Tag Archives: HIV/AIDS

Lucius Dimiano of Kafupa Village.  Roughly translated, "kafupa" means "hard as bone".  Photo by Karissa Gall.

“Mind the gap” – The crippling impact of HIV/AIDS on family composition and elderly Malawians

The old “respect your elders” adage has customarily been an important part of Malawian culture, with the elderly able to depend on the social and economic support of their children and the community.  However, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has had a crippling impact on family composition and tradition.

While the 2012 Malawi Country AIDS Response Progress Report found that from the start of the epidemic the number of deaths per annum had been reduced from nearly 100,000 to approximately 48,000 in 2010, the report also found that the number of children orphaned by AIDS has been on the rise.

Antenatal Clinic sero-surveys (surveys of blood serum) found that the number of children orphaned by AIDS increased from 576,458 in 2010 to 612,908 in 2011.  And with over half of orphans being cared for by their grandparents, men like Lucius Dimiano of Kafupa Village will be celebrating their 70th birthday before that of their retirement.

At 68-years-old, Dimiano is still working three jobs to support six grandchildren orphaned by AIDS.  He works as a guard from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. at a nearby church, goes to the garden to get maize for his family, weaves baskets to sell at the market and then, does it all over again.

“I cannot sleep, so it’s hard,” Dimiano said.  “As a night guard, I need to always be awake because sometimes there are thieves in the dark.

Still working three jobs at 68-years-old to support six grandchildren orphaned by AIDS, Lucius Dimiano of Kafupa Village demonstrates panga knife techniques he uses as a night guard. Photo by Karissa Gall.

“When I knock off in the morning I go to the garden, when I knock off in the garden I eat and then I start making baskets so I can make more money, but it’s still not enough to care for all six grandchildren.”

In the same township of Chigumula, 55-year-old Mrs. Kandikole has also lost children to AIDS; her oldest daughter passed away in 2005 orphaning one grandchild, and her second oldest daughter passed away in 2010 orphaning three grandchildren.

“I’m the one who’s left looking out for them,” she said.  “And not only those four; I have other grandchildren at my home who have only a mother but not a father.

“It’s very difficult for me to look after these children because I’m very old.  I’m not working,” she continued.  “Things are very expensive here in Malawi.  Food is very expensive.  I cannot manage to buy clothes for them.  It is very difficult for me to take them to the hospital.  To get good medicine, one needs to pay money at private hospitals, but I can’t manage to do all those things.”

Kandikole said she had been working at a nursery school, but had to quit when her daughters died because “(her) grandchildren were alone, so (she) had to look after these children all by (herself).”

She said her husband, 57, is still working as a telephone operator but “he makes very little money.”

“I don’t think he will be able to continue working much longer because he is now 57 years old and his body is very weak.  He is very sick,” she said, adding that they both suffer from chronic bouts of malaria.  “Before, we could manage to do all those things, but not now.”

Without the proper means or support, Kandikole said she “couldn’t manage to send (her) grandchildren to school, because when you want to send a child to school these days, even a government school, you need to buy a uniform, pencils, exercise books and the child needs to eat porridge.”

She said her grandchildren “were just staying at home” until they were accepted at the Jacaranda School for Orphans in Limbe, a free primary and secondary school in Malawi providing education and daily meals to orphans.

“If we did not have Jacaranda, these children would just be doing nothing at home,” she said.  “They go to school without taking anything.  If Jacaranda didn’t provide porridge I don’t know what we could do.  Before, I thought my children would go to school up to college and help their children by themselves.  But their deaths brought everything down.”

The late Nelley Daniel M’maligeni of Che Mboma Village suffered in the same way.

Deaf and blind, M’maligeni struggled to care for herself yet alone her grandson, Vincent, who was orphaned by AIDS.  In March, at the age of 105, M’maligeni passed away and Vincent lost another primary caretaker.

The late Nelley Daniel M’maligeni of Che Mboma Village waits with her daughter-in-law for her grandson Vincent to return from school. Photo by Karissa Gall.

According to M’maligeni’s daughter-in-law, M’maligeni and Vincent had been sleeping in a small hut.

M’maligeni’s daughter-in-law said her family was able to give extra food to M’maligeni and Vincent once a week, but “sometimes it (was) hard because there (was) not enough money.  Sometimes M’maligeni (could) not eat.

