Coming to Malawi, I didn’t know how much of a connection I could have with someone who lives in a remote, rural area of Malawi. The travel to arrive at this place was over 24 hours. Surely that means the distance between New Jersey and Sakata would influence the differences between myself and a VIP staff member of Malawi. However, I’ve found that I am able to connect with members of the local team without any difficulty. Gracious Mtemanyama has been by my side every step of the way it seems. Explaining the nuances of the Malawi culture whether I asked him a question or not. Kondwani and I rode in the truck together eating Malawian donuts, chatting and laughing as if I was on a road trip with a buddy from back home. As Gracious and I chopped up maize husks and peanut branches at Sitaubi Village, the villagers sang a song that accurately describes my experience. The Chichewa lyrics translated as, “We are all the same.”
This is my second trip to Malawi— the first time I came was for only 5 days in 2016 on a medical mission trip. This time, I am lucky to be able to stay for three whole weeks, participating first in a Friendship Trip and staying for the following medical trip. It’s impossible to comprehend that today is only our second full day here. A Friendship Trip is exactly that— we have gone into different villages and met villagers and helped alongside them with some of the work required of village life.
When I was trying to describe it to a friend before I came, they suggested this was really just “3rd World Tourism” and wasn’t that being incredibly condescending? I assure you nothing could be further from the truth. VIP is genuinely partners with its Villages. Even though the participants on the Friendship trip change, we are all welcomed as part of the Village family. Today, as we arrived, the Village we were entering had gathered early in anticipation.
As soon as they saw our trucks, they leapt in the air cheering and singing and dancing. This wasn’t some elaborate stage production waiting for its cue— it was genuine, passionate, cracked-wide-open love, and there aren’t words to describe how free and unabashed their expression was. As a doctor, I’ve been with people at the very best and very worst times in their lives, but this collective expression of unbridled joy is something I’ve never experienced.
Going into Zomba Central Hospital, we had no idea what to expect. It was an eye opening experience that we will never forget. Walking up to the buildings, they looked run-down compared to the standards we are used to in the States. There were people walking around the grounds, almost like it was a bustling marketplace. We had the opportunity to meet with the specialists at the hospital, as well as the chief nursing executor. We had wonderful conversations about the challenges that the hospital faces, as well as the progress they have made. We then were fortunate enough to go on a tour of the hospital.
We were shocked at the nurse to patient ratio—one nurse to 20-40 patients on a good day. Each ward consisted of one large room, with multiple beds inside. It’s hard to put into words the conditions of the patients and their families there. So much of what we take for granted in the States—clean gloves, gowns, isolation precautions, sometimes electricity & private rooms—was lacking. We returned from the visit humbled and with a new appreciation for the healthcare system that we are blessed with in the States. The frustrations we are used to at home regarding healthcare do not even scratch the surface of the healthcare system here and what we were exposed to today. We all walked away forever changed.
Written By: Allie Schindler and Molly Babb, Xavier Nursing Students
Today at Clinic I had the wonderful opportunity to care for a Chief of one of the villages that we were serving. All of a sudden this woman was brought to the front of the line and sat down right away. I was then informed by my interpreter that she was a chief. Knowing how important she was I got very nervous as I was taking her vitals. She was honestly one of the friendliest women that I had met so far. She was extremely grateful for the care that I was providing and spoke to me very enthusiastically and friendly. Once I had gotten her vitals and taken down her chief complaint it was time to send her on her way. I enthusiastically shook her hand and thanked her for all that she did. Taking vitals for the chief today was one of the coolest things I have done since coming to Malawi.
After church we hopped in the truck to go and visit some people around Sakata whose houses had melted (literally) from the rain and floods of Malawi’s rainy season. The houses are made out of mud bricks, that are hardened from being in the sun, but unfortunately they simply don’t stand a chance against the torrents of water that gushed towards them.
The first house we visited, an entire half of the house gone, the resident, and older Malawian woman told us how she now had to live with her daughter. The second house, a young couple – the wife expecting – had their house collapse while they were inside sleeping! Praise the Lord no one was hurt, however, their entire backside of the house had melted away, and the roof was structurally unstable, not even safe enough to stand under. They were also forced to find other housing accommodations. Standing next to their collapsed houses, these people did not complain or cry, but simply found other solutions and carried on.
It’s shocking and amazing to watch how resilient the Malawian people are – they have no help when disasters like this come, no government aid, no temporary housing solutions, no resources to rebuild. Yet, they continue to exude joy and gratefulness. How convicted I felt of my complaining about much smaller issues.
Written by: Tessa Mills, Xavier Nursing Student
Going to church for 3 hours was never a desire of mine, but I have never laughed, smiled, danced, and sang at the top of my lungs (not well, mind you) as much as I did during those 3 hours. The happiness, the joy, the faith, the love, and the hope was overflowing out of the small sanctuary and was something beyond inspiring. I have never felt God’s presence within a community as much as I did being surrounded by the villagers, dressed in their best and greeting us warmly. In the words of Liz, the best word to describe it was truly agape. It was pure undeniable love, hope, and belief that even in the hardest of times, God will provide. Just as our reading taught us, even when we struggle and begin to sink, God will always be with us. In Malawi we are surrounded by those who have nothing and struggle day to day to survive, to feed and protect their families, and yet they have the most faith and joy in God’s grace. You will never know a stranger in Malawi, only friends. My poor singing is nothing to be sought after, but seeing the room light up when we started to sing our song in Chichewa is something I will cherish forever. We were truly marching in the light of God (Hallelujah!).
Written by: Rachel Hesse, Xavier Nursing Student
Today was my first initial day in a Malawian village called Liti. Here, I am pictured with a group of amazing children who thought I spoke Chichewa, the Malawian language, because of the color of my skin. They were eating pumpkin and offered me some, and wondered why I wasn’t responding. I told the translator to inform them that I was American, but, I’d love to learn their language. They asked me to stay, I told them I’d be back next year in which they replied, “that’s too long”. The children here are so joyful and full of life. I am so grateful to have this opportunity experience the culture and tradition of the Malawian village.
The first day of clinic is always a mix of emotions. There has been such a build up leading up to the moment we open and see our first patients. Pulling up to the clinic site and seeing all the people sitting under the tree waiting for us to start is always a nerve wracking moment. All the nerves dissipate as the day goes on and we can start to see the impact we are truly making. I love interacting with all the different people. From the elders of the community, to the littlest of babies. Seeing the smiles on their faces, being present with them, playing with the children at the end of the day- these are all of my favorite things. Being in these moments I am reassured as to why I am called to be here. Today I had an experience that I know I will never forget.
5 am start to the day. It’s the first day of clinics and we need to load all of the supplies for the clinics. We carry hundreds of pounds of supplies from storage and await the truck which we are to load. As the truck arrived I find myself doubtful that we will be able to fit all of our supplies. Thankfully we are able to get everything we will need loaded onto and tied down to the back of the truck. our next obstacle to over come is how we can get people we need to unload the trucks from Naming’azi farm to the clinic sites. The cab of the truck can only hold 3 people and it would be a monumental task to unload the truck with just 3 people. The solution we found was to have 2 of us to ride on the back of the truck, clinging to the ropes which are tying down the supplies all the way to the clinics. Thankfully our driver is a pro, we all worked extremely hard to unload the truck, and we were able to transport the supplies to the clinics without incident. what an exhilarating start to a wonderful day!
Written By: James Reist
Pastor Andy Odom from Canyon Creek Presbyterian Church in Richardson, Texas joined VIP on a Friendship Trip in 2015. His rich experience in Malawi gave him insight into the true meaning of partnership. Since his return, he views life through a new perspective. With this appreciation of our mission, he encourages members from his congregation and others in his life to join in on this life-changing journey.
“I encourage you to consider going with us to Malawi on a Friendship Trip. I went a few years ago and can tell you that it is an experience one is unlikely to forget. One question I get about taking a trip like that is, “Why is it important to go there? Wouldn’t it be better if I sent the money I would have spent for a trip?” It’s a good question. Obviously going to Malawi is something that will help you grow in your faith. It will challenge your assumptions about the fairness of life and the disparity that exists in the world. But, perhaps the best reason to go is what it does for the people there. When you go to Malawi, it shows the villagers that we are serious about being in relationship with them. Each new person who goes on a Friendship Trip helps ensure confidence in the people there that VIP is a group who will stay with them. So many groups go on a mission trip to Malawi but never return. VIP is committed to staying, and they need people like us to be part of that commitment. So, it will change you, yes, but more than that, it builds our relationship with the people who live there, and if there is anything God wants most of all, it’s to build relationship. Give it some thought.” – Pastor Andy Odom
If you’re feeling called to join us on a trip to Malawi, click here to learn more or to sign up today! Our staff will be praying for your discernment during this time of decision making.
As this year comes to a close, we want to recap the amazing work God has done through you and the VIP family in 2018. Your dedication to our mission and compassion for the people of Malawi is helping us fight poverty every day. Through our mission trips, your gifts, and the lasting partnerships, we’re so excited to see the continued impact we’ll have on our brothers and sisters in the years to come. On behalf of our Malawian family, we send thanks!
This year, VIP had our first college student, Lucius Phiri, graduate from the University of Malawi. We met Lucius after his family exhausted their resources trying to pay college tuition for him to continue his education. He dropped out of college for a semester. Then he heard about Villages in Partnership. After learning of his struggle, VIP provided the funding through the John Nathan Anderson Scholarship to complete his degree in agricultural studies thanks to Gayle and Phil Anderson.
We implemented solar irrigation this year thanks to your generous gifts. The irrigation system covers 12 acres and will benefit 70 households. The introduction of solar irrigation will completely change farming practices leading to full harvests. VIP is moving towards our goal of having farmers in Malawi becoming self-sufficient and not relying on inconsistent weather patterns due to climate change.
The 2018 USA medical team, composed of 29 nurse practitioners, physicians assistants, nurses, medical students, and our support team, paired up with Malawian medics and VIP’s Malawi staff and served over 4,600 patients in Malawi this summer. The teams saw all these patients in the time span of just three days. Our trips bring our team members closer to God while developing a deep love for Malawians and the medical profession. With such a high demand for health care, we decided to take our mission to the next level by hosting two Medical Trips in 2019. Click here for more trip information.
God put a calling on our heart in 2018 to build a medical clinic in the remote village of Khanda. The villagers have prayed that we bring medical care where there is none. We felt the calling in a powerful way this year and began our efforts to build this clinic brick by brick. We kicked-off the giving season with Giving Tuesday in 2018 and we’re so excited to see how God will use your gifts in a powerful way. The building of the clinic will be an ongoing project and we’re still accepting donations. Click the link to learn how you can help! https://villagesinpartnership.org/khanda-clinic/
This July, I returned to Malawi with VIP for my second medical trip. As a nursing student, I had experience with patients and hospitals, but never imagined a healthcare system like Malawi’s. When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, it’s hard to fathom why you should care about a mosquito net over your bed or why you should get that sore on your leg looked at. You do your best to survive in an unforgiving environment with little resources. Malawi’s hospitals differ so greatly requiring family members to support the patients’ needs including meals while getting treatment. Going to the hospital as a mother means leaving your children home alone or with a relative to care for them. Going to the hospital as a child means having a family member come and cook for you. The hospital means taking time away from harvesting fields and providing food for your family. Treatment is often withheld until the disease progresses, making it even more difficult to treat.
My first day in the medical clinic my instructor, Lucy Goeke, said that I was needed to help a patient that just arrived. She told me the patient was an injured young girl named Aristina and that I should prepare myself. I entered the room with another instructor, Jackie, and immediately was taken aback. The young girl was my age, in her early 20’s. The mother told us, through our interpreter, that the girl was epileptic, suffered a seizure, and fell into a fire. Her shirt was holding on by threads as the fire had devoured the skin on both of her arms and even more so on the girl’s chest and breasts. She was covered in blisters as the burn had just taken place earlier that morning. We were limited so we applied ointment to the blisters and kept them from drying to the bandages we placed to keep infection out. The next day she returned and we were able to debride the burns and clean the edges to allow for new skin to grow. Another day passed until we saw the girl again. She seemed in much better spirits as the burns were feeling less painful. We set her up with dressings and arranged for her to return weekly to meet with a Villages in Partnership clinician. VIP employees and several clinicians came to continue care and meet with the most vulnerable patients. Leaving the girl in the hands of a Malawian clinician made it much easier since we had trust in their work. I received an update about five months later showing her progress and that only made me want to return to see her more.
Returning to Malawi this past July, I was amazed to see Aristina in such good spirits along with her family. We were welcomed to sit with her and the family as we conversed over how the past year had gone. Her burns were fully healed and she was smiling from ear to ear, something that I had yet to see. The mother said that Aristina stopped talking after the incident since it was so traumatic to her, but recently started talking again. Aristina faces many obstacles living in a rural village, but because of the care she received from the VIP clinicians, infection will not be one of them. When VIP asked the villages what they could do for this region, they responded saying the number one resource needed is access to healthcare. Building a clinic nearby means quicker access and less detrimental outcomes for villagers. The clinics treat illness along with disease and help with prevention including of fetal abnormalities and sickness by providing prenatal care through VIP’s partnership with Vitamin Angels. The clinics also offer access dental care. The dental clinic grows each year, continually advancing. Not only has VIP been able to remove teeth through these clinics but now they have been able to save people’s teeth and conduct cleanings. VIP supports thousands of Malawians and I’m incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of a wonderful team enriched with heartwarming people.
Education is highly valued at VIP and we embrace opportunities to make schools more accessible in remote villages. This past year, we partnered with Valley Presbyterian Church and The Rob and Melani Foundation to build a secondary school (high school) in a location where there is great need. These two organizations are involved with work in Malawi and they are excited to come together to share this project. We recently received news that the Ministry of Education in Malawi approved the site on which we are planning to build. This school’s location will provide children with access to education they otherwise would not have.
The Malawian government established three criteria to evaluate the suitabitly of land on which to build a secondary school. The first criteria reviewed is surrounding primary schools. When evaluating this particular land, they identified 7 primary feeder schools for a secondary school. Next, the location of the nearest secondary school is determined to confirm the need for another secondary school in the area. The Ministry of Education confirmed that the closest secondary school is approximately an hour and a half walk away. This creates a high dropout rate since students walk to and from school, making the commute a 3 hour walk. The third criteria reviewed is room for expansion. Upon evaluation, landowners in the surrounding areas have available space for further development if needed.
This past summer, Chris Woodard, the Mission Director at Valley Presbyterian Church, along with some of the church’s members came to Malawi and visited the land with Liz and VIP’s Malawian staff. Chris along with the team are so excited to be apart of the construction of this school.
“It is a true joy to be a part of something bigger than yourself. When VIP told our church that children from the Sakata district were walking 10 miles to school every day we were floored. Our mission team all felt compelled by the spirit to see if we could help. We followed the leading of the spirit to raise awareness and support in our community and church. This week we received news that the site for the future school was approved by the Ministry of Education in Malawi and the land is being purchased. How exciting it is to be a part of this incredible new adventure where the lives of children in Malawi will be positively impacted by the love of Jesus. We are reminded that when we remain in relationship with Jesus our joy is complete and good fruit will be produced. I am thrilled to see how the good fruit of this school will be a blessing to others.” – Chris Woodard, Mission Director at Valley Presbyterian Church
During my trip this past summer in Malawi, I had the privilege to meet with Mrs. Chimenya from the Kalupe Village. A VIP staff member mentioned she had tremendous success with conservation farming practices she learned from Villages in Partnership. After hearing this news, Jordan Heinzel-Nelson and I made a visit to speak with her in person. We were both excited to hear about her success first-hand. As we pulled up to her house, we noticed she had a produce stand set up outside by the dirt road with a variety of vegetables and grains. This stand was a good sign since this meant she was making a form of income and had extra crops to sell.
As we approached her home, she came outside to greet us with a big smile on her face. She seemed so happy and full of life as she greeted us. We also met her children who eagerly accompanied her along with her husband after they heard of our arrival. Soon after we finished our greetings and introduced ourselves, a bamboo mat was laid out for us to sit on and spend time with the family. Jordan asked the translator if we could ask her some questions and she eagerly replied saying “yes”. We quickly learned a lot about Mrs. Chimenya and her family after asking a few questions about her life in the village.
She told us that after her husband suffered from a stroke, it was up to her to support them along with their 7 children. Her husband previously had a job with the government which kept them stable so this sickness was a shock for their family. On her own, she would only collect on average 8 bags of crops during harvest. After VIP provided her with conservation farming training, she doubled her harvest and was able to gather 15 bags of crops from her fields. With this abundance, she was able to sell the extra to pay for school fees for her children.
Mrs. Chimenya explained to us how conservation farming works for her crops. She was taught to use maize stalks similar to hay which prevent the immature crops from becoming damaged from the heat of the sun. This technique also helps to lock moisture into the soil and keep the ground from becoming dry. As the maize stalks decompose, they return nutrients into the soil. With this technique, she planted an assortment of crops including maize, cassava, sweet potatoes, and ground nuts. After talking to her and the family, she then showed us her fields where she does her work in addition to her stand in the front of the house. At the end of our visit, they brought us sweet potatoes to eat and showed so much gratitude for VIP’s work.
Over the weekend of August 10th, VIP attended the Malawi Mission Network’s (MMN) fifteenth annual conference held in Dallas, Texas. This year’s event was hosted by Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church. Organized in 2003 by the PCUSA and the Pittsburg Presbytery, the MMN is an affiliation of non-profit organizations who share a call to help our brothers and sisters in Malawi. Approximately 70 people from the United States and Malawi participated in the event. Malawian organizations in attendance included the Central Church of Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) General Assembly, the Livingstonia and Nkhoma Synods, the Veritas Bible College, Embangweni Hospital, and the University of Livingstonia. Organizations from the United States represented included the PCUSA, Presbyterian World Mission and members of the MMN such as the Marion Medical Mission and Malawi Matters.
VIP was given the opportunity to provide a short overview of our organization, our mission in Malawi, and examples of successful projects to the assembled group at a meet and greet event. We also hosted an information table in the vendor display room throughout the conference where we distributed VIP literature, answered questions, and discussed potential partnerships and cooperative projects.
The event was a rousing success. We raised the visibility of VIP within the MMN and the PCUSA and networked extensively with other mission organizations. Our networking activity generated many solid ideas for potential partnerships and joint project initiatives in our catchment area. In addition, VIP was added formally to the MMN and Chris Ebling, who represented VIP at the event, was elected to the MMN leadership team. Chris has been invited to share VIP’s mission PCUSA and Presbyterian World Mission and with Preston Hollow leadership team in the near future. Over the remainder of 2018 and into 2019 Chris will be working with the leadership team to plan next year’s conference and will ensure that VIP is front and center at that event.
I have a dream. My dream is to make a positive difference in someone’s life and that the act will be remembered.That’s hard to do when you are a person who is perfectly happy to be in the background. I won’t be front and center. I’m not an adrenaline junky. If life was a movie set, I would be the lighting person. Equally important role, but who sticks around reading the credits for the lighting persons name? If you see me, I will be in the back, quietly helping and working. I will work even harder to stay out of the spotlight.So, how will I make a positive difference to one person in the background?I am in Malawi, when another support member of the group is questioning her role. Why am I here? What am I doing to make a difference? She looks around and looks at the medical staff like they are more valued. This hits me hard as I often feel the same way and I am medical. I want to offer words of comfort, but I know those words will not help. It is the same words spoken to me and I still have those insecurities and self doubt. As the days pass this is still weighing on me. She has value, every step of this is dependent on her role. She plans and organizes. Without that we wouldn’t be here to do the part we do. I also know those words won’t help as I have heard them and I know it to be true but the self doubt remains.I am in Kalupe, working the pharmacy. It is the end of the last day of clinic. It is busy and I am only vaguely aware of my surrounding. I glance up and a Malawian women is eyeing me, she strides with purpose and her eyes never drop from my glance. She approached with haste and begins speaking her native Chichewa. She speaks fast and with passion. I cannot understand. I immediately think, I forgot to give her something, she feels she was not treated appropriately, what did I miss? I call for my Malawian interpreter Lucy.“Lucy! I need you to tell me what she is saying.”Conversation begins in Chichewa and once again I am lost from the conversation.Lucy turns to me and says…“She wants you to know that she remembers you from last year. She came in with severe malaria. Because of you and the other American’s she received medications. She says thank you. She says you saved her life and wants you to know she is fine.”Tears form quickly and we embrace each other.It takes a village to care for a village. It takes people with different talents and passions, who can work together to achieve a common goal.In the background, I was remembered. Life goal achieved thanks to God, this team, and VIP.Thank you to everyone on this team for your talent, support, and friendship. We are now family.
