Our co operation with St John of God Services in Mzuzu

Irish Times, Dec 14 2010:
Eithne Donnelan


It is customary among certain tribes in Malawi for men to pay a lobola to the family of a woman they plan to marry. Sometimes, the lobola or dowry equivalent, usually a few cows, is paid upfront before the wedding, but more often than not part of it is paid later when the newly married couple have built up sufficient resources to discharge the debt.

When in 2001 Bina Msiska’s sister-in-law and mother of three died of pneumonia, aged just 23 years, his brother Vincent had only paid her family part of the lobola they were due. They demanded one more cow before they would give permission for her burial.

A stand-off between the families ensued for three days, bringing shame on the Msiska family as everyone then knew they couldn’t afford the extra cow. Eventually before nightfall on the third day, neighbours clubbed together sufficient monies to pay off Vincent’s in-laws.

It all became too much for Msiska who suffered a nervous breakdown. His father took him from their home in the Rumphi district to the acute mental health service run by St John of God in Mzuzu, where he spent two months as an inpatient.

“I don’t remember going into the hospital. I was very sick at the time,” he recalls.

“When the problem started, some people said I had HIV or was smoking marijuana or something, and that it was this which was disturbing my brain. In our culture, they think it must be something like that.”

After he recovered, he continued to attend St John of God services where he studied horticulture, and now works full-time as a “plant propagator”, sowing apple, mandarin and many other plants on a farm near Mzuzu funded by the Wells for Zoë organisation run by Irish couple John and Mary Coyne.

They have overseen the construction of cheap but effective water pumps in many surrounding villages and also recently funded a two-bed birthing clinic for one rural community to replace a straw-roofed shed with a stone slab, the only facility local women previously had when going into labour, unless they undertook the journey to a city hospital.

Thirty-five-year-old Msiska, now married with five children, has managed to make a living out of his horticultural skills, which earn him around 13,000 kwacha (€65) a month.

This and his earlier work for St John of God has been sufficient to enable him buy a little plot of land on which he has built a temporary home with clay bricks and a thatch roof for his family.

Using his entrepreneurial skills he has also built a second temporary home on the site which he rents out for 1,000 kwacha or €5 a month.

He attributes his current health and lifestyle to the services run by St John of God. “They have done great for me,” he enthuses.

At first when he was discharged from hospital, people would run the other way when they saw him coming. “They would say you are a mad one. But in the hospital they taught us to educate them and point out mental illness is like any disease and it can happen to anybody. Then they will not do that again.”