BY JACK McBrams
Kondanani Children’s Village at Bvumbwe, 30 kilometres from Blantyre towards the scenic tea plantation landscapes of Thyolo, is regarded as the finest orphanage in Malawi. By far.
So highly regarded that, 13 years ago, Kondanani Children’s Village made global headlines when global pop star Madonna adopted four-year-old Chifundo Mercy James from the orphanage.
From the outside, the orphanage mirrors an image of bliss and happiness—a perfect haven for the 168 orphans of ranging ages that are privileged with free shelter, education, and care.
However, by sifting through court documents and interviewing victims and witnesses, PIJ has uncovered allegedly shady shenanigans that paint the institution in a different light.
A two-month-long investigation by PIJ has established an alleged culture of physical and mental abuse at the institution, which culminated in a sexual abuse scandal at the institution where South African pastor Ryan Lill (spelt Ryan Lilli in court documents) stands accused of sexually abusing two orphans over a period of five years from the time they were 16 years old.
One of the victims regarded the pastor as a father figure after living at Kondanani since birth. But she was eventually banished from the orphanage after the pastor’s wife discovered an affair between the two. In between, the pastor allegedly took away her innocence forcefully, in an abuse of power, and gave her a sexually transmitted disease. Another of the victim alleges she was left with suicidal thoughts after repeated sexual assaults before eventually being expelled from the institution.
In an August 8, 2022 submission to the Midima Resident Magistrate’s Court in Blantyre, the State, represented by private practice lawyer Chikondi Chijozi, charged Lill with four counts: rape, two counts of indecent assault and one count of having sexual intercourse with a minor.
Some victims have now decided to speak to PIJ. Lill, through his lawyers, refused to reply to our questions.
We will not mention the victims’ names to protect their identities, as the incidents happened when they were minors.
The Pastor Who Allegedly Molested Underage Orphans
In her testimony to the court, one of the victims, a 22-year-old, told the court that the abuse started when Lill took both her and a colleague for a surprise holiday to South Africa in 2017 when she was 17. According to information sourced from Hi5 Tandem Paragliding Cape Town, who hosted Lill on a trip in May 2020, every year Lill and his wife Amy, spoiled some of their children at Kondanani Children’s Village with a holiday trip to Cape Town, South Africa.
The victim told the court that while in South Africa, Lill started acting strange by staring at her and touching her deliberately. When they were in the pool, he would touch her buttocks. Every morning, the Lill would visit her room to watch her while she was awake.
At one point, she woke up in the morning and Lill was holding her in his arms. She recalled that one time, Lill’s wife was sick, and he came to the victim’s room to check if she had bathed. When she said she had not, he forced her to shower, and they fought. She stated that during that fracas, Lill was touching her everywhere and only stopped when she threatened to hurt him. Lill apologised before they came back to Malawi, stating that he acted strangely and was a bad spiritual father.
She further told the court that when they came back to Malawi, Lill initiated a meeting at the house where he promised to take her on trips for rewards. She said that Lill started to take her to the computer room and music room, where they had sexual intercourse in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
She said around this time, Lill’s wife learnt of the affair and told her that she had two options: either tell Kondanani director and founder Annie Chikhwaza or keep the matter a secret. Lill and his wife advised her that her best option was to keep for her own good and if she misbehaved, they would send her to the village, and she would never return to Kondanani.
The same year, the victim started university, and she says Lill came to see her to profess his love for her and took her to a bush where they had intercourse. Later in the year, the victim claims Lill infected her with a sexually transmitted disease.
She told the court Lill said he was feeling itchy and took her to Zomba where he tested for HIV and syphilis. He took medicine for STIs, and asked for some for his wife, but he gave it to the victim.
She further informed the court that the accused took her to another hospital, where she tested for syphilis, and he persuaded the nurse to inject the victim with medicine.
The victim explained that the abuse only stopped when Lill finally confessed to his wife. The next day, Chikhwaza summoned her, asked her about the issue and told her that she was being exiled from Kondanani to allow Lill’s wife to heal.
In cross-examination, the victim stated that Lill was also a teacher and spiritual father who gave them spiritual guidance, taught them on best behaviour and provided emotional support.
She further informed the court that in 2019, Lill introduced her to shavers because he wanted her vagina to look smart.