“Sometimes we just (bought) panado, because panado is cheap,” she said.

Dimiano, Kandikole and M’maligeni are each representative of the ways that elderly Malawians are struggling to survive in the wake of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  According to the Catholic University of Malawi’s December 2010 report “Impact of HIV and AIDS on the elderly: a case study of Chiladzulu district,” 59 percent of the enrolled elderly people had difficulty sourcing money for school uniforms, food and hospital bills for orphaned grandchildren; 55 percent were affected through the sickness and death of their children; and 22 percent had to halt their own development to take care of orphaned grandchildren, spending their reserved resources to make the lives of their grandchildren better while impoverishing themselves in the process.

When asked if there can be greater relief for elderly Malawians struggling to care for themselves and their orphaned grandchildren than panado, an over-the-counter pain medication, Finance Minister Ken Lipenga said that government has put in place safety net programmes that target both the elderly and other vulnerable people in the 2012/13 National Budget.

“These programmes are aimed at assisting the poorest in our communities to cope with life,” he said, adding that during the 2012/13 fiscal year  programmes will be scaled up to capture those that may have fallen below the poverty line due to devaluation.

“A total of K27.5 billion has been provided for four programmes, mainly the Intensive Public Works Programme, the School Feeding Programme targeted towards 980,000 pupils in primary schools, the Schools Bursaries Programme targeting 16,480 needy students, and the Social Cash Transfer Programme which will reach over 30,000 households across the country.”

Lucius Dimiano of Kafupa Village. Roughly translated, "kafupa" means "hard as bone". Photo by Karissa Gall.

But until social cash transfers can be expanded to cover the whole country or non-contributory pensions can be provided to ensure income security for the majority of elderly Malawians who have never worked in the formal sector, government will continue to miss men and women like Dimiano and Kandikole who are fighting for the survival of their family and against the intergenerational transmission of poverty, often without sufficient resources or physical strength to do so.

As Dimiano put it: “If I still had children that could help me, I could have just stayed home, but there is no one to help me, I’m only working because of my grandchildren.

“The only ones who can decide if I stop working are my grandchildren.  Maybe they will see that we are very old and cannot work anymore and they will help us.  But maybe they will finish school and go away.

“At the moment, I do not know.”

 

With files from Richard Chirombo.

Defending sexual minority rights

Homophobia is endemic to much of Ghanaian society.

“Pedophiles or other sexual deviants are not welcome in Ghana.”

The sign loomed over me as I stood, waiting to get my passport stamped, in line at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra. It was my first, and perhaps most jarring, experience with exactly how different the Ghanaian culture is from my own.

In Canada, the prevailing Ghanaian attitude towards homosexuality would undoubtedly be called homophobic. The attitude, however, is characterized less by phobia and more by a vitriolic hatred.

In Ghana, Christian and Muslim communities converge to condemn homosexual activity; a notion that is reflected in social, political, and legal discourse.

Although litigation is rare, homosexual activity is illegal. The Sexual Offences Article 105 in the Ghana Criminal Code reads, “whoever is guilty of unnatural carnal knowledge” is guilty of a misdemeanor, and can be sentenced to up to six months in jail.

Chapter 5 of Ghana’s 1992 Constitution guarantees the protection of all human rights for Ghanaian citizens “whatever [their] race, place of origin, political opinion, colour, religion, creed or gender,” but does not mention sexual orientation.

There have also been calls to criminalize homosexuality. In June 2011, the minister of Ghana’s Western Region, Paul Evans Aidoo, described homosexuality as “detestable and abominable,” and advocated for homosexuals to be immediately arrested.

Later that same year, President John Atta Mills reiterated his government’s position.

“I, as president, will never initiate or support any attempt to legalize homosexuality in Ghana,” he said in October, 2011.

The leaders’ attitudes reflect that of the citizenry. In March, 2012, a group of young men brutally raided a party with suspected homosexuals, beating them in the Accra neighbourhood of Jamestown.

It is a social climate Samuel, the deputy director of the Centre for Popular Education and Human Rights Ghana (CEPERHG) who used only his first name to protect his identity, is all too familiar with.

