests of the child – as enshrined in the convention – are being guaranteed,” Kayange says.

“It’s unfortunate that in many developing countries people use religion and culture as an excuse for violating other people’s rights, including children.”

With files from Teresa Ndanga

Radio waves inspire change in Malawi

Violet Banda presenting a Radio Timveni program. Photo courtesy of Timveni

Violet Banda is not your average 21-year-old.

A poised, confident and outspoken child rights activist, Banda personifies the power of radio in Malawi.

Born to a family of five children, Banda is the only female and the only child to have contracted HIV from her mother who succumbed to AIDS when Banda was just three years old.

“When I found out I was positive, I was in primary school,” says Banda, “Whenever I would tell people about my status it happened that I lost all my friends. Some didn’t want to be near me or touch me. They just ran away. “

HIV/AIDs is the leading cause of death in Malawi, and Banda says the stigma she faced growing up is a common reality for the half a million AIDS orphans in the country.

For Banda personally, the discrimination affected her ability to perform at school, as well as her relationship with her family.

“It felt like they should do their own thing, and I should find other friends in the world”

But all of this changed when Banda turned 15, and was invited to speak publicly about her experiences on a children’s radio show run by a local NGO called Timveni.

Phillip Kamwendo is the programs manager at Timveni, a media project which focuses on children’s rights and creates space for children to anonymously tell stories about the issues that affect them. He recalls the first time Banda came on air.

“Her grandmother could not accept that she was HIV-positive until she came on our radio program,” Kamwendo says, “She told her story and how she feels, and her grandmother was listening. Afterwards, she changed her mindset towards her granddaughter.”

That wasn’t the only difference in Banda’s life.

Following her radio debut, she became a youth reporter for the project, where she’s enjoyed success in highlighting violence and abuse against children. Many of her stories grapple with issues like rape, child labour and forced marriages – and her work has often had a positive and immediate impact on local government policy.

“I once interviewed this girl who was raped by her teacher and had dropped out of school,” Banda says. When we brought her on the radio, the ministry of education took action. They fired the teacher and the girl returned to her studies.”

Banda along with her many Timveni colleagues are from humble beginnings. In Malawi, 80 per cent of the population lives in rural settings where electricity, clean water, and money are scarce. One form of entertainment for the rural masses is the radio, particularly so-called “listening clubs” where community members huddle around a battery-powered radio to hear a show of interest.

According to a national survey, 96 per cent of the population uses radio as their primary source of information. With such a large audience, it’s no surprise that organizations across the country are investing in listening clubs because of their influence in even the most marginalized communities.

Similar to Timveni, Story Workshop is a non-profit organization which produces dramatic portrayals of real-life human rights scenarios on-air. They sponsor 60 listening clubs and use the feedback they receive to inspire new content and measure their impact.

In addition, the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) recently donated radios to 30 clubs across the country, while smaller NGO’s like Child Rights Information and Documentation Centre (CRIDOC) are hoping to do the same, provided they can get the funds.

For Banda, radio not only improved the quality of her life, but it also opened the doors to experiences she never thought possible. As a child rights activist she has travelled the world, and just last year, she gave a speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway. She maintains that the mass medium is the cheapest, most effective tool for change.

“It is the only key to awareness in Malawi” she says.