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Igniting the Spark

The following article was submitted by Ms. Lee Ann Bartran as part of her assignment for Photographers without Borders.

Driving into the Thyolo District, the first thing I noticed is a landscape so

lush, it took my breath away. Rolling green tea fields for miles, sparsely

scattered with magnolia trees, and orange colored dirt roads weaving

through this beautiful countryside. It’s stunning. I stop…. take some

iconic photos of Malawian tea workers, and beam inside thinking what a

cool shot. It’s every tourists dream.

But I am not a tourist, I am on assignment, seeking the stories that define

this community . So we keep going, following the orange colored roads

for miles and miles, deeper into the fields……and things changed. The

landscape became more barren as green began to fade to brown, small

brick houses began to crop up, barefoot children playing in the dirt, and

then we stopped. Stepping out of the car, I took in a breath of the dusty,

hot dry air, and a heaviness settled over me.

Panning the landscape around me, I see a way of life like nothing I have

water, no electricity, no plumbing, no heat. Tiny brick homes that provide

marginal shelter for families of 8, parched crops struggling to push through

the dirt and no transportation or access to health care….. anywhere.

Eight-five percent of the 120,000 people CDF serves in these communities

live like this. It felt surreal. Yet when my eyes began to connect with the

women, men and children…….they smiled. With song and dance, they

welcomed us so warmly, I cried. We sat down and listened to the people

of this village share about their life, their stories of hardship, of daily life

living with HIV, of overcoming and persevering and the spark of hope they

all hold close, hoping things will change for them. “This is our community,

our friends, our families”, said Boniface Mbewe, Program Manager for

Chipembere Development Foundation (CDF). “We work here because it’s

home and we want to give them hope, that change, even in small steps, is


For over 100 years, in this region of Malawi, land has been one of the

biggest socio-economic challenges. This country was once ruled by the

British, only achieved its full independence in 1964 , but they are still

facing the fallout of external oppression. The fertile tea fields and

Macadamia estates in Thyolo are all owned by foreigners, whose profits

are in the millions. What ground is left is barren, marginal soil, which

means the few vegetables they are able to plant are sparse, greatly

impacting their nutrition and any possible source of income. Working on

the tea plantations is the only opportunity for employment in the region,

yet the wage is so low and unpredictable, that the hope of creating a

better life is always out of their grasp. The remoteness keeps them

trapped and secluded away from any city or other work opportunity. A

modern day slavery playing out in 2019. It’s heartbreaking.

Thyolo district has the third highest rate of HIV, out of the 28 districts in

Malawi which creates another huge obstacle for these communities. For

years, women in their most desperate moments, have turned to

commercial sex work with potential bosses, in hopes of obtaining

employment or to earn money. Risking their own health and the

possibility of contracting HIV, but needing to provide for their families, it is

a difficult choice they face. Poor access to health care and few HIV

educational programs only compounded the problem.

Since 2010, Chipembere Development Foundation has work diligently to break that

cycle. Their goal to provide community wide HIV testing and treatment,

support groups, transmission education, and nutritional programs, for

everyone is still on the horizon. Desperately needing a local health post to

truly begin addressing this problem is their number one goal . For the few

who have been fortunate to access testing and medication already, it has

been life changing. As Krissa in the Nkalozwa village shared, “When I was

initiated on drugs for my HIV, there was improvement. With my community

support I now feel hope and can return to the fields to cultivate”,

Along with stabilizing the health of its community members, CDF also has

created other new community programs like:

~ Child Marriage Prevention Program

~ Construction & development of Early Childhood Development Centers

~ Increased enrollment in Secondary Schools

~ Solar farming water projects

~ Revolving Livestock Programs -increasing household income by 35%

~ Women’s social entrepreneurship and agribusiness opportunities

They have taken that spark of hope, that everyone holds onto so closely,

and ignited it. Slowly, their communities are transforming. Visiting 2-3

sites a day, I was able to see first hand the progress . Women living with

HIV are now able to return to the fields to provide for their families. Teen

girls are staying in school longer and waiting until they are 18 to marry.

Young children are going to school for the first time, educating a whole

new generation. Running water, at their fingertips, is now available in

some villages for their homes and farming. Women are learning

entrepreneurial skills and a new way to make a living, which is one of the

main missions of CDF. As Dalitso Chiwayula, executive Director for CDF

said, “We believe that empowering women is to empower the entire

society”, and it’s working.

As for me, I was the fortunate one that got to take this journey. To sit in

these communities and hear their hardships, feel their pain and share in

their hope. There is no greater privilege and one I don’t take lightly. My

hope is by sharing their stories and my images, connecting their work with

the outside world, that this fire of change can keeping burning.

Author: Lee Ann Bartran

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