Br. Aidan Interviewed for Hot Press

A small, neglected country, precariously placed in the world’s poorest region, Malawi has a troubled past and an uncertain future. Now, at a time of potential revolution, as a loathed leader gives way to their first female president, Hot Press meets Aidan Clohessy, an Irishman who is doing his bit to usher in an era of change.

And an Irish brother from the St. John of God was in the midst of the pandemonium. Aidan Clohessy was attending a meeting on the second floor of his newly-established College of Health Sciences, a pristine building that illuminates the darkness near the centre of town, when government forces opened fire. With tear gas everywhere, and gunshots ringing from up the hill, those inside the college watched the pandemonium outside unfold. Not a single window pane was broken, the Tipperary missionary notes today. But a keen eye can spy a bullet hole on the college front, a historical reminder of the fignting that echoes the scars on our own GPO.

Later that evening, searching for colleagues in his truck, Clohessy was stopped by a hysterical mob. Some shouted him into submission; others urged him to drive on. When he did, a hail of stones rained down on his vehicle.It was a scary time.

Nine months have passed and I’ve made the trek (a full day’s journey by air and Toyota pick-up) to Malawi at a transformative time. I walk from Brother Aidan’s purpose-built mental health care clinic across the ground once stained with blood on a baking April day, and again people are on the streets. They line the sides of the dusty ‘main road’ as trucks carrying gun-toting army types drive past. But today the mood is one of celebration: the body of the late Bingu is due to stop off in Mzuzu, on an extended ‘Farewell Tour 2012’ of the land he spent nearly a decade bringing to its knees.

People want to be part of this landmark occasion not to pay the dead President their respects but hail his passing. The state radio offers condolences, with intermittent messages regretting the “untimely death” of the 78-year-old, a phrase that makes the locals sick.

The date of his death has not been officially confirmed, though the dogs in the street know Bingu died of a heart attack on April 5. His body was secretly flown to South Africa to buy his cronies time to organise themselves for the succession. All around, meanwhile, the price of Bingu’s neglect is visible.

At petrol stations, queues stretch for up to a kilometre. Our unflappable driver David nonchalantly informs us that the cars have been waiting “for about three weeks now”. Lines at supermarkets wait similarly for sugar.

Finally, the hearse hoves into view. The funeral car pulls a glass case containing the deceased despot’s remains. Its registration: RIP 1. “Who’s RIP 2 then?” Clohessy will later grin dryly.

He’s a kind man who arrived in 1993 to form a mental health service and does his best for all – from toddlers with special needs to mothers suffering with psychoses and prisoners wasting away in overcrowded conditions. But he’s seen the havoc Bingu – initially a voter-pleasing puppet put in place by the country’s first president, Dr. Hastings Banda, until his own ego and inhumanity took hold – has wrought on this country.

The hostilities of last year were evidence that something had to give. The late leader’s old party allies (his friends outside Malawi included the likes of Robert Mugabe) tried to maintain control, but the army opted to stick by the constitution and the politically-alienated, former-vice president Joyce Banda took office democratically. A smart lady making all the right sounds, she’s already rebuilt the international bridges that Bingu burnt and has stated that she will focus on women’s rights during her initial two-year term.

Under the new regime, there is a palpable optimism in the air, but the road to even relative prosperity will be a long and difficult one. At the moment, foreign exchange is nearly non-existent (one euro will get you roughly 200 Kwacha, but it’s pointless attempting to turn it back). The percentage of people living with HIV/AIDS is approximately 11%. Medicine is in such short supply that hospital patients are being operated on without anaesthetics. Malawi ranks 171st out of 187 economies on the 2011 Human Development Index. Citizens make it to the age of 43, if they’re lucky.

The strong get by, just about, but what about the vulnerable? With that in mind, Aidan Clohessy has made it his mission to work from the fragile ground up. His background is in mental health. And, undeniably, mental illness is just as pervasive here as it is in the west. If the disabled or challenged are unseen, it is because many of them die early deaths. Some are killed at birth because of the stigma. “Some die underneath the trees,” Clohessy says. Those with maladies of the mind are seen as ‘invalids’. Less than human. In certain respects, it’s close to Bedlam.

But Clohessy has led by example, starting initially with a small office above a shop in the centre of town, before founding a drop-in clinic for those with mental health issues. It is a first-rate establishment run like clockwork by an all-indigenous team. The difference from the harsh world outside its doors is incredible. Clohessy details how those suffering from mental health problems can literally be left at the gate. “People are tied up with chains, ropes, wires and left,” he confides. A client was once brought down from the top of the north region, padlocked in the back of a truck with their relative screaming at them the whole journey down. Unchained and beckoned by Clohessy’s team, the victim of this dehumanised treatment walked calmly inside.

Special education is provided in the centre, at pre-school, primary and post-primary levels. Nearby, the House of Hospitality provides short-term residential care: there is a 12-bedroom facility for acute cases, a stabilising unit double that size, and Venegas, a new rehabilitation centre for those suffering from alcohol and drug addiction, the only one of its kind in the country. Directly facing it is the Centre For Living, with classes in everything from carpentry and sewing to home management. Throughout the chain, the aim is to avoid isolating those who are ill.

The centre established, Clohessy has been working on plans to extend the benefits into the community by reducing the stigma and involving families. Nowadays, community nurses navigate the myriad bumps and potholes each day to get to clients, generally housed in small huts with roofs of pitched straw, out in the bush. The Umsuma Housing Project assists those who are recovering, and serious about improving their situation in the construction of a three bedroom, one-story house with a galvanised roof. “A brick house with a galvanised roof and you’ve made it here,” Clohessy smiles.

