Once-abandoned 23-year-old woman rescuing, fostering vulnerable children, young mothers in Mzuzu
This is the story of Tusaiwe Munkhondiya, a 23-year-old Malawian woman who, after surviving her own childhood tragedies, now fosters 41 children.
The rose that bloomed on concrete: The story of 23 year old Malawian woman who survived abandonment as a child and now rescues poor vulnerable children for a living
It's not every day that you hear about a young African woman who was traumatised as a child, survived abandonment, depression, sexual abuse, stigma, and isolation, and is now a hero in her own story.
(This is the story of Tusaiwe Munkhondiya, a 23-year-old Malawian woman who, after surviving her own childhood tragedies, now fosters 41 children.)
Tusaiwe Munkhondiya, 23, is heard instilling powerful words of affirmation in one of her adopted daughters at one of the facilities run by her organisation, YANA, which began in 2020.
The positive affirmations have become a significant part of the children's day at the Foundation. The children hold mirrors to their faces and are directly taught by their 'mother' Tusaiwe, to utter strong positive affirmations about themselves before they begin their day.
For the young zealous and compassionate humanitarian, her days are focused on feeding, teaching and empowering her 41 adopted children, including the young mothers that also live with her.
At the age of 23, she assumes the role of mother, parent, and guardian for abandoned babies (infants), street children, orphans, disabled children, and young mothers who became pregnant as teenagers. All who live in her community and are supported by her foundation, YANA, which means "you are not alone."
And, indeed, through YANA, these children have found a place to call home and feel more loved than they did before their lives were settled there.
YANA is located in Mzuzu, Malawi's northernmost city. That is where all 41 of these children call home.
"When I could no longer afford to live in town, I moved to the village and eventually opened a nursery school (pre-school). Over time, I noticed that some of the students who attended my school were struggling to bring food and even pay their small school fees." Tusaiwe says.
"Some of the children were orphans, and knowing that I had room in my house, I decided to take in two kids from my school and then continued to foster more children."
She later went on to foster children ranging in age from 6 to 17 years after communicating with the government and social welfare about the two children.
Tusaiwe shares stories about her life journey and childhood on social media, which has greatly influenced her current path of fostering vulnerable children and providing the love she never received as a child.
"When I was 9 months old, my mother abandoned me. Today, I foster abandoned children and care for them as if they were my own. I don't want other children to grow up without their mother, which is why I'm here loving on these kids "she states.
Munkhondiya had every reason to give up when life began to tear her down through her traumatic encounters, but she didn't.
Tusaiwe had a lot to deal with as a child, being abandoned, being subjected to sexual abuse, growing up without the presence of a mother, and having a father who denied responsibility.
She became pregnant when she was only 16 years old.
Munkhondiya's story reflects the large number of girls in Malawi who become pregnant at a young age.
According to a 2021 publication by Frontiers in Public Health, Malawi has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates, currently at 29% of the population.
It goes on to say that adolescent mothers frequently give birth, care for, and provide for their children while still children themselves, and thus lack practical child-rearing skills.
She says: "I became pregnant at the age of sixteen. People at home began to look down on me, and I lost many friends and even dropped out of school at the time. That was the first time I realised how difficult it is to be a single mother."
Tusaiwe was pregnant, vulnerable, and without a stable home to call her own.
Despite her circumstances, she fought on.
Her misfortunes, however, did not stop with abandonment, sexual abuse, or having nowhere to call home; she also gave birth to a child with autism.
The hospitals took their time diagnosing her son's condition due to limited access to good medical facilities, but they did so eventually.
As her child grew, the young mother struggled to find a school that could accommodate her special needs son, until she decided it was possible for her to establish a school that accommodated and recognised other children with similar and even more complicated conditions than her son.
"When I discovered my son was autistic, I realised he was being abused by his teachers and caregivers every time I sent him to school. Because of his condition, they never understood him "Munkhondiya tells her story.
"Later, I sat down and considered opening a special needs school for my son and other children with similar conditions. I eventually mustered the courage to open the facility, and we are now able to assist other children with various disabilities."
Tusaiwe's dream of caring for vulnerable children began in a small back room on her family's land.
Despite the fact that that particular room (school facility) was closed due to unresolved family land disputes, she went on to establish another school, which led to her becoming a foster parent to many vulnerable children.
Tusaiwe, who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, says there are times when things get tough, but she manages to draw strength from her past and carry on with her responsibilities.
"I'm glad that every time I see my son, I'm inspired to do better because I'm doing it for him. This is for the benefit of my community. If I give up now, it will be difficult for others to stand up and create something similar," she says.
The YANA Home and Foundation continues to help vulnerable and impoverished children in Malawi. Well-wishers and international donors continue to provide tremendous support to the foundation.
Munkhondiya now incorporates mental health awareness discussions into her programmes, which she believes is critical for the well-being of her Foundation's children.
YANA operates a foster home, a special needs school, pre-schools, and support groups for women and the elderly.
In response to the YANA initiative, Dr Precious Makiyi, a Mental Health Specialist, says it is critical to advocate for mental health in rural communities because it helps break the stigma and cultural beliefs associated with mental health conditions.
"People in rural areas attribute common mental illnesses to factors such as witchcraft and other beliefs. Such narratives impede and limit one's healing process, so it is critical for the country to advocate for mental health in order to break those narratives and close the knowledge gap on mental health in rural Malawi, "Makiyi states.
The mental health expert went on to say that it is also important to remind people suffering from mental illnesses that they are not alone in their battle.
"It is critical to remind these children, as well as anyone suffering from any type of mental illness, that they are not alone and that with the right support, they will heal," says Makiyi.
Malawi faces numerous challenges, many of which are directly influenced by poverty.
These difficulties range from a lack of basic necessities such as food and shelter to a lack of basic learning materials and education facilities for rural children, as well as malnutrition and low income.
Poverty rate in Malawi is alarmingly high, with a large number of the population living under conditions of extreme poverty. A recent analysis by the World Bank on Malawi depicts that, the number of Malawians facing high-level acute food insecurity was at 1.1 million in September 2021 and although the national poverty rate has slightly declined from 51.5% in 2015/16 to 50.7% in 2019/20, it is still alarmingly high.
The burdens of children and young women in rural Malawi are often almost impossible to overcome. All of the children and young mothers Tusaiwe Munkhondiya fosters come from extreme poverty, and usually lack basic needs for their daily livelihood and are unable to live healthy lives. This is what makes her initiative so significant for the country.
It is also clear that her efforts to take care of others with similar and more appalling experiences than hers, go beyond this being a temporary initiative. Tusaiwe has taken this path because she believes every child regardless of their identity, deserves to be loved, cared for and recognised.