“Alone we can do so little; Together we can do so much” – Helen Keller
On this my 4th time to Malawi I still find my heart leaning in with the Agogos. I love these women. They have already had a long full life and yet here they are caring for their grandchildren and orphans as well. Life here is not easy. These women have been gathering water for their families their entire life. This entails walking varying distances and carrying about 20 lbs on their head and neck back to the home. They have also been preparing food over open fires and literally stooping completely over to cook the food over the flames while smoke barrels into their faces. I won’t even mention the pit latrines and how there are no toilet seats …. All this to remind us of their way of life and what it entails to survive physically and mentally in the villages.
Most have also lost children and husbands. No time for grief, water must be fetched and dinner made ready. Now in their later years, they are not resting and enjoying their golden years they are still raising children only it’s grandchildren and orphans this time. Their parents either have died or simply left. They still must carry babies on their backs, work their field, and pray for God to provide in their time of need. These same women are the ones that greet the team with singing and dancing. They praise God for the blessing of the visitors and share their joy with us. It is contagious and captures my heart completely. Their strength and resilience is amazing and it is a gift THEY give to me. I can hear them even now (back on American soil) and I pray for them. Father in heaven, hear their prayers, hold them in your hand and love them as only you Father God can. Amen.
Malawi leaves an unforgettable imprint on the hearts of everyone who takes the journey to walk alongside our brothers and sisters. Trip participants leave learning much more than they ever imagined. Through singing, praise, and an unshakeable sense of hope, the power of the human spirit is revealed. Love is exchanged with every smile as the team travels through the villages. VIP’s projects show trip participants the transformative power of giving back first-hand. Our July Friendship team felt deeply moved as they came to the end of their trip. Before traveling back to the airport, everyone expressed their excitement to share their life-changing experience with their family members and friends. See the team’s takeaways below.
“I felt called to come to Malawi for work and the experience, but what I received was a connection, meaning, and my own healing.” – Megan Sanders from Wylie, TX
“This is NOT a sad place. The colors and sounds are wonderful” – Anne Diebel from Allentown, New Jersey
“The joy on the people’s faces is amazing. I have prayed about coming here for a while and I am so glad I am here. This place has hope; these people have GRIT! So inspiring!” – Wende Liebert from Wylie, TX
“The Malawian people are just like us, just poorer. They have the same basic desires as we Americans. If there will always be poor people, as Jesus says, perhaps that is so that we with more resources can show compassion by sharing ours.” – Bart Hubbard from Garland, TX
“I expected this to be a great experience, and it has. I feel that I have acquired a great deal of knowledge about the lives of the people of Malawi and I feel great love and compassion for them.” – Kent McCully from Dallas, TX
“Going to Malawi gave me a new perspective on life reminding me how small gestures of kindness can make a world of a difference for families with very little. The work VIP is doing is truly life changing. To see the transformative power of giving back first hand was incredibly moving.” – Carissa Rea from Lawrenceville, New Jersey
When we walk into the dusty clearing surrounding a quaint little hut, an old man hobbles out to meet us. He calls something in rapid Chichewa to a couple boys nearby. They run and grab some burlap sacks on which we sit to avoid getting our cloths too dusty.
After we are seated, he totters over and greets each of us. After greetings, he sits to talk. The sweetest eyes peer out from his round face and a toothless smile stretches from ear to ear. We are immediately charmed.
We are here for a home-visit, an essential part of every trip to Malawi – even for the medical team. Amidst the busy days of clinic, it is important to find time to come, be present, and chat with some of the most vulnerable families. It invites insight into the lives of people who live without secure food sources, without dry spaces on which to sleep, without clean water.
Today we are visiting Levision Dulana at Mpoola village. I am with my Mom, a team member named Carol, and our translator, Sydney.
“We are here to learn a little bit about your life,” Carol tells him. “Is it ok if we ask you some questions?” (Sydney is translating everything).
“Of course, it is fine,” he replies.
“Who lives with you?”
“A 13 year-old grandson, but he is gone now for Chinamwale in the Simba.”
Chinamwale is the initiation of boys to men – they are circumcised at the beginning and then spend a month secluded in a tent with men, learning about many… things. I shudder imagining this traumatizing experience as a 13-year-old.
We talk for some time – his story is like many others. He lives alone because his wife left when he grew too ill to work. He did not harvest enough food to last the year. He lives with the boy because he cannot care for himself. But the community helps him, sending aid. He is still not sure how he will make it. God will provide.
Finally, my Mom returns to the initial conversation. “Abambo, can you tell us about chinamwale? Or is it a secret? What do you learn there?”
To all who venture to Malawi, I encourage you to spend time with my Mom – she asks the best questions!
“They teach the boys to respect their elders. They tell them they must work hard or women will not like them. But I can tell you nothing else.” He chuckles. “There are many things regarding women!”
“Do you expect your grandson to be a better helper when he returns? More respectful?”
When conversation dies down, we ask him if he has any questions for us. Questions about our lives, America. He retorts – “I have never left this village! How should I know what I should ask?” He laughs some more.
At the end of the visit, we present him with some gifts, including a pair of soccer cleats. He lights up. Although he can barely shuffle around the house, he tells us he is an avid soccer player. The toothbrush makes him smile even more – “I have only 1 tooth – it will be a clean one!” He points to the back of his mouth.
As we take leave, my Mom takes a picture of us together. “Will you bring me this photo so I can tell my friends that I hosted azungu (white people)?”
“We will try – next time we come, maybe we will dance together because the vitamins will make you so strong.”
“Next time you come, I will be on the football pitch!” He says, bent at a right angle because he cannot support his body upright. He sends us off with his laughter echoing through the air.
A few days ago, Sokoso, our veterinary officer, told me that a happy man lives long. I think this old man has many years yet to live.
I first agreed to the medical mission trip this spring during our Nurse Practitioner white coat ceremony at Xavier. As far as I knew at that time, we were treating Malawian patients at four remote clinics who would normally not receive any form of healthcare. In the trip information it mentioned unfathomable volumes, extremely ill patients, and needed resources that were not readily available. I had my sight on a mission trip for quite some time, and this seemed like an appropriate scenario given my background working as an ER nurse and Trauma Program Manager for a busy rural hospital.
Set up and necessary preparations felt overwhelming as myself and other healthcare providers recognized a long list of drugs that we do not typically utilize in the United States, along with ones we did not have with us. Of course, we not only had to have a crash course on prescribing these foreign medications, we had to be able to recognize diseases such as Malaria, Shistosomiasis, and my favorite, gastrointestinal “worms”! It was quickly notable that the several veteran staff working with us have been experienced who guided us through the learning process, especially Lucy Goeke who was extremely knowledgeable and just a fantastic teacher.
I was assigned as a provider (or prescriber here) to the Nkumbira clinic, and the clinic days were very busy and could almost be recognized as slightly overwhelming most of the time. Throughout the three days we evaluated, treated, and provided medications to over 4,500 patient’s. The Malawi culture is one of dignity, respect, and civil fortitude. Well over a hundred patients were patiently waiting outside for us every morning with their medical passport- the only form of their medical record in their hands to openly share with strange providers. Not at any time were the patients disrespectful, have a sense of entitlement, nor demand any form of treatments and/or medications. Even though we were working under extreme pressure with providers we never seen before, each and every person walked into the clinic with the same goal to help make a difference in complete strangers’ lives, no matter how small.
The goal of the clinics is to do the most good for the most amount of people with limited resources. It was quite evident that a simple referral to the hospital was almost impossible for most, therefore all but life threatening cases needed handled in the one room clinic which did not have electricity nor running water. I will remember many cases forever, including those with a poor prognosis- knowing the feeling that some would not survive even with our best efforts will be there. The feeling of having to cut away dead tissue, make incisions and drain wounds without lidocaine or anesthesia just knowing that it has to be done to give patients a chance at beating infections. Finding recurrent Malaria in a child who’s spleen was so large it consumed a third of her abdomen, and feeling responsible to make the appropriate decisions in their care again to give them their best chance. Providing medications and draining infection from a foot to a child who could not walk due to the infection, having him return the next two days of clinic to see him walk again the last day. Seeing the comfort, joy and shear appreciation in the patients eyes each day made everything we did as a team made me feel overwhelmingly humble.
A quick shoutout should also be sent to Liz (Executive Director of VIP), Jordan (Liz’s daughter and extremely talented leader), and Lucy (Medical Team Leader and organizer) as none of the amazing work we completed as a team would have been remotely possible without you!
Walking into the Malawian airport, I didn’t know what to expect, what smells or what sights I’d be experiencing. I did not expect drawn on licenses plates or the forever lingering smell of fire wood. I would not expect the rocky roads that lead up to Namin’gazi Farm or the local food that would be made just for us. Not knowing a single thing about this country was intimidating and know where near comforting. Learning more about the team during debriefing after clinic began a strong connection that would help us during the three long and blurry days of clinic. Being a part of “support” staff added a feeling of incompetence within myself. However, during the three days, I have allowed myself to enter a different realm. Previously fainting from the sight of blood back home, I had been put to the limit while I ended clinic with cleaning wounds and dressing them. Though clinic was a blur, it has taught me the love of medicine and the memory has and forever will be connected with me. It has brought me self-confidence and has given me pure joy. The people of Malawi are driven to be faith driven and create a potential life changing feeling within each individual. They are brave, fierce, but have developed a sense of loyalty and devotion to God. They create raw emotion and unfiltered love; pure love. They can change your mind on life in less than an hour and create tears of uncertainty and joy. Being drawn to the people of Malawi is not a choice, but a must. Being in Malawi has not only brought me closer to God, but has developed a pure love for the Malawians and each profession in the medical trip.
Filled with singing, dancing, and celebration, graduations are a lively part of Malawian culture even at preschool age. As we pulled into the ceremony, there were hundreds of parents, teachers, and students gathered to witness this exciting occasion. Over 18 preschools were in attendance with 200 children who will now be moving to Standard 1 (First Grade) at Primary School in September. Upon request from the villages, VIP supported all preschools in attendance making this graduating class possible. Our group was directed to sit with the chiefs of the villages in a highly respected front row tented area. The MC then invited us along with the chiefs from the villages to get a glimpse into what the students were learning during this past year.
We were brought into a crowded room with different sections representing various areas of teaching and learning. For example, there was an outdoor playing area, creative art area, block and building area, music and instrument area along with others. The children beamed with excitement as they demonstrated their new skills learned over the past year at each station. By observing, we saw the well-rounded approach taken by these preschools. As we made our way back to our seats, a play or “drama” began in the center of the event. There were two men dressed up speaking loudly in Chichewa as the crowd roared with laughter. The translation of the play was hard for me to follow; however, the Malawians definitely appreciated their humor. After their performance, each preschool was invited up to the microphone to show case what they learned.
I was surprised to see each school represented in this way. Back in America, a group this large would typically be addressed as one group. Malawian culture has a way of making you feel individually noticed and appreciated. As the preschools came forward, the children presented a skill they learned. Some recited their ABCs into the microphone, counted as a group from 1 to 100, while others sang songs together. After each group, the DJ played music and the crowds would break out into a dance including the MC. Following the 18 preschools that were presented, speeches were given from Mwalabu and Liz. The last stage of the graduation was to hand out certificates to each student; however, everyone decided the ceremony went on for too long. Instead, they brought up two students from each preschool to represent making the flow more manageable. As the ceremony came to a close of course the Malawian way called for more celebrating by sharing Obama bread (named after our former president) and drinking Coca Cola. Sharing this joyful occasion with the Malawian community reminded me how important it is to celebrate every accomplishment in life no matter how big or small.
I was barely aware that she had a baby with her, much less that she was breast feeding while she quietly handed over her medical passport. She spoke to my translator and described her reasons for seeking care for her baby and he turned and carefully chose the English words to translate her Chichewa (the local language) into terms that I would understand. I could use this description for dozens of the patients that I’ve seen over the past two days at a small medical clinic in the village of Liti in rural Malawi. Today was the second of three clinic days. Our team saw just over 280 villagers over the course of 6 hours. They come to us with fevers and wounds and a variety of conditions that would warrant admission to most U.S. hospitals, and they patiently and quietly wait to be seen. There is no visible frustration on their faces, no sense of entitlement or voices of impatience, a subdued yet determined demeanor permeates their culture.
I chose to come on this trip with Villages in Partnership with very little persuasion from my clinical instructor at Xavier University. I have worked in a busy U.S emergency department for nearly 6 years and I saw this as an opportunity to regain the perspective that made me want to be a nurse in the first place. Too often I leave work with frustrations of the American bureaucracy that healthcare has become with more thoughts about whether I had diligently documented than the care that I provided. Nursing schools emphasize the concepts of beneficence and non-maleficence (do good things for your patients, don’t hurt them) and this experience has allowed me to get back to the root of those tenets and that has been more refreshing than I could have imagined.
The baby was done breast-feeding and stared at me with giant brown eyes and a full head of matted kinky hair that stood at least three inches off her little head. I asked my translator, “Tell her that her baby is beautiful and has more hair than I have ever had”, he quickly complied. She let out a soft laugh (I’m completely bald and likely to be the first white person she has ever interacted with). Her nine month old had a cough and a fever, symptoms that many American parents would simply treat with over the counter children’s Tylenol and rest. Things get a little more high-stakes in a place where there is no counter, and Malaria is a very real threat when these symptoms appear. We tested 122 patients for it our first day, 59 came back positive, and still they wait patiently to be seen by a provider to receive their prescriptions and plan of care.
I close my eyes and listen to my fellow Malawian VIP team member recite a prayer in chechewa at the start of my first day of clinics. All I could think about was that I, an American nursing student, would be providing care for the sickest of sick and I had no idea what I was doing. My mind was racing in a thousand directions and I was overwhelmed. As the work began at our clinics, we started off at a slow pace. As I took vitals, I made sure to look each patient in the eye to say “muli bwanji” – “how are you.” The connections I made with each patient helped me get through my work in triage. Our work progressed and as we began to work efficiently as a group, we were able to make deeper connections with our patients.
When doing vitals, I saw a little girl with her grandmother who flashed me a smile. I could see it in her face that she was ill and in pain. My translator and I asked the grandmother what the little girl’s chief complaint was and she told us she had a fever, headache, and stomach pain. As the grandmother was explaining the symptoms, the little girl brushed her hand up against mine to hold it. As I held her in my arms I could feel her distended belly and her pain. The grandmother then explained how the little girl had a twin sister who passed away from the same symptoms and she was worried about this twin getting sick. She explained how her mother left after her twin sister passed away because she was so sad and was now in the grandmothers care. As tears rolled down her eyes, we comforted the grandmother as she told us her story. The well being of her grandchild was secondary to the rashes and burns all over her body. The story of this family and the care I provided on the first day will be something I will never forget. Each Malawian smile, tear and heartbeat I heard were all joyful in the midst of sickness.
- written by Sarah Herr
This medical mission trip has proved to be one incredible journey. This is my first time in Africa, first time doing a mission trip, and my first time being a part of the Villages in Partnership. To say I was overwhelmed, at first, is an understatement. I had moments of pure doubt in myself, but knowing that I am doing all that I can for the Malawians truly is something special. The team has been such an incredible group of people all coming together to do something bigger than ourselves. Being in the clinics truly put everything in full circle of how we are helping these people. I am so thankful to be a part of trip, to be here with the team, and to help in any way I can. The clinics can be overwhelming with so many people who need relief and are in pain, and to be able to help these people is nothing short of amazing. To be a part of a group that is doing all that they can for others with nothing in return is phenomenal. In the clinic, today, I met this young girl with a deep wound on her leg. The entire time we were washing, cleaning, and bandaging this wound, the girl made no sound. However, you can see it in her face that she was in extreme pain. It is this kind of bravery and courage that kept me going throughout the day. The Malawians are such strong and incredible people, and I am so blessed to be able to give them my time and energy in order to give them better outcomes. What a trip so far!
The team splits into three groups in the morning. The first group is going to harvest honey with village bee keepers. I was originally intending to travel with them but my newly acquired cold makes me fearful of being stuck in a bee suit with no way to reach my nose. The second group is going to help some construction workers move bricks to the construction site – as thrilling as this sounds, I think I will pass. So, I join the third group. We are going to work with a group of village women to prepare lunch for the team. A village lunch is always an interesting affair. But before we travel into the villages for lunch, we must make a stop to pick up groceries.
We pull up on the tarmac (not an airport, just another word for paved roads here in Malawi). Mada, our community health worker, runs to the car and climbs into the back. She individually asks us all how we are doing in typical Malawian politeness and then directs my Mom to the next stop – the butchers.
Farther along the road, we park. There are two wooden stalls here surrounded by a cohort of men. Hanging from the roofs are large chunks of freshly butchered goat meat. A leg is identifiable but the rest is ambiguous. On the table underneath the stall, I see pieces of liver, and one man even holds up the testicles. Mada informs us later that the testicles are her favorite part of the goat – very soft and juicy. They put the meat on scales balanced with metal weights on the other side to determine weight and price.
While the butchers are measuring out the meat and chopping it into pieces with a machete, one man tries to talk with me. He is speaking rapidly in a language I do not understand – I assume it is Chichewa that has simply exceeded my limited vocabulary. When I try to communicate my lack of understanding, “Pepani, sindikumva,” which literally means “Sorry, I don’t hear,” he starts laughing. All the men do. I blush. It can feel very disconcerting to have a gang of men speaking a language you don’t know and laughing at you. Finally, he recovers his composure.
“Yao!” He says. Understanding crosses my face. He is not speaking Chichewa; he is speaking Yao. I join them, laughing at myself. We azungu (white people) must look very silly.
The goat meat is ready and we drive along to a much larger market. Piles of tomatoes, oranges, bananas, lettuce, potatoes, rice, and other produce stretch as far as the eye can see. They are laid out on the ground, in piles, on cloth, on plates, in trays, or just on the dusty ground. There are some more unusual food stuffs too – dried insects, live chickens, fried mice. We pick up firewood, tomatoes, rice, cooking oil, and six live chickens. We put them under the seats of the car where they squawk occasionally.
When we finally begin moving again, we are a carload of Malawians, Americans, chickens, goat testicles, firewood, and an assortment of other goods. Mada leads the car in song. As we sing, the chickens fall silent. Little do they know, this is their funeral dirge.
Joy is the best word I can use to summarize the past few days here in Malawi. With every visit to a new village, we are welcomed with open arms and thankful hearts for our partnership. It’s so powerful to see first hand how our churches back home in America have impacted the Sakata Region VIP works in. We visited the Libwalo well this week with our Friendship Trip team providing us with a clear understanding of how clean water can dramatically alter life. Prior to constructing this well, villagers had to walk miles just to collect water. Now, the local well allows children to spend time in school rather than gathering water for the household. The accessibility of this well also gives women the extra time to focus on other daily activities to help bring in an income to support their families.
Once we arrived at the Libwalo village and piled out of the Land Cruiser, a group of women joyfully greeted us by singing and dancing. They eagerly invited us to see their well that Canyon Creek Presbyterian Church from Texas provided funding for in 2015. The villagers happily shared their success stories by explaining how the community is experiencing less sickness overall by drinking clean water and traveling less to collect it. Everyone continued to show their appreciation through songs, dancing and clapping during our time there. Our Canyon Creek members on our Friendship Trip team; Megan Sanders, Wende Liebert, Kent McCully and Bart Hubbard, all had a chance to pump the well to celebrate the life-changing difference this project is making.
As we began to wrap up the visit, the villagers walked us over to our Land Cruiser singing and dancing once again. Liz encouraged me to go dance with the group before we left. As I slowly approached them, a woman grabbed my hands while everyone crowded around me celebrating their answered prayers for clean water. The village’s love for VIP was strongly translated as they graciously showed their appreciation to each one of us. Seeing the well in person opened my eyes to the impact clean water has not only on their health but everyday lifestyle as well. The generosity of Canyon Creek Church was a direct answer to prayer in this village.
We visited a preschool and were serenaded by approximately forty of the sweetest three to five-years-olds I’ve ever encounter. As with all of our excursions I did my best to sing and dance along. What we were singing in one case was what sounded like a good old-fashioned playground song, but since we were singing in Chichewa, I had no idea what the lyrics were so afterwards I asked our interpreter to translate the lyrics for me. This is what he said, There is a frog in the swamp. Why do you tell me about it? I don’t want any frogs. I thought he was putting me on so I asked another Malawian member of our party and he corroborated. I asked, Is this a typical song that most Malawian children are familiar with? Absolutely they said. While I had them together I asked if there were any other songs they could sing for me, so they launched into one that translated as, Whose dog is this? He ate my little fish. Let’s cut him open to see if the fish is there. Swish, swish, swish, they said and made a sawing motion with their hands. Hmmmm . . .
Waking up to the call of a rooster was a gentle reminder of how different life is here in Malawi. We started our first day at breakfast together reading a passage of scripture and talking through the message’s impact during our time here. The verse was reflective of the power of love through hospitality and selfless care for one another. Love was a keyword that stood out to me today becoming very real as we journeyed through the Villages. Culturally, Malawians are different in plenty of ways; however, love joins us together and in the end makes us much more similar than I realized.