“Growing up, I had a lot of friends who are MSM [men who have sex with men]. They faced so many troubles and, knowing their troubles, I was like ‘wow,’” he said.

CEPERGH was established in 2003 to promote sexual minority rights in Ghana. They “envision a liberal society that provides friendly, sexual and reproductive health rights services for all persons regardless of sexual orientation, age, tribe, [and] religion,” according to their mission statement.

Although it now provides a variety of programming, including self-defense courses and HIV/AIDS outreach, CEPERGH started by putting on small, secretive “human rights” workshops for sexual minorities.

“These workshops are aimed at educating sexual minorities on their human rights, to make them feel that they are also humans and that they deserve to live like every normal human being. They have the right to association, they have the right to information… they have the right to live as every heterosexual person lives,” said Samuel.

But it is a very hostile environment in which to advocate sexual minority rights.

In 2006, in a response to a rumour that the group was trying to organise an international gay and lesbian conference in Ghana, one of their staff members was badly beaten. They also had to relocate their head office and, under a constant threat of violence, their director fled Ghana for six months.

“I don’t even want to talk about it… [the people] use such harsh words: ‘they should be broken, they should be killed’ they say,” said Samuel.

“It’s not all that bad though. Over the years, some people have come to be accommodating about the situation. We’ve helped people and we’ve changed some minds,” he added.

“The whole thing is dedication. We are poised to do the work, so no matter what the situation is we will still do our work.”

“Meating” halfway – The growing importance of soy in Malawi

Skewered meat sizzles on kickstand grills along the main M1 highway, a whole pig is slaughtered in an open-air butcher’s market shack, a farmer herds wealth-representative cattle down a maize-sidled byway and a “road runner” free range chicken dodges potholes and traffic – in a culture where cows have long symbolized status, slaughtered to honour guests and in the north traded as a dowry to marry off daughters, making the conscious choice to live a vegetarian lifestyle in Malawi is about as rare as an order of steak tartare.

But a Development Aid from People to People in Malawi (DAPP in Malawi) program is working to change the mindset and the menu.  In 2007, with support from the United States Department of Agriculture, the American Soya Bean Association and the World Initiative for Soy in Human Health, DAPP in Malawi began training Total Control of the Epidemic (TCE) field officers to promote soy in communities affected by HIV/AIDS.  Today over 100 of their HIV/AIDS support groups have been trained to cultivate and cook with soy in the preparation of other local foods.

Recipes promoted through the DAPP – TCE soya program include banana and soy sausage, masamba a soya (soy vegetables), khofi wa soya (soy coffee), and mkaka wa soya (soy milk), and are made available on print paper with easy-to-follow directions; “Boil 3 cups water, wash (1 cup of) soya in cold water, don’t put the soya into the hot water all at once but little by little like you do with rice,” begins the soy milk instructions.

Goliyati Village resident Mary Bilila serves up a selection of newly-mastered soy recipes during a DAPP - TCE HIV/AIDS support group meeting. Photo by Karissa Gall.

Based on the nutritional value of 1 cup of boiled soybeans, the DAPP – TCE soy milk recipe would provide about 300 calories, 28 grams of protein, 10 grams of fiber, and 20 grams of fat.  The soy milk would also provide essential vitamins and minerals, with 1 cup of boiled soybeans providing 50 percent of the recommended daily intake of iron, 40 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin D-balancing phosphorus, and 4 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin C.

According to DAPP in Malawi Partnership Officer Nozipho Tembo, the nutritional benefits of soy foods could make a substantial difference in the fight against HIV/AIDS.  The disease is known for causing micronutrient deficiencies – vitamin A, vitamin B12, vitamin C, vitamin D, carotenoids, selenium, and iron in the blood – which in turn speed the progress of the infection, and in 2006 a study conducted by Médecins sans Frontières in Malawi found that patients with mild malnutrition were twice as likely to die in the first three months of treatment, and patients with severe malnutrition were six times as likely to die as patients with a healthy body weight.

“Over the years we have learnt that soya is high in proteins which can be substituted for meat, cheese and fish, of which some people in rural areas can’t afford to have on their daily meal,” said Tembo, adding that 1 kg of soya costs MK200 (CAD0.80) compared to MK800 (CAD3.00) for 1 kg of meat.  “The DAPP – TCE project teaches the communities to adhere to a well-balanced diet and this is one way for people in rural areas to get proteins in their meals.”

