By Lawrent Kumchenga, contributor:
In the village of Thambani in the south-western town of Mwanza, the villagers get nervous at the mention of Covid-19 vaccination.
A mix of religious conservatism, rumour mongering and entrenched cultural norms have conjured scepticism around the vaccines.
Thambani lies on Malawi’s western border with Mozambique, where traders use an illegal route to smuggle goods into and out of the country.
This unmonitored high-traffic track exposes the community to coronavirus, with traders driving through the area unchecked.
This do-or-die scenario prompted Chief Chimlango to take action, becoming one of the country’s biggest advocates for Covid vaccination.
The traditional leader ’s drive is spurred by the ‘Support the Rollout of Malawi’s Covid National Vaccination Campaign’, which is being implemented countywide by a non-governmental organisation consortium with support from the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (Echo) with the specific objective of reducing the further spread of the virus in Malawi and enhancing vaccine uptake.
Malawi’s vaccine uptake remains low due to scepticism about the jabs. Of government’s target of 11 million adults to be vaccinated by the end of the year, only 800,000 had received at least one dose by end October.
In Chief Chimlango’s catchment area, 1,240 of the 2,160 eligible adults have been vaccinated, representing over 57 percent of the population, which is way above the national average of 7.3 percent and also above the 10 percent Mwanza District uptake
Harrison Sikalamwa, who is Save the Children manager for the project, explains what the project is doing to raise champions like Chief Chimlango.
“At district level, we are engaging with community leaders, starting with traditional authorities so that they can play a bigger role in encouraging their communities to be vaccinated,” Sikalamwa says.
Yet, it was never going to be easy for the chief, whose 17 villages are rife with misconceptions and myths about Covid shots.
“First, I went round the villages and explained to the people what Covid was and told them that although we have had no confirmed cases of the virus in the area, all of us were vulnerable if we did not get vaccinated,” the chief explained.
He also rallied and summoned committees from the village—from the church, mother groups, youths, traditional leaders, community-based organisations, disaster management to even the traditional gulewamkulu cult—to sit down and talk about the pandemic.
“I explained to them that although we had not been affected, everyone was vulnerable and we needed to take preventive measures to protect ourselves and the best preventive measure was to be vaccinated.
“There was a lot of resistance in the area due to certain engrained beliefs. Which is why it was important for me and other leaders to step up,” he said.
On any given day, one will find Group Village Head Chimlango at the back of an open car, megaphone in hand, rallying his community to take the life-saving vaccination.
On other days, he does door-to-door campaigns and even joins health teams from the district hospitals in administering Covid vaccines to his subjects.
“If you were elected as a leader, what is important is to realise that there are other leaders below you and it is important to delegate responsibility. I realised that because I had been assigned on this mission by Senior Chief Nthache, I have an enormous responsibility on my shoulders,” he said.
Chimlango says his message to fellow leaders is that it is important to get vaccinated so that, when they get infected, their bodies will be fully protected.
“Our strategy is that we have been using all available platforms to preach the message about Covid. Even at weddings and funerals, wherever we are given the platform, we make sure to educate our people about this vaccine and we will not stop until government tells us to,” he says.
The traditional leader is so undaunted in his mission that he even ventures into the sacred initiation camps to educate his subjects.
“I am not shy or ashamed. I have a job to do,” he explains.
Because of his relentless approach, some of his subjects started questioning his zeal and enthusiasm.
“But the whole reason I am doing this is because of my concern for this area. We are on the border with Mozambique and all these people without passports who come in from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique use this route. So, if there is any place that is vulnerable, it is this one,” he adds.
Vene Chipangula, who is leader of a community-based organisation, was an early sceptic of Covid vaccination.
“When the chief approached me, I told him I would not get vaccinated because there were rumours that if you got vaccinated, you would not conceive again.
“I am young and I am not done giving birth, so I was really worried.
But the chief explained to me and cleared all misconceptions for me and gave me confidence to get vaccinated,” she said.
Frank Kaswell, assistant environment health officer at Mwanza District Health Office, hails the role traditional leaders are playing in rallying their communities towards getting Covid vaccines.
“These initiatives helped a lot in the uptake of Covid vaccines across the district. The chiefs have understood the importance of the vaccine and they have been rallying their people. We have a good example of Group Village Head Chimlango who has impressed with his advocacy and his area has one of the highest rates of vaccine uptake in the district,” he said.
The 12 months project is being implemented in Mzimba North, Lilongwe Urban and Rural, Dowa, including Dzaleka refugee camp, Dedza, Mangochi, Blantyre, Mwanza and Mangochi and started in July 2021.
Funding is being channelled through two NGO consortia. Save the Children is leading implementation in southern Malawi while Cooperazione Internazionale is leading a consortium group of partners implementing in Central and Northern regions.
Partners in the project are Care, Oxfam, Catholic Relief Services, TroCaire, Goal, Concern Worldwide, United Purpose, Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, Catholic Development Commission and Catholic Health Commission.
Digital development partners include Cooper/Smith and Viamo.