The first trip we made was to the Chimpeni Primary School. Our Land Cruiser rolled up catching the eyes of students as they began racing towards us with gleaming smiles. As we piled out of the truck, they were bursting with excitement and curiosity about our visit. The VIP staff gave us a throughout tour of the grounds along with a great overview of the school’s progress since construction. This progression was a clear demonstration of how villages partner together with American “villages” through selfless care and giving. I was blown away by how much progress has been made since the first structure was completed in 2012 thanks to our VIP supporters. In Malawi, the average teacher to student ratio is 1 teacher to 100 students. Here, the average was closer to 1 teacher to 40 students creating a more productive work environment. Our teacher housing at the school along with solar lighting retains more teachers contributing to this success. The passion from them along with the students was noticed immediately after stepping into the first classroom.
During our visit, they radiated happiness and graciously thanked us for the work VIP contributed to enhance education in Malawi. Every teacher greeted us separately with warm smiles asking for our names and welcoming us to the school. Malawians have an incredible way of making you feel so welcomed and appreciated. Experiencing the classrooms in person was so eye opening to me. A common question the teachers asked students was what they wanted to be when they grow up. Individually, students responded saying doctors, police office, teachers, and so on. Through VIP’s love, we really are able to make dreams come true for these students. The scripture we read on paper this morning came to life in person today and helped me to shift my focus to the life-changing impact of love, hospitality and selfless care for others. First hand I was able to witness the transforming love from VIP reflected onto this community.
We drive over rocks, bumps, decayed wooden bridges that look on the verge of collapse, dirt roads that look as though no vehicle has ever driven there before. When we finally stop, we are deep in the village of Phetembe. No other vehicle in sight. No other white person in sight. An older man greets us but, before formal introductions, we must wait until his son joins us. When the son comes, Mr. Mwalabu, the project manager of Villages in Partnership, Malawi, leads the introductions. He introduces himself, the field worker Matope, and my Mom. In Malawi, she goes by Mayi Liz, Mayi Nelson, or Mayi abusa. Mayi, meaning mother in the local language, Chichewa, is the prefix given all women. Mayi Abusa is the name given to the wife of a pastor. Mr. Mwalabu refrains from introducing me and allows Mayi Liz to try her Chichewa.
“Uyu ndi mwana wanga” she says – this one is my daughter. She turns to me, “how do I say lastborn?”
“Womaliza,” it is probably the only word I will say for the entire visit. Hierarchy is very important in Malawian culture – as a younger person I am expected to be seen and not heard. And in an important meeting like this, I am all too happy to just observe.
The men laugh, happy to see white people at least try to learn their language.
In their own turn, the men from the village introduce themselves. Everything is translated as neither speak English. Mr. Ndala and his son are here to show us a piece of their land. VIP is in search of land where they can build a secondary school. Here, in the heart of these villages, any student who makes it through middle school must travel miles to a secondary school. Hours of walking increase dropout rates, as it cuts into time to study and quickly becomes a wearisome walk. A new secondary school would be a gift to everyone in the community.
Mr. Ndala walks us around the perimeter of his land. There are no markers to indicate the edge of his property, and as we walk through the brush, it is difficult to understand how they have decided where the property ends. We seem to be trudging through the middle of a field as far as I can tell. To our left lies a line of trees and I cannot understand why they are not the property markers.
It seems like a sizeable piece of land although even this is hard to tell when we are walking on foot. When we arrive back where we started, Mr. Mwalabu indicates we should go to a more private area to talk in depth. We retreat to Mr. Ndala’s house. My Mom and Mr. Mwalabu drop behind to confer. I hear her whisper “should I ask about price now? Or should we wait for another meeting?”
In a land where I will never fully understand the culture or customs, trust in our Malawian staff and partners is of the utmost importance. They guide us through proper ways of showing respect and teach us the correct customs. I am reminded of the importance of honoring this relationship as a partnership. We are not the experts – we are collaborators coming to learn as much as we teach. I am always impressed with my Mom’s ability to honor this aspect of the work.
When we reach Ndala’s house, we sit on a reed mat and begin the meeting. First my Mom admires the land. She compliments the beauty of the area, the hospitality of the community. In turn, Ndala and his son speak to the importance of having a new school where young people can be propelled into new stratus of life and ideas. It also might help keep them away from the bars and opposite sex, which is an added plus. A secondary school, they say, will bring light to our village. It is a beautiful sentiment.
After 20 minutes of compliments, the conversation circles around towards the main point. “When we came to consider land,” my Mom says, “we had to consider 3 things. Size, if it was flat, and price.” The word lingers in the air. Price. “So… what can you offer?”
Of course, they will not make any decisions during this meeting but at least we will walk away with a baseline. It is clear the men are ready for the question. “If you were a business man, we would charge you 12 million kwacha. But because you are coming to build a school, we will charge you 9 million.”
My Mom says she was hoping to pay less. I can see her excitement rise – the negotiation. I hate this part. She loves it. “I will have to go ask my superiors. Maybe you can meet us somewhere in the middle?” I smile. Of course, the superiors comment is only half true. She is, after all, executive director. They agree to compromise when she returns from her “superiors.”
More pleasantries are exchanged. After another 20 minutes, we depart. In America, an exchange like this would be infuriating. 1 hour of meeting for what added up to about 5 minutes of actual exchange of information. But in Malawi, we take it in stride. At least it wasn’t 3 hours.
Packing is one of the most important steps when preparing to go on a trip to Malawi. Proper planning will ensure you have all the items needed to make your experience the best it can be. The trips also give us the opportunity to bring over supplies, gifts and clothing to vulnerable families. To avoid feeling overwhelmed by this process, this post will cover everything you should have in place before leaving.
Travel Packing: When preparing for your flight, don’t forget to bring your passport along. Remember to check if your passport expiration date is valid, at least 6 months from the departure date, prior to leaving. Once you arrive at the Blantyre airport, there will be a $75 visa requirement that will be paid in cash. Malawi largely remains a cash only economy. We suggest you bring $100 to $300 along with you on your trip in cash since there are very few ATMs. Cash can be exchanged at a Foreign Exchange Bureau. Since the flight is long, we suggest wearing comfortable clothing while traveling.
Clothing to Pack: Women in the villages dress modest and avoid showing their legs and shoulders. We ask that all women pack long dresses and skirts well below the knee along with a slip to avoid see through fabric. For shirts, plan on packing tops with sleeves; t-shirts are acceptable to wear. For men, pack causal light pants only (no shorts), t-shirts, and collared shirts. Everyone should plan on bringing a dressier Sunday outfit for church. In addition, pack light jackets, rain jackets, sweatshirts, pajamas, sturdy sneakers or shoes for rough terrain and sandals. Women can also wear chitenges which is a large piece of cloth that is wrapped around your body like a skirt. During the trip, we’ll stop at a fabric store for those of you who would want to bring home this beautiful fabric.
Additional Items to Pack: To make the most of your trip, we suggest you bring the following items. Headlamps and flash lights are suggested to pack for night. If you would like to bring food from home, bring items that can easily be stored like granola, trail mix, and power bars. Pack a refillable water bottle. Jugs of clean water are provided at the farm to refill your water bottles. In addition, pack a backpack, a Bible, books to read, a journal, cards or games, pens, paper, hand sanitizer, soap, shampoo, and small gifts for Malawian colleagues. Often, one suitcase is packed with items specifically for the villagers including tooth brushes, tooth paste, light blankets, t-shirts, fabric, soap, Vaseline, and picture books with dark skinned characters.
Are you thinking about joining a trip with VIP to Malawi? You may be feeling called to join; however, questions are filling your mind from logistics of travel to the culture. Friendship and Medical Trips allow us to come along side our brothers and sister in Malawi to develop lasting connections and provide healthcare to the most vulnerable. This country is faced with extreme poverty and our presence is deeply appreciated, life-changing, and transformative. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be discussing these topics and answering questions you may be asking yourself. Our first topic is your health and steps you’ll need to take before taking your trip.
How do I start preparing?
Your health while in Malawi is important and we’re sure that if you follow these steps you’ll greatly reduce any risk during your time there. After signing up for a trip, we recommend you start gathering your past medical history of vaccinations to evaluate what you’ve already been treated for. Once you have this information, schedule an appointment with your health-care provider at least 4 – 6 weeks before your trip. This time frame will allow your vaccines to take full effect before arriving to Malawi.
What vaccinations do I need exactly?
First, make sure you are completely up to date with routine shots including the measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus (DPT) vaccine and the poliovirus vaccine. Once you confirmed you’re caught up with these shots, speak to your health-care provider to see if you were vaccinated for Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Typhoid. If not, these three vaccinations are recommended for this trip and are all given in shot form. You may need to see a Travel Health Clinic since many doctor offices do not carry the vaccine for Typhoid.
Do I need to take Anti-Malaria treatment?
Yes, Malaria medication is a must for travel in Malawi. Typically, health-care providers recommend that you start taking the medication prior to your arrival to ensure its effectiveness. When speaking to your doctor, be sure to tell them that you will be spending time in the sun since some malaria medications can cause your skin to become sensitive to the sun. Anti-Malaria treatment usually comes in pill form and can be taken orally, this is not given as a shot.
Coming on the heels of the commercially driven Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday (this year falling on November 28th, 2017) is the international day for giving. Last year VIP’s Giving Tuesday campaign was a huge success, as we raised tens of thousands of dollars which we used to build a life changing large-scale solar irrigation project in our impact area. This year VIP’s focus for Giving Tuesday is our education program, which impacts the lives of learners from pre-school through university.
Nelson Mandela knew the importance of education, calling it “the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” We at VIP know that there can be no sustainable development in Malawi without education, and we are dedicated to increasing the quality and availability of education for learners of all ages.
- Preschool-With no government run preschool program in the country, VIP partnered with local community members to create our very own community run preschool system, so that children could receive the early childhood education and stimulation that we know is so critical to their development. VIP currently provides training, structures and supplies for 15 community run preschools in our impact area.
- Primary School-When community members told us that there was no primary school within walking distance for many children in our impact area, we partnered with the Thorneycroft family to build the Chimpeni School from the ground up. Chimpeni School is now the number one rated primary school in the Zomba region! We are also currently rebuilding the older Sakata School to bring it up to the high standards set by the Chimpeni School.
- Secondary School-When promising learners in our impact area where unable to go on to high school because they could not afford the school fees VIP created a scholarship fund to send some of the brightest students in our impact area to the best high schools in Malawi.
- College- And finally with the creation of the John Nathan Anderson Scholarship Fund, VIP is now able to send the future leaders of Malawi to University, so that they can reach their full potential and return to their villages as doctors, nurses, teachers and business people. Emma and Cydney are two of the students who VIP will help attain a college degree!
Your support has made all of these changes possible. Will you support us again this Giving Tuesday, November 28th, and impact the lives of thousands of more students?
A lot is made, rightfully so, of VIP’s large-scale infrastructure and development projects. The building of schools, bridges, maize mills, and solar irrigation projects has a huge impact on the people of rural Malawi and these projects are concrete examples of the progress that we are making in combating poverty in the villages of Sakata. But one of our most successful development initiatives is not a new construction project, it is not something that can be seen and touched, it is not about bricks and mortar and concrete, but rather it is about organization and training and the dissemination of knowledge.
One of the biggest limitations to economic growth in rural communities is a lack of savings and credit. To help address this deficiency, VIP facilitates small groups called Village Savings and Loan associations (VSLs). Each VSL consists of 12-20 participants who are trained by our staff on how to save money and pool together their savings into a collective “bank.” Eventually they save enough to make small loans to members of the group. With the loans, budding entrepreneurs have the capital to start a business, provide services to the community and begin making money! Each member is responsible for re-paying the loan, with interest. At the end of the year, each member then receives back the amount they contributed, plus their share of the interest earned, which they can then choose to reinvest in the VSL the following year.
In 2016 our VSLs, involving 200 people, saved over $26,000 and this year they are on track to surpass that number. One of the beneficiaries of this program is Chifundo Kamwendo of Kalino village. Chifundo is married with three children and told us her amazing story when we came to visit her this summer. Chifundo joined one of VIP’s earliest VSLs and accumulated enough capital to start a business selling small bags of popcorn in the markets and along the roadside. It was slow going at first, but Chifundo was smart. She had chosen a relatively cheap product to make, that was in high demand and relatively low supply throughout the villages. With the money earned from her popcorn business, she was able to purchase a sow, which is a nice investment in the villages, as she can keep the sow and her female piglets and sell the male piglets to market or to her neighbors. The profits from the pigs and popcorn allowed her to build a beautiful new house, with glass windows and iron sheet roofing. When we asked her where she lived before she joined the VSL, Chifundo pointed to the small, thatched house, with a dirt floor and no windows or doors, where she keeps the pigs safe at night and said “in there.”
VSL’s are the perfect embodiment of VIP’s approach to development. We are not a charity, giving away money to people that will always remain poor. We are a development organization that provides impoverished people in Malawi with the tools, knowledge, infrastructure and organization to lift themselves out of poverty. There are dozens of women with stories just like Chifundo. Women who have been given an opportunity to better their lives and the lives of their families, thanks to your support. And they are seizing their opportunity with both hands.
My trip to Malawi started well before I set foot at the airport. It started as I watched my father’s life be taken away from him by an aggressive lymphoma and with his unfortunate passing in December 2015. He was a great father and someone who always gave me support to push further in life, care for people and…. quite frankly…. a desire to see the world. Despite having a stroke in his 30’s and being partially paralyzed, he had traveled to all seven continents. With each trip there was a story. He lived in Antarctica for a year in the 1960s during an early attempt to install a nuclear reactor for research and supply energy to the few residents in the brutal cold weather. My siblings and I found out many years after one of his trips to Central America that he visited a small school and became upset that there was no reliable power for the children. He took personal money and purchased a generator for the school without hesitation. He always got emotional talking about a trip to The Great Wall of China and how Chinese soldiers helped to carry him up the stairs so he could experience the Wall from the top. Events like these from my father’s past kept pulling on me as I reflected on my own life. God has a plan and it is amazing how things can come together.
During the same period my father was losing his struggle to beat cancer I had joined a small group of men at Christ Church of Oak Brook (CCOB). The group was led by Pastor Eric Camfield and we were brought together to review an unpublished book on discipleship. The small group was good, but it was the sidebar conversations that brought me to Malawi. Eric talked to me about an upcoming mission trip to Senegal and all the great opportunities there are to serve the Lord in the mission field. It really resonated with me. I’m sure I wasn’t as focused as I should have been due to the stress of life, but at the time I thought I had potentially put my name in the hat for a trip to Senegal. It filled my mind with something other than sadness about the loss of my father and gave me a positive goal. Then one-day Eric looked at me and said the Senegal team was full, but I would be good for an upcoming trip to Malawi. I’m not even sure I knew that there was a country called Malawi.
God’s plan was right on target. The CCOB team that went with me to Malawi were awesome. We were led by Susan Zidlicky and joined by Jennie and Jim Garst. Each of use had something to bring to the table. Susan is an expert on the mission field. She really knows her stuff and has a heart for serving. Although Jennie was stepping out of her comfort zone, you could tell from the start she was traveling to make an impact. She has a gift for getting things done. Jim brought a strong back, a mind for engineering and the ability to put up with my sarcasm. We were finding ways to serve in Malawi months before our trip. We fundraised and were able to fill bags full of blankets, books, balls, clothes and so many other items to show our love for a country far far away.
The backbone and overall success of the trip goes to Villages in Partnership (VIP). The entire organization is incredible. VIP’s leader, Liz Heinzel-Nelson, has a heart for the Lord that is evident from the first time you speak with her. She cares for each person in Malawi as if they were her child. VIP has developed a network and community in Malawi that focuses on providing for the basic needs of the Malawians with a respect, intelligence and compassion that I wish I could see more of in the today’s world.
Liz brought the best out of the team. We had these great video calls before we left about what to expect. It was so important to understand what we were flying into and how we can serve. She skillfully told four Type A people to leave all our expectations back in Chicago. Malawi doesn’t work on an American schedule. We would focus on relationships and all the tasks would be taken care of in due time. We had our bags packed, our minds in the right place and now it was time to travel.
As much as I want to go through each day of our trip and tell everyone how remarkable it was, I realize that it was done exceptionally by Justin Zelenka, a VIP staff member. Justin met us at the airport when we landed in Blantyre, Malawi and never left our side throughout the trip. We were also joined by two great people from Dallas, Texas. Sydney and Randa joined us in Malawi as part of the VIP team. Both of them have huge hearts for the Malawian people, especially the children. They fit in great with our team and we were so thankful to spend our time alongside them. I’m going to let Justin’s journaling stand for itself, but I’d like for people to appreciate what I learned about myself and the beautiful country of Malawi.
There are so many stories that impacted me during my time in Malawi, but I’d like to share two of them. Our group had the chance to have lunch with villages on a couple of occasions. What happened when we showed up with goat and chicken meat was very much like a Christmas Day dinner. As is the tradition, the woman cooked and the men… well… the men sat away from the women and talked. We can figure out if this was a good or bad cultural activity another time because what happened with the men is important. Prior to one of our lunches, we were able to sit on the floor of a partially built clinic. The floors were concrete, no electricity, no glass in the windows and they made due with some stools and blankets for the men to sit on. The women were outside under a tree cooking the food using “three-stone” fire pits. The conversation was simple at first. Men like to talk about the weather and crops. But during this gathering I had saw an elderly man sitting off by himself. I asked one of the Malawian VIP staff who the man was and I was told it was a vice-chief of the village. I apologize that I don’t know his name, but I’m sure I never said it correctly and wouldn’t do it justice if I tried to write it out.
I decided to move over to the man and introduce myself. He spoke English, which boggles my mind how I can come from the United States with only English and this man who has never lived with electricity and water can carry a conversation in at least two languages and probably more. As we spoke his eyes were mostly closed and his voice was low. We found out a little bit about each other. Most of the focus was on me and where I was from. As the vice-chief became comfortable with me, his questions became more direct. He asked if I was a Christian and about my faith. He asked me where I was lived and about my family. Then he opened his eyes and looked directly into my eyes with a strong and sincere stare. With a strong clear voice, he asked, “How are you going to bring God’s blessing to me?” Wow. My answer didn’t matter because he was asking about my intent and my actions. Where was my heart and how was God being glorified by my actions? To me, this is an unspoken question that many Malawians are asking of all missionaries. The question wasn’t about gifts or trinkets. It was about faith and love. Just as Liz had prepped us before we left, we were going to focus on the relationship and the material stuff will take care of itself. The vice-chief got me one last time before we started to eat. He gave me a warm smile and said, “Don’t forget about me.” I promised him he would not be forgotten, but it is a real question for people in need. A simple visit and a nice meal is a great day, but he lives there every day and wanted to know that people from other countries care about him in a Godly way. We ended up having a wonderful time of fellowship over the food (only because the women are superstars and did all the work) and leaving the village with smiles and great memories.
My second memory was replicated multiple times in the fields of Malawi. On the first full day in Malawi we had the chance to visit a farmer and we had a tentative idea that we were going to work in his field. Frank, a Malawian VIP staff, was an expert in conservation farming and wanted to discuss with the farmer a way to keep moisture in the field during the dry season. Our job was to clear a field of agricultural waste left behind after the harvest and remove the ridges in the field to make it flat again. It’s no big deal for someone with a tractor, but all we had were some basic hand tools. When I say basic, I mean basic. They were heavy sticks with a large blade attached to it. It worked as a hoe and a hammer. What farmers can do with that hand tool was impressive.
The experience really became surreal after about 30 minutes into the field work. Forget the fact that the Malawians didn’t have on shoes and that they were out working us like Lebron James playing my 10-year-old son in basketball. What was special was that we had member of the Malawi VIP staff with us named Mada. I was in a field with the farmers, their neighbors, VIP staff and Jim trying not to complain and enjoy the day. We weren’t expecting any lunch and there was no water for our Malawian friends near us. Jim and I had some bottled water that we kept in the van just in case, but we didn’t want to drink it in front of everyone. Then, out of nowhere, Mada starts to sing. When I say sing, I mean with a voice that should be in the soundtrack of a Disney movie. As she was clearing the field her voice was so joyful and full of praise. As if there was a producer off to the side, all the Malawians start to sing along. It was magical. There was not interruption of effort, just praise to keep people going. I asked Frank what the words meant. He laughed and said that the lyrics mean that if the world would end today they would be thankful to be with each other. What a powerful moment. This song was sung in many villages by many people. People with so little are so thankful to be alive, enjoy what they have and share the day with each other. I smiled every time I heard the song. It, to me, is the soul of Malawi.
