In Malawi, defending the orphans
The woman from Malawi stepped gingerly towards the barrier at the top of the Empire State Building to peek at New York City spread out below. She commented that the tallest building in her community was two stories high. The worlds of skyscraper New York and rural Malawi could not be much further apart.
Sister Beatrice Chipeta was visiting the United States for the first time, and the New York tour was part of a whirlwind visit to celebrate her winning the million dollar Opus prize. She directs a program that she created, the Lusubilo Orphan Care Project. Each year a university works with the Opus Prize Foundation (I serve on the board) to identify worthy candidates and winnow them down to a small group of finalists. Fordham University directed this year's process. The two finalists being honored were Sister Beatrice and Father John Halligan, founder of the Working Boys' Center in Quito. And the board this year, confronted with two candidates whose passion to serve the world's poorest children truly inspires awe, made them co-winners of the prize.
One of the tragedies of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa is that millions of children are left as orphans when their parents die of the disease. The numbers are mind-numbing: perhaps 17 million worldwide. Malawi, a country with about 15.4 million people, is thought to have 560,000 orphans, though part of the tragedy is that no one can even count them, much less ensure that they receive the love and care that every child deserves. Malawi is part of the HIV/AIDS epicenter, with about 12 percent of the adult population HIV positive. That translates into about a million people living with the virus and about 68,000 deaths a year. Anti-retroviral drugs are far more readily available today, so that blessedly the disease no longer translates into the inevitable death sentence it was when I first visited Malawi in 1990. But the burden of disease is still crippling, and it is the children left behind who suffer most acutely.
Sister Beatrice was herself an orphan, and taught school for some 30 years. But when she witnessed a child stealing at the bus station, she determined to do something. She realized that AIDS orphans posed a large new problem that communities were simply not prepared to meet. Her efforts reflected a stubborn and creative determination to offer the children the hope of a better future, even though she herself at the time had no resources and no allies. That explains in part the genius and message of her approach, which builds on the resources in the communities where the children live.
Sister Beatrice tells of visiting village after village, on foot. In each place she listened as people talked about the situation. Then she led an effort to organize support for the children. Getting them enough to eat was a first priority. Some "orphan-headed" households had no parents so they needed adults to help. Orphans had no money for school. Some had run away or were running wild. Their fields were untended. When they were sick no one cared for them. But the communities, goaded by Sister Beatrice, were able to come up with a response to each of the challenges.
Thus the Lusubilo project was born, and given a name that means hope. It has grown, organically and steadily, so that today 4000 children are fed each week and it is active in 62 villages across the Karonga district in northern Malawi. The program today includes community gardens, child care centers, and support to keep children in school.
Sister Beatrice has inspired an organization that covers most of a large and very poor district, and today four former orphans she cared for work for it. She has attracted support from abroad and from Malawi (including prominently Catholic Relief Services). But she is all too aware that the program serves only a fraction of the children who need help.
Sister Beatrice, who is a Rosarian nun, anticipated what will happen when she gets home from her trip. She will be celebrated, with excitement and drums and dancing. Each child will greet her and every one will want to tell his or her story. It will be many hours before she can open the door to her house. She talks first and foremost about love as the force that inspires and drives her work.
There are many heroes working to change the harsh realities that face poor children in different parts of the world, and many of them are inspired by their religious beliefs. In reflecting on the challenges facing the Catholic Church today, we should never forget the often hidden face of the Church that is so wonderfully exemplified in the selfless, persistent, and creative work of nuns like Sister Beatrice.
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.
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