To support existing programming and expand into other areas of Malawi, Tembo said DAPP in Malawi and TCE will be engaging seed companies for seed donations.

“The demand is high… the people who are (HIV) positive are living a healthier life whenever they adhere to the information given to them about soya and how to prepare it,” she said.  “Now the challenge will be to provide soya seed for the people to plant in their fields.”

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 plight of the condom

Malawian student Mercy Khowoya says “HIV and AIDS is real – if you can’t abstain then don’t be ashamed to use a condom." Photo by Katie Lin.

“Nyimbo imodzi sachezelela gule.” (One song won’t keep you dancing throughout the night.)

As this Malawian proverb suggests, just one sexual partner won’t satisfy a person for their entire lifetime.

But in a country where approximately 12 per cent of the population is infected with HIV/AIDS and having multiple concurrent relationships is common, only 72 per cent of sexually active men and women are using condoms, says a 2010 health report by the National Statistics Office of Malawi.

An informal survey of management-level professionals in Malawi conducted by a Canadian public health specialist found that 100 per cent of the participants agreed they are “personally at risk for HIV and AIDS.” Yet, less than 10 per cent reported feeling “confident” when purchasing condoms.

While the survey results are not statistically representative, they do indicate that many people are simply too embarrassed to buy condoms and indicates that knowledge doesn’t necessarily inform behavior.

Condoms can be purchased in Malawi for 30 kwacha ($0.19 CAD) for a pack of three.

They can also be found for free at all government hospitals.

So if condoms are indeed so widely available, what’s the excuse for not using them?

For one: “Switi sadyera mpaketi.” (You can’t taste candy if you eat it while it’s still in the wrapper.)

This popular Malawian adage speaks to the belief that the use of a condom will make sex less pleasurable. As Veronica Chikafa, Capacity Building Coordinator at the Malawi Business Coalition Against HIV/AIDS (MBCA) explains many believe “sex was made for there to be no barrier in between.”

Secondly, using a condom is generally viewed as the man’s domain.

“It’s the male who puts [the condom] on,” she says, “so it’s the male who makes the decision.”

Chikafa says that opening up communication between partners is a priority, no matter what the circumstances of their relationship.

However, there remains a gap in sex education which also must be addressed, she maintains.

“I was told that there was a lady who went for family planning and somebody did a condom demonstration using their thumb,” she says. “[She] put the condom on her thumb and got pregnant, of course.”

Dickson Chidumu, Head of Operations at the Malawi Union of Savings and Credit Cooperatives (MUSCCO) and leader of a campaign called “Be a Hero. Use a Condom,” acknowledges that such misunderstandings are not only a result of poor sex education, but also not wanting to talk candidly about sex.

“To some people, this language is considered obscene language. But they need the facts. We are running away from speaking about the facts.”

Through the continued efforts of organizations such as MUSCCO and MBCA, and of course with time, Chidumu is hopeful that cultural attitudes towards sex and sexual practices will change.

For the fact remains that you just never know:

Wokaona nyanja anakaona ndi mvuu yomwe.” (When you go to the lake, you might see hippos.)

In other words, you may think you know your partner’s status, but there exists the possibility that you may encounter the unexpected – so it’s best to be prepared.

(For easy listening on safe sex, check out Condom Nalila by Zambian musician, Dalisoul, and Safe Sex by Kaye Styles.)

From culprits to catalysts: Girls’ initiation in Malawi

Esitere Chabwera uses girls' initiation ceremonies to encourage young women to practice safe sex

In their respective villages, Cecelia Muliya and Esitere Chabwera are regarded as cultural leaders.

The two have worked in girls’ initiation camps for decades, tasked with the role of introducing young girls to womanhood.

Upon reaching puberty, more than half of all Malawian girls participate in some form of initiation ceremony, ranging in length from days to an entire month. Sent away to rural camps, this traditional rite-of-passage is meant to teach girls to take care of themselves, to dress like a woman and to show respect to elders.

It’s also during initiation ceremonies that many girls first learn about sex.