Everyday in Malawi was filled with memorable experiences. We visited schools, made bricks, fixed a bridge and visited with the neediest of the Malawians in the rural communities. I came home feeling good about the world and feeling I’ve traveled further in my walk of Christian faith. I’m thankful for my CCOB teammates and the Malawians I was fortunate enough to meet. I hope and pray that I can return and continue learning from them and sharing God’s love.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” -Nelson Mandela
Without education there can be no sustainable development. Education is the key to unlocking the potential of millions of young Malawians, currently trapped in poverty. Knowing this, VIP works to empower students in Malawi throughout their entire educational lives, from preschool all the way through university.
Our education initiatives start even before school officially begins in Malawi. Unfortunately, Malawi does not have a nation-wide pre-school program. This is a huge problem as studies show that human brain development and growth is most rapid and vulnerable from conception to age 5, making early childhood the most critical period of human development. That is why VIP is partnering with, supplying, and helping to organize local Community Based Childcare Centers (CBCCs). CBCCs are run by community members and serve as de-facto preschools to help ensure that children develop properly and receive the mental, social and physical stimulation they need to reach their full potential in life. VIP supports 15 CBCCs, which educate and nurture roughly 800 preschool children.
Primary schools in Malawi are almost all hopelessly underfunded, understaffed and overcrowded. Children are often forced to sit on the ground in classes of well over 50 students, some classes even number in the hundreds. When it rains puddles form on the ground and water leaks onto the heads of the students. Teacher and student absenteeism are both extremely high. To counter this educational crisis, VIP has invested heavily in primary schools in our impact area. In partnership with the Thorneycroft Family, VIP has built the Chimpeni School from the ground up. Where 8 years ago there was only bush, there now stands one of the most beautiful primary schools in all of Malawi. In a recent government assessment of all 35 primary schools in the Zomba district, the Chimpeni School came out as the number one ranked school! Building on the incredible success of the Chimpeni School we have now undertaken the rebuilding of the crumbling Sakata Primary School. The school was in such a bad state of disrepair that powerful storms at the end of last year ripped the roofs off of one of the school blocks, forcing the students to attend class outside under a tree. With two brand new school blocks at Sakata built by VIP last year, and three more under construction this year, Sakata School will soon be as beautiful as Chimpeni School.
In addition to brand new classrooms we have also built teacher houses at both primary schools. By providing houses on campus we cut down drastically on teacher absenteeism and attract more qualified candidates who are lured to the schools by the perks of large houses and no commute. VIP and our partners, especially the Thorneycroft family, have constructed 5 teacher houses at Chimpeni School and 3 at Sakata School with more on the way. Almost all of these houses were provided with solar panels and lights this past summer, allowing teacher’s to work into the night and allowing the schools to continue to attract and retain top teaching talent.
VIP has been providing scholarships for talented high school aged students for years. Our staff identifies talented and hardworking students from a young age, and if they do well enough on their examinations, VIP provides them with a scholarship so that they can attend top government secondary schools, which, coming from the villages, they would not be able to afford on their own. While we will continue to provide scholarships and bursaries for talented students in the Zomba region, we are now raising the funds to build a brand new secondary school in the heart of our impact area! This school will allow hundreds of promising students to attend secondary school, who would otherwise be forced to drop out and defer their dreams of a better life indefinitely.
Finally, thanks to Phil and Gayle Anderson and the Anderson College Fund, VIP is paying for several students from our impact area to attend university in Malawi! One of these students, Emma Chingola, is in her second year at Malawi Catholic University, where she is pursuing a degree in education. Once she gets her degree she will reinvest it in the community, coming back to the villages where she grew up to continue VIP’s mission to improve education throughout Malawi.
As night closed in around us we hugged the kids goodbye and made our way back to our rooms to wash up, have dinner and enjoy a night of bonding over “Catch Phrase” and poker. We kept Robbie up until the wee hours of the morning, which was only a problem because he was preaching the next morning. But despite their fatigue Robbie and Bonongwe (who had emceed the entire 5 hour plus choir competition with his usual verve and intensity, and had then stayed up past midnight working on the new boreholes that VIP was drilling) delivered an excellent sermon together the next morning at church. We also had the opportunity to watch the VIP Choir (consisting of Gayle, Nicole and John Anderson, Sandra Hurlbert, Jordan Heinzel- Nelson, Enoch Smith, Sydney Chikalema and Isaac Mawlabu) performing alongside a local Malawian choir, who had been provided with matching shirts by Gayle’s church four years ago when she had first come to Malawi. So many people went up to the front of the church together that Trudy got caught up in the wake of all the bodies and ended up performing along with everyone else, even though she had not practiced any of the songs or accompanying dances. The choirs, Trudy included (or perhaps especially), did a wonderful job and earned an ovation from the entire congregation.
After church it was time for what is for many the most emotional part of the Friendship Trips: home visits to the most vulnerable families in our catchment area. These families, generally as a result of disability, disease or death, struggle to make ends meet even more than their neighbors. They are often led by elderly widows or orphans and they may lack the familial safety net that many other Malawian villagers rely on. During a drought, flood or famine it is the vulnerable families who suffer the most, as they are the people living on the knife’s edge between survival and catastrophe.
We broke off into pairs, with each pair scheduled to visit two vulnerable families, accompanied by a VIP staff member to help translate, as most Malawians living in the rural villages do not speak English. Tory and I were paired with Frank, who as an orphan raised in the villages, had once come from a vulnerable family himself. The first home that Frank took us to was the home of an elderly widow who cared for some of her orphaned grandchildren. She wasn’t certain how old she was, but one of her middle-aged daughters, who lived nearby, told us that she thought that her mom was 89. We sat together on the ground talking about her life and everything that she had seen over the years. She told us that while she had endured drought and famine in her youth, she had no doubt that droughts were becoming more and more common in later years, a trend which both she and almost all scientists attribute to the effects of global warming. After talking for a few more minutes about the weather and how her harvest had been the last few years (2016 had been bad because of the drought, while 2017 had been better, though she was still anticipating running out of food before the next harvest) the talk moved to the children who had gathered around us.
We asked her if all of her grandchildren went to school and she proudly told us yes. This was impressive enough by itself. As an elderly widow she needed help in the fields and with household chores, and she told us that her grandchildren would wake up early, work with her in the fields and help gather water and fire wood for a few hours, go to school, and then help her again in the afternoon. Almost all of the grandchildren were younger than 10. As we asked each of the children in turn what grade they were in and how well they had done in school that year, her oldest grandson told us, in confident English, that he had finished first in standard 5 at Nyambwe Primary school that year. It was amazing to hear that a boy from one of the most vulnerable families in his village could have finished first in his grade, when he had so many other responsibilities and burdens in his young life. In a whispered discussion, Tory and I decided that we should give the boy one of the LuminAIDs, small solar powered lights that Liz had given us, which we each carried in our backpacks. VIP has given out LuminAIDs, which can be recharged each day and which will last for over 5 years, to top students for the past several years now. The LuminAID would allow him to read, study and see late into the night, something that we hoped would both reward, and allow for the continuation of, his academic success. As we handed it to him and showed him how to use it, he beamed with pride and happiness, thanking us for the gift and showing it off proudly to his grandmother, brothers and sisters and cousins and aunts.
After giving the rest of the family the small gifts that we had brought with us, blankets, clothes, flip flops and toiletries, Tory and I shook hands with everyone and followed Frank to a house located roughly 100 yards away, down a narrow dirt road that cut through trees and a few other properties. As we approached we saw the homeowner, a young woman in her 30’s, bent over a fire, preparing to make Mandazi, which she and her children would then sell along the roadside for 50 kwacha each. She asked one of her daughters to mind the fire for her and came over to shake our hands and gestured for us to join her on a mat that she laid out for us, on the ground next to her home. As we talked, two kids sat down in mine and Tory’s laps. The boy who sat on Tory’s lap had been adopted by the young woman after his parents had died, but no one was sure where the little girl that sat on my lap had come from. I asked the woman if maybe she wanted to adopt her too, to which everyone politely chuckled. After talking for a few more minutes, and just when I had started to wonder if the little girl was potty-trained, I began to feel, with increasing horror, a wet spot growing on my pants leg. “I think she is peeing on my leg,” I whispered urgently to Tory, who immediately began to laugh. As I moved the little girl to the side and stood up I found that she had indeed peed on my leg, and soon everyone was howling with laughter. “It looks like you will be adopting her” Frank said to me as he patted me on my back and grinned.
After cleaning my pant leg off with some wet wipes, Tory and I asked if we could see inside the young woman’s house. She said yes and we followed her inside. As we ducked our heads under the door frame, we suddenly found ourselves plunged into darkness. I remained frozen at the entryway for a moment until my eyes began to adjust to the darkness. I kept waiting for shapes to appear out of the gloom but nothing did. After thinking something must be wrong with my eyes, I slowly realized why I couldn’t see anything: the room we had stepped into was completely bare. There was no furniture in the room, no pictures on the walls, and no carpets on the floor. There was nothing except dirt and bits of straw that had fallen from the roof. I looked up at the ceiling and saw that rats had chewed away pieces of the roof, leaving small holes that allowed dull beams of dusty light to penetrate into the darkness of the room. In the rainy season the rain must leaked all over her floor, turning it to mud. We walked into the other two rooms and listened as another translator (Frank had waited outside as it is not proper for a grown Malawian male to come into a woman’s home) told us that at night her chickens and goats came in to the house to sleep on the floor with her and her children. There were only three rooms in the entire house and all told it was smaller than the bedroom I had grown up in back home.
I stood inside that dark house for what could have been a few moments or several hours, as everything I had experienced suddenly caught up with me at once, the shock of which forced me to remain motionless. I thought of the 89 year old woman that we had just met and I realized that she had spent all the long years of her life living in a house just like this. She had been born in a house like this and she would die in a house like this.
I was suddenly struck by how unjust it all was. Why was my life so easy? Why had I been given so much, when these women that I had just met had been given so little? The reality that confronted me was so at odds with everything that I believe to be right and fair. I had unlimited opportunities, I had received a world class education, I had the freedom to chart my own future, I was able to travel the world, seeking love and friendship, discovering the wonders of this planet, while these women would never leave the villages they had been born in. They would always be here, sleeping on the floor, left to the mercy of the changing seasons year after year. For the first time in Malawi I became frustrated. Frustrated that the randomness of birth consigned billions of people to lives of hardship and poverty. Frustrated that my own country is so willing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on arms and weapons, useful only to destroy and kill (or more likely collect dust) while we can’t seem to spare much for people living in unimaginable poverty. Frustrated that the whole world seemed to have their priorities completely backwards. Frustrated that we organize our societies around, and build cults dedicated to the worship of, excessive accumulations of wealth, while ignoring those whose basic needs are not fulfilled. Frustrated that I couldn’t do anything about all this.
But slowly my frustration turned to amazement. Amazement because, despite the challenges, the endless setbacks and roadblocks, the seeming powerlessness of any one person to fix a problem so daunting, people like Liz carried out the small, slow, steady work to begin changing the world year after year. VIP is too small to end poverty in Sakata by itself, let alone in all of Malawi or the world at large. But we can’t just throw up our hands and do nothing. Each person has to do their part, however big or small it may be, and person by person, family by family, village by village, lives will begin to improve. As we bought some Mandazi from the woman and walked back to our car, I was reminded of an old story I used to tell my students:
Once upon a time an old man was walking along a beach the morning after a terrible storm. As he walked along the shoreline, watching the last of the storm clouds disappear out over the ocean, he saw that the sand far ahead of him was colored differently than the rest. He continued walking, thinking that the storm has churned up the silty shoreline and covered it with a different kind of sand. But as he got closer he saw that it wasn’t the sand at all, the beach was covered with starfish as far as the eye could see. As his gaze carried him further down the beach he saw a little girl picking up the starfish one by one and throwing them back in the ocean. The old man walked up to the girl and asked her what she was doing. “The starfish have been washed onto the beach by the storm,” the little girl replied. “If they stay on the sand the sun will dry them out and they’ll die.” The old man gave the little girl a patronizing smile, shook his head and said, “Young lady. Stop and look for a minute. The starfish extend for miles down the beach. There could be millions of them. Even if you stay here all day you will never make a difference.” The young girl paused and considered the old man’s words for a moment. Then she bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the ocean. As it splashed safely back into the water she looked back at the old man and said simply, “I made a difference to that one.”
Tory, Terra, Trudy, Sandra and John Anderson woke up early on Saturday morning as they accompanied Frank on a trip out to Mpoola village, the heart of VIP’s beekeeping initiative. VIP currently has 16 hives in Mpoola Village and when the beekeepers harvested in June, these hives produced enough for 25 bottles of honey. The honey was then sold to generate income for the beekeepers to spend on school fees, home improvements and further investments in their business. The Mpoola beekeeping project has become so successful that farmers in the nearby villages have expressed interest in becoming beekeepers as well. In June, Frank conducted a three day training session for two new groups from Ngomano and Liti villages so that they could learn how to care for hives and begin to enjoy all of the benefits that a healthy bee population can bless a community with. One of the best things about the June training session was that it was not just led by Frank and government officials. The experienced members of already existing beekeeping clubs volunteered their time so that they could help train other farmers as well. This is something that I noticed about VIP projects from the very start. People who have benefitted from VIP training and investment, do not try to jealously guard their position and hoard their knowledge, they become ambassadors for VIP, spreading knowledge and advice and even working alongside their countrymen, even if they don’t stand to gain anything themselves. This sense of community and generosity by ordinary Malawians marked every project that I worked on.
While Frank and the Bee Team were hard at work in Mpoola, Enoch, Jordan and Gayle made their way to the all-day choir competition that Enoch would be leading. Enoch and a group of judges would be listening to some of the best choirs from the villages around Zomba, and by the end they would pick out the 16 best individual performers to form a select choir. As for the rest of us, we were heading back to work on the Sakata Bridge. The first friendship team had spent a long day at the bridge, gathering heavy stones and river sand for constructing the cement and stone foundation of the new bridge. Today we would be helping to carry away the timbers of the old bridge and begin building a supporting pillar. Carrying away the timbers was no easy task. Over 20 feet long, the timbers must have weighed close to a thousand pounds. It was important that we worked together to move them not only to get the job done quickly, but to avoid injuries. Years ago a group of villagers had been moving similar sized logs, and one man had his thumb crushed when it was unexpectedly dropped. We quickly found that we were not only facing the dangers of the bridge, but of Mother Nature as well. As we began to loosen the soil that had been packed around the timbers of the bridge since its construction we began to unearth all manner of dangerous creatures. The first animal we noticed was a particularly large centipede that crawled out of its burrow as the pickaxes began to crash through the soil around it. Centipede venom, particularly from larger species like this, can be extremely painful, though not generally fatal to humans.
A few minutes later as our team of about a dozen began to lift the first log out of its groove Liz, who was standing on the other side of the bridge taking pictures called out “snake, snake SNAKE!” We dropped the log back on to concrete support (I would like to say in an organized and safe manner, but as the person closest to the snake, I can’t actually be certain of that) and took a few steps back. Or at least most of us did, after catching sight of the black snake uncoiling from its lair about a foot or so from my arm, I ran to the other side of the bridge before turning back to check again. While we couldn’t be sure what kind of snake it was, Mwalabu tentatively identified it as a juvenile black mamba. After removing the two potentially venomous animals, for the safety of everyone involved, we were able to get back to work on the bridge, this time without incident. While we had been moving the timbers, a group of Malawians were digging a large trench in the mud near the river for the bridge’s supporting column. It was really striking to see two chiefs down in the trench, shoveling out mud and getting steadily dirtier, all for the benefit of their people.
Soon the trench was finished and we could begin filling it with the cement and stones that the first team had gathered at the site over a week ago. We formed a human chain and began passing down buckets of concrete and river sand which would form the base of the new pillar. After VIP’s contractor, “Mr. Number One,” the lead foreman on the Sakata Bridge project, determined that enough cement and sand had been added, we began to pass down armfuls of stones to add to the cement. We stood in the line together for over an hour passing down the stones, sand and cement, sometimes laughing and joking with another, sometimes breaking out in a song to make the work go easier, sometimes in silence. But working on that bridge was one of my favorite activities of the entire trip. I spoke to my roommate Hastings about it later that day, and we had the same thoughts. As we worked we both felt like members of a team, a team without position or class, where no one was elevated above or sunken below anyone else. Regardless of whether we were rich or poor, black or white, a chief or villager, a pastor or layperson, a physicist or a farmer we all were doing the same thing, working together as a single unit for the benefit of hundreds. It was a powerful experience and when we had finished work for the day, we left our Malawian companions with handshakes and hugs before heading off to watch the end of the choir competition.
When we arrived at the church where the competition was being held, we were ushered to seats immediately behind Enoch and the other three judges, Jordan Heinzel-Nelson, Isaac Mwalabu and Mada, VIP’s new health and nutrition officer. When I asked Jordan how the previous choirs had been, she replied that they had been excellent, with one children’s choir even moving her to tears. As another choir began to perform on the raised platform at the front of the church I saw that Enoch, a professional musician and record producer, was in his element. As the choirs sang he would listen to them from all different vantage points, even making his way onto the stage softly clapping and dancing along as he began to pick out the different voices. Eventually he and his fellow judges narrowed all the choirs down to the 16 who they felt had the strongest, most interesting voices. These 16, representing all ages and genders, from a little girl of 10 to a host of elders 7 times her age, would form a new select choir. Enoch is not yet sure what this choir will become, but he knows that he wants to come back to Malawi and continue to work with them. His dream, still far off, is to find a way to get some of them over to the U.S., where they can perform in front of some of our church partners, allowing them to experience the beautiful and unique music that left Enoch literally speechless when asked later that day to explain his emotions on listening to the various choirs. Malawi does not have the same reputation for music that some of the larger countries on the African continent, like Nigeria and the Congo do, yet. But with the recent success of the Zomba Prison Project, a collection of prisoners and guards at the Zomba Prison whose first album was nominated for a Grammy, and the power of local Malawian choirs I am sure that is going to change soon.
After the choir competition was over I drove back to the farm in the back of Joe’s pickup truck with Hastings, Tory, Jordan, John Anderson and some of our translators, while John Hurlbert rode in the cab with Joe. Joe dropped us off at the base of the dirt road that leads up to the farm and we jumped out, waving goodbye to everyone and telling them we would see them tomorrow. We made our way up the hill joking and tossing around a ball, and we were soon joined by a throng of local kids who wanted to join in the fun. Everywhere you go in Malawi you will see crowds and crowds of unaccompanied children. Part of the reason is that Malawi is a very hierarchical society in terms of age, and most adults just don’t spend a lot of time with kids. Another reason is the HIV epidemic that has ravaged entire generations in Malawi. There are over a million orphans in the small country of 17 million people, many of whom have been forced to watch as one or both parents have slowly succumbed to the dreaded disease. So whenever we have the opportunity, our friendship teams love to spend time with the kids, playing with them and giving them attention. What should have been a twenty minute walk turned into an hour, as we played catch, raced, tickled, played leap frog and walked with the kids up the hill. As darkness closed in around us, we hugged the kids goodbye and waved as they passed out of our vision into the veil of the night. I smiled as I watched them go, reflecting that it’s the little unexpected moments like that, when you walk through towns and villages, and open yourself up to the opportunity to connect with people you would never otherwise meet, that are sometimes the most rewarding experiences.
On Friday morning the team members and the VIP staff and interpreters squeezed our way into 3 vehicles and drove out to one of the furthest villages that we work with, Ngwalangwa, which approaches Lake Chilwa, the eastern-edge of which forms part of Malawi’s border with Mozambique. We were driving out to take part in a goat deworming initiative, organized and sponsored by VIP. Goats are one of the primary sources of animal protein for our partner villagers and the sale of goats is a significant source of supplementary income for many of the farmers that we partner with. This was the rationale behind the goat pass on program that VIP implemented several years ago. It works like this: donors in the United States make a donation which provides a vulnerable family in Malawi with a goat. The vulnerable family cares for that goat and when it has its first kid, they pass the kid on to another vulnerable family and thereafter are free to make money selling the subsequent offspring to markets and other villagers. The families that receive the “pass-on” goats from their neighbors follow the same course, and slowly but surely the gift of one goat from one donor spreads throughout an entire village. One beneficiary of this program had sold over 16 goats after receiving her gift of a single goat, and has completely transformed the standard of living of her entire family.
Unfortunately in a land where most people do not get appropriate medical attention, animals almost never receive veterinary care. As a result animal mortality rates are extremely high, and the numbers and production of these animals is correspondingly low. The number 2 and 3 causes of death of goats and other small ruminants in Malawi and throughout sub-Saharan Africa are diarrhea and starvation. Intestinal worms and parasites are a leading cause of both of these conditions. So by creating a program to deworm local goats, VIP can help these goats live happier, healthier lives which means more goats, more protein and higher incomes for our partner villagers. For less than 40 cents, roughly the cost of one dosage of the deworming medicine, we can help ensure the future health and stability of an entire family.