She said from 2018, Lill would usually complain that she did not love him unconditionally, hence that was making him sad. The victim would therefore tell him that she did love him just to appease him. The accused reminded her time to time again that he had the power to ensure that she stays at Kondanani.
In court, she further confirmed that she had been intimate with Lill on several occasions, but was mostly uncomfortable and would at times cry afterwards.
In re-examination, she confirmed to the court that Lill, whom they called uncle, was a father figure to them, and she considered herself a dependent on him as he, together with other missionaries, provided for all their needs.
She further told the court that she did not report the first indecent incident in South Africa because he had apologised and told his wife. At Kondanani, she was afraid of reporting, as they were told that anything done against the authorities would be deemed as rebellion and would result in them being exiled from Kondanani. She explained that leaving Kondanani was not an option for her as her aunt had told her that, for whatever reason, she would not be welcomed at her home village, hence she had to make sure that she stayed at Kondanani by all means.
She further told the court that she felt betrayed, as she was never given a chance to explain her side of the story at Kondanani by Chikhwaza.
In an interview with PIJ, an employee at the orphanage, who opted for anonymity as he is still employed by the institution, said that he had reported several cases of abuse at the children’s village but no action was taken.
Chijozi told PIJ that they presented a case to answer submissions in court and they are waiting for a court date.
Mrs Chikhwaza says ‘no comment’
Chikhwaza declined PIJ’s request for comment.
“No comment,” was the response she gave to our questionnaire.
But in response to our teaser in the run-up to publishing this story, Kondanani posted a statement on their website that refutes the allegations.
“Sadly, there has been some negative reporting about KCV in the local media. The Platform for Investigative Journalism Malawi has accused us of a cover-up, however, this is not true. They have also published incorrect information. The following sets the record straight.
“1. KCV upholds Christian moral values. There is no culture of sexual abuse or racism. 2. Charges of indecent assault were laid against one of our volunteer leaders last year. He was arrested on 4 November 2021 but released on bail and the trial is pending. We cannot comment on the trial, as it is now a matter for the courts. However, we can confirm that person is not a pastor and the allegations do not involve “several underage girls.” This has been incorrectly reported. 3. Kondanani is not trying to cover anything up. The person in question was immediately suspended and has not worked at the orphanage for over a year. 4. KCV is cooperating fully with the authorities. 5. KCV is fully committed to protecting our children according to our safeguarding policy.”
However, the Kondanani employee brushed aside Kondanani’s defence.
“They are just being dishonest because, for instance, Lill only left Kondanani six months after his arrest and not immediately,” he said.
Lill’s lawyer Tamando Chokhoto, said both he nor his client would not comment on the issue.
“We are both not commenting to the media as the matter is in court,” he told PIJ.
In an interview with PIJ, the victim said she felt betrayed that she was chased out of Kondanani without being heard.
“I felt betrayed by how she [Mrs Chikhwaza] treated me. She chose a man over her own daughter. I felt worthless, like an asset that just brings in money. She only cares about the money that we bring in. I went to Kondanani as a child and found a mother, but she betrayed me. She was more interested in Ryan’s wife’s healing, so they had to send me away. She expelled me without even hearing my side of the story. She just shut me out,” she said.
She charged that most of the children that had been expelled were innocent.
“We knew our brothers were innocent. She [Mrs Chikhwaza] tells you that she’s your mother and that she loves you, but then she treats you like you’re nothing.”
‘Orphans Were Manipulated’
She said the orphans were brainwashed to believe that there was no life for them outside Kondanani.
“We had very little exposure to the outside world. Kondanani was and is the only home I know. Annie Chikhwaza, who we all called Mommy, used to say that as well. No child was ever resituated back to society or community or to their original village. It has always been brutal how Annie Chikhwaza chased children away without them knowing a thing of this world or even how to keep themselves safe.
“I was one of them who was chased off, only luck was that I had been in college for two years and I had begun to learn about life, men, sexuality, abuse, harassment, cooking, washing, and many more. She and Kondanani were the only family I knew…the place was home.
“Yet no matter how many times she says she ‘loves us’, ‘KCV is home’, ‘Kondanani is Family’…that was also her biggest lie because they were just words to make us believe so. But like I said before, I felt like an asset instead of her daughter. I felt like she treated me like cash to uphold the place and not a part of the family. I felt, so after I really understood, that Annie never really loved us genuinely because a loving mother would not be that brutal.”
