Malawi Chief Fights Vaccine Stigma; Rallies Wary Villagers Towards COVID-19 Vaccination

Monday 22 November 2021


In the village of Thambani in the south western town of Mwanza in Malawi, the villagers get jittery at the mention of COVID-19 vaccination.

Like in most Malawian villages, a mix of religious conservativism, rumour mongering and entrenched cultural norms have conjured scepticism around COVID-19 vaccination.

Thambani lies on the western border with Mozambique where traders use the illegal route to smuggle goods in and out of the country.

This unmonitored high traffic route exposes the community to COVID-19, with traders driving through the area unchecked.

This do or die scenario prompted Chief Chimlango to take action, becoming one of the country’s biggest advocate for COVID-19 vaccination.

The traditional leader’s drive is spurred by the ‘Support the Rollout of Malawi’s COVID-19 National Vaccination Campaign’ which is being implemented countywide by an NGO consortium with support from the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) with the specific objective of reducing the further spread of COVID-19 in Malawi and enhancing vaccine uptake.

Malawi’s vaccine uptake remains low due to scepticism about the vaccination. Of the Malawi government’s target of 11 million adults to be vaccinated by the end of the year, only 800,000 had received at least one dose of the vaccine by end October 2021.

In Chief Chimlango’s catchment area, 1,240 of the 2,160 eligible adults have been vaccinated, representing over 57 percent of the population, which is way above the national average of 7.3 percent and also above the 10% Mwanza district uptake

Harrison Sikalamwa, who is Save the Children’s manager for the project, explains more on what the project is doing to raise champions like Chief Chimlango.  

“At district level, we are engaging with community leaders, starting with the traditional authorities so that they can play a bigger role with their communities to encourage them to be vaccinated,” he said.

Yet, it was never going to be easy for the chief, whose 17 villages are rife with misconceptions and myths about COVID-19 vaccinations.

“First, I went round the villages and explained to the people what COVID-19 was and told them that although we have had no confirmed cases of Covid in the area, all of were vulnerable if we did not get vaccinated,” the chief explained.

The traditional leader also rallied and summoned committees from the village—from the church, mother groups, youths, traditional leaders, community-based organisations, disaster management and even the traditional gule wamkulu cult—to sit down talk about the pandemic.

“I explained to them that although we had not been affected, everyone was vulnerable and we needed to take preventive measures to protect ourselves and the best preventive measure is to be vaccinated. There was a lot of resistance in the area due to certain engrained beliefs. Which is why it was important for me and the other leaders to step up,” he said.

On any given day, one will find Senior Group Chimlango at the back of an open car, megaphone in hand, rallying his community to take the life-saving vaccination.

On other days, he does door-to-door campaigns and even joins the health teams from the district hospitals in administering COVID-19 vaccines to his subjects.

 “If you were elected as a leader, what is important is to realise that there are other leaders below you and it is important to delegate responsibilities. I realised that because I had been assigned on this mission by Senior Chief Nthache, I have an enormous responsibility on my shoulders,” he said.

Senior Group Chimlango says his message to fellow leaders is that it is important to get vaccinated so that when they get infected, their bodies will be fully protected.

“Our strategy as chiefs is that we have been using all available platforms to preach the message about COVID-19. Even at weddings and funerals, wherever we are given the platform, we make sure to educate our people about this vaccine and we will not stop until government tells us to,” he says.

The traditional leader is so undaunted in his mission that he even ventures into the sacred initiation camps to educate his subjects.

“I am not shy or ashamed. I have a job to do,” he explains.

Because of his relentless approach, some of his subjects started questioning his zeal and enthusiasm.

“But the whole reason I am doing this is because of my concern for this area. We are on the border with Mozambique and all these people without passports who come in from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique use this route. So, if there is any place that is vulnerable, it is here.”

Vene Chipangula, who is leader of a community-based organisation, was an early skeptic of the COVID-19 vaccination.

“When the chief approached me, I told him I would not get vaccinated because there were rumours that if you got vaccinated, you would not conceive again. I am young and I am not done giving birth so I was really worried. But the chief explained to me and cleared all misconceptions for me and gave me confidence to get vaccinated,” she said.

Frank Kaswell, assistant environment health officer at Mwanza district health office, hails the role traditional leaders have played in rally their communities towards getting COVID-19 vaccines.

“These initiatives helped a lot in the uptake of COVID-19 vaccines across the district. The chiefs have understood the importance of the vaccine and they have been rallying their people. We have a good example of Group Headman Chimlango who has impressed with his advocacy and his area has one of the highest numbers of vaccine uptake in the district,” he said.

The twelve-month’s project is being implemented across eight districts of Mzimba North, Lilongwe Urban and Rural, Dowa, including Dzaleka refugee camp, Dedza, Mangochi, Blantyre, Mwanza and Mangochi and started in July 2021.

Funding is being channeled through two NGO Consortia. Save the Children is leading implementation in southern Malawi while Cooperazione Internazionale (COOPI) is leading consortium group of partners implementing in central and northern region Malawi. Partners in the project are Care, Oxfam, Catholic Relief Services, TroCaire, GOAL, Concern Worldwide, United Purpose, Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), CADECOM and the Catholic Health Commission. Digital development partners include Cooper/Smith and Viamo.