When we finally arrived at Ngwalangwa we found a strange scene. Dozens of goats, of all shapes and sizes, had been gathered in the open area between a CBCC that VIP was building and a nearby playground. Most of the goats had been led there by small children, and as we descended from the vehicles it was clear that not all of the goats wanted to be there. Some were in the process of escaping from their owners, who were running and jumping behind the escaped goats, vainly trying to grab the end of the rope attached to their necks. Others were bleating plaintively, over and over again, and if you closed your eyes for a second, it almost sounded like little children crying out for help. Realizing that this work needed to be done quickly, but carefully, for the well-being of all involved, and so that the children leading the goats could make their way to school in time for the closing day ceremonies, Frank gathered everyone around him to tell them what we were doing today and to issue instructions. The team members would fill up syringes with the appropriate amount of liquid medicine and then, with the help of the VIP staff, the goat owners, and the local committee members who had helped to organize this event, try to get the goats to swallow it.
Frank gave everyone a syringe and wished us luck. The VIP team members, armed with their syringes, descended on the goats with a misplaced sense of confidence, and so began a half hour of organized chaos, dominated by the continual, sometimes frantic, bleating of goats, the resistance of every single goat to ingesting any of the medicine, a resistance made all the more frustrating by the fact that every goat we had seen up to that point had been in the process of ingesting something, and by the laughter of those who stayed on the sidelines to watch. When the last of the goats disappeared down the trail leading away from the CBCC our battered team was able to catch its breath and take stock. The team was covered in regurgitated medicine, goat saliva, and dirt and, in the case of Robbie, several goat bites. But the program had been a success and all of the goats that had been signed up had received their deworming medicine and would be safe from parasites for the year.
The events of the morning had brought a large crowd and most of the kids who had come to see the spectacle had made their way over to the nearby playground where, to their delight, they were joined by John, Tory, Terra and Nicole. The playground had been built by VIP with funds raised from a very special person. Megan Smith, a teacher at Allentown High School, located across the street from the VIP office, visited Malawi in 2011, after VIP founder Liz Heinzel-Nelson had come to speak at Allentown High School and had inspired Megan to go on a Friendship Trip with VIP. Megan was stunned by the scale and intensity of the poverty she encountered, and when she returned home she made sure that her kids understood how incredibly fortunate and privileged they were. Megan’s youngest daughter Ailey was particularly struck by how different life was for kids in Malawi. Hearing that kids in Malawi didn’t have any toys, and that they had to make soccer balls out of plastic bags stuffed inside each other and wrapped up with string, was a big shock. Ailey decided that she was going to do something about it. She told her Mom that she didn’t want any presents for her 8th birthday or for Christmas, any money that was going to be spent on her should be donated to VIP instead, so that we could build a playground for the kids in Malawi. Ailey asked her family and friends to help her and even made flyers and went door to door, asking people to help her raise money for the kids in Malawi. She had soon raised enough money to build an entire playground, and last year the VIP staff built it in Ngwalangwa village, telling the kids about Ailey and naming it Ailey’s Playground. As I watched the kids swinging and sliding away happily, I knew that Ailey’s gift had been warmly appreciated by the children of Ngwalangwa and I couldn’t wait until Ailey got the chance to come see it for herself. In the meantime, Ailey has already begun fundraising for a second playground, so that kids in another village can have a fun place to just be a kid.
After spending time playing with the kids, and receiving the thanks of the committee and chief for taking part in the deworming, we separated into 4 groups so that we could attend the various school closings going on at some of our partner schools. Enoch, Nicole, Robbie and I were dropped off at the beautiful Chimpeni School, the number one primary school in Zomba, and a school that has been built entirely by VIP and the Chimpeni family. We found the students gathered in the courtyard of the campus, sitting in the shade under the broad canopies of the proud and beautiful trees that Chimpeni had wisely insisted remain untouched. Standing and sitting in desks behind the students, were the student’s family members, here to celebrate the big day. After several rounds of speeches, a poem reading by one of the older students, and a rousing rendition of the National Anthem by the entire student body, it was time for the teachers to announce which students had graduated to the next grade. As the student’s names were announced, in order of their class rank, they calmly walked up and stood in line, but their parent’s reactions were anything but calm. When they heard their child’s name called, signifying that they had passed and did not have to repeat, they would shout and run up to the front of the crowd with their arms raised, often times ululating. If they caught their child on the way up to the line they would pick them up, plant a kiss on their cheeks, and carry them the rest of the way. They would give their child a gift, usually some corn chips, a soda and a few kwacha, hug and tip the teacher and then make their way, still celebrating, back to their seat, so that the next parent could celebrate their child’s passing.
There was an incredible energy and celebratory mood to the entire event and it was easy to understand why. The failure rate for primary school students in all of Malawi is over 20% and less than three quarters of students complete primary school. The numbers are even worse for students in the rural villages where VIP works. The reasons are heartbreaking but simple. Many families can’t afford to pay school fees and, as a result, many kids are forced to drop out when they can’t pay anymore. Others are barely able to stay in school, but don’t have pencils or paper to take notes with, and so aren’t able to study or retain information. Still others are pulled out of school or show up late because they have to fetch water from wells, work in the fields or do other chores to help their families get by. But the families at Chimpeni School were all incredibly focused on academic success. They want their children to have a better life, and they know that education is the best vehicle for achieving success in life. And so the parents celebrated both because they were happy that their children were doing well, and also to show their kids how important school is to their future.
After the school closings had finished we made our way to our afternoon activities, with one group visiting a VSL and another going to see all the changes brought about when VIP brought electricity to Kalupe Village, in 2013, in order to power our Maize Mill. Meanwhile, my group was scheduled to speak with members of a Self-help group. This Self-help group was a VIP-run program that inspires vulnerable women from low-income households to help themselves, and their children, by using their own resources and initiatives to do things they thought were not possible. Research throughout Africa has shown that participation in a Self-help group (SHG) results in women being empowered economically and socially. On the way to visit the SHG (which was also based in Ngwalangwa) we stopped off to speak with a local student named Chimwemwe, who was attending a top ranked secondary school on a VIP scholarship. VIP has been providing scholarships for talented students for years. Our staff, particularly Maxwell Muhiwa, VIP’s Education and Vocational Skills Officer, identifies talented and hardworking students from a young age, and if they do well enough on their examinations, VIP provides them with a scholarship so that they can attend top government secondary schools, which, coming from the villages, they would not be able to afford on their own.
Chimwemwe has a remarkable and tragic story. Both of his parents passed away when he was a young boy and he had dropped out of school for four years when he was 10 years old. But his aunt and uncle, a teacher at the Sakata School had encouraged him to go back. Education was incredibly important to his extended family. One of his cousins is now a nurse, who had recently come back to speak to students at a VIP run quiz competition, about how education can change their lives, while another is now in his first year of medical school studying to become a doctor. Chimwemwe followed the guidance of his family, went back to school and began to thrive. He did exceptionally well on his examinations, and is now a top 5 student at his government run secondary school. He proudly told us that he had recently been accepted in to the Yale Young African Scholars Program, run by Yale University. The Yale Young African Scholars Program is a high-intensity academic and leadership program designed for African secondary school students who have the talent, drive, energy, and ideas to make meaningful impacts as young leaders, even before they begin their university studies. Yale African Scholars brings together students from across Africa in a seven-day, residential program and introduces them to the demanding U.S. university application process and requirements. Chimwemwe, who told us it too was his ambition to become a doctor, will be attending the all-expenses paid program in Zimbabwe, from August 18th to the 24th.
As we said goodbye to Chimwemwe and began the long drive back to Ngwalangwa I reflected back on the ceremony that we had left a few hours ago at Chimpeni School. At times, despite the celebratory atmosphere, I had found myself growing sad as the bright young students came up to me to shake my hand and receive their gifts of pencils, notebooks and crayons from VIP. There was so much promise and potential sitting out in front of me, but I wondered how much of it would be left to stay and wither away in the villages, how many of these kids would get a real opportunity to better their lives? But Chimwemwe’s story gave me hope. Here was the definition of a vulnerable child. A double orphan who had dropped out of school, living in deep poverty. If I had seen him at ten years old, I would have thought his chances of escaping extreme poverty were nonexistent. But through his own hard work, the support of his extended family and the partnership of VIP he was now attending an elite Ivy League Program and dreaming of the day that he becomes a doctor. It reminded me that as long as kids like him continue to have partners, people looking out for them and willing to support their dreams, then these kids really do have a chance at a brighter future.
Wednesday morning was a bit more chaotic than usual as our growing group was breaking off to go to four different locations. John and Sandra Hurlbert were going with Vincent and Joe to begin working on the installation of solar panels and lights at the Chimpeni and Sakata Schools, Trudi and Sydney were finishing teaching their last week of science classes, while Liz and Stephen were driving to Blantyre to pick up the rest of the second Friendship Team. That left Jordan, Terra and me with the chance to spend the day with VIP translator, and dear friend of the Heinzel-Nelson girls, Violet Matimati. We met Violet at the base of N’amingazi Farm and took a minibus to Zomba town, where we would be picking up ingredients for Mandazi, the local fried dough snacks that every friendship team seems to quickly become addicted to, which Violet would be showing us how to make. After picking up the ingredients we walked from Zomba town to Violet’s house. The walk was beautiful for a while, as we made our way along avenues of trees, which largely lay on government property, and thus had been protected. After a mile or so the trees abruptly vanished and we found ourselves walking through a densely packed neighborhood. Without the benefit of a sanitation department and lacking the space and fuel to make regular rubbish fires, the neighborhood was choked with trash. Plastic bottles and bags were piled several layers deep in the ditches which lined the dirt path that cut its way between houses, stores and barber shops. After several more minutes of walking we arrived at Violet’s house. The girls had not yet been to Vi’s new house and we were all very impressed. Violet had recently worked for one of our partner organizations distributing food relief in the aftermath of last year’s terrible drought and her husband, Blessings, who is the brother of VIP employee Daniel Bonongwe, had recently returned from South Africa, where he had earned money as a driver and working other odd jobs. This surge in income had allowed them to upgrade to this new house, with electricity and a water point in the backyard.
As we walked up to Violet’s house we received shy hugs from her two kids, 10 year old Trinity and three year old Luka. Terra, who is like a sister to Violet, had given Luka his name and was shocked by how big he had grown, and both Jordan and Terra were happy to see what a lovely young lady Trinity had become. We spent the afternoon with the young family, playing cards, making Mandazi and catching up on the developments in their lives. Blessings told us that he was thinking of going back to South Africa to try to find work. There were no jobs to be had in Malawi he told us, and so thousands of young men migrate to South Africa trying to find work and earn a living for themselves and their families. Because they are so desperate for money, Malawians are willing to work longer hours, for less money than many South Africans. This has led to claims by the South Africans that Malawians are coming in to their country and stealing jobs. As a result Malawians often encounter bitter prejudice when they migrate to South Africa, and face the possibility of being arrested and deported by the South African Authorities if they stay too long, or being run off by mobs if they are caught in the wrong neighborhood. But his family needs to eat and so Blessings will make the risky trip down to South Africa again sometime soon, and so will thousands more like him until the day that Malawi has enough jobs for all of her people.
Far too soon, it was time to say goodbye to the kids and walk back with Violet and Blessings to catch a taxi to the farm. With full hearts (and stomachs) we hugged them goodbye and less than an hour later we found ourselves walking the last few feet up to the dining hall, after our taxi had run out of gas on the hill leading up to the farm. We arrived just as the second Friendship Team sat down for their first dinner together. This second team was much larger than the first, and as we sat down at one of the long tables in the dining hall we numbered 17. Six of the new team members were from the quickly expanding “Texas Chapter” of VIP that Randa Nelson has been building since her first time in Malawi in 2010. John and Sandra Hurlbert are members of Randa’s former church just outside Dallas, and John in particular was excited to begin work on the new solar projects, a passion of his, at the Chimpeni and Sakata Schools. Joining them from Texas were the four Andersons, Gayle, Phil, John and Nicole, who had come to Malawi four years ago, again at Randa’s urging, and who were coming back as a family for the first time since then. Gayle had been so moved by everything that she had seen and experienced on her first trip to Malawi with VIP, that she quickly became a Board Member, and has been an indispensable asset to VIP since then, using her years of experience as the CFO of major companies to expertly steer our Finance Committee.
Gayle was not the only Board member joining us on this trip, Kim Huchro and her daughter Tory had come as well, from their home near New York City. Kim’s husband Paul was one of Stephen’s Fraternity brothers and their family had visited Malawi with VIP in 2009. Everything they had seen and experienced on that trip had a big impact on them and they have been deeply involved with VIP since then. Tory in particular had fallen in love with the people and the land of Malawi and was now, along with her Mom, making her 4th trip here with VIP.
Robbie Ytterberg, the new Pastor at the Presbyterian Church of Toms River, one of VIP’s oldest church partners, whose partnership had helped us expand out catchment area beyond our original 16 villages, was also with us. Robbie had come to see for himself the work that VIP was doing and to understand why so many in his church had such a close connection to our mission. Hailing from even closer to home was his roommate Enoch Smith Jr. Enoch is the music director at Allentown Presbyterian Church, where Stephen is the pastor and where the VIP offices are located. In addition to his role with the church Enoch is a professional musician and music producer and he had come to Malawi to organize a large choir competition and to connect with our Malawian friends through the universal language of music. Rounding out our team was my new roommate, Hastings Machingili. Hastings is a child of two worlds, born in the United States to Malawian parents, he has spent large parts of his life in both countries. His father, Ramsey, is a successful Malawian businessman with a real heart for the work of VIP. Ramsey has partnered with VIP many times over the years, most recently as the renter of the VIP built maize mill, to help ensure that the mill is run efficiently and for the benefit of the community, while also providing income to VIP, which can be fed back into community projects, like building, and purchasing supplies for, CBCCs, which will be discussed in some detail below.
After a candlelight dinner and a meeting reviewing the week’s itinerary, our jetlagged team went to sleep early and woke up refreshed the next day. The larger team required us to break up into several small groups during the day to attend the various projects underway, so that everyone would have a chance to work. While the splintering of the group required 4 vehicles and a lot of organization by Liz and the staff, it also provided a great opportunity to showcase everything that VIP was involved in. One group was going to an “open day” at a local CBCC, or Community Based Childcare Center. VIP supports 15 CBCCs throughout our Catchment area, ranging from impressive brick structures that we helped build, to small thatched grass huts put up by the community. Regardless of what they look like from the outside, CBCCs are some of the most important structures anywhere in Malawi. Studies show that human brain development and growth is most rapid and vulnerable from conception to age 5, and is largely influenced by aspects such as nutrition, caregiver interactions and household environment. As a result, the experiences and interactions of children during this period fundamentally shape their growth and lifelong prospects, making early childhood the most critical period of human development. Failure to develop properly during early childhood can lead to long-term, sometimes irreversible effects. Unfortunately, Malawi does not have a nation-wide pre-school program. So most children in Malawi are not receiving the stimulation and interactions they need at this critical point in their lives. That is why VIP is partnering with, supplying, and helping to organize more local CBCCs. CBCCs are run by community members, usually the mothers of young children who are volunteering to help out, and they serve as de-facto preschools to help ensure that children develop properly and receive the mental, social and physical stimulation they need to reach their full potential in life.
While one team went to the CBCC open house, a second group was going to make more bricks, priceless tools for the ongoing VIP construction projects, and Phil Anderson would be joining John Hurlbert on the installation of the solar panels and lights at the schools. This left my group to head to Mphero village to work with a group of farmers who were practicing small scale irrigation. Mphero is located on the banks of the Naisi River, and the field that Robbie, Jordan, Frank Mwenjemeka, Isaac Mwalabu, Sydney Chikilema and I walked to from the Landcruiser was less than 100 yards from the river. We were greeted by ten of the farmers who were part of a VIP run irrigation program and we listened as the lead farmer explained to us what they were doing.
The vast majority of Malawians rely on one harvest a year, at the end of the rainy season in March and early April. The rest of the year is far too dry to grow anything without the aid of irrigation, an expensive luxury that is not currently an option for most individual Malawians. But VIP wanted to take advantage of the nearby river to help farmers grow crops during the dry season. So we found a group of farmers who were interested in working during the dry season and organized them into a collective that would rent a piece of land for half the year (the land owner was a member of the collective and had provided the land at an incredibly generous price). The group was provided with a treadle pump by VIP, which they would then use to irrigate and farm the land collectively, using a strict attendance system to make sure that everyone did equal work. When the crop (in this case maize) was ready to harvest they would sell it all at once at the market, in order to have more bargaining power, and then divide the profits amongst themselves, while retaining some capital for the group as a whole to buy fertilizer and other necessary materials for the next season.
It was an impressive operation, overseen with care and precision by my good friend Frank Mwenjemeka, VIP’s Agricultural Officer. But even more impressive was the amount of work that the farmers had to put in everyday in order to make it profitable. When we got to the field, the 100 plus raised beds had all been made already and many of them had already been planted and fertilized. After just a few minutes of bending down over the beds, measuring the distance between holes and planting the seeds and adding the fertilizer, our team was ready for a break. But we still hadn’t gotten to the hard part, pumping the water using a treadle pump (think a barebones Stairmaster that uses human leg power to create suction to draw water along a hose) to irrigate the raised beds.
While the river is nearby, the field lies uphill from the Naisi, and so pumping the water takes a great deal of energy. Our team decided on a system where we would each pump as hard as we could for 30 seconds before stepping off the pump and allowing the next person in line to go. This seemed to be the most efficient method, we could tell by checking the pressure of the water shooting out from the various leaks along the hose line, but after twenty minutes or so we were all exhausted and Frank called for a break. We walked around the grove of banana trees separating the river from the field to see how much of the field we had irrigated, and were disappointed to find that we had only watered 5 or 6 beds.
We rested for a while and enjoyed a cup of thobwa, a grainy, fermented Malawian drink made from white maize and millet or sorghum, with Frank. I had heard some horror stories of drinking thobwa from people who had been to Malawi before, including from an unnamed VIP Board Member who had been given a particularly strong batch of thobwa that they felt they couldn’t keep down, so rather than risk offending anyone by not drinking it, the Board Member had “accidentally” spilled their drink. Seeing this, their Malawian hosts had sympathetically refilled the cup not wanting them to miss out on a drink that is widely loved in Malawi. We fortunately had a mild batch, and as I drank it with Frank in the shade of the banana trees I felt my energy returning for another go at the treadle pump. Joined by Enoch and Tory, who had come from the CBCC open house, our group spent another 20 minutes pumping at an unsustainable pace, and when Liz finally arrived to take us to the rest of the team at the Sakata School, we had watered less than 10% of the field. As we said our goodbyes to the farmers we began to realize how difficult this was for them. Only one farmer was a man, and the majority of the women, smiling across from us in thanks, were in their 60’s and 70’s, an age where they should have been sharing their wisdom with younger generations, not doing backbreaking labor in the fields. If our group of young, reasonably fit people, could only water a tenth of the field while working at breakneck pace, how hard must it be for these older women to inundate the entire field once a week? Before we left Frank wanted us to see some of the fruits of the hard work that the farmers had been putting in over the last two years. He took us to the house of one of the younger women in the collective. She had a thatched roof on her house, which leaked terribly during the rainy season. During those three or four months, which ironically helped to sustain most of her fellow villagers, she and her children lay bundled up together on the floor in one corner of the house, trying to stay dry and away from the pools, puddles and streams that formed across most of their home. As we walked inside we saw several large sheets of metal in one corner of the main room. We asked her what they were and she told us that she was using the money she was earning from being a part of the irrigation collective to buy pieces of sheet metal for a new iron roof. She told us that she should have enough pieces by next year to finish the roof and that soon her family would not have to deal with puddles of water inside their home.
It was a great way to finish our day. To work on a project that VIP had funded and created, to see and feel how hard our partner villagers had to work, and then to see the tangible benefits of the project on the life of someone involved. As we said our goodbyes I realized that this project was exactly how development should work. VIP had come in at the request of the village and had provided a group of hardworking villagers with organization, training and funds. But the project had now become self-sustaining. If Frank never came back to check on the irrigation collective it would still continue to operate every year, perhaps even more efficiently if their savings allowed them to purchase a gas powered-generator for the pump to ease the burden on the aging group. And as the farmers in the group grow wealthier and the benefits of the project become more evident, other groups will learn from this group and begin to create other groups modeled on them. And so the seeds planted by VIP will continue to spread, lifting up the community person by person, group by group, village by village.
