Saving Lives with Songs, Dances and Storytelling in Malawi

Aaron Maluwa of Museums of Malawi relates stories of the danger of HIV to people in the community.
Aaron Maluwa of Museums of Malawi relates stories of the danger of HIV to people in the community.

Last week we wrote about a flood in Chikwawa, Malawi that left over 5,400 people homeless and hungry. Our friends with the Museums of Malawi told us of the situation and several of our readers have asked us how a museum has become involved with natural disasters and disease.

We first met Aaron Maluwa and Michael Gondwe at an international conference in Vancouver, Canada. They presented their work as museum educators at the Museums of Malawi, describing the challenge of being keepers of Malawi’s cultures in the face of growing numbers of deaths from AIDS and malaria.

The Museums of Malawi are in Blantyre and Lilongwe and several other cities, and like most museums have exhibits and collections. But Malawi is one of the poorest nations on Earth and 90% of the population live in rural areas, lacking the opportunity for education much beyond primary grades. Aaron and Mike realized their museums would mean little to those people, because people in rural communities rarely come to the cities and are generally more concerned about fighting disease and hunger than viewing the museum’s collections. Aaron and Mike realized they would need to work on these basic issues if they truly wanted to preserve the culture of the country in their roles as museum educators.

Davis Mckandawire relates a personal story to Chikwawa students of how HIV changed his life.
Davis Mckandawire relates a personal story to Chikwawa students of how HIV changed his life.

They decided to take their programming to the people instead of expecting the people to come to them. They use familiar cultural dances, songs and storytelling of Malawi as their vehicle for interpretation. As they visit remote villages, they ask local women to embed HIV and malaria prevention messages into traditional songs and stories. Then a month or so later they return to the village to do half-day or longer programs on HIV or malaria for everyone in the community. The program includes video about the disease, interpretive programming and conversations with villagers and practical assistance such as mosquito nets to prevent malaria and HIV testing to identify those already infected so that they can receive medications.

It is estimated that one in nine in this nation of 13 million are HIV infected, but many are unaware of their condition. The Museum program helps villagers understand the need to be tested and many line up for an exam after the program. The Museum brings along testing equipment and clinicians to do the testing on-site. The cultural songs, dances and stories tell how important  it is to protect your family by changing social practices (e.g. use condoms, stay only with your partner, etc.).

We visited Chikwawa community in 2009 and watched a full day of programming that culminated with about 1,000 people watching dances and songs. Local women have taken on the challenge of getting young people to understand the danger they face. Men hang back, reluctant to be tested and find out their status. But women and children line up and get tested and begin the Anti-retroviral drug regimen (ARVs) if they are HIV positive.

Malaria is still the largest killer of children in Malawi, despite the great danger of HIV, so programming shifts to that disease during the season when most exposure occurs. The museum staff take along mosquito nets bought with donations to give to pregnant women and children to place over their beds. The malarial mosquitoes are night active so the nets are valued protection from bites.

Mike has recently retired from the museum to work on starting a non-profit organization to do this work in continuing cooperation with the museums. Aaron continues to work from his role as a museum educator. The impact they are having on tens of thousands of people in Malawi is inestimable. The joy of the programs is both the celebration of cultural traditions in the programs and the deeper realization that they are having a real impact on peoples’ lives.

International Humanity of Czech Republic recently learned of their work and is sending money and other medical resources to Malawi to help. But the need is much greater than their resources to support these vital programs.

Flood victims in Chikwawa receive one cup of grain per day for their family's sustenance from the aid program that is available.
Flood victims in Chikwawa receive one cup of grain per day for their family’s sustenance from the aid program that is available.

Museum education in Malawi is saving lives and preserving valued cultural traditions. The program money is inadequate and the need is great. We can all help by donating funds to them. Right now your donation through us will not be tax-deductible, but we are working on creating a non-profit to assist this program through a 501c3 nonprofit. We hope at some point in time you will join us in helping them buy more mosquito nets, HIV test kits and the supplies to keep working. We have been assisting this program with our donations for five years as we are able and hope to continue doing that. If you would like to help, we can promise that 100% of your donation will be forwarded directly to this program (we cover the administrative costs of wiring money, etc.). The need is great and with the recent flooding, has never been more immediate. Thanks for spreading the word and helping financially if you are able.

– Tim Merriman

Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

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