Gowelo Stories

Co-authored by Nick Schonfeld.

For a child, “home” can mean a lot of things: shelter, warmth, family, a place which is your own or which you share with those you love. A home means stability, a base from which to grow in the community into which you were born. But more than anything, in the world’s poorest countries, a home means survival.

Sisters Gertrude (16), Elisa (14) and Maureen (11)  relax at their gowelo, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016. For the first time
Sisters Gertrude (16), Elisa (14) and Maureen (11) relax at their gowelo, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016. For the first time since 2005, the three sisters live in their own home. After being split apart and sent to various orphanages, they are finally able to start a new life together, as a family.

Normally in Malawi, once you reach puberty, you build what is known as a “gowelo”: a one or two room brick house that, in keeping with tradition, is built next to or near your parental home. A gentle yet clear signal that it’s time for you to start your own life as an adult.

James (19) sits on the porch of his gowelo, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016. James was very young when his father died. Althoug
James (19) sits on the porch of his gowelo, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016. James was very young when his father died. Although his mother is still alive, she is unable to support him as women in Malawi have a far harder time finding employment than men. James is proud of his gowelo, which he decorated himself. When he is not studying to become a plumber, he likes to listen to music or the news on a portable radio which he powers with a car battery. His dream is to one day open his own business.
Thomas (19) sits with his dog on the porch of his gowelo, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016. Thomas is studying agriculture at Gr
Thomas (19) sits with his dog on the porch of his gowelo, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016. Thomas is studying agriculture at Green Malata, a nearby entrepreneurial training village which is run by the same charity that built his gowelo. In his house he raises guinea pigs, pigeons, and cultivates fields in the surrounding countryside. “My gowelo is good because I can go to school and I do not have to worry about where I will sleep.”

However, for more than 16.7 percent of children under 18, who are classified as Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC), a gowelo remains an impossibly distant dream. Nearly one million have lost one or both parents to AIDS alone. According to UNICEF, 20 percent of Malawian households are looking after orphans or vulnerable children, and many of these households are headed by girls, women, and elderly women, who, in Malawi, already struggle with gender discrimination on a daily basis. In many cases the family is unable to cope with an extra mouth to feed, and the at risk children are sent to orphanages or forced to leave.

Happiness (17) stands next to the front door of her gowelo, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016. She has lived here since 2015. Lik
Happiness (17) stands next to the front door of her gowelo, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016. She has lived here since 2015. Like all the others, her gowelo has a living room, a bedroom and a storage room. Her father died when she was very young, and she was sent to an orphanage by her mother, where she remained until she was brought back to her village. Happiness now lives opposite her mother, in the community where she was born.

In other words, if you are an orphan in Malawi, the chance that you will ever be able to have a home, a safe place from which you can begin life as an adult is small. These vulnerable children end up on the streets and the only way for them to survive is enter a life of crime or prostitution. Without a home, they are lost, at risk of exploitation and abuse.

Wyclef (26) sits in his gowelo, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016. Thanks to his gowelo, Wyclef is able to live in the same villa
Wyclef (26) sits in his gowelo, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016. Thanks to his gowelo, Wyclef is able to live in the same village as his sister and take care of his sister and her 4 children after her husband passed away. Wyclef is a big football fan, and loves to watch matches on tv, or if he can afford it, in a nearby stadium.
Tamanda (16) sits in her gowelo, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016. After her mother passed away in 2007, Tamanda was sent to a l
Tamanda (16) sits in her gowelo, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016. After her mother passed away in 2007, Tamanda was sent to a local orphanage, where she still lives. She rents out her gowelo in order to earn some extra income. When she graduates, Tamanda wants to become a biology or English teacher.

Since 2012, the Children’s Fund of Malawi, the small Dutch charity whose work Nick and I documented in 2016, has built more than 70 gowelos for local orphans. Dotted around the Malawian countryside, these simple buildings provide the children with the stable beginnings of a normal life, something they desperately need.

