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22 Augustus 2010


When some people in rural areas have chosen to abandon very old people, accusing them of witchcraft, there are some young people in Lilongwe who are working tirelessly to make the lives of the aged easier. How did they start and what motivates them?


While some people in society have developed suspicions and a dislike for old people, others care for them.  Mailesi Tembo, Dainesi Mphande and Albert Newa are among the ‘lovers of the aged’.  They have taken it upon themselves to look after Kwinja Paisi, over 90 years old, Maumsiyeko Mtambila, over 100 years old, and Goodwin Suluma, in his late 90s, all from Area 24 in Lilongwe.
Mailesi, Dainesi and Albert have each allocated themselves one of the three old people.  Mailesi looks after Paisi and early in the morning, the 18 year old girl wakes up to go to Paisi house.  The girl first asks after the health of the old woman and her grandson Gift.  Mailesi then sweeps the surroundings.  She lights a fire where she prepares breakfast, and when the old woman is fully awake, she cleans the house and later feeds Gift.

Dainesi does almost the same for Mtambila.  So, too does Albert for Suluma.  Each of the three old people has unique problems.  Paisi lost her only surviving daughter in 2006, leaving her with a two-month old boy, Gift.  “I have breastfed this boy myself as I would do my own child,” says Paisi while showing her flat breasts.  As she pulls her left breast, milk gushes from it.
“I first met Gogo Paisi at a Christmas party in 2007.  A friend, Catherine Msiska, had been assisting Gogo Paisi from 2006,” says Mailesi.  It was Catherine, now working in Balaka, who introduced the old woman to Mailesi and together they would visit and help Paisi until 2008 when Catherine left for Balaka.  Apart from helping with chores, Mailesi, with the help of youths from the Community of Sant’ Egidio has been providing soya flour, milk, salt and sugar to supplement for Gift’s nutrition needs.  “I appreciate Mailesi’s visits, and every day I look forward to one,” says Paisi. 

Maumsiyeko Mtambila is the oldest of the three aged people.  She does not lack companionship.  Living with her are daughters, granddaughters, and their young off-springs.  What Dainesi is doing is breaking the stigma which comes with old age.  At over 100 years (she was born in 1906, according to her daughter), Mtambila is viewed with suspicion by her neighbours.  “When I first came to visit Gogo Mtambila, the old woman herself wanted to chase me because she had been stigmatized by members of the society for a long time,” says Dainesi, also 18 and a school leaver.  She adds that when she begun her daily visits to Mtambila, people came and rebuked her for associating herself with a witch.  Now there relationship is unbreakable.  “When I see this girl, I am happy,” says Mtambila about the girl whose name she cannot remember. 

Old age has left Goodwin Suluma with a poor memory.  He barely remembers what happened even just a moment earlier.  He regularly stops amid sentences because he can’t remember what he wanted to say.  But his misery does not stop there.  He is also a lonely poor soul.  His only companion, a grandnephew, is an adolescent, whose cares in this world is only play.  This means that the old man has to be alone for the most part of the day and stays long hours hungry.  This is where Albert Newa, 32, a young soldier at Kamuzu Barracks, in Lilongwe, comes in to help.  “I come to chat with the old man.  I like it when I bring joy to the old man,” says Albert.
The old man, though he can hardly finish his sentences, is clearly happy when Albert is around.  Smiles are evident on his wrinkled and hardened face.  Mailesi, who lives nearby, brings breakfast and lunch every day to keep old Suluma satisfied.  “Charity is what Jesus Christ asked of his disciples.  When I help the old and the helpless I feel I am being a true disciple of the Lord,” says Mailesi when asked what drives her to show such kindness to old people.

Dainesi and Albert agree with her.  The three youth are members of a lay young Catholic Apostolate called the Community of Sant’ Egidio.  They all pray at Don Bosco Catholic Parish.  The Community of Sant’ Egidio started in Italy in the late 1960s by high school students who felt called to prayer life in the tumultuous Europe of the 1960s.

“Prayer is at the heart of our community.  It is through this prayer that members are called to works of charity such as helping the sick, children and old people,” says the community’s national spokesperson Francis Zuze.  Zuze says there are over 180 old people in Lilongwe are under the care of young people from the Community of Sant’ Egidio.  Among these old people, 67 – including Paisi, Mtambila and Suluma – receive direct assistance.  The rest are invited for Christmas and Easter celebrations.  While most charity programmes in Malawi are funded by donors, members of the Community of Sant’ Egidio dip in their own pockets to assist.

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