The definition of vulnerable in the Oxford dictionary – ‘(Of a person) in need of special care, support, or protection because of age, disability, or risk of abuse or neglect.’
I have been thinking much about the many faces of vulnerability this past week during my time in Malawi.
I want to share 3 stories with you, or rather 3 faces that I cannot get out of my mind…
Tamika*. I had the privilege to go walking in one of the new communities we have identified in Malawi that we would like to expand our work into. This community is a further 30-40 minutes’ drive beyond one of our existing communities, so much deeper into the rural. Our plan for the day was to go walk, meet and talk to children, grannies and families and hear about life and the challenges in this particular community. As soon as we arrived in the community, my lovely white skin meant that we instantly attracted a large crowd of children (20-30!) who followed us around the community all day. Tamika was one of these children. She was wearing a shredded t-shirt that was hanging off her, with a threadbare piece of fabric pinned around her waist to make a make-shift skirt. She did not have the confidence that some children in community have, rather she was more quiet, reserved and happy to sit back on the outskirts of the action. This made me more curious to find out her story. We asked to go to her home.
We found out she stayed with her elderly granny. Her father had passed away and her mother had remarried and was living with the new husband and a baby she had now had to this man. The family was facing many challenges, the mother and grandmother were in rags also, the baby was naked, and basic daily food security is a huge challenge for this family. We asked whether Tamika was in school and found out that she should be in Grade 1. However she is not attending school because the only clothes that she owns were what she was wearing – and being so worn, shredded and dirty – she was not attending school, because she did not have clothes good enough to wear to school. What struck me most about this situation is that Tamika doesn’t even realise how vulnerable she is. She does not realise how valuable education is. She does not even know she should be fighting to secure an education. Added to this, the fact that her mother and grandmother are likely both very uneducated, and do not understand the value of education themselves to know to fight for it for Tamika. And the truth is, in their opinion, Tamika is more valuable to the family if she can grow to go out and do piecework and start to bring in an income sooner rather than later. It’s also why so many of our younger girls are so much at risk of early marriage in our communities.
I’m reminded why it is so important that we advocate and fight for our children. Especially our younger and often more vulnerable girls. If we are not a voice for them, if we will not fight for them, who will?
Emelida* is a mother, I would guess in her mid-late 30’s, again in this new community I was walking in. She was sitting in the dirt, with 2 children fighting for space in her lap. These 2 children were 2 year old twins, 2 beautiful little girls. They were both trying to suck and squeeze milk from their mother, but it was very apparent her milk was dry. As the conversation progressed we asked why she was still feeding these children, with them being 2 years old. She openly confessed it was because she had no food to feed them, until harvest. The main and annual maize harvest for the year is not until April. And even then, as of April, she will only harvest food that will last her family for 4 months of the year because her crops are not growing well, because she does not have access to fertiliser. Both of these children were showing visible signs of malnutrition and it will certainly be tough for her to see them through the next couple of months. And as they make it to April, which my prayer is that they will, even then she will only have real food security for 4 months of the year. To add to the challenges, she is the second wife of her husband, and all she knows is that he is away and probably staying with his other wife. In many situations I have seen like this before, the husband often does not come back. She is busy trying to sell a little bit of charcoal to get by, but has to walk very far distances to make a very small amount. In addition to the 2 twins, she has a third child and has also taken in her nephew whose mother passed away, and father abandoned him.
You can see that Emelida recognises the vulnerable position of herself and her 4 children, and she is fighting to do what she can for them all to survive…but they are all living life on the edge.
The final face, is that of one of my friend’s Father’s. I went to stay overnight in Maonde community, with one of my friend’s families. One of the things I love about many of our communities in Malawi, is that extended families build houses very near one another and stay in little fenced off areas within these communities as extended family units. My friend stays with his wife and children in a small house. Right nearby are his 2 sister’s houses with their children, and also his mother and father have a house in the same place. He took us to visit his Father. I had heard he was sick, but I was honestly not prepared for the visit. His Father had a stroke 12 months ago now, and has not regained much movement since. He spends his days lying on a straw mat on the dirt floor, covered in blankets, in his house, day in and day out. The family help him to sit in a chair for a small part of each day, but other than that rehabilitation efforts have not had much effect. This is not the first stroke patient I have come across in Malawi. In fact it seems rather common, many people in our communities suffer from high blood pressure which often causes strokes. We were with a local Malawian Pastor for the visit also, and he began to pray for healing. I honestly prayed in my heart, Jesus help me with my unbelief. I honestly did not have faith or hope for the situation to change. He is completely reliant on his wife and children to care for him, feed him, wash him and move him. To do everything for him. I imagine for him it is hard to keep having hope for each day.
Vulnerability has many faces and names. It’s not an abstract concept, it’s highly personal to me.
The bible app I use on my phone has a verse for the day. I was challenged by yesterday’s verse from Galatians 6:2 which says “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.”
How do I carry Tamika’s burdens? How do I carry Emelida’s burdens or those of my friend’s Father? What is my response to what I have seen and those I have met? How do I take action? How do I truly live out what this scripture is instructing is the very fulfilment of the law in Christ?
And I would ask you the same also. These stories represent vulnerable lives here in Africa, but there is vulnerability wherever we are. It might be masked differently, people might be better at hiding it, perhaps it is not as physically visible, but I assure you it is there. I would challenge and encourage you to ask God to give you eyes to see it. And it’s my prayer then that we all ask, how do I respond to what I have seen?
*Names have been changed to protect identities.