Irish hockey player Róisín Upton, rugby international Jenny Murphy and Dublin ladies football captain Sinead Aherne have returned from a lifechanging four days in Malawi with the humanitarian aid agency, GOAL. They saw at first-hand the devastating impact climate change can have on local communities. All three are GOAL ambassadors.
Malawi, affectionately as the ‘Warm Heart of Africa’, is an apt title, according to Róisín Upton. ‘’People were so hospitable and had so much joy and energy, while having so little, and it was very humbling to see and experience.’’
Upton, a members of Ireland’s ladies hockey team, caught the attention of locals in Malawi by sporting a bright red cast on her left arm during the trip. The Limerick native had been in the wars just two weeks earlier. With a fractured bone in her wrist, she scored the decisive penalty in a shoot-out which sent the Irish ladies hockey team to next years’ Olympics in Tokyo. ‘‘Not a lot of them know it (hockey)’’, she says, but added that when ‘‘World Cups’’ are mentioned in the conversation, (the Irish ladies hockey team reached the World Cup final in 2018), ‘‘people tend to listen.’’
In terms of recent events, the wider public may know Malawi from being one of three African countries impacted by this years’ devastating Cyclone Idai. More than one million people in Malawi were directly affected. But there is much more to consider now, even from a climate change perspective alone, with Malawi’s agriculturally-based economy being particularly susceptible to climate change’s negative consequences. High-intensity rain has also brought more floods, and to areas where they have not occurred before. Higher temperatures are also more prevalent, and seasons are becoming more unpredictable. Then it there is drought to consider.
‘‘Drought can be devastating and I witnessed the impact that it has on farmers and their crops as well as their ability to make money, and then I saw the strength they have to recover, says Upton. Indeed, it is estimated that more than 6.5 million people were affected across the country in 2017 as Malawi experienced one of the strongest droughts in record, induced by the El Nino weather phenomenon. ‘‘I remember walking more than a mile through crop fields in searing heat to see a farmers’ irrigation scheme, while a group of local women who joined us on the journey, sang songs all along the way. It was a great moment of female resilience.
‘‘Through the various local savings and loan schemes, which GOAL helps facilitate, simple investments like irrigation pumps can help farmers’ access low water levels in lakes due to the lack of rain, and the relief this has brought to them was quite incredible. The purchasing of the pump and the scheme itself then has a knock-on effect and helps the local economy to grow,’’ she adds.
For Irish rugby centre Jenny Murphy, discovering how the often-taboo subject of menstrual hygiene was an area of concern for young girls in Malawi, was quite thought-provoking. ‘‘We don’t have to talk about it (menstrual hygiene) at home in Ireland”, she says. ‘‘For us, it’s no big deal. There is no stress about it. However, in Malawi, a lack of education and resources on this issue means many young girls drop out of school.’’ Since 2017, GOAL has promoted menstrual hygiene management in Malawi, with a focus on promoting positive behaviors among girls in schools. The idea is to help keep girls in school, without them dropping out due to sanitation concerns.
‘‘A mothers’ group we met were helping to break a culture of silence on the issue, it was very empowering. Previously, so many girls had to drop out of school because they didn’t have the facilities to change, or they simply didn’t have sanitary pads,’’ Murphy adds. ‘‘We met another group who were creating re-useable pads, that are very affordable. The pads were then given to families that are not as well-off, so they can continue their education, instead of girls dropping out at 12, 13 and 14 years of age. It also allows people to make a business out of it, by purchasing sewing machines etc., and to be more open about it, which is great, about something which is often taboo.’’
Murphy then points how she found it interesting, that, from a cultural perspective, ‘‘buy-in’’ was needed from the ‘village chief’ so that the idea of reusable sanitary pads was to be ‘‘further accepted’’ by the wider community. ‘‘I have a fond memory of seeing a local village chief proudly waving the re-usable sanitary pad in the air, with him being very proud of what the community have achieved, and quite open about it also.’’In advance of the trip, the three GOAL ambassadors met with GOAL’s Youth Advisors in Ireland, to establish knowledge sharing between both countries. ‘‘A common theme encountered by the young people we met in Malawi was they felt unable to ‘voice’ their political concerns, yet this impediment was met with an attitude of ‘getting on with it’ and having no angle of blame. In Ireland, we have our difficulties, but, if we need to contact our local politician we can quite easily. It’s not the case in Malawi, and I was surprised by this,’’ she says.
All-Ireland football winner, and Dublin ladies captain, Sinead Aherne, says it was ‘‘empowering’’ to see how women in the community go about their day-to-day work schedule, while also educating one another on nutrition. ‘’A lot of women tend to work in the field while men get involved in other areas of agriculture. Seeing how resilient the women are over there is really empowering. How women learn in groups about nutrition and have gained confidence from upskilling was also something different, that I didn’t expect,’’ she says.
GOAL has been implementing a number of programmes in Malawi with a key focus on sustainable livelihoods and resilience. One such programme is the Nutrition Impact in Positive Practice (NIPP) approach – a community centered approach designed to tackle the underlying behavioral causes of malnutrition. The programme was designed by GOAL – something the organisation has pioneered with great success in many of its countries. The approach has been so successful in Sudan, the ministry of health has since made part NIPP their national health curriculum. To date, over 3,000 people in Malawi were reached with key nutrition messaging and actions through the NIPP programme.
The programme includes NIPP circles, a community or group gatherings, with discussion on various nutrition-related topics, such as hygiene and cooking demonstrations. NIPP circles target both man and women who are found to be suffering from, or at risk of, moderate acute malnutrition. ‘‘The NIPP approach, and in particular, the NIPP circles, was quite successful in Malawi,’’ says Aherne. ‘‘Every so often, when I am doing something routine which I take for granted, I stop and pause. Like the other day, I was considering about what to have for a balanced lunch, which got me thinking again about the NIPP circles I saw in action in Malawi, and how some communities have to work harder and have more focus, just to learn about basic nutrition. This has really made me appreciate what we have here and how a small amount contributed to the various GOAL country programmes in Africa can make a difference for sustainable development.’’
GOAL has been working in Malawi since 2002. The organisation implements programmes across five districts in the southern region, with over 80 full-time staff.