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Reaching out to Blantyre children

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Drawn from different villages, born under different circumstances, and raised up differently, hordes of children gather at Lunzu Trading Centre to shrug off circumstances that made life either enjoyable or cruel in the just-ended year.
It is Saturday, December 30, and the eyes of the children are focused on a female figure in front of them.
“Forget about whatever happened in the year [2017] and forgive any shortcomings, for next year [meaning this year; 2018] will be better,” says the figure standing in front, answering to the name Evangelist Tau Thomas Banda.
She says this after some of the children have just expressed their fears and hopes.
Some of them, like nine-year-old Peter, fears that 2018 may simply bring back the problems that beset his life in the year just gone by.
“I am a learner at Lunzu [Primary School] and did not have it easy during the year because, due to a poor harvest in 2017, coupled with expensive prices of maize, my parents could not afford to provide the basic necessities to me.
“I did not have enough books, my uniform was worn-out and I was not given money to take to school for use at break [period],” Peter says.
The fact that, at nine, he knows that the year 2017 was challenging in terms of food security means children are, after all, not as ignorant as politicians and other ‘so-called wise people want them to appear.
Officially available but practically inaccessible, the issue of availability, or non-availability, of maize became a game whose prize might, as well, have turned out to be human life.
At the height of it, the Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation was forced to sign a maize importation deal with a non-State actor in Zambia— a deal that was to go sour.
In the year 2017, the government continued with its maize exportation ban, thwarting farmers’ chances of killing a fortune outside the country. Only recently did President Peter Mutharika lift the ban, a development the Farmers Union of Malawi described as “too little, too late”.
Peter, the boy from Lunzu, may not know this, but what he certainly knows is that poor harvest last year culminated in food insecurity at household level which, in turn, denied him a chance to have pocket money with which he could buy sweets, flitters, or whatever cheap food he could lay his hands on, at break time.
But Linda, who cannot remember her age, says the year was good because “my father bought me a red balloon”.
What a pleasant year, indeed, in Linda’s mind.
Such is the pleasure of listening to children who seem to have, in their little world, their own issues.
Of course, even in their little world, some children have the national picture and are bound to take adults by “surprise” sometimes, as experienced by no other than Mutharika himself on Christmas.
The President and First Lady Gertrude Mutharika thought they would cap the year 2017 in style and welcome 2018 in peace when they invited children to Zomba State Lodge— the first such event in as many years at the old capital facility.
In their excitement, is it over-excitement?, the President forgot to remind the Aide de Camp to ask the children— of course, in advance— about the questions they would ask, which culminated in one seven-year-old asking a surprise question: “What do you do when there is no electricity?”
The question came at a time electricity supply challenges were on top of the minds of less than 10 percent of the population who are connected to the national hydro-electric power grid.
Mutharika, surprised, admitted his surprise at such a question, adding that “It is a difficult question” and that “I did not expect that” while searching for answers.
But the Lunzu children were not that complicated on Saturday. In fact, they merely answered questions, based on biblical verses that were read out to them on the day.
“Next year, you must have hope,” says evangelist Banda, asking the children to, instead of holding grudges, keep space in their hearts for the residence of Jesus Christ, the little baby the world eagerly awaited on Christmas.
However, the pains of 2017 were not lost on another child, Luisa, who said, at seven years old, she has already known orphanhood because her mother died in February.
“And I know how it feels to be hungry. I do not want to be hungry for long periods on end again in 2018,” she says.
Edward Chaka, People’s Federation for National Peace and Development (Pefenap) Executive Director— whose organisation organised what it dubbed the Children’s Party in collaboration with Top Hill Ministries— says children can be a mirror of what is going on in society; hence, they should be engaged through child-focused events to shed light on what is happening in their “little worlds”.
“Whatever points children raise must be taken into consideration,” Chaka says.
He has a good example.
“Five to six years ago, when we organised a Children’s Party in Group Village Headman Chimtumbira’s area, Traditional Authority Kuntaja, in Blantyre District, we distributed to each child five kilogrammes of maize flour which had been donated to us by Bakhressa Grain Milling, as well as other donations from Fadamz Rice, Arkay Plastics, Universal Industries Limited, among others.
“During presentation of the items we had— among them maize flour, rice, fizzy drinks, snacks— the children asked us why we were giving the food items to them only, leaving out their parents. When we inquired, we learned, with sadness, that there was hunger in the area and that most people were surviving on mangoes and roots. Group Village Headman Chimtumbira herself confirmed at the time that there was hunger in the area and that people were appealing for help.
“We, therefore, benefitted from our interaction with children and were able to inform the country that hundreds of people in Chileka were facing starvation due to hunger. We, therefore, value interactions with children because, apart from the Children’s Parliament, children seldom get opportunities to interact with people who may be of help, or inform national policy— the mistaken conception being that children are leaders of tomorrow. No, children can contribute towards the creation of a better world of tomorrow today,” Chaka says.
Chaka, therefore, says Pefenap will continue to engage children and, where necessary, offer amenities, courtesy of private sector players who contribute to making children’s lives meaningful
Indeed, the United Nations Children’s Fund, in a document titled ‘Child and Youth Participation Strategy’, observes that “over the past 10 to 15 years, child rights and youth welfare agencies have done much to promote children’s participation. At the same time, child participation in society and programmes has remained patchy at best”.
It adds: “Participation is a fundamental human right, which affirms children as rights holders entitled to demand their own rights”, adding that this can best be done when children have access to the information they need to survive, develop and protect themselves; express their views and are being listened to; are able to form and join associations that promote and demand children’s development, survival and protection”, among others.
The hope is that, a nation so used to listening to the views of old people who might, as well, have had enough of life may turn the corner and start listening to children.

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