Elias (28) stands in his gowelo, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016. Elias is the manager of Green Malata, a nearby entrepreneuria
Elias (28) stands in his gowelo, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016. Elias is the manager of Green Malata, a nearby entrepreneurial training village run by the same charity that funded the building of his gowelo. He too is an orphan who attended the same orphanage as many of the others. After catching the eye of the charity’s director, he was taken under her wing, and became intimately involved with the gowelo program, overseeing the construction of more than 70 of them.
Teresa (18) stands in her gowelo, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016. She moved into her gowelo in 2015, after she graduated from
Teresa (18) stands in her gowelo, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016. She moved into her gowelo in 2015, after she graduated from high school. After her parents passed away, Teresa, and her brother Thomas (also featured in this article) were sent to live in a nearby orphanage where she stayed until her gowelo was built. Teresa is waiting for the results of her high school exams, which in Malawi can take up to 8 months to arrive. One day, she would like to study nursing and work in a hospital.
Peter (17), sits on the porch of his gowelo, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016. After his parents died, Peter was found by a soci
Peter (17), sits on the porch of his gowelo, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016. After his parents died, Peter was found by a social worker and sent to a nearby orphanage, where he still lives today. Like several other children who are still at school, Peter rents out his gowelo, or lets relatives stay there, until he is old enough to live there himself. If Peter was president of Malawi he would “encourage people to build more houses, and lower the prices of building materials so that poor people like me can afford to live somewhere safe.”
John (18) stands on the porch of his gowelo, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016. John’s parents died in a car accident in 2005. “W
John (18) stands on the porch of his gowelo, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016. John’s parents died in a car accident in 2005. “When I heard that I was going to help build my own house I was very happy. I asked my relatives to help me organise some bricks. “ John is waiting to hear if he has passed his high school exams, after which he would like to study art. He has a passion for music videos, and is convinced there is much room for improvement when it comes to editing and cinematography. “Some of the music videos in Malawi are good, but many are not good at all. I want to make the good ones better.”
Mphatso stands in the doorway of his gowelo. Like Elias, Mphatso was involved in the gowelo program from the very beginning.
Mphatso stands in the doorway of his gowelo. Like Elias, Mphatso was involved in the gowelo program from the very beginning. After Margriet Sacranie-Simons, the charities’ director, saw what he was capable of, she asked him to help organise and distribute the building materials needed to build the gowelos. Currently, Mphatso is working to improve the biogas facitilies at Green Malata, the nearby entrepreneurial training village. He has also built a workshop complex with some of his firends which he hopes to rent out to small businesses.

It is incredible to see what a difference the gowelos have made. The children who live in them can rebuild their lives with relative calm, in their own villages, so that they can remain part of their community. A home means that they can focus on school or their studies instead of worrying finding a roof over their heads, and because the children own their gowelos, they can rent them out to provide a little extra income.

Alex (19) sits in the bedroom of his gowelo that was damaged by a recent fire, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016.  After the pare
Alex (19) sits in the bedroom of his gowelo that was damaged by a recent fire, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016. After the parents of several young children passed away 3 months ago, their relatives asked for permission to allow them to stay in his gowelo, while Alex continued to live at a local orphanage. One day, after the children had spent the evening working on their school assignments, they left without blowing out a candle and the gowelo caught fire. Although Alex lost most of his possessions in the blaze, he was more concerned with the fate of his gowelo, which thankfully survived.
Sisters Gertrude (16), Elisa (14) and Maureen (11) cook in the courtyard of their gowelo, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016.
Sisters Gertrude (16), Elisa (14) and Maureen (11) cook in the courtyard of their gowelo, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016.

It is easy to forget that on top of the ‘classic’ problems of food, shelter, medicine, employment, those who live in the world’s poorest countries need to also somehow deal with things like the death of a parent. Loosing one or both parents is traumatic enough for a child who lives in a country with a functioning health care system, where mental health workers and extended family can help them properly process their grief. Imagine what it must be like for a child who has nothing.

Maureen (11) poses in the garden next to her gowelo, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016.
Maureen (11) poses in the garden next to her gowelo, Thyolo District, Malawi, 2016.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
CONVERSATIONS