African vision gets Norfolk's Frank in the saddle
By Sandie Shirley
2009: Seven years ago Frank Nantongwe left his native Malawi to start a new life in Norfolk, but his compassion for his homeland has never waned.
The data officer has turned visionary and pioneer for his beloved homeland. He has helped provide clean water, education and a bumper harvest as well as the first communal transport to save and empower 500 villagers from the poor farming community his grandfather grew up in.
With major backing from his church in Wymondham and the wider community, Frank has generated new enterprise and funding for Chapita, the peasant village he first visited as a boy when he was sent to help his grandfather.
"The transport scheme in particular has been revolutionary," says Frank, who believes he is privileged to speak about the plight of his kinsfolk who live in mud brick huts without electricity or running water.
He has seen both young and old (including residents at Ryrie Court and students at Eccles and Kirkley High Schools) catch the vision for the society that has no commercial enterprise and state welfare to offset the problems of drought and crop failure. "I have visited schools, churches and women's groups in a bid to raise awareness and it never ceases to amaze me how important it is to them to do something to help," says Frank.
School children have financed the livestock scheme while selecting names for the goats they bought for the villagers. The Nantongwe family's church – Wymondham Hope Community – provided £1200 for fertiliser to promote the current harvest after the Malawi Government withdrew their aid package. There has also been provision for a much needed emergency fund.
Frank is seeing the practical outworking of the projects he highlights, but he is currently on a knife-edge, awaiting the Malawi Government's decision concerning a fertiliser subsidy for the next harvest which is key to the villagers' survival.
"Providing food for the village is a priority so the money that is generated will have to plug any financial shortfall before the investment and expansion of other projects," says Frank.
Five specially adapted bicycles are saving the lives of children, pregnant mothers and malaria victims by enabling mercy dashes to the nearest hospital nearly ten miles away. With an additional £500 investment from his church, the bicycles have been the answer to an impossible three-hour walk along dusty tracks in soaring temperatures.
The successful pilot scheme took off after Frank saw the perfect prototype modified to carry a passenger or heavy load. "A welder living near Chapita had developed the design for transporting his family. It met the criteria I had been looking for after seeing a similar project in East Africa," he said.
Within a year the welder was employed to modify the bicycles that are also hired out to provide a maintenance income. They are available for the sick and pregnant women, since the maternal and infant mortality rate is high in Chapita. Traditional birth attendants normally deliver babies in the village but a hospital delivery is safer explains Frank.
The bicycles are also used to ease the workload of women who carry 20 and 30kg bags of maize on their heads. Now the 20-mile round trip to the mill, where the cereal is ground into flour, is undertaken by eager young cyclists.
Frank is heartened by the project's success, which inspired neighbouring villagers. Ideally, he is looking to add a further five bicycles.
Sponsors have also backed the growing livestock project. Fifteen months ago three goats, including a breeding pair, were bought for one village family. Now two new kids have helped kick-start the project. "Goats are disease-resistant and easy to look after, roaming free-range after the crops are harvested. They provide meat, milk and fertiliser," says Frank who would like to see each family own a pair of goats.
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Pictured top, are two of the specially adapted bikes and also children from the Chapita village.