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Jasmine says goodbye

Saying goodbye to people you love is never easy… especially when you’re saying it to people who have become like family.

At the end of July, Jasmine Leitao, our Administrator in Blantyre for the past eight years, said farewell to dozens of very dear friends at Open Arms Infant Home, as she and her family headed to Europe to start a new life in the UK.

We are delighted that Jasmine will be taking up a role within Open Arms’ Fundraising office in Harrogate from September, so we are fortunate not to be losing her completely. However, we know she will be greatly missed by Neville, her colleagues and the children alike, having played a fundamental role in the shaping and day-to-day running of the organisation for much of the past decade.

We asked Jasmine to share some of her highlights of her time in Blantyre… 

So, Jasmine, tell us about how you came to work for Open Arms, and do you recall what your first impressions were when you came across the organisation?

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 I arrived in Malawi with an organisation that supported grassroots initiatives in 2001, and absolutely loved the Malawian people and the many possibilities to get involved in development. 

After completing the management of a Public Private Partnership programme in the tea growing area of Mulanje I moved into Blantyre for my children’s schooling. I missed having the chance to connect with the communities around me and be part of finding solutions, so was delighted when Open Arms needed someone to help in the office. As they say, the rest is history.

When I first visited Open Arms Neville gave me a full tour of the Infant Home. The Infant Care seemed orderly and well structured, and then we walked to Harrogate House, where the two to five year olds live. Neville sat in the play area and called Edina across; with her cerebral palsy crawling was an effort, but she was so happy and Neville’s delight in her determination was very apparent. As we chatted I was struck by how well the reintegration model fits with Malawi’s culture and the concept of Home Based Care. I loved the way Open Arms helps children to survive and stay with their family. The age of the vehicles also impressed me, as they had to have been well looked after to still be running!

Your role as Administrator has been incredibly varied over the years.

You’ve supported so many community projects, as well as the children in the homes. What would you say you are most proud of having contributed to?

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I am most proud of contributing to the Foster Houses. Providing a family, a loving home and educational opportunities to children who have nothing makes Open Arms exceptional in Malawi. Over eight years I have seen the children grow considerably and have experienced the elation of opening three Foster Houses, and shouting for joy when we found out that our children were accepted into Kamuzu Academy for quality secondary schooling.

Developing the idea of ‘adopting’ a Foster House resulted in a rewarding partnership between Tsekwe House and Queen Elizabeth School, Kirkby Lonsdale. So much more than funding is exchanged, as the children from QES have got to know our children as individuals, and we have contributed to the practice of the school’s ethos and the students’ understanding of Millennium Development Goals.

You’ve seen many dozens of children pass through the doors of Open Arms. Is there a particular child who made a lasting impression on you?

Many of our supporters will be familiar with Wyson’s photo on our webpage. I have had the great pleasure of seeing him every month as he collects his Cash Transfer which comes from a former volunteer from Edinburgh. Over the years I have observed him growing taller, reciting his ABCs, and writing his name, while his grandmother smiles with pride. Sometimes she recalls the state that Wyson was in when he arrived at Open Arms, and we both shake our heads and remember how tiny he was. She had tried to feed him on sugar water and porridge, as she couldn’t afford the milk he needed. I still get a ball in the pit of my stomach thinking of how hungry he was on arrival, and how his first full bottle of milk made him cry with pain. A visiting Ethiopian American doctor examined him and expressed her concern, but Mrs Phiri knew exactly how to handle Wyson, and he was soon able to enjoy his milk and have as much as he needed.

When Wyson visits with his grandmother I know that he has both a caring family and the basics of a good diet, decent rented house and schooling, and to me that is what Open Arms is all about.

What would you say has been the biggest highlight of your time spent as Administrator in Blantyre?

It’s hard for me to choose a highlight, as there have been so many! A major highlight was being part of the opening of Open Arms Mangochi, where Chris Norman said ‘Many people in the world are concerned about their carbon footprint, when we should consider our compassion footprint’. 

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The ladies of Blantyre and Mangochi performed choral arrangements, and then traditional dances as drummers made the courtyard reverberate.

There have been sad times, as in my eight years we lost four members of staff to HIV related illnesses. There have also been fun times, like when Carlijn Hooijmans came on her honeymoon and celebrated her new marriage with all the staff of Open Arms. One year I joined the annual staff trip and we visited Nyala animal park and swam at the club on the sugar plantation. I’ll never forget how the bus bounced down the escarpment with all the ladies singing and dancing, stirring the massive pots of Nsima (maize porridge) for lunch, and the laughter and splashing about in the pool afterwards. There was a song of thanks and I was swept up and carried along – it was wonderful.

