Imagine giving birth, or watching a loved one give birth, in a mud-floored hut without clean water or a basic latrine. This is the reality for millions of women in Malawi, Africa, and other developing nations.
In Malawi, a small country in southeastern Africa, where approximately 30 percent of the people in rural areas lack access to clean water and more than 50 percent lack basic sanitation, efforts are underway to improve conditions for birthing mothers.
Prepartum waiting stations
A new initiative, prepartum waiting station, designed to decrease maternal and infant mortality, has been launched by Joyce Banda, the new female president of Malawi. Waiting stations are areas adjacent to birthing centers or health clinics where expectant mothers may come a week or two prior to their delivery date, so that they are close to medical care. The initiative is aimed at reducing the risks of giving birth at home in remote villages with traditional birth attendants (TBAs), far from any medical facilities.
“Now that we have this political will, we believe that conditions for our expectant mothers will definitely improve,” says Charles Banda, the executive director of Freshwater Malawi, a local Malawian non-governmental organization (NGO) devoted to providing clean water, sanitation and hygiene services (WASH) to the rural communities of Malawi.
Since Charles Banda founded the organization in 1995, the results of Freshwater Malawi’s work in the Blantyre rural region have been dramatic for the communities served. School drop-out rates of girls have decreased from 46 percent to 2 percent and cholera outbreaks became so rare that the International Red Cross took down the cholera tent at the Blantyre Health Clinic.
Furthermore, sustainability of the comprehensive water projects is very high—at 93 percent—due to the unwavering commitment of Freshwater Malawi to take a community-driven approach on all projects, and use water as an entry point for community empowerment. As a testimony to its integrity, Freshwater Malawi was identified as the Best Water NGO in Malawi by UNICEF for the last three years.
Charles Banda traveled to Denver, Colorado, in October 2012 to attend the launch of Freshwater Project International (FPI), a new U.S.-based sister organization devoted to supporting the efforts of Freshwater Malawi. Collectively, Freshwater is committed to helping the impoverished people of Malawi, where the current priority is the provision of WASH services at the new waiting stations.
“We’re excited about the response of potential partners from the Denver community and throughout the U.S. to support our projects at the waiting stations,” says Freshwater Project International co-founder Heidi Rickels, a Denver resident. “The improvement of maternal/child health strikes a chord in many people because of our shared human inclination to see that mothers and newborn babies are as protected as possible.”
More than 100 people gathered together for the launch of Freshwater Project International at the first annual Wine to Freshwater festivities at the Studios at Overland Crossing in Denver. Many people who had first met Charles during his 2004 residency were happy to see the growth of the organization. “It is a joy to build connections with individuals and organizations who share our passion for these issues as we launch our new organization here in the U.S. to help the people of Malawi,” says New York-based filmmaker and FPI co-founder, Amy Hart.
The Story of Freshwater
The story of Freshwater is a story of friendship that began, serendipitously, in 2004 on two different continents, between two American women and an amazing African man.
Charles Banda, a humble, local Malawian fireman who grew up in villages without clean water, took it upon himself to become a waterman and provide clean water to the impoverished people of his country after seeing many villages struck by cholera and other waterborne diseases. Since he launched Freshwater Malawi, the organization has provided clean water and sanitation to approximately one million people.
In 2004,Charles traveled to Denver for a four-month educational fellowship. Heidi Rickels became his professional mentor at Project C.U.R.E., a nonprofit where she was director of communications at the time. Her loving family basically adopted him, and they stayed in close touch with Charles after his fellowship.
Later in 2004, Amy Hart, who didn’t know Heidi at the time, traveled to Africa to make a documentary film on global water issues. She was introduced to Charles Banda, who ended up becoming the central figure of her film, WATER FIRST: Reaching the Millennium Development Goals. The short version of the film won an international jury prize at the World Water Forum in 2006, and she used the prize money to return to Malawi and develop the film. The final version of the film premiered in 2008 at the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C., on World Water Day.
While in Malawi, Hart was inspired to pay for the repair of a broken well in a village where people were suffering without clean water—and the mission of supplying water to people of Malawi took root in her heart. “It feels good to do something that makes such a positive difference in the world,” she says. “I know firsthand that Freshwater Malawi uses every dime for water projects. They live very humbly to do this work, and they think nothing of working 10 hours a day, six days a week. They pour everything they’ve got into it—so I’m happy to support them.”
In 2009, having been introduced via email by Charles, Heidi and Amy got online with each other and arranged a speaking tour for Charles with screenings of WATER FIRST at the American Public Health Association conference and a series of other venues in Philadelphia, Chicago, Minneapolis, New York, Albany and Denver. Heidi and Amy, along with Charles, finally got to meet each other in person in Philadelphia—and the dream for clean water and sanitation for every person in Malawi began to take shape.
After hosting fundraisers that had provided clean water to more than 20,000 Malawians and helping to support a water project for a birthing center in Ndongo village that serves 18 villages, the two women decided to start their own nonprofit organization.
With the helpful support from Cleary Gottlieb Steen and Hamilton to guide them through the legal process, the organization was granted 501(c)3 nonprofit status in December 2011, and officially launched on January 1, 2012. In late October the three friends were reunited at the launch party in Denver. “It was wonderful to see so many people gather together to support Freshwater,” says Charles Banda. “I see that Americans really care about Malawians, and that moves me deeply. I was so impressed by the enthusiasm of these people. I know it will make a big difference.”
Now that the launch party is behind them, the team is busy with the serious work at hand—to raise funds that will provide life-saving water and sanitation services to the people of Malawi, most urgently at waiting stations. “The mothers and children of Malawi will benefit tremendously from having safe, clean water and sanitation services at the facilities where they are about to give birth,” says Charles Banda.
WASH programs for schools and communities
In addition to focusing on programs at waiting stations, Freshwater also provides WASH programs to schools and villages. To support this work, the American team hopes to provide a new drill rig that will empower the on-the-ground team to provide many more wells and comprehensive WASH programs.
“We have a vision,” says Hart, “and that is to see that all people in Malawi have access to clean water and basic sanitation. This won’t be accomplished by Freshwater alone, but we certainly intend to raise awareness and contribute as much as we can to that goal.”
Malawi is a peaceful country, but one of the poorest in the world with a GNP of just $860 annually (global average is $10,869), and its population of 15 million has great need for assistance and partnerships designed to improve health and strengthen development.
Freshwater is now striving to build more partnerships in the United States with individuals and groups, large and small—from junior high schools to large universities, rotary clubs to government agencies—no partnership or donation is too small. “Or too big,” adds Hart. “We have the capacity to build the organization and effectively channel all the support we can gather to water and sanitation programs in Malawi.”
With guidance from water engineers, nonprofit consultants, public health academics, market-based development experts, and leaders of other major international development organizations, the team is focused on building substantial relationships to further the progress in Malawi.
“The more partnerships we build, the sooner we can jointly achieve universal access to clean water and sanitation in Malawi,” says Rickels. “You’d think in this day in age, it would be a given, but this is something we’re going to have to work really hard for—so all the help we can get is appreciated.”
For more information, log on to www.FreshwaterIntl.org.