Leading by example, with his staff of 152 Malawians, Clohessy shows the path forward but he knows that there will come a time when he will no longer be here.

“Poverty is not a condition,” he says. “It is a position.” The hand-outs of old give short-term benefits, but no real power to the people. As an alternative, he’s training locals – among them graduates from the College of Health Sciences, which offers a nursing degree, counselling diploma and degree in clinical medicine – to continue his work.

Christopher Ghone is a charismatic young local. He went to South Africa to study social science, investigated the accountability of NGOs for his masters, and returned to Mzuzu to become director of the Umoza School, a programme for street kids that Clohessy founded.

When Aidan arrived, the number of street orphans beggared belief. They formed gangs, societies within society, scoured bins for bread, slept under sewer coverings amongst the rats. Many of them had been “chased” – scared off by families tired of their behavioural problems, or simply with too many mouths to feed. A man might re-marry, the stepmother might have no room at the inn. And the real tearaways were often accused of being “bewitched”, demonically possessed and ostracised from the community.

When that happens, Clohessy sighs, “there is no going back”. So patrols were set up, children identified, other family members sought. Places in boarding schools were found for those with no-one. They started a street kids programme, giving youngsters somewhere to go, somewhere to learn. They currently have approximately 250 children enrolled, with further expansion planned. The patrols continue in the evenings, but these days they seldom find any little lost children. Slowly but surely that battle is being won.

Getting to the root of the anxiety that afflicts Malawi is vital. As Clohessy sees it, the solution lies within the heart of the family, in educating and empowering women. In response a new movement to establish Self Help Groups has been established. An idea taken from India and put into action with the aid of German charity Kindernolthilfe, its strength has been its simplicity.

Bringing together around 20 women or so from each village, a primitive credit union is formed, where money is pooled, loans are distributed and families become fiscally independent. Thus far, it has been a roaring success, more than matching the targets of a three-year plan to lift it to federation level, uniting each group of women under one umbrella and giving them real financial and political clout in Malawi. The real beauty is that, bar supervision and advice, St. John of God contribute nothing – the people are doing it for themselves.

We attend two SHG meetings during our time in Mzuzu – the women greet us with welcoming songs and dance, and express their unbridled joy at how this venture is helping their lives. The benefits are palpable. Businesses are being set up. There’s more food in their children’s bellies. And, they tell us, everyone contributes: there are few disputes and no drop-outs.

It’s heartening, but Malawi has a habit of bringing you right back down to earth.

Visiting Mzuzu prison you get a taste of how much still needs to be done. Before we delve into the depths, the impression is positive. St. John of God have set up a school system for willing participants, many young men are studying for the equivalent of the Leaving Cert, there is a fully-stocked library and Brother Aidan is pushing for further facilities, a toilet being the priority. Then we enter the main yard. Open and sparse, the guards give us the tour, unarmed. We needn’t worry. We are informed that there are murderers in close proximity, but these inmates look undernourished and defeated by life. Most haven’t even been properly convicted and are here on remand – it is the waiting-room from hell. To describe it as overcrowded is a complete understatement. In the sleeping quarters each prisoner is required to spreads his legs and allow the next prisoner to sit between them. Then they all lie down in lines, on top of each other. If one man has a disease, soon they all have it. It is one of the most pitiful things you could possibly contemplate, people treated like animals in a pen.

There is a separate women’s section. Inside, one prisoner breastfeeds her baby. An elderly lady is detained for her own safety – she has been labelled a witch and would face certain death outside. She smiles at us benignly, invoking a feeling of hopelessness. What sort of a world is this?

Our stay mixes moments of horror and joy. Images that stay with you. Snapshots from Malawi.

Driving through it, there is immense natural beauty. The landscape is lush, with maize everywhere. Gentle valleys reveal trees with gorgeous yellow blooms. Young black children spot your white face as you drive by, chasing the car and shouting “Mzungu!” in bewilderment, as if they’ve seen just seen an alien. Maybe, in a sense, they have.

We meet the world’s worst salesman, who tries to sell us 12 small, carved wooden elephants, and ends up giving us 24 under no duress. “Malawi is lucky, we’re blessed by God,” he will tell you. It is a common theme: there is a hair salon called “In God We Trust”. And there are Manchester United jerseys everywhere.

People laugh in despair as we pass the Anti Corruption Bureau, to whom Irish Aid has been giving money for years. “Most of it was probably stashed in a room in Bingu’s mansion,” I am told. Meanwhile, Aidan Clohessy, a man making a real difference, receives barely any funding, from anyone.

In the end, however, it’s the kids that make the most impression. We go to one of the poorest regions in Mzuzu, where most children leave school prematurely to pick fruit, and witness the strength of the Umozo project. The children carry out a child parliament, where, unscripted, they debate their government’s failures, their lack of rights, and the injustice of their situation. Christopher Mhone looks on and smiles.

And that is where our trip ends, with a concert put on by the Umoza children. Once the worst off in society, homeless and directionless, today they dance and sing, and relish their time under Clohessy’s watch. It says it all that, by the end, local children from less under-privileged backgrounds have snuck on to St. John of God’s premises to watch the performance, and are close to tears when they must leave. The remain at the gate, watching intently, until the night engulfs them.

Even at their young age, they know this is a haven, a snapshot of how things might yet get immeasurably better. It is slowly filtering out into the wider community. Inspiring Malawi. With a new president at the helm, it is a project that might just find a welcoming future. Malawi lives in hope. It is the only way.

Contact john.macmanus@sjog.ie now to become a part of a startling story. This trip was funded by Misean Cara and organised by John MacManus, a tremendous advocate of Aidan Clohessy’s work.

Craig Fitzpatrick

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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