In our work in Malawi we are privileged to come across some truly remarkable people. One of those was Miriam Pharoe, the founder and inspiration behind ‘The Dawn Centre’ and Aquaid’s work with disabled children. She was perhaps the most astonishing woman I have ever met and I count myself really fortunate to have known her.
Miriam was a poor Malawian village woman with no education beyond primary level, whose husband had left her to bring up a very severely physically and intellectually disabled child alone in a society where such disabilities carry a massive stigma. To add to her plight, her son suffered serious burns after falling on a cooking fire. We first met her, sleeping night after night on the floor under her son’s bed in the hospital’s burns unit. Everything seemed stacked against Miriam.
But instead of hiding her disabled son at the back of her home, never to see the light of day, as many in Malawi are wont to do, Miriam was proud of him and began making contact with other mothers with similarly disabled children. Over time she built up a network of such mums, meeting with them regularly to worship together and share their burdens and their joys under a tree outside the village in the baking sun. By the time she came to Aquaid’s notice she was wanting to build a simple shelter where they could meet in all weathers and came to us for the money to do so. We soon learnt you don’t say ‘no’ to Miriam, so we helped.
To cut a very long story short, she quickly became the inspiration behind the Aquaid Lifeline Fund’s foray into caring for disabled children in Malawi. Where that tree once stood, is now a residential unit with a special school and physiotherapy facilities attached. Called ‘The Dawn Centre’, it is widely recognised as the finest such facility in rural Malawi.
Miriam worked there as the outreach worker, going up into the nearby mountains on her bike loaded with bags of maize, to visit, encourage and support other mothers with disabled youngsters. Athletically lean and fit – think Jessica Ennis-Hill – Miriam would think nothing of doing 100 miles of true off-road mountain biking, come rain or shine. You should have seen the look on her face when we bought her a motorbike!
But tragically, in early July of this year, Miriam died. She’d been heavily pregnant, went to hospital and never returned. Suffice to say this is the experience of far too many Malawian women, even today.
My deep sadness for the death of a woman in whose modest home I have shared a traditional Malawian meal, is balanced by my thoughts about the remarkable legacy she has left us. It was an immense privilege to have known such a remarkable woman who achieved so much from such humble beginnings. There may only have been one Miriam, but I know that right across Malawi there are other remarkable women who, once given just a sliver of a chance and a bit of help from us, can change their world.