District Commissioner for Neno District, Malawi
Conducted in November 2011 by Angeline Murimirwa, the Executive Director of CAMFED Malawi and CAMFED Zimbabwe, this interview provides insight into how government officials perceive CAMFED’s work. Mr Lawford Palani, District Commissioner for Neno District in Malawi, is one of thousands of government and community members working with CAMFED to improve the lives of vulnerable children.
When did you make the first contact with CAMFED and what were your first impressions?
I made my first contact with CAMFED around the same time I moved to Neno District and that was around July-August 2009. I just thought at the time here is one of those NGOs that comes and presents beautiful things to districts and disappears. That was my gut instinct. This was my fourth year as a District Commissioner presiding in District Executive Committees and I had seen too many such well packaged and articulate NGOs. Such were often very attractive and convincing at wanting you to approve their authority to work in your district.
Now almost two years later, how is your perception of CAMFED?
CAMFED proved me wrong and I am not disappointed I gave it a chance. This was an organisation that wanted all district officials really involved. That was distinctive. Conventional NGOs often want to implement their own work in a district. They prefer to get an officer to come and work on your problem in your district, then engage with you and help you to address your problems. This is true at both district leadership level or with community members. Involvement of local authorities is minimal and cursory to meet regulations in place and not out of respect for what a community can bring to the table. CAMFED has proved to be exceptional. It clearly and practically works within existing structures, respecting them for who they are and what role they can play. This organisation is transparent. We know how much is coming into the district and for what.
It [CAMFED] has a clear niche in protection and education but we are allowed to contribute to how that should be achieved. We are allowed to do it for ourselves, to learn as we do it and increase our confidence and understanding of issues at stake. That is a key for CAMFED’s success: such an incredible attitude of listening. It is clear we are constantly asked ‘Within your environment, how can we do this?’ That creates ownership of a program and loyalty to the cause of education and protection.
How has CAMFED’s involvement of traditional authorities helped?
Us Malawians are a very traditional people and in spite of all the modernity and technological advances, we still really listen and obey the “mafumus” (traditional leaders). When they are not involved as traditional authorities, an organisation cannot claim to have the full support of the community to its work. Neglecting traditional authorities is tantamount to neglecting community roles.
If excluded, traditional authorities can be a powerful negative force. Some can even criticise the work from ignorance, which would be retrogressive. People follow what the traditional authority says, and getting them on the side of education and protection is unparalleled power to engage the community.
Your engagement of traditional authorities is exemplary and other organisations should emulate such an intervention if they are serious about communities owning the work they do.
Soon you will have the first program graduates. How are you feeling?
It will be interesting to see these girls come through. This is more so when I think of all that potential that could have been lost. I am excited by seeing the broken vicious cycle of poverty and ignorance. Seeing girls who were hopeless a few years ago emerge so hopeful. We are looking forward to celebrating this milestone together. It is clearly well earned.
Many a time I have been faced with very talented, well deserving children with their crying parents with no means to proceed with their education. They come to the District Assembly Office hoping I can help somehow. Every time I have said, ‘Sorry we cannot help’ for lack of resources, it was with a very heavy heart. The coming in of CAMFED has meant that a lot of those children can indeed get a chance. It is hope restored. I am grateful. Children deserve a chance and organisations like yourselves make it possible!!