An inspiring and overdue visit to Temwa Malawi

There is a quote about Malawi that goes something like: ‘Malawi is a country of extreme contradictions – hope and despair, serenity and urgency, extreme poverty and extreme generosity’. I agree with this statement so much. At the start of November, I visited Temwa Malawi. It was an incredible 10-day trip, made all the more special as I’d not been to Malawi for over four and a half years. On my visit to Temwa Malawi, I witnessed first-hand how the projects run by Temwa are having a deeper impact – and are more important for the communities of Nkhata Bay North – than ever before.

Where it all began

I first visited Malawi in 1998 as a backpacker. In 1999, I returned and ran a backpackers lodge in Usisya with my friends Sam and Sophie. Sophie and I returned to UK in 2000 with a view to setting up an NGO to help the people of rural northern Malawi. In 2003, we returned to Malawi to establish that NGO – one that was community-driven, with projects aimed at building long-term sustainable development. And, so, Temwa came to be.

Since 2003, I have returned to Malawi every year. In 2018/2019, I took 12 months’ maternity leave and planned to return to Malawi in March 2020. However, the COVID-19 pandemic halted that trip. There were a few times since March 2020 that I had planned to return, but COVID outbreaks in the UK and Malawi stopped these trips too. 

I was joined by Temwa UK Board Chair Rich Potter and his wife Cath Potter who has a background in journalism. Cath planned to collect photos, videos and case studies. The objective for Rich and I was to connect with the Temwa Malawi team and board, ensure that the strategies and visions for both organisations (UK and Malawi) are aligned, make the most of the opportunity to talk face to face about any issues or challenges that our organisations may be facing, and connect with community members during project visits. 

L-R: Jo Hook, Kondwani Botha, Rich Potter & Cath Potter in the background

I am proud of how Temwa has developed since it was founded in 2003. Temwa Malawi and Temwa UK are separately governed, with separate constitutions. Temwa Malawi is made up entirely of Malawian nationals and is led by a brilliant team of professionals. The board and team are passionate, and they truly understand the Temwa Community Driven Approach (TCDA), whereby we support collective engagement with local governance to help community members see its value and purpose and to increase accountability. 

Temwa’s projects are making a difference

The highlight of my visits to Malawi are always spending time with the communities. We undertook three days of back-to-back visits to projects. We visited Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) projects in a number of villages where we met with the WASH committees, who all explained the important impact this project impact has had. In the villages where Temwa undertakes WASH projects, there is an 85% reduction in water-borne diseases. We also visited health centres, who confirmed that the WASH projects have had a major effect, as have our Provider Initiated Testing and Counselling (PITC) HIV testing projects. Nkhata Bay North has seen HIV prevalence drop from 16% to 13% and the District Health Officer attributes this reduction in HIV prevalence to Temwa’s work in this area. 

We visited schools who have students on Temwa’s bursary schemes, enabling gifted students from vulnerable households to attend and complete secondary school. We also visited reading camps supported by Temwa and met hundreds of enthusiastic children who are incredibly keen to learn. And we met several groups and individuals undertaking agri-business who, through Temwa’s support had transformed their lives, whether that be in pig breeding, harvesting beans running banana plantations or bee keeping cooperatives. A special highlight for me is meeting the Village Natural Resource Management Committees and individuals, who undertake tree planting and forestry protection to regenerate forests. It’s impressive and inspiring to see people protecting and regenerating forests. It’s vital for communities as they need the forests to keep their streams and rivers flowing, to access fruits and mushrooms, as well as gather timber needed for their homes.

Temwa Malawi Communications Officer, Sera Mtambo with girls who stay at the Usisya hostel to continue secondary school

The project visits are always extraordinary and moving – seeing how people’s lives have been dramatically transformed. Households who were previously eating one meal a day are now eating multiple, nutritious meals. And households are able to generate an income, bringing stability into their homes.

Life in Malawi is unfortunately getting harder

 In 2022, inflation is 26.7%, and food security is a very real and very big problem. Temwa undertook a survey of community members to look into food security and found that crop yields were between 25% and 75% less than their harvest three years ago. The reason for this is climate change, with either periods of drought or floods making it harder to grow crops. 

There are no food banks in Malawi. If people don’t grow enough food to feed their families for the year, they go hungry. This year, the people of Malawi faces a double crisis. The Malawian government has, unfortunately, had a very unsustainable agricultural policy and has promoted and subsidised chemical fertilisers, which degrade soil quality and increases reliance on these fertilisers for crops to grow. And in 2022, the Malawian government was unable to procure fertilisers for this year’s rainy season. 

Temwa, however, has been promoting soil fertility management and strongly encouraging the use of organic compost manure, which helps to regenerate soil and increase crop yields. Community members we have worked with will not be affected by the lack of chemical fertilisers. However, Temwa does not, unfortunately, work catchment-wide in our district and nationwide many households are reliant on chemical fertilisers. This situation, coupled with another potentially unstable rainy season, is deeply troubling. 

According to an IPC Chronic Food Insecurity Report, approximately 5.4 million people in Malawi living in rural and secondary urban centres are facing moderate or severe chronic food insecurity. Over 70% of the population of about 19.1 million people lives below the international poverty line of $1.90/day. And chronic food insecurity in Malawi is driven by poverty, recurrent shocks, poor policies, and reliance on weak livelihood strategies.

Tree seedlings at Honga nursery

As a result, I found on my trip that the people I met talked about climate change a lot more. It’s impacting their lives much more deeply; therefore, they discuss it more than in the UK. Temwa Village Natural Resource Management Committee (VNRMC) members talked about the importance of protecting and regenerating forests. They want to expand their tree nurseries, protect forests and encourage more people to join in.

Temwa’s work need to increase

The community members I met is are as determined as ever to transform their lives. Temwa’s projects are having a very real impact; however, as the challenges in Malawi increase, our projects need to increase.

 It is imperative that everybody understands the magnitude of this problem. Unfortunately, my impression in the UK, is that most people are not aware of the severity of the situation. And mainstream news sources do not adequately report on the climate crisis. The climate crisis is, without doubt the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. Without intervention this will lead to disaster.

Globally we have to strive not to surpass the 1.5 degree target for average global temperature rise. The difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees for the African continent is huge. It’s a matter of life or death for billions of people.

As Dr Agnes Kalibata, President of AGRA has said:

“If we don’t stay within 1.5 degrees we really are in for trouble, all of us… We must stay within 1.5 degrees…for us in Africa there’s no place for us on the equator in a world where temperatures rise by more than 1.5 degrees. Even now we are struggling.

But there is hope and there is still time to avoid the worst scenarios. My visit to Malawi filled me with determination, love and courage. I have more resolve than ever to support Temwa Malawi to grow. Even though we are living through exceptionally challenging times; I know Temwa can expand its work. 

I have so much love for my colleagues, family and friends in Malawi and the UK, for the communities we serve. They inspire me and give me strength and hope, and who do so much to support Temwa. I extend grace and love to colleagues, family and friends around the world. I have courage to face up to the climate crisis, to carry on working as hard as I can and to take the action needed to support communities who deserve justice.

Thank you SO MUCH to everyone who has supported Temwa. I am eternally grateful for your support of the communities in Nkhata Bay North. When communities come together, we can truly bring change.

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