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Catholics Help Nourish Malawian Children

By Debbie DeVoe

The first triplet was born on the floor of the mother's brick house. The second was born in the oxcart neighbors borrowed to get the ailing mother to the hospital. The third was born in the hospital's delivery room, but the family's arrival was too late. The mother died minutes later. A nurse said it looked like she just gave up.

Rose Myamba

Rose Myamba, left, is thankful for the infant formula Lusubilo provides for her two youngest grandchildren, twins who lost their mother a month after their birth. Photo by Debbie DeVoe/CRS

There was no money to buy milk for the infants, so their grandmother began feeding them porridge made from cassava flour—a food almost impossible for newborns to digest. When the triplets' limbs started swelling from malnutrition, a friend told the grandmother to go to Lusubilo, a community-based organization that cares for orphans and other needy children in northern Malawi. Lusubilo is the word for "hope" in Ngonde, the local language; Lusubilo was the family's only and last resort.

Feeding Malawi's Poorest Children

The Lusubilo Orphan Care project was able to give this family the help it so desperately needed thanks to the loving and generous contributions of Catholic Relief Services donors thousands of miles away: the Coppel family in Mexico. Through visits to Lusubilo, the Coppels became aware of Malawi's staggering rates of malnutrition. Currently almost half of Malawian children under 5 years old suffer from stunted growth—one of the highest rates in the world.

The Coppel family decided to help improve this situation by bearing witness to the gospel message of feeding the poor. Sharing their own business success with some of the neediest families in Malawi's northern Karonga district, the Coppels have enabled Lusubilo to extend its reach significantly over the years. The organization, with funding from additional donors, now assists 9,000 children through a variety of nutrition and educational projects (see Project Facts box).

Project Facts

The partnership between CRS, the Diocese of Mzuzu and the Rosarian Sisters enables Lusubilo projects to help 9,000 children in Malawi's Karonga district:

  • Children under 2 years old who have lost their mothers, or whose mothers are very sick, receive infant formula and corn-soy flour for porridge.
  • Orphaned teenagers who head their households receive monthly food packets.
  • In 64 child-care centers, children receive a daily plate of porridge.
  • Primary school children receive lunch at community centers during "hunger months" when no crops are harvested.
  • Village nutrition centers provide additional meals to children identified as moderately malnourished.
  • Karonga's neediest families receive help to grow more food.
  • A Children's Village provides a home for 70 children who don't have guardians.

For the triplets who lost their mother, Lusubilo's infant care program became a lifesaver. The program provides infant formula and corn-soy flour for porridge for children under 2 years old who have no mothers or whose mothers are very sick.

"They are gaining weight and doing well," says Rose Myamba, the grandmother of a set of twins enrolled in the infant care program. Rose's grandchildren lost their mother a month after they were born. "With their father not having a job, it would be very difficult to buy enough tins of milk."

Helping Communities Support Their Children

Lusubilo programs focus on orphaned and other children who just can't make it without community assistance. The government of Malawi encourages communities to set up village orphan care committees. Lusubilo works with these committees to determine which children to enroll in each program.

"With the porridge the children are getting, their bodies get healthier, even if their families don't have any food to feed them for the rest of the day," says Catherine Banda, secretary of the Lusubilo child-care center in Peter Mwangalawa village. "The counting and alphabet learning also helps them better understand when they start primary school. They learn to socialize and make friends as well."

'We're Not Giving Up'

Little by little, the combined efforts of the government, residents and Lusubilo are making a difference. The region and organization suffered a significant setback, however, in December 2009 when a 6.0-magnitude earthquake hit Karonga. The earthquake displaced 3,000 families and damaged many buildings across the district. Lusubilo's warehouse was damaged, as was the infant room of the Children's Village and a room where more severely malnourished children stay temporarily to regain their health.

"It's a setback, but we're not giving up," says Peter Daino, Lusubilo's deputy director, adding how impressed he's been by sacrifices already made. When the quake hit, the Rosarian Sisters, who oversee the Children's Village, immediately evacuated the 70 young residents to the order's compound and then moved them all to a local hospital where they stayed for two weeks. Now the children have returned, with the older boys volunteering to sleep in tents out front, giving up their undamaged room to the infants. "We will continue to serve our 9,000 children even as we seek funds to rebuild."

Debbie DeVoe is CRS' regional information officer for eastern and southern Africa, based in Nairobi.

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