Ida Puliwa Mwango and Ted Mwango are voices of inspiration.
It is easy to be “wowed” by what Othakarhaka has accomplished in less than a decade. This is such an inspiational story well worth the read!
This is a detailed account of the interview I had the privilege of doing with a young couple, Ida and Ted Mwango who started the Othakarhaka Foundation in Malawi, the third poorest country in Africa. In response to an act of kindness by a professor from Virginia Tech, who paid Ida’s entire college tuition, she started a program in her local village that has nearly 6,000 volunteers who assist the elderly, promote the education of orphans, and plant trees to counter the massive deforestation issue and provides 500 scholarships for secondary students, many which are girls.
Through her foundation Othakarhaka, which means “Passing on the Kindness,” Ida Puliwa has developed new agricultural approaches that have more than quadrupled the production of maize for elderly people in her area. She is also sending girls to secondary school, including some who had entered forced marriages. And the several thousand volunteers actually pay a monthly fee of 7 cents to work on the various projects—which is part of her vision to make them self-sustainable.
Ida Puliwa Mwango was born in 1987 in a small village in the southern region of Mulanje, Malawi. When Ida was only 4 or 5, her 11-year-old sister Gloria died from malaria because the hospital was out of medication. Although her parents could have bought medication from the local pharmacy, they didn’t have any money.
When her mother’s fourth child was born, who once again was a girl, the chief of her village insisted that he take a second wife who might give him a son, but he refused. The chief then kicked them out of their village and they were forced to move to the mother’s village. At 10 years old, this was Ida’s first experience of rejection because she was a girl, which really impacted her.
Ida’s father was deeply embarrassed by the discrimination against his wife and decided that he would make his daughter, Ida, the envy of all the families with male children. Throughout primary school, he worked with Ida, teaching her English, math and reading. As a result, she was first in her class.
Because it was so unusual for a village girl to go to secondary school, her story was written up in a local paper. Her uncle, who was living in South Africa, read the story on-line and offered to pay her tuition to go to Mzuzu University, where she studied Information and Communication Technology.
Unfortunately, during her second year of study, the uncle was killed in an auto accident along with his girlfriend, and that ended her college education.
Her dream of education shattered, she got a job hoping to save money for tuition, but her salary was so low that she could barely pay rent and feed herself. Although very discouraged, she started writing letters to dozens of potential funding sources; no one replied.
Then one day a professor from Virginia Tech, Marquita Hill, came to speak to Ida’s village. Her translator had fallen ill that day and Ida’s mother, who was a volunteer at the event, suggested that her daughter knew English and could translate. After the program, Professor Hill, was so impressed, that not only did she pay her entire college tuition, she also bought her a laptop computer, some clothes and even supplied pocket money.
Extremely grateful for this turn in her fortunes, Ida told Marquita that she wanted to pay back the money that was given to her, but Marquita declined Ida’s offer and instead suggested that Ida pass on the gift to others.
In response, while she was still a student, Ida returned to her village and met with the chief, proposing that she would like to organize a group of volunteers that would care for the elderly in the surrounding villages. The Chief said, “So you want to pay back the kindness that you were given? And you want to do this in my village?” She said, “Yes.” And he said, “You’re just a girl! Maybe if you were a boy or a man, I would allow it. But I know that girls cannot do anything.”
When she went back to school, the words kept echoing in her mind: “No, you’re just a girl.” She kept remembering the statement of her father, that she could be the person that the whole village never had.
So, she didn’t give up. After several visiting several village chiefs, she went to a chief of a village, who happened to be a woman. The chief listened carefully and said, “Okay, I’m going to support you. I’ll go to your chief and I’ll talk to him and other chiefs as well. We’ll give you a chance. After all, I’m a woman like you.”
Eight neighboring chiefs of villages agreed to a community meeting and 4,000 people showed up. Ida told her own story about wanting to pass on the kindness of a stranger and pitched the idea of people volunteering to help the elderly in their community.
As Ida told me this part of the story, tears welled up in her eyes. She relayed her great disappointment, only 64 people indicated they wanted to be volunteers. Four of them were men, including her own father. But she pushed forward. I looked at her in amazement and said, “Ida, that is an incredible number! Jesus only started with 12! How blessed you were!”
Ida decided that she needed to raise money, so she established a policy that every volunteer would pay about 7 cents a month. She also started doing various public fundraisers, from variety shows to car washes. At school, she repaired computers for fellow students, and she also collected soap, sugar, clothes and small donations from her friends that she took back to her village.
From the beginning, Ida wanted to reverse the expectation that outsiders were the solution. They should be self-sustaining. So, with the small monthly dues, and as the number of volunteers grew into hundreds, they were able to buy plastic sheeting to underlay the thatched roofs of elderly, and engage in a number of self-help projects that required volunteer labor, such as digging pit latrines and cleaning the homes of the elderly.
