Charles Kabena is a writer for World Vision Malawi. In today's blog, he describes meeting 13-year-old Leonard, whose family was suffering due to a food crisis, and who had left school to help his mother provide for his five siblings.
When Charles returned two months later, things had changed.
Charles relates to Leonard—as a boy in Malawi, he suffered from hunger during a food crisis, too. See what provided hope for both of these boys.
For the rest of my life, I will never forget the day I met Leonard, a 13-year-old boy who had his life and dreams turned upside down because of hunger.
Leonard’s face is burnt in my memory and I remember every time I think of children and need. His village in eastern Malawi was the capital city during the British colonial days, but today it looks increasingly empty.
2.8 million Malawians are hungry this year. A flood, followed up by a drought in the 2014-2015 farming season, proved to be too much for poor farmers who ended up losing most of their crops.
I arrived at their home with no notice looking for a story. It was lunchtime. Little Janet, aged four, and her siblings were eating mangoes. None of them looked healthy. Mangoes had been their breakfast, lunch, and supper for two weeks. They had no idea if or when help would come.
I learned that Fanny, their mother, was working in people’s gardens and received mangoes as payment. That was how Janet got the meal she was eating. Janet looked at me and smiled, helping herself to a mango. My heart broke.
The sun was scorching hot that day. One of Janet’s brothers, 10-year-old Lojasi, lay on the veranda in pain. He had been sick for over a week and their mother did not know what to do. “We are just waiting for God to touch him,” Leonard said.
In the absence of their father, Leonard had assumed a paternal role at an early age. He had abandoned his classes to help his mother find the next meal for him and his siblings.
“I couldn’t concentrate in class while knowing my mother was going through pain to find food,” he said. Their father left home and abandoned them as soon as Janet, the youngest, was born. They still don’t know where he is. Although Leonard was crying, he didn’t blame his father for the situation his family was in. “God planned it all and he knows when to turn things better,” he said.
At that moment, I wanted to cry out to God. Despite seeing such faces of suffering time and again, my heart finds every scenario new, and every hungry child, a reminder of the work that remains to be done—a call to action in this broken world.
I had to give Leonard hope that everything would be all right even though I didn’t know how or when. I felt obligated to assure Fanny that the world had enough to share with her and that her children would grow to realize their full potential.
But they were hungry; they needed more than just words.
I looked at Leonard’s mother. Just like my mother when I was small, here she was wanting the best for her children, but circumstances were beyond her control.
There I was, with a child whose situation was quite miserable but he never blamed anyone; he never grumbled. At the same time that some of my friends were eating delicious meals in other corners of the world without thanking God, here was Leonard praising the Creator for the mangoes before him and his family.
“Thank you God for the food before us and thank you for what you continue to do with our lives,” he prayed before his whole family said an emphatic “Amen” before they ate the mangoes. In the end, we prayed and asked God for good health for the six kids, energy to the mother and wisdom, and especially dedicated Leonard and his hard work to God.
Two months later, I returned to see my friend Leonard. Passing by his school, a boy came rushing toward me with joy all over his face. It was 10-year-old Lojasi. “Leonard is also in class,” he said as we walked to the head teacher’s office.
Leonard and his dreams were back on track toward a promising future. He told me that soon after my visit, World Vision had registered beneficiaries for a food-for-work program in his village. His mother, Fanny, was one of them. Through the program, she is planting trees and maintaining forests in return for a 50 kilogram bag of maize, six kilograms of beans, and two liters of vegetable oil per month.
When we went home at the end of lessons that day, there was maize porridge waiting for them. “Your friends don’t eat mangoes for lunch anymore,” joked Fanny. For the first time, I saw her smiling. She was a happy mother.
At the table, Janet was smiling at me as she ate with her hands, mopping up the beans on her plate with maize. Outside their small grass-thatched house was maize that looked so green. If the rain kept falling, the family might grow some maize later in the year.
Leonard is still the father of the house. He still helps his mother in the garden and he advises the other children that they must work hard, too.
My life and Leonard’s life are similar in many ways.
The worst hunger I have known was in 2002 when Malawi had to import maize from Mozambique. While the government told us every day that people would not die, one or two lives were lost each day—lives of people I knew.
I recall that World Vision helped then as we are helping now by providing food and supplying the community with planting materials.
Time moves quickly and it heals broken souls. 14 years later, I am a Communicator for World Vision in Southern Malawi, a region that is usually oscillating between disasters—floods and droughts—rendering a lot of children and families poor.
Visiting Leonard, I faced the reality of what hunger does to children and their families. Through his eyes and story, I came face-to-face with the untold stories of children caught up in what is now Malawi’s worst food crisis since 2002.
Living in the village away from the city, life is hard for Leonard, as it was for me also. While education seems the only vehicle to get him out of poverty, he dropped out of school to work and help feed his siblings—a huge sacrifice from a boy so young.
I remembered the hopeless days before my World Vision sponsor transformed my life by offering me an opportunity to attend high school when every reality around us said a loud “impossible.”
It was this opportunity that brought me to where I am today.
Bring hope and opportunity to a child in need today. Sponsor a child in Malawi!