“I never imagined I would see those families again,” says Jenny Lewis of the newborns and mothers she photographed in Malawi in 2015. “It was strange leaving there for the first time and not knowing.” Lewis first travelled to Malawi on commission with WaterAid to bring her project One Day Young – a series of portraits of mothers with their one day old babies – to the world’s poorest nation, and to raise awareness of WaterAid’s Deliver Life appeal, which aims to reach 130,000 of families around the world with safe water.
The resulting series of portraits, entitled One Day Young Malawi, shows mothers in rural Malawi celebrating the very first motions of new life. The images are an extension of Lewis’s One Day Young series, which was shot in Hackney, east London across several years. However, the conditions in which these infants were born could not have been more different; their very existence triumphant.
Lewis photographed all 10 of the children for One Day Young Malawi in 2015, on the day they were born, at Simulemba health centre in Kasungu, a facility without running water, toilets, or bathroom sanitation. “There was one waterhole nearby, and women coming to the health centre had to argue with the villagers over water, while having contractions,” explains Lewis. “I was worried I was going to witness something tragic, but miraculously all 10 mothers and babies managed to survive and get home.”
WaterAid’s Deliver Life appeal has since brought running water to the health centre, relieving the pressure for expectant mothers and overwhelmed staff. The charity invited Lewis back to Malawi to document the infants now at three years old, and to see for herself the impact the appeal had had.
But returning to the families, and Simulemba health centre, was a bittersweet experience for Lewis: “It’s heartbreaking to see these perfect newborns, and to realise how difficult their futures are going to be,” she says. While conditions at Simulemba health centre have vastly improved, daily life is no different to how it was three years ago. “Having that water at the health centre is just a drop in the ocean,” she explains. “It’s not back at home where they live.”
The children Lewis revisited were reminders of this fact. Now charismatic and inquisitive three-year olds, Lewis was disheartened to discover that many of the children were fighting malnourished and fighting off disease, often linked to dirty water and poor sanitation. She was particularly worried about one child, Jennifer, who had lost her mother to an unknown infection in the three years since her birth.
On meeting her however, Lewis was reminded of the many facets of life, and the importance of not seeing things one-dimensionally, no matter how challenging they may seem from the outside. “I couldn’t have been more pleased when I visited that family,” says Lewis. “Jennifer was so happy and just utterly adored.”