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At bottom of pecking order in nation rife with poverty

Bernie Ni Fhlatharta



Date Published: 03-May-2012

A rural crossroads in South East Africa seems like an unlikely place for a financial meeting. Yet, the women sitting on the ground in Northern Malawi, passing their babies around between them, while chickens and dogs wander alongside, are here to discuss finance – and to improve each other’s lives.

They are part of a project called Self-help which is being administered in Northern Malawi by an Irish-led organisation.

The St John of God service in the Northern Malawi city of Mzuzu was established by Brother Aidan Clohessy 19 years ago to care for people who have problems with mental health. It also caters for children with special needs. These are humans who are at the bottom of the pecking order in a country where almost half of the 15 million population is below the poverty line.

Part of the St John of God brief is to ensure that people remain healthy, explains Br Aidan – so it made sense to get involved in the Self-help project, which aims to lift the poorest women and their families out of poverty in a country where the average life expectancy is less than 50 years.

The Self-help model, which originated in India, works with women who are on the bottom of the poverty ladder, giving them autonomy by encouraging them to save and take out small loans.

St John of God provides a facilitator for the scheme, but the women are in charge.

“Women have been oppressed but, despite that, they have a commitment to the family,” says Br Aidan, explaining that this is a hugely patriarchal region. Self-help is working to change that.

Its format is astoundingly simple, as was demonstrated by the group at this country crossroads. The women sat in a circle, with three large enamel bowls between them. One was for savings, the other for loan repayments and the third for a community fund, to help families in times of need.

As each woman’s name was called out, she responded by calling out the amount she was saving that week, followed by her contribution to the community fund and, finally, any loan repayments she was making.

When all the money was collected, those members of the group who wanted loans, made their pitch and the cash was redistributed. The idea is to keep it circulating to benefit members, either by supporting their business plans or helping to clothe and educate their kids until the harvest comes in. The group agrees on the interest rate and the time frame for loan repayments.

Each group has a moderator and a bookkeeper, who keep meticulous records of all transactions. These roles are rotated to ensure there’s no corruption. It’s very professional, but there’s a social aspect to it as well.

Self-help came to Mzuzu 2010 and by last year had 40 groups with 742 members. As the women become aware of their strength, they have begun to lobby politicians for better health and education. One group recently forced the local council, to close a massive dump, located beside where they lived – many kids weren’t going to school, because they spent their days foraging there.

Brother Aidan was sceptical about Self-help initially, thinking its strict guidelines might not be adhered to. But, he says, it is a major success, with several women having set up businesses baking, selling fish, selling bricks or opening small, roadside shops.

At present the women’s groups are appointing representatives to the next level, known as clusters, with a view to gaining greater independence.

“It’s about letting them decide what works for them, rather than driving them,” Br Aidan says.

As Self-help groups form into clusters, they have begun to work with another Irish charity based in Mzuzu. Wells for Zoë provides villages with clean water and promotes education in a region where it is often neglected. It was set up by Roscommon man John and his Mayo born wife Mary Coyne, who fell in love with Malawi on their first visit seven years ago. The couple have strong Galway links, having spent their summer holidays in Moycullen, where they owned a hosue, for many years.

For more, read this week’s Galway City Tribune.

Galway in Days Gone By

The way we were – Protecting archives of our past

Judy Murphy



A photo of Galway city centre from the county council's archives

People’s living conditions less than 100 years ago were frightening. We have come a long way. We talk about water charges today, but back then the local District Councils were erecting pumps for local communities and the lovely town of Mountbellew, according to Council minutes, had open sewers,” says Galway County Council archivist Patria McWalter.

Patria believes we “need to take pride in our history, and we should take the same pride in our historical records as we do in our built heritage”. When you see the wealth of material in her care, this belief makes sense.

She is in charge of caring for the rich collection of administrative records owned by Galway County Council and says “these records are as much part of our history as the Rock of Cashel is. They document our lives and our ancestors’ lives. And nobody can plan for the future unless you learn from the past, what worked and what didn’t”.

Archivists and librarians are often unfairly regarded as being dry, academic types, but that’s certainly not true of Patria. Her enthusiasm is infectious as she turns the pages of several minute books from Galway’s Rural District Councils, all of them at least 100 years old.

Part of her role involved cataloguing all the records of the Councils – Ballinasloe, Clifden, Galway, Gort, Loughrea, Mountbellew, Portumna and Tuam. These records mostly consisted of minutes of various meetings.

When she was cataloguing them she realised their worth to local historians and researchers, so she decided to compile a guide to their content. The result is For the Record: The Archives of Galway’s Rural District Councils, which will be a valuable asset to anybody with an interest in history.

Many representatives on these Councils were local personalities and several were arrested during the political upheaval of the era, she explains.

And, ushering in a new era in history, women were allowed to sit on these Rural District Councils – at the time they were not allowed to sit on County Councils.

All of this information is included in Patria’s introductory essay to the attractively produced A4 size guide, which gives a glimpse into how these Rural Councils operated and the way political thinking changed in Ireland during a short 26-year period. In the early 1900s, these Councils supported Home Rule, but by 1920, they were calling for full independence and refusing to recognise the British administration.

“I love the tone,” says Patria of the minutes from meetings. “The language was very emotive.”

That was certainly true of the Gort Rural District Council. At a meeting in 1907, following riots in Dublin at the premiere of JM Synge’s play, The Playboy of the Western World the councillors’ response was vehement. They recorded their decision to “protest most emphatically against the libellous comedy, The Playboy of the Western World, that was belched forth during the past week in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, under the fostering care of Lady Gregory and Mr Yeats. We congratulate the good people of Dublin in howling down the gross buffoonery and immoral suggestions that are scattered throughout this scandalous performance.


For more from the archives see this week’s Tribunes here

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Real Galway flavour to intermediate club hurling battle in Birr

Bernie Ni Fhlatharta



Date Published: 23-Jan-2013


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Athenry fail to take chances as they bow out of Junior Cup

Bernie Ni Fhlatharta



Date Published: 29-Jan-2013

Athenry FC 1

Kilbarrack United 2

(After extra time)

For the second year in succession Athenry were done in extra time in the FAI Junior Cup as last season’s beaten finalist’s came from behind to snatch an excellent game in Moanbawn on Sunday afternoon.

On a heavy pitch that was only playable following extensive groundwork by club officials all morning, the home side were by far the better side in the opening half, but failed to take advantage of a number of opportunities that came their way.

An Alan O’Donovan penalty gave them a merited advantage just after the restart, but thereafter were on the back foot as Kilbarrack took over, but for all their pressing, the home rearguard were dealing comfortably with their forays.

However they were struck a body blow just six minutes from time, as big striker Keith Kirwan was left all alone at the far post to head the equaliser and from that point on the Dubliners were the better side.

They started off the extra time in the ascendancy and enjoying all the momentum before striking for a good winning goal on 104 minutes. A strong bench allowed them to make some necessary changes and it was not a facility that was available to Athenry manager Gabriel Glavin.

With Gary Forde and Gary Delaney out through suspension following their sending off against OLBC in the previous round, and Seamie Crowe injured, it left their bench rather threadbare with just a number of young squad players available.

Playing with the aid of the slight incline and any wind advantage going, the home side had a Connor Cannon effort on target in the opening minute, while John Meleady was just over with a flick at the other end.

Meleady then tested Andrew Walsh who saved comfortably, before the goalkeeper pulled off a brilliant double save on 14 minutes.

Firstly he went full length to push away a Meleady shot and was then back on his feet to parry David Jackson’s close-range rebound.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Sentinel.

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