Alone and grieving, two young orphans are thrown a lifeline
The brothers are still in shock. Their mother died only a month ago, and now they live alone. The youngest, Chisomo, which means “mercy” in the dominant Chichewa language, is just 11 years old.
“Before my mother died, she said I must spend our money wisely. She told me to buy fertiliser and farm produce as well as school materials and clothes for me and my younger brother,” says 18-year-old Loyid Josephy. His younger brother says nothing but just stares with large, sad eyes.
Their mother was referring to a monthly cash transfer of 1,800 kwacha (roughly US $12) which the family started receiving in September 2008 as part of a social cash transfer scheme administered by the government with the support of UNICEF. The aim of the scheme is to reduce poverty, hunger and starvation in ultrapoor households through a monthly cash grant. Qualifying under this criteria are indigent families headed by children, the elderly, persons with disabilities, and those with a terminal illness. At the time they were selected, the brothers were living with their ailing mother, their father having abandoned them when Chisomo was only a baby.
There is no doubt about the abject poverty the children endure. Their dank straw and mud hut, which has no windows except a crack in the mud wall, is almost bare. There is hardly enough room on the dirt floor to spread out their tattered sleeping mats. A few ragged clothes and a pair of old shoes hang on sticks poking out of the mud walls and a few old cooking pots are neatly stacked in a corner with seven sacks of maize.
Jim Wotchi, the desk officer for the cash transfer scheme in Mchinji district where the boys live and where the scheme was first piloted, says despite their dismal living conditions, the cash has made a huge difference in the boys' lives and that of other poor people in his community. “Before they had the cash, the boys' school attendance was very poor and now they always go to school with uniform and school materials and they eat three meals a day.”
Loyid explains that he used the cash to buy two bags of subsidised fertiliser which has doubled their maize crop. “For the first time, we have enough food until our next harvest,'' he says. He also bought a chicken, which he hopes will provide them with eggs. “We can eat three times a day. Before this, we used to go to school without food. I also bought a school uniform, pencils, and I have even bought shoes for us,” he says as he looks down proudly at a pair of second-hand trainers.
The boys also intend to sell groundnuts to supplement their income. “We're not selling them just yet; we want to wait until the price is good,” says Loyid.
The process of selecting who should benefit from the cash transfer has a number of stages. The community, made up of a several villages totalling roughly 1,200 households, has a ten-member committee of five women and five men. All of them have completed at least eight years of primary school and are seen as energetic and committed members of the community.
The committee members explain to the community about the scheme and ask them to nominate the poorest families. The committee members then visit the families and rank them according to their vulnerability until they are left with the poorest 10% in the community; about 120 households. Most of those selected afford only one meal a day and are mostly orphans, of whom there are just over a million in Malawi, accounting for 15% of the country's 6.8 million children under the age of 18 years. About half of them are orphaned by AIDS.
The community meets again to have another say on the final selection, just in case any candidate should be added or taken off. The selected households are not present in the meeting so that people can speak frankly. “It has been a smooth process and transparent,” comments Wotchi. After the families have been finally selected, the grant they receive depends on the number of people in the household and how many are school-going. For example, Loyid and his brother are guaranteed 1,000 kwacha every month but they also receive an extra 800 kwacha bonus for attending school.
The families are advised about the different ways they can spend the money and at least once a month they receive visits from a committee member to monitor their welfare and how they are using the cash.
“They mostly spend the money well,” says Wotchi. “Many have used the money to buy fertilisers, school materials as well as cows, goats and pigs. The boys have spent their money wisely, but they could have done even better if their mother hadn't been sick.” Loyid had to spend part of cash on transport as he accompanied his mother to and from the hospital in the last three months of her life.
The cash transfer programme was initially piloted in Mchinji district, then expanded to six others, as means of testing the viability of cash grants as a social protection mechanism. At the beginning of 2010, plans were under way to design a national social protection programme, including cash grants, to cover the entire country.
A major challenge, concedes Wotchi, is that there are still many poor families that are unable to benefit from the scheme. “Most in rural communities are poor, and even those who benefit, the money is not enough as prices continue to rise.”
Loyid needs no time to think about his challenges. “The cash has helped us a lot, but now my mother has gone, we have to do everything alone - like cook, farm, clean and eat.” Yet, he adds, he and his brother are determined to stay in school. Loyid says he would like to be a doctor.