On Tuesday morning I woke up to find myself in an unfamiliar position in Malawi: I was alone. For the preceding two weeks I had been in the constant presence of other people: Liz and Jordan, Terra and Stephen, my fellow team members, the VIP staff and translators, our partner villagers, even my sleep was accompanied by the deep snoring of my roommate Tom. And in many ways being surrounded by other people felt very Malawian to me. The concept of alone time and being by oneself seemed very foreign to most Malawians. Houses in the villages are so small, and often so dark and depressing, that no one goes to their “own room” to be alone. People are always outside sitting together in front of their homes. And even when they go inside to sleep, they sleep together, often on the floor, sharing blankets. Outside of the homes, everywhere you go in the villages you see people together, walking together, working together, sitting and standing together, laughing and playing together, singing and dancing together, shopping and haggling together. Whatever they are doing, people always seem to be together. The instances of lone Malawians were so rare that they all stick out clearly in my mind. Indeed to be alone in Malawi seemed to cause a great deal of distress and anxiety. On one of our home visits to vulnerable families, Jordan and I met an old woman who was living in a large (by village standards) four room house with windows and doors. Jordan would later tell me that the woman we visited was the wealthiest person she had ever seen included on home visits to the most vulnerable. But after some thought, I realized that our staff had included her because even though she was not financially vulnerable, she was incredibly socially isolated. A rumor had begun in her village that she had lived so long because she was a witch, and as the years went by, the proof of her guilt mounted. So she was ostracized, treated as an outcast, and not included in the social life of the village. Thinking back on how important everyday social interactions are in Malawi, helps me to make more sense of her admission that “sometimes I ask God if he can take me to Heaven, because I don’t want to live here anymore.”
So finding myself alone on Tuesday, with Trudi off teaching and the Heinzel-Nelson’s in Blantyre to pick up John and Sandra Hurlbert, the first members of the second friendship team, who were arriving a day before everyone else, felt like an anomaly. But a very welcome one. It offered me a chance to collect my thoughts and to think back on some of the things that I had done and experienced in the last whirlwind two weeks. So I grabbed a late breakfast (practically a lunch by Malawian standards) and walked up to the Heinzel-Nelson’s porch in the shadow of the plateau to think and write.
On my very first night in Malawi I broke my phone, watching in horror as it slipped off the sink, where it had lain impossibly balanced, to come to a screen smashing thud against the hard concrete floor. At first I was very distressed by my broken phone, wondering what I was going to do, how would I wake up, how would I keep in touch with family and friends, what would keep me occupied during times of boredom? But the broken phone turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Untethered from my electronic crutch (overlord?), I was able to fully immerse myself in the rhythms of Malawi and to be fully present during the entire trip. I didn’t rely on an alarm to wake me up, I would generally get up as the rays of the sun stubbornly found their way through the cracks that would inevitably remain in my curtains despite my best efforts to block the window completely, although on one or two occasions I was awoken by the sound of the farm staff chopping wood for three hours, directly outside my window, beginning at 3:30 in the morning. But whichever of these systems I relied on to get up, it felt organic and true to the country that I was living in.
When we drove through the villages I didn’t have my nose buried in my phone, playing a mindless game, sending texts, or closing and then immediately reopening Instagram for the 12th time in a row. I looked out the window and watched the people as they went about their days. I waved to little kids from the back of the pickup as they ran towards me screaming out “Azungu, azungu!” and I talked with my teammates, Malawian and American, and learned more about their lives and experiences. And most importantly I began to remove the shackles of time that seem to drive the lives of most westerners. I didn’t ask myself why we had been sitting in a parking lot for twenty minutes and begin to fret that we were going to be late for whatever we had planned for the day. I realized that things work differently in Malawi, that time, while in some ways much more crucial to the lives of people living by the cycles of the sun and moon, does not have the same power in Malawi that we accord it in the western world. I learned that sometimes it is better to laugh, longue around and get to know someone than it is to finish whatever project we were hoping to get through that day. Finally, I was able to fully enjoy and experience everything that was going on around me through my own eyes, not through the lens of a camera, or viewed through the screen of my phone. When an elephant was looking me in the eye from a few feet away I was able to look right back into her eyes and see her quiet intelligence because I wasn’t scrambling to get a picture.
Whenever we are greeted by village women singing and dancing I am able to clap and sing along without wondering if I should be recording any of it. And when we are driving in the back of the pickup truck I am able to take in the ruggedly beautiful hills of Sakata and its endless skies without worrying if I got the perfect shot. Besides I had everyone else to take the pictures for me!
So I’m happy that I broke my phone and I would recommend to all future friendship trip participants that they break their phones as well, or at least leave them in their rooms when they go out for the day. You just get to experience a much more authentic side of Malawi when you free yourself from your phone. That is not to say that the villagers of Malawi do not have phones, indeed smart phones are becoming much more affordable and common throughout Malawi and all of sub-Saharan Africa. I can remember meeting with poor families and watching as someone surreptitiously checked their phone, before quickly hiding it back away, perhaps rightfully scared that most Americans would judge them for having a phone, a modern convenience which doesn’t meet with our arbitrary definition of how poor people should live. But I see our primary role in Malawi as learners, not always helpers, and very rarely as teachers. And it is much easier to learn from people without the intruding presence of our phones.
Before coming to Malawi I knew that a belief in magic, in spells and witches and wizards was still strong in rural areas. But it was still a shock to me, as in the case of the old woman that Jordan and I met who had been accused of being a witch, when I encountered these beliefs myself. I remember speaking to a group of villagers who had been trained by VIP to become beekeepers and who were generating a profit harvesting and selling honey from their carefully protected hives. A few weeks ago some of the hives were broken in to and the honey inside was stolen. I asked Frank Mwenjemeka, our Agricultural Officer and an avid apiarist, to ask the beekeepers what they were doing now to guard against more thievery. As they delivered their answer to him, Frank began to laugh. I asked Frank what they had said and he replied that in addition to keeping watch during the day they were going to use “juju” or magic to keep their beloved hives safe at night. Indeed, even some members of our staff retain certain beliefs in magic from their childhoods in the village. I remember Mwalabu, VIP Project Coordinator, telling us over dinner one night about the belief in magic within his own family, which prompted Liz to blurt out the immortal question “Was your uncle a wizard?!” But as strange, and at times humorous, as it may seem to us, Malawians belief in magic can take very ugly turns. There have been reports of albinos being murdered by criminal gangs and human traffickers because their bones are claimed by Witch Doctors to bring wealth, happiness and good luck. And as tragic and unacceptable as these stories are the appropriate response is not to ridicule the beliefs of the “backwards Africans,” and lecture them on what is true and what is not, which will not change anything. Beliefs in witchcraft and magic flourish in an atmosphere of fear, poverty, and disease when people look for otherworldly causes to explain the suffering that they see around them. Only when we address the poverty that plagues the region and casts a pall over everything will these anachronistic beliefs finally begin to fade away.
Perhaps belief in magic is still strong because of the darkness that still lies over much of the continent. There is a long history of Europeans and westerners referring to Africa as the “Dark Continent.” Up until the 19th century, Europeans were unable to penetrate into the interior of Africa and it remained one of the last blank spaces of the map, waiting to be discovered by the “civilized” Europeans. And so they often referred to Africa as the Dark Continent, both in reference to the impenetrable nature of a land that remained shrouded in mystery and to the supposed savage rituals and beliefs that they naturally assumed were endemic to the region. Joseph Conrad took a different, and decidedly less racist, tact with his classic novel The Heart of Darkness. The title did not refer to Africa itself, as many still believe, but rather to the evils of European Imperialism which reached its most violent, rapacious and unrestrained form in the heart of the Congo Free State, where King Leopold of Belgium enslaved, slaughtered and butchered tens of millions of Congolese in his pursuit of rubber, ivory and empire.
With such a fraught history behind it, it would seem safer to avoid referring to Africa as the “Dark Continent.” But as I walked down the streets of Malawi on Monday night, I couldn’t help but think of it as such. It was 7:30 and the moon had not yet risen, and I was walking down from the VIP offices to meet Liz and the Landcruiser at the bottom of the hill, a walk of a mile or so, but to me it felt like a marathon. Growing up right outside of New York City, I had never encountered streets like this. Removed from the reassuring street lights and charming gas lights of my hometown, the constant car headlights that provided their own unnaturally bright illumination and the omnipresent light pollution from neighboring Manhattan that caused the night-time horizon to glow a faint orange, I suddenly found myself walking in complete and utter darkness, the likes of which I have never known before in a populated area. I had left my headlamp back at the farm and without a phone to light my way (it didn’t feel like such a blessing at that moment) I felt like a blind man feeling my way down the street. People would suddenly loom out of the darkness directly in front of me causing me to audibly gasp and jump back from them. Every few minutes a car would come tearing down the hill and I would jump to the side falling into a gutter or prickly bush that I didn’t know was there. As I walked down through the darkness, worried that a stray dog or hyena that had made its way in from the bush was silently stalking me, I found myself rather ridiculously thinking that I finally understood how much fire had changed life for prehistoric man, lifting them above a state of nature, and the constant fear that accompanied that state of nature, for the first time. But as Jim Garst said while the first team was over: In Malawi people live so much closer to nature and to the way most people in the world still live. We, who take cell phones, science and electricity for granted are the exceptions, and it is good to take a walk in other people’s shoes from time to time.
Sunday July 23rd was a special day in many respects. Most obviously, it was Stephen’s birthday, and I could tell how excited he was to be able to celebrate it with his wife and his two youngest children, both of whom had been away in South America for most of the year, and in Jordan’s case, for part of 2016 as well. In honor, not so much of his birthday, but of his presence in Malawi, Stephen, or Abusa as he is often referred to in Malawi (which means Pastor in Chichewa), had been asked to give the sermon at the church where we would be attending worship.
But there was a much more immediate and even more poignant reason that Sunday was a special day. Sunday offered Ethan Rhoad the chance to visit the classrooms at Sakata School that his grandfather Ed had built in memory of his late wife Ruth, Ethan’s grandmother. As Ethan stepped out of the Landcruiser and admired the beautiful new classroom that his “Poppop” had built last summer, and then looked at the plaque that dedicated the rooms to his grandmother, I could see his emotions pulling him in so many different directions.
It is not my place, nor within my power as a writer, to accurately describe how Ethan felt at that moment, so rather than try, I will let Ethan explain it himself:
“Nine years ago I traveled to Malawi with my dad and Poppop to visit the Heinzel-Nelson family who were living there for a year. We didn’t know at the time how much this would impact our lives. Soon after we got back from Africa my Nana got sick. She had Lewy Body Dementia, a disease that makes the person lose their memories and experience hallucinations. For the next 5 years she suffered from this and could not remember and was not always aware as to what was going on. In the fall of my freshman year of college she passed away, leaving a large hole in our family that cannot be filled. During the continued work in Malawi, my Poppop felt called to donate part of her life savings to build a school block in Sakata, the area we first visited on arrival in Malawi. The building was dedicated in her honor which is fitting because she was one of the smartest people I know. After working in Nkope, a different area in Malawi about 4 hours away, for the past two months I was finally able to get to Sakata and see the work that has been done. It was very emotional for me. My Nana was not aware of the work Villages in Partnership was doing in Malawi with my dad. She was too sick to realize when I graduated high school. She had passed away too soon to see me graduate from the same college she saw my dad and mom graduate from 30 years earlier. When I was in Sakata looking at that school I thought about all of this and wondered what her reaction would be. I’ll never know but I like to think she would be proud.”
As we gave Ethan time to reflect, I thought about the Rhoad family, and what they meant to VIP, and more importantly to the people of Sakata. While most supporters of VIP know that we would not exist without the Heinzel-Nelson family, I think it equally true that VIP would not exist without the Rhoad family, certainly not in the same form that it exists today. And as I watched Stephen walk over to Ethan and put his arm around him to comfort him, in the midst of the school grounds that VIP was rebuilding, I was struck by how often the personal and the public seemed to intersect with VIP. I’m sure it may be true of all organizations, as we are all people, with our own unique stories and backgrounds, but every time we visited a project, or learned about a new initiative, I found an intensely personal story at its heart.
Soon it was time to leave Sakata School and to say goodbye to Ethan, who would be traveling back to Lake Malawi to continue his service as a medic and wound care specialist in the villages near Monkey Bay. As we watched Ethan disappear down the dusty road on the back of a bike taxi we headed off to church.
The service stretched beyond four hours again, as 5 choirs performed several songs before the congregation, including a VIP choir, for the first time highlighted by the talented Jordan Heinzel-Nelson and her violin, which her father had carried over for her earlier in the week.
After watching his youngest daughter with pride, it was soon time for the service’s other highlight, Stephen’s sermon. The charismatic and ebullient Daniel Bonongwe would be reprising his role as translator from the week before, dressed for the role in a bright red suit which Stephen told us, rather dubiously, had been given to him by the U.S. Ambassador to Malawi years ago.
Stephen began the sermon by mischievously telling the congregation what a special day it was, before revealing that it was his birthday, to which he received shouts of laughter and a round of applause from the assembled. Bonongwe then led the congregation in an impromptu, and rather ragged rendition of “Happy Birthday” in English. The lack of participation by the audience and the fact that Bonongwe chose an English song puzzled me, until after the service Liz reminded us that most villagers have no idea when they were born, so there are no Chichewa “Happy Birthday” songs, and often by extension, no birthdays, in the villages. After warming up the crowd Stephen launched into his sermon and I got the opportunity to see pastor and translator working as a perfect team. As Stephen descended from the pulpit to walk amidst the pews Bonongwe mirrored his every step and gesture. Every raise in Stephen’s voice was amplified by Bonongwe, every fall made more impactful, and every silence became heavier with significance. The congregation was on tenterhooks the entire sermon and gave Stephen and Bonongwe a near standing ovation when they had finished.
After the service was concluded the church thanked us for coming by graciously preparing for us a large meal of rice, pigeon peas and goat which we shared together with the church elders on the pews. After saying thank you and our goodbyes it was time to head back to the farm to change into hiking clothes for our walk on top of Zomba Plateau in celebration of Stephen’s birthday. I was so excited to finally get the chance to go on top of Zomba. We had climbed the foothills on my second day in Malawi, but since then I had only had the chance to gaze up at the enormous massif, which so dominated the surrounding area that it served as the constant backdrop to everything we did in the villages. On our first day together, Jordan had shown me the giant face that the wind and rain had carved into the rock, and every time I looked up I couldn’t help but see the rather tragic face, starting unblinkingly into the blue Malawian sky. But despite its ubiquity, I had not grown tired of the plateau, if anything its ceaseless presence had only sparked my curiosity and desire to find out what lay on top of its sprawling hills.
We packed into the Landcruiser and started the long drive to the top. As we reached the road that wound its way up the face of the plateau, passing the former presidential palace, I noticed the changes in the local geography. Trees were becoming more common as were grasses, and small flowering plants and bushes. The air was lighter and cooler and I could feel the dust of the village roads that had clung to my skin and clothes being swept away by the streams of air rushing past our open windows. As the road climbed higher and became steeper and steeper, cut backs and blind turns became more common and I was impressed that Liz was able to stay to the road while at the same time sizing up which of the local fruit vendors dotting the roadside we would stop at. We found a likely looking group and bought fresh raspberries, strawberries and gooseberries that they had picked from the wild bushes that grew in abundance on the verdant hillsides. Finally we reached a small parking area near a former government fish pond and jumped out of the Landcruiser.
As we reached the path that we were going to take, which lay in a valley enclosed by the outer hills of the plateau, I was amazed by how green everything was.
It was the dry season, and in the villages everything was covered in layers of the fine red dust that jumped from the roads every time a car, bike or cart went rumbling past. The only sign of green that I had seen in the previous two weeks was when we visited the rare fields that were irrigated and were growing winter crops. As the path continued up I heard the rushing of water and we soon met up with a large stream that was making its swift way down the mountain. Zomba is covered in these small streams that bubble up from mountain springs and leap down the mountain in cascades and waterfalls.
The sun had already sunk below the hills above us, and the soft blue light that surrounded us made it seem as if we we were walking through an otherworldly land of eternal twilight. As we gazed in wonder at the moss covered trees towering above us I suddenly felt as if I had been transported thousands of miles away to the heart of the Congo. I couldn’t believe that we were in the same country anymore. As we passed by a beautiful waterfall and the large pool at its base, Stephen and Liz told us about the time that they had brought a group on this hike and had unknowingly walked through a colony of army ants. The ants had secretly made their way up the legs of the group members and waited until they were all in position. All at once, as if the ants were waiting for the perfect moment to act in unison, a signal had been given, most likely through pheromones, and the ants all began to bite. The group began screaming and itching themselves like mad, and it had gotten so bad that they had to take off their outer garments and jump into the pools to get the ants off. Stephen told us this just as we passed the spots where he guessed the ant colony lay, and sure enough a few minutes later, Jordan and I both experienced sharp pains on our legs as the fierce ants began to bite. Luckily the ordeal of the earlier group had made us more careful and only a few isolated ants had latched their way on to me and Jordan and we were able to continue the walk pain free a few minutes later.
All too soon it was after 5 o’clock and it was time to turn around unless we wanted to risk losing our footing or our way in the swiftly falling dark. But as beautiful as the plateau was, as we made our way down we encountered signs that it might not always remain so. Coming down the main road the trees to our right suddenly disappeared, and we found ourselves next to a barren field that had been completely clear cut and burned. It was a reminder that there were tens of thousands of people living in the shadow of the plateau that needed firewood for burning and arable land for farming, and that unless Malawi was able to solve its pressing environmental issues even this beautiful refuge would not remain for long.
After a beautiful birthday dinner at a hotel on top of the plateau we got once more into the Landcruiser and made our way down the winding road where hours before we had bought the berries. The road was dark now and empty but suddenly we reached a break in the trees to our left and we had an unobstructed view of the land below. It was a sight I will never forget. Just below us were the lights and cars of Zomba city, and the fortunate few who had access to electricity and power. But after a few hundred meters the lights abruptly ended and there was nothing to be seen for miles and miles, all the way to the horizon, but inky blackness. I suddenly felt as if I were on top of a cliff above a tiny seaside village, looking out at the open ocean, too dark and mysterious to reflect the pale moonlight. But I knew that we were nowhere near the sea, and that tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of people lived in the blackness stretching out before me. As a teacher I had always kept a satellite map of the world at night on the wall in the back of my classroom. And I would often point to the blaze of light along the north-east seaboard of the United States, a blaze far brighter and more intense than any other on the map, to remind my students how fortunate we all were. We had been born in the richest part, of the richest country in the history of the earth. And then I would point to sub-Saharan Africa, which other than a few isolated pockets of faint light, was completely dark. This was energy poverty I would tell them. As I gazed down from Zomba Plateau that night, I wished my students could have been there to see, to understand in a visceral way that I was never quite able to explain, what energy poverty was. To see thousands of people living in darkness, unable to do even the simplest tasks once night has fallen, because luck or fate or whatever you wanted to call it, had determined that they would be born in a poor country.
I was silent the rest of the drive home as I wrestled with the fact that our beautiful day had been an anomaly. Most Malawians would never be able to do any of the things that we had done. And our day would remain an anomaly, indeed days like ours might vanish altogether, unless we continued to work with the people of Malawi to bring change and light to their country.
Friday morning found the 6 of us (The four Heinzel-Nelson’s, Trudi and me) driving in the Landcruiser to Sakata School. Trudi had been teaching 7th grade science classes there all week and today we would be stopping by to observe her classes and to meet with a group of students to learn what the school was doing to combat deforestation. When we first began partnering with the Sakata School several years ago, the school was in an advanced state of decay. Students sat on the floor in dark, rusted, overcrowded classrooms. Holes in the crumbling roofs allowed shafts of sunlight to penetrate the darkness during the dry season, but also allowed water to enter during the rainy season. Faced with sitting amongst pools of muddy water, many students chose to remain at home during the rainy season, starting them on a path of failure and drop out. VIP and the Sakata School have made a tremendous amount of progress the past three years, building three brand new classrooms (with a fourth and a fifth on the way this year) and several beautiful teachers’ houses to help recruit top teaching talent. But a great deal of work remains to be done. When I arrived at the school I saw hundreds of children milling about on the dusty quad. I soon learned that the school had over a thousand registered students and only 8 official classrooms. Hundreds of children are packed into each room, with many more taking classes in a nearby church or on the ground under a small cluster of trees.
We dropped Trudi and her supplies off with Sydney at their classroom and crossed the campus to the VIP built teacher house directly opposite Trudi’s classroom, to bring painkillers to the head teacher, who had recently dislocated his knee in a motorbike accident. After spending some time chatting with the head teacher (the offending motor bike parked conspicuously in the corner of his living room) we walked across the dusty field (which had served as our soccer pitch a week ago when we had worked on the nearby Sakata Bridge) and entered Trudi’s classroom. As we entered, we saw that the students were all engaged in an experiment and that Trudi was going from group to group checking in on their progress and seeing if they had any questions. Each group of 4 had been given a mystery box, glued tight shut, with an unknown substance inside. They had then been given a second box, with a clear, removable lid, into which they could place a variety of materials. Once each set of distinct materials was inside the clear box the students could compare the different characteristics of the substances in the two boxes (weight, reaction to a magnet, tilt and sound when shaken etc.) and eventually come up with a hypothesis for what was inside the mystery box.
