For Mother Africa: The charity working to help Malawi’s women survive childbirth

Jack McConnell with Charity Salima and new mothers at the Achikondi clinic
Jack McConnell with Charity Salima and new mothers at the Achikondi clinic
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A NEW children’s book is the latest in an ambitious series of ventures by an Edinburgh-based charity set up to help women in Malawi survive childbirth. Jack McConnell – First Minister from 2001-2007 during which time he set up a fund to help the poverty-stricken African nation – looks at the inspirational figures both here and in Malawi working to make a difference.

Every now and again I meet someone for whom the description “inspiring” is just not enough. It does not describe the fortitude, determination, ingenuity, and impact of one person’s efforts to help those in need around them. Charity Salima is one such person. Earlier this month, I visited her maternity clinic in Area 23 of Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. I left the Achikondi Women and Community Friendly Services Clinic in awe of what she does, and in admiration of the Scottish charity that supports her work. As her husband Francis (who helps with the cleaning-up) and daughter Naile beamed with pride, Charity had shown me how she has turned a basic building into a sought-after service for women and families in need.

The Achikondi Clinic from the outside

The Achikondi Clinic from the outside

She explained to me the standards she sets to keep the equipment and rooms clean; the procedures used to engage fathers, and to test for HIV and other conditions; the post- and antenatal care, and the vital importance of the donations that come from Scotland. She did not boast about this, but I knew from others that she has never lost a mother’s life in childbirth. This truly is an amazing clinic. And it would not be there if it was not for MUMs, the Edinburgh-based charity Malawi Underprivileged Mothers.

Charity is one of a small group of women acknowledged at the start of When the Rains Come – the latest in an ambitious series of ventures by MUMs to help the women of Malawi not just survive childbirth, but bring into the world children who will be healthy and have a chance to live a decent quality of life.

Conceived on a visit to Malawi last year, When The Rains Come is written for children by successful poet and writer Tom Pow, who is the brother-in-law of the midwife who founded MUMs, Linda McDonald.

The book is a delight. It tells a story, but in style and content it is as joyful and uplifting as the amazing people of Malawi are in real life. It is beautifully illustrated, and a delight to read. My three-year-old grandson loved it.

Perfect for a present this Christmas, it is available from bookshops and the MUMs website, It tells the enchanting tale of a family encountering some of the realities of life in today’s Africa, while nurturing the imagination with some tales of the animals that inhabit the continent, from King Tortoise to the Lion and the Elephant. For the twins Oscar and Jennifer, with baby Grace, Grandmother Rose plays that central role that so many Grannies do the world over – but particularly in those places where HIV/Aids or lack of sanitation, food and clean water rob so many children of their parents. Every copy secures a donation to help save the lives of mothers and babies in Malawi.

Pow is an experienced and successful writer. But this book uses more than his skills. It communicates his passion for Malawi and the people who live there, and channels his admiration for those who work in their communities. He reminds us of the basic humanity we all share – African children facing all the horrors and uncertainties of life still love a bedtime story, and want to sleep with a smile on their faces. The illustrations of Malika Favre are powerful and transport us to that magical land of animals, sunshine and basic village life.

When Mary Moffat was dragging herself and her belongings through the countryside of Malawi and Zambia in the 1860s, I doubt she ever imagined that she would inspire generations of Scottish women to help their sisters in one of the poorest parts of the world. From the schools and hospitals built in the early 20th century to the maternity, educational and business assistance of the early 21st, Mrs Livingstone has been as much of an inspiration as her famous husband.

Those inspired to help include: Olivia Giles and her 500 Miles charity, building clinics making and fitting prosthetic limbs; Susan Dalgety and the Active Learning Centre, training women politicians to succeed; Janet Chesney and the Chesney Trust with their new school for girls in Malawi; Ann Gloag saving women from pain through the Freedom from Fistula Foundation; and Catriona Connolly from Dundee, training medics in anaesthetics.

And all now know that in Southern Africa’s first woman president, Malawi’s own maternity and children’s rights campaigner Joyce Banda, they have a leader who shares their passion.

Growing every year since the co-operation agreement signed in 2005, this unique Scotland/Malawi partnership brings the people of both countries together to support one another in tackling the poverty and deprivation that exists there, and the poverty of experience and understanding that can sometimes exist here.

And the MUMs charity has grown too. Back in 2005 Linda McDonald was shown some photographs of the then Bottom Hospital in Lilongwe by a group of midwives who had been volunteering there. It was a filthy, unhealthy place where dedicated but demoralised staff helped 12,000 women give birth every year in squalid conditions. One baby was dying every day and one woman almost every week.

Without even visiting, Linda set up MUMs and her first recipe book created such a buzz that the charity has been going ever since. Linda’s charity was supported by the 2006 STV appeal, led by Stephen Jardine and Sir Tom Hunter and, between all of us, and the ever-generous Scots moved by the reality of life there, a new high-risk maternity hospital wing was built, and in 2010 I was lucky enough to visit after a few months. Instead of a book recording the dead babies, the hospital now had a book recording their post-natal progress, and not one woman had died in childbirth in the first five months.

But the work of MUMS and others did not stop at the £100,000 donated then. Since then, MUMs has contributed large sums to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission, and to help health workers who have become infected through their work. Linda, her family and supporters back six feeding stations, directly boosting the life chances of hundreds of children who would otherwise be too weak to fight off disease and infection, and give them a chance to live beyond the infant years.

Today MUMs supports clinics like that run by Charity, funding their feeding station for undernourished under-fives and recently buying a much-needed ambulance to help those who live outside the immediate area in local villages.

Exisiting by donation alone, these places are where terrified young pregnant girls arrive with nothing, but are cared for with dedication and love, and where feeding stations support them and their newborn children afterwards.

One in ten Malawian children will die before the age of five, and one in every 200 women can expect to die in childbirth. Around 10 per cent of the population are HIV positive, and the number of trained doctors specialising in children’s conditions can be counted on your fingers. In a population of 13 million this remains a humanitarian horror show, but support from Scots who care makes a difference.

Buy this book for your children, your grandchildren and that little one next door. Enjoy the magic in the story and the pictures, and make a small contribution to saving lives and starting lives in the 
warm heart of Africa.