Blantyre — They had nothing to do and nowhere to seek help. Everyone in society regarded them as unimportant, they say.
The mockery and hardship they were subjected to forced them to unite and form a group where they could discuss what to do for a living and prove to the world that disability is not inability.
Chimwemwe Disability Group in the Area of Traditional Authority Sawali in Balaka is an entity of persons with disabilities comprising 21 members.
The group was formed on July 1, 2003, chiefly, to economically empower persons with disabilities to live an independent life.
It also serves as a platform for members to discuss various issues affecting them and how to channel the concerns to relevant authorities.
Soon after its formation, Chimwemwe Disability Group ventured into a viable business, not complicated but with huge benefits.
Led by their chairperson Charles Kamadunga, members agreed to embark on aquaculture and contributed money for hiring people to dig a fish pond.
"Following the agreement, we went to the chief to ask for a piece of land and, luckily, he allocated us one where the fish pond was dug.
"We bought fingerings and after six months, we made the first harvest," Kamadunga says.
He adds that profit from the first harvest energized the group's efforts. From then on, the group established several other fish ponds.
"Although the profit wasn't much, we realized something which helped us to support our families and propelled us to dig more ponds," he says.
Today, Chimwemwe Disability Group has eight fish ponds and this has become the business through which they hope to uplift their families and empower other people with disabilities.
"Our group comprises people of different disabilities and where a person is too weak to work in the fish ponds, parents, guardians or any relative is appointed to represent them," Kamadunga says.
"I am pleased to say that since we started sharing profits, every member of the group has been able to buy one or more livestock, particularly goats.
"We agreed as a group that we needed to diversify sources of income and owning livestock came first," he adds.
Not only have members bought goats, others have pigs and chickens while some are in non-livestock business.
A good number of the members have also used the proceeds from the business to pay school fees for their wards.
"This business has helped us a lot; we are not the same people with so many titles.
"We are now respected in the community because we are doing things that even people without disabilities are failing to do," says Cecilia Majawa, a member.
People of Group Village Headman Chinkwita and surrounding villages depend on Chimwemwe Disability Group for fish protein.
Unlike other businesses that struggle for a market, the fish business in the area has a readily available market.
"Whenever it is harvest time, people from surrounding villages are notified and come in their multitudes.
"All the fish caught on a particular day is sold out locally and we are not bothered of going to Balaka Town to fetch for market," Kamadunga says.
If everything goes according to plan, the group intends to increase the number of fish ponds from the current eight.
It also intends to procure a solar water pump that would help in providing water to the ponds in times of drought.
"Most of our ponds are drying up because we did not receive enough rains for the past two years.
"We are planning to buy a solar system. However, if well-wishers want to help, we would appreciate the gesture," Kamadunga says.
Currently, the group has about K59, 000 in its bank account which is used for emergencies such as death and illness.
The group also resolved that every member who dies must be bought a standard coffin and offered a befitting farewell.
Following the groups' business success, Kamadunga says people's negative perception of those with disabilities has changed.
"Discrimination towards persons with disabilities has waned and communities now include us in various development programmes," he says.
"We have managed to break barriers and people have now started to believe that persons with disabilities have the capabilities to do great things, only if given chance," says Josery Chiongolera, another group member.
Tilitonse is another disability group at Ulongwe Trading Centre in Balaka. This group is famous for its maize farming business.
Established in 2009, the group has 75 members and it is also doing wonders just as the Chimwemwe group.
In 2010, the group leased a farm where it harvested 10 bags of maize which were sold to a number of people in the area.
The group used the proceeds from the maize sales and contributions from members to venture into multiple businesses, including piggery, goat farming, poultry and village loans and savings (VSL).
In total, the group has 30 pigs, 100 goats and over K15 million in its VSL.
Today, the group is a model to many villages within Ulongwe and apart from feeding communities through maize sales, members have various sole businesses.
"We are planning to buy minibuses and a maize mill, the idea is to expand our business ventures and empower every family that has a person with a disability.
"We would like to prove that disability is not inability," says Martha Hiwa, chairperson of Tilitonse Disability Group.
Malawi Council for the Handicapped (MACOHA), which has been supporting the groups with technical assistance, is elated by the disability groups' business success.
MACOHA's Public Relations Officer Sylvia Thawani says it has always been the organization's wish to see the life of persons with disabilities changing through various interventions.
Thawani says MACOHA normally emphasizes on the need for Malawians at different levels to incorporate persons with disabilities.
She, therefore, describes the achievement of the two groups as a clear demonstration that given a chance, persons with disabilities can perform wonders.
"We are currently implementing the community based inclusive development (CBID) programme where we are calling on people to create space for persons with disabilities," Thawani says.
Thawani glorifies the two groups for their hard work, dedication and for showing the world that it is possible for persons with disabilities to succeed in life if supported.
She, therefore, pledges that MACOHA will continue to champion disability issues in the country and ensure that they are mainstreamed in both government and private institutions.
"We have started training district councils where the focus is that persons with disabilities must be included at all levels from planning, budgeting, auditing and implementation.
"We are fighting against exclusion of people with disabilities," she says.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities highly protects the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities.
It reaffirms that all persons with any type of disability must enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Even Chapter 4 of Malawi's Constitution under Section 20 talks about equality.
"Discrimination of persons in any form is prohibited and all persons are, under any law, guaranteed equal and effective protection against discrimination on grounds of... disability, property, birth or other status," reads the section.
Southern Region Trade Officer, Charles Chavula says government is working on finalizing policies that would encourage more players, particularly persons with disabilities to do businesses without obstruction.
Chavula also hails the two Balaka groups for defying the odds and contributing to the country's economic growth.
"What I can advise the groups is for them to register as a cooperative to enhance their recognition and participation in various business forums," Chavula says.