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The biker with arms open wide

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The yard is always crowded with children, all ages from age zero to teenagers. Minders take turns to feed, clean, play with and teach the children. Some are washing all manner of laundry; some rationing food.

It is heaven – nobody goes to bed hungry; there is a cloth for all muscles; no one gets beaten up; there is guaranteed medical care. This is Open Arms Infant Home, perched on the hills of Kabula just minutes from Blantyre CBD.

It all started with a 1970 bike ride. As a young man, Neville Bevis, now 68, was passing through Malawi on a great bike ride from England to South Africa. Six years later he was teaching at St Andrew’s International High School in Blantyre.

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He returned to the UK and was a Senior Housemaster at Ashville College, but Malawi still haunted him and decades on, in 2000, Bevis returned to Malawi to run the fledgling Open Arms Infant Home as director.

“I always wanted to do something more altruistic than teach the children of middle class Malawians and wealthy expatriates,” Bevis said.

Starting out with neither salary nor allowance Bevis says “It was a personal commitment.”

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Fifteen years later, he firmly declares he has never felt like giving up and says he has trepidations about doing so.

He recalls vividly how he went about fetching Aubrey Jackson from Matope in Ndirande, one of the first batches of children to the orphanage under his management.

“Aubrey was close to death and weighing 3 pounds when he was three weeks old. He was living in a squalid hovel, his mother had just died, and his father was keeping him alive with Freezits.

“The boy, who as a result of difficult birthing, is cerebral palsied and still with us. I felt relieved that we were able to help this scrap of humanity,” recalled Bevis.

Aubrey now has a permanent home in one of Open Arm’s houses and is apprenticed to a foreman to learn to manage egg production.

Aubrey is one of the almost 700 children that have come through the Blantyre wing of the Open Arms Infant Home and the about 250 at the Mangochi branch.

Since 1995 Open Arms has upheld its vision of providing care and shelter to Malawi’s orphaned babies and reuniting them with their families.

“Many of the babies who come to Open Arms arrive malnourished or with medical problems, but after two years they are strong, fully immunised, and ready to eat the foods which are available in their home village. They can return to their family, and be supported there with help for nursery education and agricultural Starter Packs,” said Jasmine Leitao, Open Arm’s administrator.

Take Norman and Eric, for instance. They came to Open Arms at just two months old but as you read this, they are mingling with Malawi’s elite scholars at Kamuzu Academy, their futures promising.

Eric and his twin brother Sam came to Open Arms after their mother passed away, and at two years old they went to live with their aunt who Open Arms helped to start a Mandasi business to support the family.

The aunt also passed away and Open Arms was asked to provide a home to the boys.

Norman’s family never came forward to claim him, and has since lost contact with Open Arms, so he has remained at the centre since admission at two months of age.

Learning from a system in Soweto, South Africa, which aims at preventing children from growing up in institutions, Open Arms purchased a house where Norman moved in at age four.

Norman was joined with other orphans as siblings and Open Arms employed a house mother to simulate a real home setting.

The children attend church and go to private school and since establishing the first house in 2005, Open Arms has added another four foster houses.

Children are not supposed to stay at Open Arms forever. The institution runs on finances from small independent donors such as Trust Funds, Churches, schools and individuals around the world.

For Bevis however returning the children to their homes or villages brings anxiety. He worries of further death within the extended family, substandard housing, lack of educational facilities, and local health clinics.

As this reporter sat to play with babies at Open Arms in Blantyre, one baby clung to him as he attempted to leave. Bevis noted at that point that the babies do not see a lot of black males.

And when asked what would be his message to Malawians, he said:

“We very much believe that every orphan child where possible should have connection with his village / community. We believe that every child has the right to equality in education and effective health care at village and district level.”

Bevis, a keen environmentalist is a father of two daughters and grandfather to three. Both his daughters are into humanitarian work.

Running the care home has changed many lives and is still doing, but it has also affected him.

“It has made me closer to the people of Malawi, and many aspects of life, including the way I think about development issues, have changed,” he said.

He has bigger dreams. He says the centre has land in Nkhotakota which is yet to be developed but says that is the duty of the next director as he is beyond his retirement age.

As Norman and Eric do their international curriculum, as Aubrey learns the ABCs of poultry farming and as hundreds of other orphans go to bed smiling, one can easily forget that British biker who left his home to lift lives in a faraway land.

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