As the experiment neared its conclusion and the students began jotting down their hypotheses, I asked Trudi when we would open the mystery boxes. “We never open the boxes, we can never know for certain if we are right. That’s science.” I was excited for the day when all of the students at Sakata School would get the opportunity to learn in a bright new classroom like the one we were in, from a teacher as excited by her subject as Trudi was.
We waved goodbye to Trudi, Sydney and their students and walked back to the dusty road that we had driven in on. Directly off the road to our right and just before the campus began we noticed a cleared area with a hundred or so slender saplings poking through the soil. Clustered around and amongst the young trees were a large group of chattering students and their teacher, who spoke to us about his unique strategy for encouraging reforestation. Malawi is one of the most heavily deforested countries on earth, which has led to floods, erosion, declining soil quality and depleted ground water reserves. While VIP is first and foremost a group that serves and partners with people, we have actively embraced environmentalism, and I smiled the other day as our agricultural officer, Frank Mwenjemeka, speaking about himself, offhandedly referred to “environmentalists like me…” Because of this adoption of environmentalism, we have undertaken an initiative to restore Malawi’s forests through tree nurseries, like the one we were standing in. But forests take a long time to grow, and represent a public good, not a private one. As a result, it is very difficult to convince farmers to take time and use valuable water to ensure that young trees are properly cared for during their vulnerable early years. Because of this, several of our nurseries have failed as the trees have died due to lack of water.
What each of these young trees needed was a protector, a steward, one person who was responsible for their health and care, and who would nurture them until they reached maturity. And that is exactly what they are getting at Sakata School. The teacher speaking with us had begun a program where individual students are “given” a tree. Their name is placed on a piece of paper next to their tree, and they are responsible for watering their tree, with water from the borehole located just on the edge of the nursery, and making sure their tree makes it past its vulnerable sapling stage.
By teaching these kids to care for trees from such a young age, the school is not only ensuring that the trees in this nursery survive to maturity, but that there will be a new generation of Malawians who understand how important trees are to the health and survival of their country. Before we left we were each given an honorary tree, and we were introduced to the student who would take care of it for us. It’s nice to think that twenty years from now a group of students looking to rest after a tough exam might sit for a few minutes in the shade of the small forest lining the road into their school. And as they lean against the roots of one of the larger trees, joking and laughing with each other, if one of them casts their gaze near the roots of the great tree, they might see a small tattered placard. And if curiosity prompts them to lean in closely enough they might see, spelled out in faded black ink: “Justin Zelenka.”
Later in the day on Friday, after running some errands in town, we welcomed Ethan Rhoad, son of VIP President Bob Rhoad to N’amingazi Farm. Ethan, who had just graduated from William and Mary, was in Malawi for two months, serving as a medic near Monkey Bay on Lake Malawi. He had not been back in the country in almost nine years, since his father and he had first visited in 2008 when the Heinzel-Nelsons were living here, and he was eager to see the progress that VIP had been able to make in that time.
On Saturday morning, after an uncommonly late breakfast, perhaps in response to the late night we spent playing board games with Ethan, we all headed off to attend the primary school netball and soccer championships that VIP was sponsoring. The first game to be held was the girl’s netball championship. Netball is a cross between basketball and handball and is played on a rectangular court with raised hoops at each end, think basketball hoops, but with no backboards. Similarly to basketball, each team attempts to score goals by passing a ball down the court and shooting it through its hoop. Unlike basketball, there is no dribbling, players can’t run with the ball and a player with the ball can hold on to it for only three seconds before shooting it or passing to another player.
The game drew a large, excited crowd, which, even more than the rice sprinkled along the sideline, helped to form the boundaries of the court. After a competitive game, it was time for the main event, the boys’ soccer championship. Thousands of people lined the boundaries of the pitch to watch the championship game between Matawale primary school and Nyambwe primary. Although as sponsors we were supposed to remain neutral, we couldn’t help rooting for the hometown Matawale boys, especially since Sydney had once attended the school in his younger days. The hometown crowd wasn’t disappointed as Matawale won 4 goals to nil.
After each goal thousands of young people would storm the field dancing, celebrating and hugging. And after Stephen (as the guest of honor) presented the winning side with their trophy, the entire team and hundreds of fans ran up and down the nearby street chanting and singing while holding the trophy high. It was great to see so many young people energized and bonding over an event that VIP had helped to organize and sponsor. The hope is that in the years to come the community can continue to run fun events like this even without the help of VIP as they continue to take more ownership over the civic health of their community.
After the trophy presentations and the gifts of jerseys to each of the teams involved in the respective tournaments Liz, Jordan, Ethan and I drove over to Chimpeni School just as the sun was setting. While we had been enjoying the games all day, Vincent Chilombe and Joe Majamanda had been working hard to get solar lights installed in the deputy head teacher’s house at Chimpeni School. VIP has big plans to bring solar lighting to both Chimpeni and Sakata Schools in 2017. The lights in the teacher houses will allow our teachers to work past sundown at 6 every night, grading exams and homework and planning their lessons for the following day. As a former teacher, I can attest that most of a teacher’s work is done outside of the classroom, and our teachers in Malawi would often have wake up at 5 in the morning to catch the first rays of the sun in order to get all of their work done. Fortunately, that kind of hectic schedule will now be a thing of the past. Installing solar panels in the teacher’s houses also allows us to attract and retain top teaching talent for the schools we partner with. It is very difficult to get top teachers to come out to poor rural villages instead of settling in the major cities. And without great teachers, you can’t have a great school. But by building beautiful houses on campus and providing them with solar panels for lights, cell phones and other appliances, we can attract the very best teachers that Malawi has to offer to come and work with our students.
As we pulled up to the school Joe, Vincent and the solar contractors were just finishing the initial installation and were ready to test the lights. As the lights came on a cheer went up from those who had come to watch the test and the Deputy Head Teacher appeared to be on the verge of tears as he realized how much his life was about to change. He made his way over to Liz to thank her for everything that VIP was doing for him and for the students at Chimpeni School, who soon would be receiving solar lights in two of their classrooms, as an aid for those studying for the state exams in Standard 8.
After thanking Liz he had one more request, could VIP give provide these lights to more teachers, so that they could continue to improve the standard of education throughout the Sakata region? Liz was so touched by his request and his focus on helping other families and other students rather than seeking to gain more for himself. She promised that she would do what she could and we made our way back to the Landcruiser. We drove for a few minutes through Chimpeni’s fields, but just as we were about to turn off of his property Liz stopped the car and looked back. It was past 8 now and night had completely fallen across Malawi. As we looked back across the fields, shrouded in the kind of inscrutable and complete darkness that I had never experienced back home, all of our eyes were irresistibly drawn to the same point, the soft, but steady glow of the solar powered lights glimmering through the trees. A beacon of hope and a sign of things to come.
On Thursday morning Liz, Stephen and I headed to Liti village for a meeting while Terra and Jordan went down in the villages to reconnect with old friends. The meeting was held in what was by far the largest building I had seen in the villages of Sakata. Built in the 90’s by another NGO, the town hall like structure is the sight of many important meetings and events in our catchment area. Today we would be meeting with the all of the chiefs from the 26 villages that we worked with, as well as the Sub Traditional Authority, a man of some importance in the Zomba region, who oversaw all of the chiefs and village headman in that area. The meeting consisted of technical matters (that I won’t bore you with) and lasted for over 4 hours because of the long and detailed questions asked by the chiefs and the Sub TA. While this tested the limits of my attention span (especially because I was merely an observer and large parts of the meeting were conducted in Chichewa) I was told afterwards by our Malwian staff how positive the intensive questioning had been. Not long ago the chiefs would have sat there silently, agreeing to whatever the wealthy Azungu proposed, not feeling confident enough to engage VIP in a healthy and constructive debate. Their questions and follow up questions were a sign that the VIP approach and emphasis on community empowerment is working. The chiefs and Sub TA and the communities they represent now feel like equal partners with VIP and are no longer content to remain passive actors. They were actively engaged in every question that was raised and every decision that was reached. It was a truly encouraging sign of a community that was determined to develop itself.
Following the meeting we contacted the girls and arranged to pick them up at our friend Sydney Chikilema’s house. Even before I met Sydney, I had known that he had grown up, and was still living in, extreme poverty. Before coming to Malawi, Liz had told me his story in bits and pieces and I knew that even by Malawian standards, his family was poor. But nothing prepared me for what I found when we arrived at Syndey’s home. We pulled off the main dirt road that winds through the trading center that has grown up around the VIP Maize Mill in Kalupe village onto a much smaller road that cuts between two fields. Eventually the road disappears into an uneven path and we stopped the Landcruiser just as Sydney appeared around the corner of the path. We hopped out of the truck and greeted him warmly, asking him how the day had gone teaching with Trudi at Sakata School. As we followed him down the path his family compound came into sight. Directly across from us stood a completed brick building with a thatched roof and cloth doorway. At right angles to the finished building sat two partially completed brick structures facing each other across a courtyard created by the spacing of the buildings. Sydney’s house, to my right, had an iron sheet roof thanks to VIP, but was still many weeks from being able to house anyone. The house across from it did not yet have a roof and the entire time we sat in the courtyard with Sydney, a child sat there dully and motionless, watching us without making a sound. We soon learned from Sydney, who greeted us with a smile, that the compound housed ten people, all of whom must have lived in that one dilapidated brick building, which was roughly the size of my family’s living room.
It was hard to imagine anyone growing up like that, but it was so much harder to know that a friend of mine had grown up in these conditions and, despite the nice clothes that he wore thanks to VIP which would have concealed the fact from a casual observer, that he still lived here. As we joined Terra, Jordan, Trudi, Isaac Mwalabu and Violet (another VIP translator and friend of the two Heinzel-Nelson girls) who were sitting on a plastic sheet in the courtyard, my eyes continuously glanced back to Sydney’s two young cousins who sat on the ground next to their mother eating raw cassava root. I could not tell by looking at them how old they were. By their size I would have guessed they were three or four, but their faces were already stretched and thin from too many burdens. I have never seen children like them. Children who showed no emotion, no reaction to anything going on around them. I would wave and smile at them and they continued to stare blankly ahead. As we talked with Sydney’s family we learned that this year (with Sydney away at secondary school, trying to build a future) his family had only harvested two bags of maize from their field. With the next harvest over 8 months away the food was already almost exhausted. They would be dependent on ganyu (piece work) in other people’s fields and finding odd jobs to scrape enough kwacha together to buy dinner every night. I knew then that when I looked at Sydney’s cousins I was looking at the faces of malnutrition. These young girls were now permanently scarred by the struggles they had gone through in their earliest days. Their bodies had been starved of nutrients and they hadn’t developed properly. It was hard to think, and even harder to write (as if my acknowledgement of it somehow made it more final) but I knew then that these girls would never reach their full potential. They would always be stunted.
I couldn’t stop thinking how unfair it was that these girls had lost their future when they were barely old enough to walk. In a world of such plenty, where people in my country die from having too much food, these girls had been robbed of a future because they had been denied even the bare minimum necessary for a human being. If people could only see Sydney’s family in person and understand what true abject poverty was, and how destructive of human life it could be, we would solve the problem of extreme poverty within a few years. But people like Sydney’s cousins remain in the shadows, off to the side, down a dirt road where even well intentioned westerners rarely go. From time to time they appear as pictures accompanying a plea for donations to some organization or charitable event, but for the vast majority of their lives they are forgotten people.
I am no expert on childhood development and I hope I am wrong, but I didn’t think that I could do anything for Sydney’s cousins. But I know that I can still do something for Sydney. Somehow, against all logic, despite every odd stacked against him he had seized upon a chance to escape the life that chance or cruel fate had forced him into. He had been, in his own words, “rescued from the mud” by VIP. As I sat in his courtyard, I was more amazed then ever by Sydney. Not only was I amazed at how he had pulled himself out of this mind numbing poverty to learn English, get accepted into an excellent secondary school and find himself poised on the verge of being accepted into university. I was amazed that he was able to smile and laugh. That he was able to keep moving forward every day when he has so much pulling him back. I was not sure what I expected to find when I came to Malawi, or what I was hoping to accomplish. But I left Sydney’s house with a more complete understanding of the indomitable nature of the human spirit and the most sincere drive to ensure that people like Sydney and his family are no longer forgotten.
Everyone was tired as we piled into the Landcruiser for our drive to the Blantyre Airport on Wednesday morning for the team’s flight to South Africa. Liz always packs a lot into the friendship trips and our team was exhausted, both physically and emotionally. The last minute change of plans hadn’t helped the team get any more rest either. The original plan had called for the team to spend Tuesday night in Blantyre after leaving Liwonde National Park, so that they could get a full night’s rest and make their leisurely way to the airport after a late breakfast. However, the team hadn’t been satisfied with the idea of leaving Malawi like this, departing quietly like strangers in the night. At our last meeting before heading out on safari the team had asked that the plan be changed. They wanted to return to Zomba on Tuesday night so that they could take the VIP Malawian staff out to a “Thank You” dinner and give them all tokens of their gratitude and friendship. This was the first time that a friendship team had ever asked to do this, and knowing how hard the Malawian VIP staff works to make every friendship trip a success, Liz immediately agreed to the change and told the team how much the staff would appreciate it. And so we had met the staff at N’amangazi Farm on Tuesday night, and after giving a giving a short thank you speech and personalized gift bag to every VIP Senior staff member and our three translators, we headed off together one last time for a dinner under the stars.
We met at a restaurant called Dominoes, located right next to the sprawling grounds of the Presidential Palace, which had served as the primary residence of Malawi’s leader, until the capital was moved to Lilongwe. Dominoes had prepared a large buffet for us on the lawn where they usually held wedding receptions, with traditional Malawian stalwart’s chicken, rice and of course, nsima. For those of us whose stomachs were feeling homesick the chef had even prepared some Malawian attempts at personal pizzas. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of telling Sydney to try the pizza before sampling it myself, and I’m afraid that the Malawian version of it has turned him off pizza for good. Notwithstanding the pizza, we shared a wonderful last night together, laughing, telling stories, and making plans for the next time we met. One of the more interesting conversations involved the bizarre foods that are particular to Malawi and the West. On the main road connecting Zomba to Blantyre the team had seen several young boys selling mice on a stick. They couldn’t resist asking some of our Malawian staff if they had ever tried mice. While several members of the staff should their heads in disgust, most of the staff admitted, some with particular relish, that they had eaten, and indeed enjoyed, mice. Mwalabu even gave us all a detailed description (which I will spare you from here) of how the mice were caught and prepared. As we sat there shaking our heads at the strange things Malawians eat, Mwalabu compared it to westerners eating mussels. To Malawians mussels are disgusting, slimy bottom feeders that most would never consider eating. While I love mussels I knew he had a point, and couldn’t really understand why fish eggs and snails are considered delicacies by many westerners while mice are considered an uncivilized meal.
These musings on the ethnocentricity of the human palate were briefly reawakened as our Landcruiser passed by another group of boys selling mice the next morning, prompting a wave of laughter from the team. Casting aside my thoughts on the previous evening, I looked around at each of the members as we shared our last few moments together. Every one of them had their own story, their own reasons for coming to Malawi with VIP. My eyes first locked upon Randa Nelson sitting across from me in the Landcruiser. Randa was Liz’s sister in law and had been involved with VIP from its earliest days traveling to Malawi twice before this to work on VIP projects. A former board member, Randa was an incredibly active supporter of VIP, continuously recruiting people to make the trip to Malawi, knowing that once they did, they would never be able to forget it. One of her recruits was sitting in the Landcruiser with us, Sydney Gantzer. Sydney and Randa were old friends and Randa had always talked about Malawi and VIP to Sydney. Sydney’s husband Ken tragically passed away from cancer two years ago leading Sydney to become involved in Relay For Life and other fundraisers in an effort to find a cure to that dreaded disease. In the time we spent together Sydney seemed dedicated to three things: her children, finding a cure for cancer, and keeping alive Ken’s memory. Sydney had brought over shirts for the entire team and the Malawian staff emblazoned with “Ken’s Krew” on the front and a bible verse on the back. Sydney handed them all out to us and we wore them proudly as we worked, carrying on Ken’s memory and spreading the kindness and goodwill that he embodied. Randa and Sydney would not be traveling immediately back to the U.S. but would be heading to Victoria Falls for several days, to see one of the great wonders of the natural world.
Then there was the team from Chicago, led by Susan Zidlicky. Susan described herself to me upon meeting as a “stay at home mom,” but she could have also accurately described herself as “professional mission trip participant.” She has traveled to over 40 countries, many in sub-Saharan Africa, working on development projects and getting to know new people and experience new cultures. Throughout the trip she told us of her travels in Uganda, Kenya and Zambia. But her breadth of experience did not desensitize her to the incredible need, nor the incredible spirit, that she found in the people of Malawi. Next to Susan sat Jennie and Jim Garst. The Garsts were the polar opposite of Susan as far as their experience in developing countries went. When Jennie had first received the email from her church advertising the trip to Malawi she had immediately erased it, snorting “Yeah right, I’m not going to Malawi.” But something inside of both Jennie and Jim was calling them to step outside of their comfort zone, to try new things, and they could not ignore it. There had been a lot to get used to in coming to Malawi, first and foremost the bugs and spiders which Jennie constantly battled with the help of (and I kid you not) an insecticide called “Doom.” But they had both done an incredible job on the trip, bonding with the people they met and overcoming the huge culture shock of life in Malawi. The trip would not have been the same without their humor, kindness and intelligence. Finally, next to me sat my roommate Tom. We had bonded a great deal in our week together, often times staying up late into the night to talk, earning us the nickname “Chatty Cathy’s” from Susan, who could hear our voices through the paper thin walls. I would then stay up far later as Tom’s snores echoed inside my eardrums like cannon fire, more than once chasing me from the room to sleep in the hallway on the floor. Despite the snores, I learned so much from Tom and was glad that he was my roommate. With a PhD in Chemistry, Tom had recently created a new company, selling BioChar for use with fertilizers to heal and replenish depleted soils. Tom had come to Malawi, in part, to understand how he could use BioChar to help deeply impoverished countries like Malawi attain food security, as part of his company’s social welfare and philanthropic component.
I was grateful for the company and fellowship of all of them and was sad to see them go. As we reached the security gates we hugged and said our goodbyes, promising to keep in touch when we returned to our lives in America. After watching them disappear into the crowd waiting for the flight to South Africa, Liz, Jordan and I made our way to the airport café to wait. Coming in on the same plane that the team would be departing on, were Stephen and Terra Heinzel-Nelson, Liz’s husband and daughter. After a quick lunch we were in time to see Stephen and Terra coming through the security gate, where they were promptly tackled by Jordan and Liz. A short while later, I found myself in the front cab of a VIP pickup truck with Kondwani, heading back to Zomba. I decided to go back with the luggage, so that the recently reunited family could spend the drive back together. We met up back at the farm, where after a quick dinner we all headed to bed, so that Stephen and Terra could get a full night’s rest after their long trip, and so that we could begin new adventures in the morning.
Liz knows that for many of the friendship team participants (including me) this is their first trip to Africa. Because of that, and as a little break from their emotionally and physically exhausting week, Liz always sends the friendship teams on an overnight safari. When Liz told me that I would be accompanying the team my heart leapt. Elephants are some of my favorite animals, but I have only ever seen them in zoos, where they have always struck me as melancholy beings, looking out sadly at the people observing them and seemingly wondering how it was that they came to be trapped in these enclosures. So I was very excited to be able to see them roaming free in their natural habitats. On Monday morning, the 8 of us, Jordan, Tom, Sydney, Randa, Susan, Jennie, Jim and I piled into the Landcruiser with Kondwani at the wheel and started the two hour drive to Liwonde National Park.
As soon as we turned onto the dusty, rutted road at the park’s entrance we noticed the changes. Large proud trees towered over us, providing shade and food and shelter for the abundant wildlife. After a drive of about 15 minutes we reached the banks of the Shire River, which cuts through the middle of the park and we looked across to the Mvuu Wilderness Lodge, where we would be spending the night, possibly the best safari lodge in all of Malawi, and one that ranks among the best in all of Southern Africa. We said goodbye to Kondwani (Liz often sends VIP staff to the safari with the team and he may get the chance to go sometime in the near future) and loaded our bags into a small boat waiting for us at the dock and made our way over to the lodge.
As we maneuvered our way across the river we began calling to one another in excited voices as we started picking out the wildlife, “look at the hippo!” “Check out the size of that croc!” Liwonde is known for its incredible bird-watching and as we glided into the dock on the opposite bank we saw a tree that had gone completely white from the guano that covered it from head to toe. White aquatic birds perched in the upper branches or circled just above the tree, called out to one another in melodic voices. We were greeted at the dock and made our way up a set of wooden stairs onto a long raised walkway which overlooked a marshy area full of grazing hippo. We were led to a raised and covered viewing platform with excellent views of the marsh and river with low hills just visible in the distance. After an introduction to the park and the lodge as we sipped on our ice teas and cooled ourselves off with wet towels (there had also been banana bread, but that had been stolen by a particularly mischievous monkey) we were led to our rooms. We would be staying in 4 luxury tent suites, with wrap-around wooden decks, complete with chairs and hammocks. But after a week of being covered in the dust of the village roads, and never being able to get fully clean in the shower stalls at N’amangazi Farm, everyone was most excited to see the large showers, complete with large rainwater shower heads and matching bath robes.
