Maria’s story is the first in our 2nd week of #StoriesofLoveComing. Maria has been instrumental in the life of the Niassa Diocese Community Health Project and has been quietly getting on bringing about change in her community.
Today Maria is 58 years old. Born in Mozambique, of Mozambican parents, she spent a couple of years in Zimbabwe as a very young child when her father was transferred there for work. After returning to Mozambique she then left the country again as a teenager, fleeing to Likoma Island, Malawi, where she lived as a refugee during the war of independence against the Portuguese. When dependence was finally declared in 1975, she moved back to the family home in Cobue, a remote village on the Mozambican shore of Lake Malawi (Lago Niassa to Mozambicans). In the 80’s, as a civil war which had broken out soon after independence escalated to involve the entire country, she fled again to the provincial capital Lichinga. After the war ended in 1992 she returned to Cobue. During these later years she had married, had 4 children and then separated from her husband as he was being unfaithful.
Of Maria’s four children, two were twins. Complications during the delivery of the twins had resulted in one of them, Jacob, being severely handicapped. He was unable to walk or talk and suffered frequent seizures but Maria cared for him with tremendous dedication and love until he died at the age of 16. Looking after Jacob made it difficult for Maria to work outside the home so supporting her 4 children was even more of a struggle than for most single parents. Despite the challenges Maria always encouraged other parents with handicapped children to appreciate and love them, arguing that these children are valued by God as much as any others.
Maria was an active member of her church and very involved with the Mothers’ Union. In 2005, when Jacob was 10 years old, the Diocese of Niassa started a community health project to serve people living along a 100 mile stretch of the lakeshore that was virtually inaccessible by road. The project had its base in Cobue and Maria was employed to look after the training centre where volunteers from throughout the project area, came to be trained as community health workers and skilled traditional midwives.
As the project developed increasing numbers of sick people, whose medical problems were too severe to be managed by the health volunteers or poorly equipped, small government health posts were brought to Cobue in search of more advanced treatment. It was impossible for patients living in more distant villages to travel back and forth for monitoring so a huge room in a derelict building adjacent to the training centre became an informal ‘ward’. Those sleeping there included adults with advanced HIV infection and children with severe malnutrition. Maria took on the responsibility of overseeing this ward and supporting those staying there. She spent many hours teaching the mother’s of malnourished children how to feed their children better and supporting families of people with aids in how to assist with hygiene and nutrition.
The community health project produced dramatic improvements in the health of the lakeshore population, such that, 10 years after the project began, the ‘ward’ was no longer necessary. Malnourished children were being identified and treated long before they reached the stage of requiring admission. HIV counselling and testing and an antiretroviral treatment programme taking medicine out to even the most remote villages meant that people with HIV were usually being identified and started on effective treatment before they became severely unwell and the construction by the Diocese of an outpatient department at Cobue government health centre meant some patients could be admitted there.
In 2015 Maria began working with the Diocese of Niassa’s new ‘Savings project’. This initiative helps local people to form themselves into groups of 15 to 30 who contribute small amounts of money money (often around 50p a week) into a savings fund. Members of the group can choose whether to wait a year to withdraw their money, or take out a loan of up to 3x the amount they’ve already saved, to use to start a small business enterprise such as making bread or buying and selling dried fish. Those borrowing money pay interest that goes back into the groups funds. The group puts aside a percentage of their funds to assist members of the group with emergency situations, such as funeral expenses or the need to travel for medical care. In a culture where people experience an enormous amount of pressure to distribute any money they earn to other members of the extended family or to join their friends in hanging out at the local bars, the savings scheme’s have played a major role in improving people’s economic situation. Maria and a colleague have now established 33 such groups and this number is continuing to increase as more communities ask to join the scheme.
We praise you for Maria and her example of embodying your Love in her community time and time again despite her hardships. We pray that you would bless this work and bring about transformation in the lives of more and more each day.