There have been challenges, like when large groups visit unannounced and suddenly there are film cameras during lunch time, or when there are surprise inspections, or bedbugs discovered. Everyone pulls together, and somehow anything is possible to handle.

I’d like to share some of the things I love about Open Arms:

Every child is so different. We’ve seen the clever children, like Eliza, who spoke early and loved to point out the train that she could view from the verandah. There were the unforgettable twins Dorica and Doreen who were constantly jumping and climbing, or growling to be the first ones to be served lunch!

With love children can recover. At Open Arms we receive some tragic cases, like the toddler who was tied by the neck, naked, to a tree, or a baby with undiagnosed tuberculosis whose muscles were wasting away. I was sometimes shocked by their condition, and yet Mrs Phiri would say ‘This one will survive’, and I would often find her patiently feeding or rocking that child. Sure enough, they pulled through, and it is wonderful to see so many of them reunited with their family, successful at school and happily adjusted.

Mrs Phiri cares about standards! Though a very accomplished Nurse and former Diplomat, she is not too important to wash highchairs or feed a dehydrated baby. So many of our routines and methods are a result of her professionalism and determination. The Assistant Matron, Eniffer Chilunga, equally knows every child’s history and health concerns, and has been a great support to the Administration side of things in ensuring that we always procure what is needed.

At Open Arms we use strong partnerships to bring Malawian solutions to Malawian children.

What are your hopes for the children currently living in the infant and foster homes, and how do you see their future?

 As every parent, I want to see the children identify their particular interests and abilities and develop to their full potential. 

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Whether they have special needs or high abilities, they should find their niche where they can excel and contribute positively to society and people around them. One day I hope we will have captains of industry who can drive leaps forward in their field. One day they will be helping the people around them to break the cycle of poverty.

What do you think you’ll miss most about Open Arms Infant Homes and Malawi in general?

When I start work at 7:00, there is always laughter as the ladies change shifts. I wander into the hall to say good morning, while the ladies exchange stories and complement each other’s outfits, or share a supportive word if someone is having a hard time.

Then the toddlers start to waddle in, and they are all so unique, some wanting hugs while others want to choose their favourite highchair. It is magical to watch a baby become round and chubby, then take her first steps and start to talk.

In Malawi people are interested in those around them, and there is a sense of community, so almost everywhere you will bump into someone you know. I will miss the spontaneous songs and traditional dance, and the stunning nature that allows us to visit wild elephants on the weekend!

When you arrive in the UK, you’ll be taking up your new position in the fundraising office in Harrogate. What are you looking forward to most about your new role?

I look forward to telling our stories, broadening people’s perspectives as they learn about Malawi, and continuing to make connections with people with a passion to help and an interest in development. I have been impressed by the wonderful things that people do, and the lengths our supporters have gone to so our services can continue. Witnessing a child’s life saved, or a Feeding Station in full swing is tremendously rewarding, and I want to pass on to our donors the experience of satisfaction at our successes and confidence in our methods.

Do you have any final words you’d like to share with your colleagues and the many visitors and volunteers you’ve got to know over the years?

I will carry all the memories of these eight years with me; they have made me stronger. Neville deserves a note of thanks, as he has been a mentor and a friend, and created an amazing and unique organisation. To Helen, the new Administrator, I would like to say thank you for volunteering your time to get to know the many facets of Open Arms before you took on the role full time.

It has been very special to share the experience of working at Open Arms, and welcoming volunteers to Malawi for the first time, with so many intrepid and caring people. What makes the massive wrench of leaving easier is knowing that it is not forever … as our famous song goes… and that I can work to ensure that Open Arms will carry on for many years to come. I am privileged to be able to continue to support my Malawian colleagues, the children, and meet the wonderful people who are a part of Open Arms in the UK and beyond. Thank you for helping to make Open Arms the truly exceptional place that it is!

Final words from our Director

‘Jasmine was dedicated, compassionate and everything that Open Arms valued. Her knowledge of Malawi, its people and customs was encyclopaedic and helped her in her day to day dealings with Malawians from every kind of background. She initiated many programmes, including the Cash Transfer Scheme, which has proved so valuable in helping vulnerable children and their grandparents. She’ll be remembered for so much and we will miss her greatly.

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Her place has been taken by Helen Hinde. Helen has lived in Malawi for most of her 46 years. She was a student when I taught at St Andrew’s many years ago. Helen is fluent in Chichewa and equally empathetic to the needs of all those who depend on us. I consider Open Arms very fortunate to have found someone such as her. We are not saying farewell to Jasmine completely as she will be taking up a fundraising post in the Harrogate office so we shall be in regular contact with her. We wish Jasmine, Tony, Estelle and Alec Happy Landings in the UK and all the luck in the world in their new life’.

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