She added that there was so much injustice at Kondanani that has gone on unreported for years. Other sexual abuses possibly took place but went unreported.
“So many innocent children were sent away because of anger and lies to justify them as naughty or rebellious,” she said.
Similar Pattern of Abuse on Second Victim
A second girl, who arrived at Kondanani as a day-old infant 24 years ago also fell victim to Lill’s sexual assaults and recounted her ordeal to PIJ. She said Lill groomed her from an early age, but the sexual abuse started when she was 16.
“It started with him saying that he loves me and that I was beautiful. Looking back, I can say that the sexual abuse started way back, probably when I was sixteen. But for me, I didn’t know much of the world, so I didn’t know that it was something that was wrong,” she said.
The victim, who was also expelled from Kondanani when news of the sexual abuse broke out, says Lill used his power to abuse her.
“To me, it felt like I had no choice, I had to say yes to everything because it felt like he had so much power. In fact, when I protested, he always told me that he is the one who made it possible for me to stay at Kondanani,” she said.
During cross-examination in court, she said she did not report the abuse to Police because she was afraid of the ramifications from Kondanani.
She also stated that she felt betrayed after being told by her handlers at Kondanani to keep the entire ordeal a secret.
She told PIJ that the ordeal left her traumatised and suicidal.
“But now I feel free that this thing has come out because it was eating me inside and was making me sick. It affected me both physically and mentally because I had swept everything under the carpet for a long time. It was hard. Even now, I am still trying to get a grip on life, but it’s a little hard,” she explained.
The victim further there was a huge element of favouritism as Chikhwaza always sided with the missionaries in altercations that involved an orphan and one of the missionaries.
“For example, in my case, when the story came up, she blamed me and said I knew what I was doing. So, I felt rejected by her because of the way that she treated me, especially given the fact that I had always regarded her as my mother since I was born. But she didn’t treat me as one would treat her daughter,” she said.
Apart from these reports of sexual abuse, other orphans that have left Kondanani told PIJ that the institution uses manipulation, fear and psychological torture to ensure that the children do not question Kondanani’s methods.
A 24-year-old male who was expelled from Kondanani mid-year in the midst of his college studies told PIJ that the institution closes the orphans from the outside world.
“For instance, I am 24 years old, and I arrived here when I was less than a year old. I have only been outside Kondanani on very few rare occasions. Although my parents died, I have no idea who my relatives are.
“What they do is to ensure that we rely on Kondanani one hundred per cent by making sure that we have no life outside the institution. That way, they are able to manipulate us whichever way they want, and we are not able to question their methods for fear of being expelled into a world where we know no one,” he said.
He claims that Chikhwaza uses the orphans as trophies for raising funds from charity.
Two other boys, who have since left the orphanage, aged between 20 and 22, told PIJ that there is a tinge of racism in the manner that Kondanani treats the orphans.
“Some incidents that involved us black orphans and the white missionaries, we would see that this is not actually right and then if we tried to raise our concerns, you ended up being penalised. So, we ended up being silent. They treat us like that because we are black, and they are white,” one of them narrated.
The former Kondanani orphan recounts an incident that happened to him four years ago, when he was forced to spend three days and nights outside the campus gate after he was accused of writing love letters to a fellow female student. He claims that he slept at the gates for three nights.
Kondanani Children’s Village was founded by the late Reverend Lewis Chikhwaza and his Dutch wife Annie in 1998. It is described as “a five-star orphanage” in a Channel 4 documentary. Reverend Chikhwaza died in 2005.
The orphanage’s website says Kondanani is supported on premises by several missionary volunteers from around the world, including some from Australia, Holland, the United States of America, South Africa and the United Kingdom. These are generally serving on a mid to long-term basis and are all self-supporting.
Kondanani is registered under the laws of Malawi as a non-governmental organisation (NGO), and we are a member of the NGO Board.
“We work according to the laws of the Republic of Malawi in every area, and we work with each member of staff according to the labour laws of Malawi. Kondanani is a registered section 21 company (a non-profit company) in the Republic of South Africa. In the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, it is registered as a Charity, and Kondanani also has representation in Australia and the USA.”
The Platform for Investigative Journalism (PIJ-Malawi) is a non-profit, independent centre for investigative journalism. If you have witnessed or suffered any sexual abuse, please contact Malawi Police Service or any government or non-governmental agency working in promoting human rights.