Tony And Sue Melia, Transformed Lives in Africa, Warwickshire Life

PUBLISHED: 23:54 07 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:50 20 February 2013

Sue and Tony Melia

Sue and Tony Melia

When Tony and Sue Melia retired after successful careers little did they imagine that they would end up transforming the lives of the people in a small village in Africa.

When Tony and Sue Melia retired after successful careers little did they imagine that they would end up transforming the lives of the people in a small village in Africa.

A storage hut stacked to the rafters with food. Colourful classrooms lined with desks. Shelves full of books. A bustling women's centre. A pen full of egg-laying hens. A village bike-ambulance.

This is life in the tiny village of Bwengu, tucked away in the African bush in Malawi, miles from anything we'd recognise as civilisation.

It wasn't always like this. Just three years ago, schoolchildren slept in empty classrooms. Food stores were empty and 65 children shared two text books.

Then Tony and Sue Melia arrived and organised the transformation of this small cash-strapped community where HIV/AIDS is rife and fresh water a luxury. Both in their 60s, Tony and Sue are modest about their achievements. Using their life savings and their life skills they've given the 5,000 residents of Bwengu something they had never had - a future.

The couple's involvement began after Sue took a 'gap month' to use her teaching skills in a South African school for street boys. While there, she donated 1,000 to school funds. A month later, just 160 had been spent, the rest had 'disappeared'.

Back in England she told her daughter what had happened. On her return she relayed the story to her daughter, a hospital manager who passed it on to a Malawiian colleague Macdonald Mkandawire - Mac - over coffee.

"He told her the only way to guarantee you're helping the right people is to physically hand them the money," said Sue.

The Melias accepted the challenge. Within weeks they were preparing for their first trip to Mac's home village of Bwengu.

"We must have been off our heads," laughs Sue. "We had no idea. We just thought we'd teach for 19 weeks to help.Arriving in the village was like stepping back 300 years. There was no running water or sanitation. Schools were empty shells and medical care was virtually non-existent. We have so much. They don't have shelves because they have nothing to put on them."
For three days Tony and Sue did their best to teach in the rudimentary conditions.

"There were 65 14-year-olds sharing two text books," said Sue. "One class of five-year-olds numbered 105. Their classroom was so filthy, bare and depressing I took them outside and taught them 'Heads, shoulders, knees and toes'."

There were no pens, pencils or paper. There was plenty of chalk... but the blackboards were useless.

"The teaching wasn't the problem - it was the infrastructure," said Tony, a retired operations director. He called together the village chiefs.

"We explained if they could provide tools and labour we could offer the organisational skills and know-how to rebuild, refurbish and put in place the systems to make life better for everyone," said Tony.

Ten minutes later work started.

Using their own savings and driving a truck - hired for 3.50 a day - the couple drafted in building materials. Following Tony's instructions the villagers set to work.

Walls were built, new floors laid, roofs put on, plaster painted, trenches dug, doors hung, windows fixed, termites killed....

Tony and Sue bought bags of high-protein, high-calorie food for the orphans. A system of responsibility was introduced involving two storeroom keys to protect the supply.

Within weeks the facilities were taking shape. By the time the Melias left six months later the transformation was well underway.

At home, the couple talked to others about their experiences and money poured in from local Rotary Clubs, Lions organisations, schools and youngsters involved with Rugby Youth Offending Services.

The couple took the money to Bwengu the following year. Food stores were replenished, books bought and beds made for boarding school children, two bikes were bought for villagers to get to the doctor 18 km away...

Classrooms were named after their benefactors. A Women's Development Centre was started. Sue taught the women to sew much-needed clothes, knit, cook for large groups and about essential nutrition.

"The greatest effect on you is the plight of some of the children but the balance is the joy of the people once they see projects completed - and the village pride that follows," said Tony.

The four month stint in the summer of 2007 was followed by another last summer - weeks after Tony underwent major heart surgery.

"It wasn't the most sensible thing to do but we wanted to finish what we'd started," said Sue. "One night, Tony took ill. We were so far from medical help I knew if he had a heart attack he'd die. I sat there planning how to get his body home. Thankfully he was fine but it was a reminder of our limitations."

While the majority of their peers use their retirement to relax, Sue and Tony were rigging up a cold water shower using a polythene bag and throwing water bottles to scare away daring rats.

"It's an awfully long way from our life here," said Sue. "We live at Lime Tree Village near Rugby which is a purpose-built retirement village. We have a comfortable two bedroom apartment with all mod-cons, a calendar full of activities to keep us occupied, medical help on site if we need it and a supermarket down the road."

So why do it?

"Because we could help the villagers to help themselves after we'd left," said Tony. "We provided the start and left them with sustainable systems and independence from on-going financial support.

"The foundations have been laid for the villagers to take the projects over and help change their own futures."

The village now has an array of facilities which are the envy of surrounding villages. There's a women's centre, an orphan care food project, renovated school dormitories, a renovated medical centre, classrooms, books, a nursery school, a shop, adult literacy classrooms, restrooms, ambulance bikes, a football team... the list goes on. The couple have made on-going commitments, with the help of benefactors, to pay for education.

That's not enough though. After vowing their work in Bwengu was done the couple have been swayed into taking another trip this Spring.

"Seeing the joy and pride the villagers have, and how much the facilities have transformed their lives, is compelling," said Sue.

"We received news that schools in Banbury are going to donate the proceeds of a concert which should be enough to renovate eight out of the 10 classrooms of Thumbi School in Bwengu. How can we refuse?"

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