Jan. 19, 2011, was the first community meeting where she shared her vision. She organized the first board meeting. Jan. 24-26, volunteers conducted the survey of the needs of the elderly. On Jan. 31, they discussed the survey results and drew up a constitution for what was to be called Othakarhaka, which translated meant “Passing on the Kindness.” In 2013, the Othakarhaka Foundation became a legally recognized non-profit organization in Malawi.
One of the problems facing people, and the elderly in particular, was that they were only planting one crop of maize a year, which could barely provide for their needs, let alone enable them to sell any surplus to buy other essential items. It was at this point that Ida’s ingenuity and exposure to higher education came into play. She had seen a short clip on TV about piping water from a lake to irrigate crops. At school, she had also learned about hybrid maize seeds that grew very fast with a little bit of synthetic fertilizer.
Othakarhaka didn’t have money to purchase pipes, but volunteers could dig shallow ditches by hand to bring water from nearby streams and rivers. This meant that villagers could plant two crops a year, one during the rainy season and one during the dry season. And with the hybrid seeds, they could have bumper crops in three months, twice a year.
Marquita Hill, the same person who had funded Ida’s tuition, gave them a grant of $2,500 to get started on buying hybrid seeds and fertilizer. The Sustainable Agriculture Project is now self-funding. Rather than getting only two bags of maize a year, many elderly farmers are getting a dozen 110 pound bags a year.
Practicing the ethic of “passing on the kindness,” elderly recipients give a bag of maize from their surplus to another person in need, and then sell their additional maize to care for orphans in their household or other expenses.
As these elderly farmers began to generate extra income, they needed to be able to deposit their money in a bank account. But when Ida took 87 women to the local bank, she discovered that none of them could write their name or signature. They had grown up in the period prior to free primary education and were illiterate.
This problem stimulated the idea for the Adult Literacy Program, in which students teach their elders. The first class had 450 students that they divided into groups of 50, where they learned basic literacy and how to solve simple math problems. Students supported by Othakarhaka became their teachers.
Ida was surprised to see two chiefs in the first class. They also wanted to learn to read and write, even though they had refused to participate when she first started Othakarhaka.
Another problem confronting villagers was deforestation. The common practice for generations was that people put their cooking pot on three stones, which required a substantial fire to generate adequate heat, resulting in thousands of trees being cut down for firewood.
Othakarhaka has tackled this issue in two ways. First, it has pioneered a new type of “rocket stove” that uses 16 hardened bricks, a little bit of clay and cement, and burns a quarter of the fuel required by the more traditional means of cooking. Currently, there are 5,000 of these stoves in use.
Othakarhaka has also started a massive tree planting effort. This year they will plant 850,000 trees: some for fuel, some are fruit trees; others have medicinal properties, and some are planted in farms because they contribute nitrogen to the soil. Volunteers who plant the trees are also responsible to water and care for them, resulting in a 90% survival rate.
Othakarhaka is focused on providing secondary education for youth in the villages. Five hundred dollars covers the cost for a year of tuition, school uniforms, shoes, a school bag and rice porridge for breakfast. While this may seem like a small amount of money, to villagers living on $500 a year, it is an insurmountable expense, so Othakarhaka is working with outside donors to fund the education of the top students graduating from primary school. Each scholarship recipient signs an agreement upon starting school that they will begin immediately to “Pass on the Kindness” by volunteering after school in various service projects.
For girls that are not candidates for secondary school, Othakarhaka started a sewing school with the donation of ten sewing machines. An instructor teaches girls tailoring skills, and when they graduate, they are given a sewing machine, with the expectation that they will pay back the cost so that another girl can enter the program within a year.
Beginning at age 12 or 13, many girls are forced into marriage—typically as second or third wives. Especially for orphans, there was economic pressure to marry if they wanted to eat. Girls attend initiation ceremonies where they are encouraged to sleep with men, and many become pregnant. Ida is working diligently to stop this practice.
Two other projects warrant mention. Although there is free health care in Malawi, there are only 600 doctors in the country of over 16 million people! There is no room in the hospitals for long-term care. Consequently, people with AIDS or cancer are sent home to die, oftentimes in pain. In response, a Canadian family foundation has provided funding for palliative care. Drawing on his training as a nurse, Ida’s husband Ted Mwango directs this program and serves as the operations manager for the foundation.
In her view, the core principle of Christianity is “Love one another.” Elaborating she said, “You cannot say you love God if you fail to love your neighbor. How can you watch your neighbor suffer, yet say you are a Christian and claim that you know God and you love God?” Ida also draws considerable strength from her belief that God is the bedrock of everything she does. Her favorite verse is from Psalms 121, which she quoted from memory: “I look to the mountain, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the creator of the universe. Our God does not sleep and slumber.”
When she confronts problems, she sometimes feels God is absent, but then realizes that maybe God is allowing a problem to make her stronger or push her forward. “I know God is here. . . He’s always there to watch us.
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