“They are taught how to handle a man so that the man should enjoy sex,” says Chabwera. Through sex simulation and dance, the girls are encouraged to practice pleasing men sexually. Many partake in kusasa fumbi, a custom that normally entails having sex with a chosen male—or sometimes several—from the village.

Practices like kusasa fumbi have been directly linked to the spread of HIV and AIDS, and have been categorically denounced by human rights organizations.

But instead of attempting to eradicate initiation ceremonies, one non-governmental organization asks women like Muliya and Chabwera for their input in order to make the traditional practice safer.

Janet Mwangomba of the Creative Centre for Community Mobilization (CRECCOM) is devoted to helping villages in Malawi create their own local ways of curbing the spread of HIV, empowering women and deterring gender-based violence. Rather than a top-down approach, the Thyolo-based pilot project gives community members the opportunity to make their own informed decisions.

Equipped with the means to discuss the impact of initiation practices with other counsellors from surrounding villages, many leaders like Muliya and Chabwera choose to become agents of change within their communities.

“We have still maintained the initiation ceremonies, but we have strongly discouraged girls from having sexual intercourse soon after the initiation,” says Muliya. “We are no longer forcing the girls into sex as it was in the past.”

Now, Muliya and Chabwera have incorporated AIDS awareness into their ceremonies and girls in some of the project’s 69 villages are also taught to be assertive rather than submissive.

“What we have done instead is encourage the girls to work hard in their education,” Muliya says. “We also advise those who wish to have sex to ask their partners to have HIV testing before they engage in sexual intercourse.”

Though Chabwera and Muliya have chosen to adapt the focus of girls’ initiation, their approach is still a rare minority in Malawi.

However, in villages where significant changes have come from within the community, young girls are already seeing a difference. “It’s valuable because we can see the change at a personal, household and community level,” Mwangomba says.

“Initiation still plays a crucial role passing on the knowledge of our ancestors and imparting skills,” Chabwera says.

And for a lucky few, these ceremonies will now include knowledge and skills for empowerment.

A closer look at the ‘grassroots’

George Nedi works for a community-based organization in Malawi, NAYO, which he says provides local solutions to local problems

Once a week, about 80 men, women, and youth throng the streets of Nkolokoti, an area just outside Blantyre. By sweeping the roadsides, cleaning latrines, and arranging the markets, these volunteer members of community-based organization (CBO) Angoni Lonjezo provide a vital service to their community.

After their work is done, they perform skits to residents about the importance of sanitation and hygiene.

“Through CBOs, communities are empowered to respond positively to issues that affect them,” says Victor Kanyema, programs manager for Active Youth in Social Enterprise, a non-governmental organization in Malawi that works with CBOs. “They complement the work of NGOs because they can reach areas that we cannot.”

While CBOs are community-led with volunteer staff, NGOs tend to be initiated by people outside the community they serve, with a paid staff and a formalized organizational structure. CBOs have become ubiquitous in Malawi and their role in the country’s development is increasingly recognized, but a lack of funding, coordination and skilled volunteers limits their effectiveness.

Estimating their current number is difficult since city and district councils track CBOs but data is not collated nationwide. Blantyre alone boasts about 165 registered CBOs.

What is known is that while Malawians have undoubtedly been supporting each other for centuries, CBOs began to multiply after 2001—the year Malawi’s National AIDS Commission (NAC) formed. According to Kanyema, NAC encouraged the formation of CBOs by funding their HIV and AIDS projects, which was in line with the government’s decentralization efforts. As a result, many CBO activities today revolve around HIV and AIDS.

But like Angoni Lonjezo, many organizations have branched out to address other issues identified by the community. The Nancholi Youth Organisation (NAYO), for example, provided a loan in 2009 to local women to support small business activities such as selling mangoes.

“The one who has a problem is the one who knows how to solve it,” says George Nedi, NAYO’s project coordinator.

International donors are embracing the idea that CBOs are effective channels of development. Terms such as ‘grassroots’ and ‘community participation’ now crowd donors’ promotional materials. And funds are often transferred directly to CBOs, cutting out NGO middlemen.

For example, last year the Stephen Lewis Foundation awarded $25,000 CAD to NAYO for its home-based care program for HIV/AIDS patients.

But don’t get the picture that communities are sitting around and waiting for international saviours. There are too many CBOs for too few donors, so CBOs must struggle to find local funding.

