Helen Munthali – Malawi

Linked with Human rights education should be a must.

She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.

She says: “I have done my part. If I die today, I believe I have left a legacy that can be carried on to greater heights”.

She says also: “We counsel the sick, look into the special needs of orphans and engage village leaders in discussions on cultural and behavioral change that they must champion”.

And she says: “Church pastors even told their congregations that they should not go near Tovwirane. We lacked the political will. Our volunteers were scorned. We had no cars or bicycles to cover the distances. It’s like a miracle, when I think back”.

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Sorry, I can not find any photo of Helen Munthali, Malawi (see also my comment ‘Brave women without photos‘).

She works for the Tovwirane HIV/Aids Organisation.

Helen Munthali is the executive director of Tovwirane HIV/Aids Organisation, based in Mzimba in the northern part of Malawi. She was born in 1946 in Nazala Village near the country’s commercial city of Blantyre to a Malawian mother and an Indian father.

Tovwirane (”Let’s help each other”) was launched in 1993. Since then it has assisted thousands of people infected and affected by HIV/Aids. It offers orphan care, counseling of people living with HIV/Aids and their caretakers through outreach campaigns and community-based projects.

The funeral ceremony would end the morning after the burial, when mourners gathered for the ‘Kupyera’ ceremony. The bereaved family’s homestead is swept clean and the family undergoes the ‘Kumeta’ ritual where a single razor blade shaves a patch of hair on the scalp of family members. A man shaves the men and a woman the women. As the age-old Ngoni custom was about to start, a former cabinet minister and respected personality shouted, ‘Stop! Don’t you know how the killer disease AIDS which has no cure is spread. If you are using one razor blade on these people, this custom must stop’. A heated debate ensued but a compromised was reached. The bereaved family and relatives would only touch the blades.

This is Mzimba village, 300 kilometers from Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe. Mzimba is the largest district in the northern region, accounting for 6.2 per cent of the country’s population, mainly the Ngonis. The Ngonis are descendants of the Zulu tribe from South Africa. They migrated northwards to parts of Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi in the 19th century. This ethnic group of warriors takes pride in their love for beer, meat and women. Until recently, the tribal markings – large piercing of ear lobes and the tattooed faces and bodies of women, easily identified Ngonis. Theirs is a culture of polygamy and wife inheritance after the husband’s death. A woman’s place should be in the homestead.

These are some of the challenges faced by the 11 year-old Tovwirane HIV/AIDS Organization, non-governmental organization based in Mzimba district. Tovwirane (Let’s Help Each Other) is strengthening the community capacity in building awareness, care and support for those affected or infected by HIV/AIDS.

Most of its activities are carried out by community-based volunteers. Activities include home-based care, caring for orphans, vocational training services, support for people living with HIV/AIDS and income generating activities.

Mzimba is a laidback town, with little change since the colonial era. Its only landmark is a referral hospital across the Kavukula stream. It has not been spared the impact of HIV/AIDS felt across the country.Multiple issues have caused the high prevalence. Some blame the economic mobility of people, while others attribute it to traditional practices. Whatever the cause, “It’s a catastrophe historically unmatched”, Helen Munthali exerts. “But we are fighting and scoring successes previously unheard of before 1993″, she explains handing over a copy of statistics as proof.

The Ngonis revere authority. This has come in handy is addressing sensitive issues including the marginalization of women, custom and behavioral change, to try to reverse the effects of HIV and AIDS. Chiefs and local leaders are Tovwirane’s primary targets in advocacy.

To date, Tovwirane has assisted over 5,000 volunteers in home-based care, 560 people living with HIV/AIDS and over 7,000 orphans. Through its outreach campaign, Tovwirane has initiated over 20 community projects to support the poor and established a resource centre with over 10,000 books and resource material with an average readership of about 800 per month. Tovwirane is recognized as a model in sub-Saharan Africa.

“We are overcoming barriers”, Helen explains with pride. “But, for a woman in a male dominated community, it has not been easy”, she adds. Reaching over 200 villages in the district takes up 90% of her time. She describes the organization’s achievements as short of a miracle against the cultural, social and economic difficulties they have faced.

“When we started, we had to deal with the misconceptions of the disease, stigma and discrimination. People wouldn’t associate with us, lest they are infected by this strange disease. We were accused of advocating promiscuity because we promoted the use of condoms”, Helen recalls.
At 58, Helen has weathered many a storm. She was brought up by her grandmother after her stepfather rejected her because she is colored. Her Indian father divorced her Malawian mother soon after she was born. Single-handedly, she raised her 11 children after her husband’s death in 1986 after she succumbed to family pressure to marry at the age of 18. Ms. Munthali fought off her brother-in-law when he attempted to evict her from her matrimonial home and inherit the property. “I refused and worked tirelessly to bring all my children up. Today they are respected personalities working in top government positions and international organizations”, she says proudly.

Helen Munthali is a pillar of strength for many. Her compassion and fortitude to survive has achieved milestones. “It’s been worth the sacrifice. I have done my part. If I die today, I believe I have left a legacy that can be carried on to greater heights”, as she reflects on her life. As a young girl, she lived with the stigma of being colored. “My experiences have made me who I am today”, a former housewife and today, Tovwirane’s Executive Director.

After her husband’s death, Helen moved to Mzimba from Mzuzu. Watching helplessly as her close friends died of an incurable disease, AIDS. This was enough information to inspire her and two friends to form Mzimba Anti-AIDS, later renamed Tovwirane HIV/AIDS Organization.

“At first, we met under that tree”, she points to a place where two double-cabin four-wheel drive vehicles with the UNICEF logo are parked. The vehicles were donated by UNICEF and their offices renovated by UNICEF and US Ambassador’s Fund, some of the donors who have supported Tovwirane. Others include USAID, UNDP, WHO, National AIDS Commission, British High Commission, a Canadian local NGO, Peace Corps, Malawi Tourism, Raiply, Volunteer Services Overseas, businessmen and churches. The list is long, proof of the respect the organization has earned. (1000PeaceWomen).

… Helen certainly embodies feminist ideals as this organization is carefully structured as one that exists for the community and structures its actions based on community values, needs and beliefs. Helen is also the Director of the Tovwirane Orphan Care, a division of the AIDS organization which provides care and life skills education to children who are orphaned due to AIDS related causes … (full text).

links:

lilongwe usembassy, and their story archive;

Tribal Wire, Comprehensive News Feed for Tribal;

USaid Malawi, mid term evaluation report.

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