She’s kept an amazingly positive attitude in the face of some devastating situations, and when you meet her the first thing you notice is that she seems to radiate joy.
Her family has had some tough things to deal with. Mirriam is a mother of three boys: Matteus (aged 12), Blessings (8) and John (6). When Blessings was four, he contracted cerebral malaria, which affected his development and caused significant physical disabilities that restricted his movement.
Mirriam was, understandably, very worried for her sons and herself, but there was worse to come. One evening not long after he’d contracted malaria, Blessings was badly burned in a house fire. He survived, but had to have one of his legs amputated at the hip and was in hospital for six months (Mirriam slept on the concrete floor under his hospital bed every night).
Compounding his existing disabilities, Blessings now required a wheelchair, and in Malawi there’s very limited provision for children with disabilities; you can’t just request a wheelchair and be given one. And even if there is a wheelchair available, there’s no guarantee it’ll be the kind you need for your age or requirements. What Blessings has is this chair – it’s made of wood, has no tyres and looks rather umconfortable.
It’s a huge understatement to say Mirriam had a lot to cope with: she was bringing up three boys, and had seen one of them go through a serious illness and a devastating accident that left doctors doubting he’d survive. Can you honestly imagine how you’d handle all of that? And yet, when we met her, Mirriam looked like this nearly all the time:
Where many parents in her situation would have felt like giving up in despair, Mirriam took action. She donated some of her own land and applied for grants to help set up the Dawn Centre, a residential school for children with disabilities to receive education and physical therapy.
The Dawn Centre is a brilliant example of working in partnership: Sightsavers works with PODCAM (the Parents of Disabled Children Association of Malawi) to give training to staff and parents and implement inclusive education, so some of the children can make the transition to mainstream schools, while materials and labour to build the centre were paid for by AquAid, which continues to support the centre.
Yet it is Mirriam’s drive that has really made it all happen. She has rallied and educated other parents in her community who have children with disabilities, getting them involved in running the school and helping them understand that their children can benefit from education, therapy and inclusion, rather than being kept indoors and left unstimulated.
The centre helpes 77 children, including Atola, who contracted yellow fever as a child and has been severely paralysed as a result. She receives physiotherapy from Mirriam, who brings the family soap, flour and other essentials when she visits.
It also helps children like Emmanuel, who’s 13 and had cerebral malaria like Blessings. He benefits hugely from Mirriam’s visits, and everyone can see what a great relationship they have.
As for Blessings: he’s thriving. He’s a happy, lively eight-year-old doing well at school, and his favourite subject is maths.
Mirriam’s story shows the incredible difference one person has made; it’s impossible to fully sum up the transformation she’s brought about in her community. The lives of children with disabilities in her region have been immeasurably improved, and she says this is what she values most about her work: “Now they are living a happy life, like any children.”