I Must Tell My Story: Ireen Banda of Malawi

08/10/15

Sitting in the American camp office and laughing about campers and cultural differences, you couldn’t feel farther away from the harsh world Ireen paints with her stories. But they are her life—though it’s hard to believe this soft-spoken, confident, beautiful young Malawian woman was once fighting on the street for food to bring back to her abusive father and dying mother. 


Ireen told me her story in the office of Island Lake Camp, in Poulsbo, Washington, where she is serving as a counselor for the summer. 
 

And Ireen is determined to tell these stories. When asked what she wants to become, the young college student doesn’t waver. “I have to be a journalist,” she says quietly, clearly with no other option in her mind. “My story speaks to people, so I must tell it.”
 
I was ready for a good story when she told me that, but I wasn’t ready for the words she spoke. “I grew up my whole childhood thinking I had killed my little brother,” she tells me, straight-faced. “I was walking with him on my back when he died, and my father accused me of killing him.” Ireen now realizes he was simply too young to survive the long days his mother was gone looking for food, too little to make it on the meager scraps she brought home. 
 
“I handed him to my mother at night when she got home from looking for food,” Ireen explains. “I thought he was sleeping, because he wasn’t crying.” 
 
The truth was, everyone in their family was fighting for their lives. Both parents were sick, and there was never enough to eat. When Ireen was seven, her family lost another member. But this one she didn’t grieve for. “When my father passed, I knew it didn’t even matter,” she says. “I didn’t want to be around my father because he was abusing me.”
 
Her father’s death was a relief to Ireen, but it made life even harder, and food even more scarce. Her mother’s health worsened shortly after, and Ireen, the oldest, was often in charge of finding food. 
 
That’s when Children of the Nations' Malawi staff found Ireen. It was the year 2000, and COTN was doing some preliminary work in the village of Mtsiliza, serving lunch and working to identify the most desperate children to join their new child sponsorship program. Ireen would go for lunch, but save most of her food for later. “My family only ate in the afternoon those days, not at night,” she explains. “I would save my food and bring it home so we would have something small to eat in the evenings.”
 
When COTN started a Village Partnership Program in Mstiliza the next year, the little girl who always saved her lunch for her family was one of the first children identified to join. “I was so happy,” Ireen says. “I feel like I was picked up to save my family and those around me.”


              When Ireen lined up for food, she would eat a little and save the rest for her family to eat in the evening.
 
Ireen’s voice changes as she begins to talk about her life after she began receiving education, meals, and other care thanks to her sponsors. “I didn’t even know that life could be that good,” she says. “The first day I was part of COTN, they gave me clothes, food to eat. At that moment I knew that something better was on the way.”
 
When you have enough to eat, everything changes. It sounds simple, but Ireen attests that it’s true. “You cannot go to school on an empty stomach,” she explains. Though primary school is free in Malawi, she barely ever went when she was hungry. Sitting through class on an empty stomach was too hard. Besides, it was wasting precious time when she could be looking for food. 
 
With her stomach full, Ireen explains that she could think about other things. “I didn’t know anything about God,” she says. “All I needed in my life was food.” At COTN, Ireen learned about a God who loved and chose her. “Ever since, I have seen God working in my life,” she says.


                                          Ireen as a young girl, shortly after she entered COTN's care. 
 
Through child sponsorship, Ireen reached heights few Malawian girls even dream of. She excelled in secondary school, and then went on to college. Today, she is working on completing her degree in mass communications while writing short stories and articles for local newspapers on the side. This summer, she is working at Island Lake Camp in Washington, as part of their international program. “Coming to the US was something I always dreamed about, but I never knew how it would happen,” she says. 
 
When Ireen says she was picked for COTN in order to save her family and neighbors, she’s not saying it lightly. She sees every opportunity in her life as training ground to make a difference for the people she loves. So as she runs the ropes course and worships with American children, she asks herself what she can learn. “I know for sure I am not going to be the same person when I return,” she says. “I am a leader. I now know how to serve my country and people.”