When NAYO started in 2004, it was funded solely by community members who contributed 50 kwachas per month—about $0.34 CAD—to support orphans and sick people.

“It was difficult for community members to manage,” says Nedi. “But they understood the importance of contributing.”

Angoni Lonjezo raises funds by renting out the plastic chairs in their office for 20 MWK per day (about $0.13 CAD).

Raising money is a constant struggle for individual CBOs and no strategy is in place to coordinate their efforts.

“There are so many CBOs now that district assemblies have trouble managing them,” says Kanyema. “And there is no special body that coordinates their activities so in one community you might have five CBOs addressing the same issue and competing with each other.”

Another challenge is ensuring CBOs have skilled employees since they are run by volunteers who often lack knowledge of areas like management or accounting.

“Even if they are trained, people can move from one place to another, leaving gaps in the organization,” he adds.

But despite all these potential roadblocks, many CBO leaders are hopeful their organizations can play an even bigger role in Malawi’s development.

According to Nedi, “It’s about linking up with others and coming up with new ideas and partnerships.”

Suicide Criminals

HIV/AIDS has made death a part of daily life, contributing to increased rates of suicide across sub-Saharan Africa.

The self-immolation of the Manda family in an impoverished Blantyre slum has been grabbing headlines in Malawi for weeks. Many commentators here have been mulling over why the siblings made their fatal pact. But far more concerning to me is the way 19-year-old Maria Manda, the sole survivor of the blaze, was treated after being rescued. Attempted suicide is a misdemeanour offense in Malawi, punishable by two years imprisonment with hard labour. Once pulled from the fire, Manda was duly arrested and charged for her transgression. She pleaded guilty in court.

Coming from Canada, where we speak of suicide victims, the prosecution of Manda as a criminal seems to me an unusual punishment for a non-crime. Here in Malawi, however, suicide is uncritically accepted as against the law, a criminal offense rather than a social issue.

While I was surprised by Manda’s arrest, Davie Chingwalu, the press officer for the Malawi police in Blantyre, was equally surprised by my questioning of the criminalization of attempted suicide.

“Yes, it’s illegal,” said Chingwalu, his eyebrows arched in surprise. “How else do you deal with someone who deliberately takes a life?”

The police could not provide statistics on how many people are arrested for attempted suicide each year in Malawi. (The national police spokesperson, Willy Maluka, said that compiling such statistics is time-consuming as it is done by hand. I actually believe the police on this one—I have personally seen the hand-drawn graphs of the 2010 crime rates at Blantyre’s police headquarters.) But Chingwalu acknowledges that the police pursue such cases when they are brought to their attention.

While attempted suicide, which was decriminalized in Canada in 1972, remains illegal in many countries, most of these countries do not bother expending resources on prosecuting people who pose a danger to themselves, not others. There is a tacit acknowledgement of the failed logic in punishing someone whose despair warps life into a torture worse than death.

In Malawi, adherence to the letter of the law means that people like Maria Manda will face “justice” rather than sympathy—or help. This attitude towards suicide needs to be openly discussed and criticized, particularly when studies show that suicide has become a parallel epidemic to HIV/AIDS.

Though there is not data for Malawi specifically, studies carried out in South Africa link increased suicide rates in sub-Saharan Africa to the rise of HIV/AIDS. According to South Africa’s National Center for Health Statistics, the rate of fatal poisonings—ingesting agricultural pesticides—is by far the most common method of suicide in sub-Saharan Africa, increasing fivefold during the 1990s, when the HIV/AIDS epidemic was rapidly spreading. Extend such numbers to Malawi, a country similarly afflicted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and you’ll likely find a consequent rise in suicide, which makes the decriminalization of suicide an important issue for legislators. Chasing after “criminals” driven by disease, despair and desperate circumstances to take their own lives makes little less sense, particularly in one of the world’s  six poorest countries. Money expended on prosecuting suicide criminals could instead go towards treating the underlying social ills that plague the country.

I cannot say what kind of problems Maria Manda faced that drove her and her siblings to seek absolution in death. But forcing her to stand trial for the attempt to take her life does not address these problems and, worse, can only exacerbate her despair. We should be questioning the logic of a system that punishes a young woman’s grief-driven angst.