12/07/2010 01:44 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Malawi Orphans' Life Lessons

By Sara Fajardo, CRS regional information officer for eastern and southern Africa. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya.

The world shifted for the Mwanmuyinga brothers on October 24, 2009. Outside their tiny village, Luhimbo 2, in northern Malawi, nobody felt it, but for Yohane and Stefan that fateful Saturday was like an earthquake that reshaped the landscape of their lives. In an instant they went from two boys living with their grandfather, to two boys living alone.

They buried their Grandfather under a mango tree. He rests next to their father, who died when they were toddlers. Their mother, unable to care for them, left them with their grandfather soon after their dad's passing.

A rustic wooden cross bears Grandfather's name, Sipiliyango Mwanmuyinga. Two white penny-sized flowers grow on the soil that swells over his grave. When the rains come, Yohane, 15, pulls weeds and pats the ground into a perfectly symmetrical mound. He and his younger brother, Stefan, 13, visit often. They pass his grave on their twice daily trek to gather water from the local borehole.

What they miss most are Grandfather's stories. The mid-afternoon space right after they'd fed the cows and right before Grandfather lay down for a nap. They would sit on rough-hewn wooden benches -- only slightly higher than an ankle -- and listen to snippets of his life on their well-swept dirt porch.

Grandfather was an orphan himself. When his father died, he went to live with his aunt. She was jealous of young Sipiliyango and treated him poorly. One day he could bear it no longer and fled across the Tanzanian border into Malawi. Grandfather married, had three sons and a daughter. He raised cattle and listened for cowbells to find his herd on the long stretches of land where they grazed.

Parables and Hard Work

Each story had a purpose. Life's challenges became parables in which Grandfather shared how he faced problems. Yohane and Stefan listened intently and tried to learn how to make their way in the world of adults.

Yohane says that he's used to hard work. He quit school two years ago to tend to Grandfather. Age eroded Grandfather's stature. He seemed to shrink at a rate rivaling the boys' growth. They grew. He shrank. Then one day they were eye level. They grew again. He shrank once more, and Yohane found he could look down on Grandfather as he hobbled in slow measured steps with the support of his blue gum walking cane.

Yohane prepared meals. He bathed Grandfather. Trips to the borehole became increasingly frequent. More water was needed to heat the tea that soothed Grandfather's chronically shivering body. Yohane helped Stefan get ready for school while shelving his own dreams of becoming a doctor. The more he cared for Grandfather, the more Yohane dreamed of simply knowing which medicine would soothe which ailment without having to rely on distant clinics for advice. Perhaps his younger brother would make it. Yohane's studies would have to wait. He was needed at home.

Life, these days, is choreographed domesticity. The brothers take turns cooking in their smoke-smudged kitchen, where a cricket chirps like a ticking clock. Stefan's slingshot lies haphazardly on the floor. He sometimes uses it to hunt birds to supplement their meals. They do their own laundry and tend the crops together. Grandfather left them well cared for, a two-room house -- large by village standards -- five cows, two acres of land. Yohane, however, was forced to sell two of their cows to buy provisions. It was a temporary solution that took with it the daily income earned from selling milk. He and Stefan began to seek piecemeal work helping lay bricks in the grueling sun during Malawi's dry season, and harvesting crops after the rains.

Help From Friends and Neighbors

Hope and healing come in increments for Yohane and Stefan. Yohane finds ways to provide his brother with small luxuries. Since kerosene is so costly, he engineered a simple lamp with four D batteries and an LED light thinner than the nail it hangs from, so that Stefan can study after the sun dips behind the horizon promptly at 6 p.m. each evening.

The village elders replaced the brothers grass-thatched roof with 23 sheets of corrugated metal purchased by selling a small parcel of the boys' land. The new roof saves the pair the daily chore of cutting and bundling tall grass. Collecting enough to cover a roof can take up to two months.

They rely on their small parcel of farmed land to get them through the year. They practice Grandfather's lessons and receive kind guidance on farming from experts sent by the Lusubilo Orphan Care project. The project, which means "hope" in the local language, is a Catholic Relief Services partner that works with children like the Mwanmuyinga brothers. They teach them when to vary crops and when to plant beans to fix nitrate into the soil. Lessons on planting and harvesting are intermixed with gentle queries on their well-being: how Stefan is doing in school, how Yohane is feeling about his workload.

The brothers' main concern, they say, is getting enough money to mill the maize they grow. Pounding the kernels into the coarse powder used to make their daily meal of nsima, dumpling-like corn cakes, takes precious hours they cannot spare.

Food Baskets and Dreams

Stories like Stefan and Yohane's are not uncommon in rural Malawi. Rampant rates of HIV, 12 percent, have left many orphaned. Communities struggle to meet the needs of the more than 1 million orphans and vulnerable children across the country. The Mwamunyinga brothers are fortunate: They had their Grandfather; their community does what it can; and additional support is provided through Lusubilo.

To supplement their harvest the boys also receive a food basket of 100 pounds of corn, beans, cooking oil and salt from the Lusubilo Orphan Care project. Something as seemingly small as a basket of food marks the difference between sending Stefan to school and feeding their dreams, or picking up piecemeal work and laying the bricks for the dream homes of others.

The baskets give the boys room to breathe, a chance to spend time on childhood pursuits, like games of hide-the-ball, or retelling Grandfather's stories. With the help of the Lusubilo project, Yohane is considering going back to school. He longs to feed his interest in science, gleaning from books the mysteries of the human body. Perhaps one day Yohane will sit on his own porch and tell his stories to his grandson about how he learned to make his way in the world.