Israeli women bringing vision and hope to impoverished village

Chembe fishing village is surrounded by maize fields and marshes on the shores of Lake Malawi.If the Israeli delegation to the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development at the end of August wanted a creative rejoinder to Israel’s detractors, it …

Chembe fishing village is surrounded by maize fields and marshes on the shores of Lake Malawi.If the Israeli delegation to the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development at the end of August wanted a creative rejoinder to Israel’s detractors, it had only to look 800 miles northeast to the famine-stricken republic of Malawi.

On a budget this year of $20,000, two young Israeli women, backed by the kibbutz movement and Avisar Vaisman, the owner of a Tel Aviv-based chain of sexually transmitted disease clinics, are quietly combating a catalogue of Africa’s ills – AIDS, hunger, disease, illiteracy and female victimization – in an impoverished lakeside village by helping the locals help themselves. And encouraging them, in the best sustainable development spirit, to go on doing so after the foreigners leave.

The two women, Irit Rabinovich, 28, and Yora Wasserman, 32, discovered this neglected corner of Africa, seven and four years ago respectively, while backpacking after their service in the Israeli army. When they’re in Israel, Rabinovich studies psychology and anthropology at the Open University; Wasserman practices Chinese medicine.

Captivated by Malawi’s natural beauty and dismayed by its distress, they “adopted” Chembe, in the Mangochi district, a village that has 900 AIDS orphans among its 11,000 residents. According to Malawi government estimates, 3 million of the country’s 10 million citizens face starvation in a land ravaged by AIDS, cholera and alternating floods and drought. One in every four children nationwide dies before reaching the age of five.

At first the Israelis concentrated on feeding Chembe’s children and distributing condoms free in local bars, but the project quickly grew.

“We teach women of our own age,” Rabinovich said. “We look for natural leaders, charismatic types with high social status in the village. We tell them about human rights, immune systems, how to say ‘no’ to a man. When we finish, they take over.

“One woman, Sofina, now teaches AIDS prevention to 170 women. Another 15 women are teaching hygiene to children, from nine-year-olds to teenagers. These pupils will then teach their friends.”

The feeding program expanded from 30 children to 1,500 within one month. But, Rabinovich insists, it’s not just handouts.

“The children have to go to school,” she said. “If they don’t go, we don’t let them into the feeding center. They have to wash their hands, and they have to bring wood for our cooking fire.”

The Israelis give families seeds so they can grow their own food, but again nothing is for free.

“They have to do something for the community, like clean the beach or the cemetery,” Rabinovich said.

The Israelis and African helpers also run a rudimentary clinic from the white-painted, mud-brick house a local benefactor donated to them, with medicines and advice provided by a group of English doctors in Blantyre, Malawi’s largest city. The demand is so great that they’re now renting a second house.

Back in Israel for Rosh Hashanah after a year in the village, Rabinovich and Wasserman have established a nonprofit trust, the Chembe Aid Project, and are drumming up money for scholarships to send eight children to secondary schools at a cost of $500 per year for tuition and board.