VSO in Malawi
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St George’s News - Waterlooville’s Parish Magazine

The Website for St George’s Church, Waterlooville and its Parish Magazine St George’s News

Winter 2016 issue

Voluntary Service Overseas in Malawi

Sally Attwood, who is daughter of Pam Dinneen, provides this ‘write up’ of her recent talk to St George’s Mothers’ Union..

It was a great pleasure to be invited to talk to my mum’s branch of the Mothers’ Union at St George’s Church.

From the time I was 18 and first went to Kenya for a year before starting university to work as an unqualified teacher in a girls harambee secondary school (the Kenyan motto meaning, ‘lets pull together’) my mum and dad have supported me in my desire to contribute towards the development of communities in Africa. I am most grateful for this.

My husband and I had always spoken about volunteering again in Africa at the end of our working careers and in 2013 decided to apply to VSO – Voluntary Service Overseas. VSO no longer responds to requests made by individual schools or health centres but  provides professionals  to support largescale projects, funded very often by international organisations such as UNICEF. The Tropical Health and Education Trust (THET) were funding a programme in Malawi, aimed at reducing maternal and infant mortality. In 2011, 85 children per thousand died before the age of 5. Malawi had the second highest rates in southern and central Africa. By 2014 there had been improvements but it was still 67 deaths per thousand children. Jim joined a team of 4 VSOs, IT specialists, developing a system for the health service and then training users in hospitals and district offices and health centres across the country.  

THET also sent nurse trainers. Unfortunately THET did not envisage any roles for social workers. This meant I went independently and found my own projects.  I assisted at a day centre for children with disabilities set up in one of the poorer suburbs of Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. This enabled families to bring their children out of the shadows for the first time and receive guidance on helping them reach their potential, with good nutrition and exercises.

 When Jim was relocated to the south of the country for the roll out of training, I became involved with an excellent infants home in Blantyre, the second largest town in Malawi. Open Arms was set up by a British couple from Yorkshire several years ago and is a registered UK Charity with a good website. They have evolved what they offer, helping families to reclaim their infants at a time when they can manage and afford to care for them. For those older children whose families can’t care for them, they have set up foster homes around the town and they support those families in sending the children to school, essential for giving those children disadvantaged from birth, a chance of an independent future.



I worked alongside the psychiatrist based at the large teaching hospital in Blantyre when she was unable to offer a service to a child, whose family needed support in helping her reintegrate into her village and her school. This child, now 9, had become mute at the age of 6 following traumatic experiences when she went missing for a few days, probably abducted from her village. Sadly in Malawi there remain communities who believe that ill fortune such as sickness and death are caused by malevolent forces that inhabit children. This child’s father had died suddenly so fingers were pointed at her. Sexual abuse is also widespread, placing at particular risk the prepubescent child. After several weekly sessions it was a joy when we heard her first giggle, and then when she risked speaking just a little to her mother, who had bravely supported her throughout the ordeal.

The project that I am continuing to support is Manja Othandiza, meaning ‘Helping Hands’. Due to the impact of HIV/AIDS, combined with the very poor outcomes for maternal health there are many orphans in the poorer suburbs of Blantyre. A dynamic woman called Fatima organised her community to set up a day centre and they offer a safe haven for preschool children to attend and be provided with a daily nutritious meal. Three women volunteers play with and supervise the children and grandmothers come on a rota to cook. They now help over 80 children every day,  who would otherwise literally be on the streets or accompanying an adult to sell tomatoes or maize cobs and other simple goods at the roadside to make enough money to cook a meal for their families.

I shared photos of these projects and of course could not resist including some of the natural beauties of Malawi;  from Mount Mulanje, the tallest mountain in southern Africa, to the white sand shores of the Lake of Stars, where Dr Livingstone set up one of the missions in the mid 19th Century and also the fabulous wildlife.

I am so grateful for the collection that the ladies made, meaning I could send £60 before Christmas to Manja Othandiza, with which they provided a special meal for the children and sent them home with a bag of maize flour.

Sally Attwood