Susan Dalgety: The Scots enriching the lives of Africa’s poorest

Olivia Giles, of the charity 500 Miles, outside its first orthotics and prosthetics centre in Malawi
Olivia Giles, of the charity 500 Miles, outside its first orthotics and prosthetics centre in Malawi
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I am writing this under a bright blue sky, with a scorching sun overhead and the mildest of breezes keeping me cool. No, I am not in Gran Canaria. Or the Caribbean. Not even the Costa del Sol. I am in downtown Blantyre – Blantyre Malawi that is, not Blantyre, deepest Lanarkshire.

Malawi’s biggest city (think Glasgow, only with fewer fights on a Saturday night) is named after Blantyre, Scotland, birthplace of that great Scots explorer, missionary and anti-slavery campaigner, Dr David Livingstone.

And that is not the only link between our two countries. As you read this, an Edinburgh woman, Olivia Giles will be interviewing here in Malawi for a new manager for the two specialist clinics her charity, 500 Miles, established nearly ten years ago, in partnership with the Ministry of Health.

Thousands of Malawians, young and old, have seen their lives transformed with affordable, custom-made artificial limbs and braces.

Children, who had crawled along the dirt to school, now walk tall in the playground, their future assured.

READ MORE: Helping those in Africa with lost limbs

Thanks, yes to Olivia, but also to all the people in Scotland who have made a donation to her charity over the years. You may even be one of them. Or you may have bought a five-pack of knickers in your local supermarket to give to Smalls for All, a charity based in Livingston. It was founded by Maria Macnamara, who, when on holiday to Ethiopia, was shocked to learn that many woman and girls could not afford to buy underwear. Or only had one pair of well-worn pants.

Lads, you can skip this next paragraph. Ladies, imagine life without knickers. The embarrassment. The mess. The absolute and utter shame of it. Sadly, millions of women and girls in low-income countries live with that embarrassment, that mess, that shame every day. This is poverty. Period.

Maria says she was so determined to do something, anything, to help even a handful of girls enjoy some dignity, that she set up Smalls for All in her garage. Eight years later, Maria and her team of volunteers have so far delivered over half a million pair of pants and bras to some of the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including Malawi.

Ann Gloag’s charity, the Balcraig Foundation, helps Maria get the underwear to Africa, but it is the individual donations of pants or bras that make Smalls for All such a huge success. That, and Maria’s energy and determination. She even gave up her job in financial services to focus on Smalls for All.

READ MORE: Emily Mnyayi: Link-up with schools in Malawi has a lot to teach Scottish kids – and theirs

A few days ago, I sat in the garden of an old house in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, which has been transformed into a youth centre by another Edinburgh-based charity, Chance for Change. Working with their Malawi colleagues in the police, judiciary and child protection, they do amazing work with young offenders newly released from prison and teenagers living in one of Lilongwe’s toughest areas.

Their main work is funded by the Scottish Government, but they recently got a small grant from former First Minister Jack McConnell’s charity, the McConnell International Foundation. The money was to set up a support group for schoolgirls at risk of sexual abuse, or who were already being abused.

More than 200 girls, from five schools, have joined the Pioneers for Change programme, where they get classes on sexual health, recognising abuse and how to deal with it, as well as one-to-one counselling.

Fourteen-year-old Mia told me, in a matter of fact voice, how much the project had meant to her.

“When I was being abused, I didn’t associate with the other girls. I skipped school and I got angry with everyone,” she said. “Now I listen to my teachers and my parents. I lead by example. My life is changed.”

At the moment, it seems almost impossible to change the world. A world where the US president thinks nothing of calling countries like Malawi “s***holes”. A world where 42 people – yes, 42 – share as much wealth as the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half of our world. The owner of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, is apparently now the world’s richest man after he gained another £4 billion in the first ten days of this year, thanks to the buoyant US stock market.

Think of the knickers you could buy with £4 billion, the number of people you could help walk, the children you could educate. Think of the clean water and electricity you could supply, the hospitals you could build, the teachers and nurses you could recruit with even half of Mr Amazon’s January bonus.

Then think of the difference you can make with a £5 pack of supermarket knickers, or a tenner to 500 Miles.

We may not be able to change the world, just yet. But we can each change one life.