Rural exodus means increased strain on urban infrastructure

Three girls coming home after a day at school (photo: SOS archives).
Three girls coming home after a day at school (photo: SOS archives).

Mzuzu itself has a population of roughly 180,000 but including the surrounding hinterland, the number rises to around 1.7 million. It is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. The surrounding region is predominantly agricultural, with tea, rubber and coffee plantations, and the city itself has considerable timber and manufacturing industries and a large informal sector.

It is estimated that one in five women in Malawi is in a polygamous marriage, despite efforts in recent years to abolish the practice. In the fight to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, polygamy is a particular concern. In addition, when a man has several wives, and several children with each wife, it can be very hard to provide for them all, especially when there are school fees and uniforms or medical care to be paid for. Early and forced marriage also remain common for young girls: a 2004 United Nations report stated that up to 37 per cent of girls between 15 and 19 years of age were married, divorced or widowed in Malawi.

Preventable diseases still endanger the population

Chronic malnutrition, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, substandard health services and a lack of clean drinking water severely affect the population, and children are particularly vulnerable.  Many get diarrhoea and abdominal problems from drinking unclean water from local wells. In rural areas, children often have to walk long distances to get to school each day; when they are in poor health, they are unable to do this.

The difficult living conditions in the countryside drive many families to come and try their luck in the city. However, in Mzuzu adequate infrastructure such as running water and sewerage, and social services such as schools and hospitals, are also lacking. Up to 60 per cent of the local population are estimated to live in informal settlements.

What we do in Mzuzu

Learning through play at the SOS Kindergarten (photo: SOS archives).
Learning through play at the SOS Kindergarten (photo: SOS archives).

SOS Children’s Villages began its work in Mzuzu in 2002. In recent years, we have continuously expanded our family strengthening programme in the region so as to reach as many struggling families as possible. It is our aim to alleviate hardship and maintain family stability so that children will be safe and protected and grow up in a loving home.

The SOS Social Centre in Mzuzu supports around 2,000 children and their caregivers, ensuring that children have access to essential health and nutritional services, as well as education. We assist parents by providing guidance on income-generating skills and parenting practices, as well as counselling and psychological support where needed. In cooperation with local organisations, we work towards strengthening the support systems for vulnerable families within the community. Above all, our support goes out to families affected by HIV/AIDS.

For children from the region who are no longer able to live with their parents, 15 SOS families can provide a loving home for up to 150 children. In each family, the children live with their brothers and sisters, affectionately cared for by their SOS mother.

The children attend the SOS Kindergarten together with children from the neighbourhood, which ensures that they are integrated into the local community from a young age. The children then go on to complete their primary education at the SOS school, which is attended by around 320 pupils. The children also have the option of taking classes in needlecraft and carpentry.

When young people who grew up in an SOS family feel ready to move out of the family home in order to pursue further education or vocational training, our SOS Youth Programme continues to support them as they make the transition into adulthood.