After washing up it was time to meet our guide, Matthews, and follow him into the large truck for our first safari, which would stretch from the late afternoon into the night. As we drove out of the lodge my excitement mounted. We met up with the river and drove along it for a while, taking in the hippo, baboons, vervet monkeys, warthogs and crocodiles who were busy eating, drinking and sleeping along its marshy banks. After 15 minutes we caught our first glimpse of what I had been waiting for: elephants! A family of five was making their way through the light tree cover and Matthews positioned the truck along a route he thought they might take. He couldn’t have chosen a better spot. As two juveniles passed along the tree line 15 feet from us, a much larger female came over to see what we were. Elephants are very near sighted and as she approached closer she shook her mighty head to let us know that she had seen us and to test whether we would run from her. Elephants are so large that they find the safest way to deal with a potential threat is to approach the threat head on and see how it reacts. When we made no move (other than to frantically take pictures) she circled around our truck, pausing at the rear, where Sydney, Randa and I shared a bench. She then came closer to the truck, less than a body length away, so close that I could look into her tiny eyes, and see every wrinkle in her gray skin. So close that I felt as if she could reach out her trunk and effortlessly pull Sydney from her seat. She stayed there for over 20 seconds, silently considering us, and wondering if we were worth the effort to chase away. It was a twenty seconds that seemed to both stretch on for several minutes and end far too quickly. Eventually she must have decided we were innocent enough and turned away from us and went back to grazing. I realized that I hadn’t breathed in quite a while and let it out in a long sigh, my heart pounding in my chest and a smile on my face. Matthews told us that he hadn’t had an elephant approach that close since his initial training over ten years before.
We followed the elephant family for a few more minutes before heading off to see what else we could find. As we drove the sun sank beneath the low lying clouds on the horizon and glowed red as it slowly sank behind the lazy Shire River. We parked the truck and took pictures and enjoyed the view while we had a small picnic and drinks. Matthews and his spotter kept an eye out for any potential threat, particularly hippo, who will attack (and generally kill) anything in between them and the safety of the water’s edge. As night descended in typical rapid Malawian fashion we got back into our truck and started the nighttime portion of our drive. As we drove through the darkness listening to the sounds of nocturnal animals we told stories we had heard of close encounters with African predators and we convinced ourselves that we would be attacked by one of the park’s rare leopards, or perhaps a hippo that we stumbled upon in the darkness. As the tension mounted and we discussed who would be eaten first if we were attacked, some of us half wished that something would happen, while the other half wished for dinner and our warm beds. Ultimately the rest of the ride passed uneventfully and we rode back to the lodge where we enjoyed a lovely open air dinner with two European families, one of which had a daughter who would be spending the year in the villages of Zomba teaching English!
After dinner Jennie and Jim went to bed early, though their plans for a good night’s sleep were disrupted by the giant hand-sized spider that they found on the inside of their mosquito net that prompted them to beat the drum in the cabin calling for help. They were told that regardless of its size, spiders in Malawi did not constitute an emergency. While they slept fitfully (they lost track of where the spider had gone after their initial shock) the rest of us spent the next few hours around a campfire, looking at the stars, listening to the sounds coming from the impenetrable blackness just over the low wall that separated us from the marsh, and talking with one another. We talked about our lives back home and about what we had seen that day. We talked about what we had experienced in the villages and what we planned to do to help when we went back home. One thing that we left unsaid, though I am sure that it was as present in everyone else’s thoughts as it was in mine, was how different our experience at this ultra-luxurious lodge was from life in the villages. Most of the people we had met the past week would never experience the things we were now enjoying, some of them couldn’t even imagine them. Plush pillows, warm showers, private decks, all you could eat buffets and waiters attending our every need were all so far removed from the daily experience of the villagers of Sakata as to be unknowable to them. It did not leave me with feelings of guilt necessarily, but more a profound uncertainty and sadness over why I had been given so much when millions, or rather, billions of other people had been given so little. It is a question I will continue to wrestle with in the days and months ahead. Perhaps Liz had other reasons besides our enjoyment when she sent us out on Safari.
The next morning we woke up early, even by Malawian standards, so that we could make our 6 AM river cruise on the Shire River. As we motored out into the sluggish river the air was alive with the sounds of thousands of birds and it was the birds that first caught our eyes as well. We saw swallows dancing back and forth around the boat, some balanced for several minutes on the ship’s bow, serving as temporary mastheads. We saw delicate white cranes wading in the shallows of the river and kingfishers perched in the low branches of trees. We saw heron, storks searching for their morning meals among the reeds along the river bank. Just as we reached the middle of the river we watched as a beautiful African Fish Eagle glided through the air just twenty feet above our boat. Over the next two hours we saw many more birds (including a fight between two more eagles as one had ventured into the territory of a nesting pair) and dozens of hippo, wading into the shallows and scattering whenever we came too close. The highlight was again the elephants and we were able to observe two different large family groups coming down to the water for their morning drinks as Matthews floated the boat along the palm fringed banks. We were able to get so close, especially when we approached from down-wind, that we could hear the elephants drinking the water that they sucked up with their trunks. We ventured too close to one young male and he backed away into the reeds and stayed there for several minutes, satisfied that his three ton body was safely hidden from view by the thin grasses that grew along the banks of the river. All too soon it was time to dock the boat, enjoy our breakfast and rest before our final drive.
For our final excursion we decided to go into the rhino sanctuary, which also contained four cheetah and several herds of zebra. Black rhinos are critically endangered throughout Africa, with one sub-species having been officially declared extinct. The last native black rhinos had disappeared from Malawi in the 80’s as the already rare species succumbed to the pressures of poachers who killed them for their horns. In the early 90’s a breeding program was begun in Liwonde to try to bring these rare creatures back to the warm heart of Africa. Though with poaching still a major threat, the small rhino population in the park remains in grave danger. We did not see any rhinos as we made our way through the reserve, or cheetah for that matter. But we enjoyed the ride through this tranquil section of the park. The reserve is surrounded by a low electric fence which helps keep the rhino in and the elephants (generally) out. The relative lack of elephants has allowed the trees to grow much thicker in this section of the park and we found ourselves driving through beautiful forests and glades that were so different than anything else we had experienced in Africa. In some of these glades we glimpsed the black and white bodies of zebra, but it was always a quick encounter. The zebra would hear the engine of our car and would dart off further into the woods seeking the peace and security of the trees.
The ride itself was also quite an adventure, as Matthews led us on to rarely traveled roads in his attempt to find the rhinos. We had to dodge tree branches and thorns and hold on as Matthews guided the truck up and down steep hills that had to be taken at speed in order to avoid getting stuck. Finally Matthews admitted defeat and headed back to the lodge, but on the way out we were given one last treat. A herd of a dozen or so elephants that had crashed through the electric fence was preparing to cross the road on their way from a nearby water hole, just as we were heading out. Matthews parked the truck and we watched as the herd crossed in front of us, a large male standing watch in the middle of the road as everyone else crossed behind him. A tiny baby, less than 6 months old, was barely visible as it crossed next to its mother, hugging her close in the presence of these strange creatures. After the family had crossed, a small juvenile male, barely more than a baby himself, doubled back, crashing through tree branches as he shook his head at us belligerently. When he sadly realized that he wasn’t quite as threatening as he thought (or as much as his thousand pound body probably warranted) he followed the rest of his family back into the forest to fight another day.
Soon it was time to go back across the river and to return to the villages of Sakata, before our team flew out the next day. We were so grateful for the chance to go on Safari and to see these beautiful animals in their stunning home by the picturesque Shire River and sad to have to say goodbye to the people that had made the past week so memorable.
We woke at 7:00 on Sunday morning and donned our nicest shirts, ties and dresses and headed off to church. Meeting us at the church would be all of the VIP Senior Staff, as well as several VIP community workers. Liz had been invited by the pastor of the church to preach in front of our team and the full congregation that morning, and our impromptu choir, which had assembled and practiced for the first and only time together less than a half hour before in the parking lot, had been asked to perform a song. Liz had told us that this week’s service would be shorter than last week’s nearly four and a half hour marathon, and she was right, though not by much. Church in Malawi is very interesting, full of dancing, singing, clapping and praying. Pounding drums and louds whoops might be replaced a moment later by minutes of deafening silence as the congregation bows their heads in silent prayer. Several VIP personnel took part in the services along with Liz, including Maxwell Muhiwa, the VIP Officer for Education and Vocational Skills. Maxwell took charge of the Sunday School students, which tickled Jim Garst to no end, when he discovered that Muhiwa had no connection with the church, but had just taken it upon himself to quiz the students and then lead them in a rousing edition of “Do As I Do” a more musical version of “Simon Says.” He the led the church in a rousing, and rather moving, rendition of “Kumbaya,” which we sang for hours afterwards after hearing it reawakened earlier memories of singing it with our schools, churches and friends.
Another VIP musical highlight was the VIP choir, due in large part to Mada, our Medical Officer. Mada has a beautiful, strong voice that immediately commands a room. Often times when we show up to a field to work with local villagers, Mada will break out in song, and within moments the entire group of villagers will be singing along with her. Mada led us in an old Chichewa hymn and our entire team, including me, much to my surprise and dismay (I had been in choir once but had gotten by largely through lip syncing in the back row after not being allowed to quit), backed up her lead vocals. Despite the mixed talent of the group at large, Mada, and a few other musical souls, pulled us through and we received a nice ovation from the congregation.
But the real highlight of the morning was Liz’s sermon, translated, and at times embellished, by Daniel Bonongwe. Bonongwe was VIP’s first employee, hired all the way back in 2009. When reflecting on how far we have come, Liz will often say “I remember when all we had was Bonongwe on a bicycle.” Bonongwe is perhaps VIP’s most interesting personality. Loud, charismatic, personable and passionate with two front teeth that jut out prominently from his mouth, Bonongwe is most comfortable in the spotlight. Whether he is ululating loudly in celebration, doing some kind of bizarre dance that can best be described as Elaine Benes’s “dancing” from Seinfeld crossed with a goat kicking back its hind legs, or simply speaking, Bonongwe always seems to draw a crowd. Sunday was no different. While translating Liz’s sermon into Chichewa he would scream at the top of his lungs, gesticulating wildly and acting out the scene described by Liz, with wild eyes staring past the congregation into the distance, focused on something the rest of us could not see. As the sermon went on Bonongwe, now dripping with sweat from his performance, would add his own comments on to his translation, often ending with a loud “Hallelujah” to which the congregation would chant back “Amen.” Isaac Mwalabu leaned over to tell me that this is how preacher’s often delivered sermons in Malawi. Both to impress upon the flock the seriousness of God’s wrath, and to keep their attention through the long hours spent in uncomfortable pews, I supposed. Whatever his intentions, it was provocative and exciting theater and the congregation remained deeply engaged with him and Liz throughout the sermon and gave them both a standing ovation when they had finished.
After giving several gifts to the church and being generously treated to sodas and snacks, the team headed off for home visits. Every friendship team goes on home visits, bringing gifts for, and spending time with, some of the most vulnerable families in our catchment area. It is, in many ways, the most important part of every friendship trip. An opportunity for our team to talk to, get to know and step inside the homes of some of the world’s poorest people and to let them know that they are not forgotten and that we are telling their stories and working to help them back in America. The first family that we visited was the family of Judith Phimba. Judith is a 14 year old girl who first came to the attention of VIP when she won an inter-school quiz competition several years ago. It was then that we learned that Judith’s father had died when she was just five years old. Her mother then passed away a year later. Following the tragic death of her parents, Judith went to live with her elderly grandparents, who have cared for her ever since. The grandparents are the sole caretakers for several other orphans in the family as well, a job that grows harder and harder every year, as age takes it slow but inexorable toll on their bodies. When we first met Judith our staff realized how much promise she had and kept an eye on her as she moved through primary school. When she graduated from primary school and did well on her examinations, VIP supplied her with a scholarship so that she could attend Neno Girls Secondary School, over 60 miles from her home.
When we came to the home of her grandparents they told us that Judith was still away at school, but that term would be ending in a few weeks, at which point she would return. We chatted with Judith’s grandparents for a while and listened as they told us about how VIP had driven them to Judith’s school for a surprise visit a few months ago. When she saw them Judith ran over and embraced them both, with tears in her eyes, a rare show of emotion from an extremely shy and retiring young girl. But it showed her grandparents how much she missed them, and how much she appreciated everything that they had done for her. Our team gave Judith’s grandparents the gifts that they had brought for every vulnerable family that we would visit: blankets, clothes, sandals, soap and toothbrushes and toothpaste, to help ease the burden of their terrible poverty.
After our visit with Judith’s family the team split up so we could visit six more vulnerable families. Tom, Susan, Jim, Jennie and Liz visited with an elderly brother and sister who Liz (who is not prone to hyperbole when discussing poverty) unhesitatingly called “the poorest family I have ever visited.” When our team arrived at the small cluster of thatched-roof buildings that makes up the family compound they found the brother and sister waiting for them on the ground. Thatched roofs are always a sign of deep poverty, because even when they are in good condition, they inevitably leak during the rainy season. These roofs were not in good condition. They had large holes in them, which allowed the sun to stream into the homes. In the rainy season their dirt floors must have been filled with muddy puddles. After greetings and introductions the brother told the team that he used to live in what was once the kitchen, a small building that had no roof at all, leaving him completely exposed to the elements. Now he lived in a small two room mud hut built by Malawian 7th graders as a service project for their country’s most vulnerable citizens. When he invited the team inside they found two tiny 6 by 3 foot rooms. One was a kitchen where he now did all of his cooking over an open fire, breathing in the smoke and fumes. In the other room they found his bedroom, which was nothing but wads of extremely soiled blankets, or as Jim Garst put it, “a nest of rags.” As our team continued to talk with the siblings, they learned that they no longer grew any food, they were too old and sick to work in the fields. Nor were they able to do anything to generate any income. They were entirely dependent on assistance from the World Food Program and other food relief agencies. The sister’s face was so deeply lined and wrinkled with age and cares that she had to use her thumb and pointer fingers to lift the skin away from her eyes so that she could see who she was talking to. When our team gave them their gifts the brother and sister were so grateful, not just to be given all new things, but for the affirmation the gifts carried: that they mattered and that people cared about them and were willing to work with them and help them.
The same team then went to visit Alice Satana and her family. Alice is a tiny firecracker of a woman, quick to laugh and to speak her mind, often shouting over the questions of our team members in her haste to answer. As our team sat down on the mat outside Alice’s home, and greeted Alice and her family members, they saw fleas jumping all around them. Alice didn’t know how old she was, but her adult children and deeply lined face spoke of a long life of poverty in the villages. Alice told the team that she never grew enough food to feed her family, and that in order to get enough food to eat she often went to the rice mill that VIP had built and picked up little grains of rice off the floor, until she had enough for that night’s dinner. When Liz had visited Alice in March she learned that Alice’s daughter had gone missing, leaving behind her two young children. When Liz asked if there was any news of her, Alice pointed to a woman who had been sitting far away from everyone, just beyond the outskirts of the conversation. Alice called her forward and introduced her as her daughter. Alice’s daughter avoided everyone’s eyes and sat there, with downcast eyes, umoving and unresponsive. It soon became clear to Liz from what Alice was saying, that her daughter had left the family to try to earn money by selling her body as a prostitute. No one on our team would comment on that decision after they returned from the villages later that night. The decision between gleaning rice piece by piece off of the floor in order to eat and becoming a prostitute to feed your family was what a former professor of mine, who taught a class on the decisions facing Holocaust victims, would have termed a “choiceless choice.” A choice beyond judgement, that we could never understand and simply pray we will never be forced to make.
As our team headed back from the villages they were somber, but motivated. They understood at last why they had come to Malawi. They had not come to build bridges, or plant crops, or clear fields. The Malawians can do all of those things more effectively than we can with the tools that we have at hand. Our team had come to learn. To truly understand and confront what extreme poverty was, face to face, and to be motivated to do something about it. By the time the team reached N’amangazi Farm they were already planning what they would do when they went home, in order to continue to partner with the people of Malawi.
Everywhere you go in Malawi you will find piles of bricks. Stacks of bricks formed into kilns waiting to be baked into completion. Hardened red bricks tossed into piles to be shaped into new buildings.Bricks from destroyed buildings laying in ruins, some perhaps destined to find new life after being reclaimed from their former structures. And dull brown bricks that have just recently been formed. It was the last of the varieties of bricks mentioned that concerned the team on Friday morning. The team was very excited to create bricks, as they saw it as a quintessential Malawian task. Every young man in the village is supposed to build his own house when he comes of age, and because almost none can afford to buy bricks, bricks are constantly being formed in the villages.
We met in the village of Khanda, where we would be forming new bricks for use in creating a clinicians house at the Khanda medical clinic. Weekly clinics are held at Khanda now, but if a nice house, with solar power, could be built, a clinician could be attracted to the clinic, which would allow it to remain open throughout the week, treating patients in need. The bricks are created by mixing just the right amount of water with soil and stirring the mud until it resembles a dirty brown porridge. The mud is then slapped into brick molds which are then turned upside down onto the ground, leaving the newly formed brick to bake and harden in the sun. If money and time allow, the bricks are then formed into a kiln and fed with firewood. After 8 hours of baking, the bricks are fully hardened and ready to use.
While this process sounds easy, we quickly found out that it was anything but. Jordan was quickly relieved of her duties as mud stirrer due to lack of progress and I was banned from forming mud in the brick molds after a few unsuccessful attempts. The team was given the, relatively, simple job of emptying the brick molds onto the ground in lines, allowing the wet bricks to dry in the sun. But we soon learned that even this job had its own intricacies. You had to shake the mold from side to side as you pulled up to release the brick. But you couldn’t pull up too fast or the brick would fall out of shape as it hit the ground. You also couldn’t start wiggling the brick mold on the ground, or the brick would lose structural integrity. Our first few attempts were terrible, as the bricks came out squashed and misshapen. But gradually, they became more brick-like and the laughter from the VIP staff and the villagers helping us slowly faded away. By the time the men were done Frank Mwenjemeka told us that roughly 60% of our bricks were good.
As we were reminded several time throughout the rest of the day, the women on the team did quite a bit better than the men when they took over from us. Which was also a source of great amusement for the villagers and our Malawian staff, as brick making is seen as men’s work. After making bricks the men and women separated from each other. The women gathered together around the fires to prepare lunch for everyone, while the men joined the Chief and Village Head Man (who rules over 5 villages) in the clinic to sit in the shade and speak with one another. This was cause for immediate embarrassment among the American men, and a slower burning anger amongst our female teammates, that was only fully relieved by the nightly briefing back at the farm, when we were all able to talk about the lunch. In Malawian culture, there are some jobs that are considered “men’s work” like building the bricks. But we often saw women doing things that are supposed to be the work of men. However, not one man from the village even thought about going to help the women and we were told by the VIP staff and Liz to sit with the men and to not try to assist. Women in rural Malawi seem, at least from an outsider’s perspective, to have more burdens than men. They must care for the children, gather the water, prepare the meals and often help the men in the fields with farming the land. Perhaps this is why the majority of the villagers who work closely with VIP, and who have put themselves in a position to benefit from VIP initiatives, are women.
After speaking with the Chief and Village Head Man about the changing weather in Malawi (fewer rains, more drought) explaining how climate change was impacting our lives (I told them about Hurricane Sandy) and attempting to describe basements to everyone “so you live like mice underground?!” the women began to serve us our lunch. I had heard a great deal about Nsima since beginning work at VIP at the start of this year. The national dish of Malawi, nsima is a stiff porridge made from ground maize meal boiled in water. The nsima was served to us in bowls and Vincent Chilombe, VIP Irrigation Engineer, and Frank showed me how to scoop the nsima out of the bowl (with the fingers of my right hand only! In the villages of Malawi the left hand is used for hygiene purposes and it is considered highly offensive to eat with both hands) form it into a ball, and use it to scoop up the “relish” served in bowls on the side. The relish consisted of various roasted meats and a Malawian form of collard greens. I ate the nsima plain., or with a scoop of greens, and it was rather tasteless and was described by my roommate Tom Marrero as “like cream of wheat that had been left to sit out on the counter all day.” But our Malawian hosts certainly enjoyed it, it is said that a Malawian can be served a four course meal and will stay say they haven’t eaten yet, because they hadn’t had any nsima, and they were also very glad to see us eating it.
After thanking the Chief and the Village Head Man for hosting us and after receiving their thanks for VIP’s partnership with them on building the clinician’s house we left the village and separated into two groups. One group visited a Women’s Village Savings and Loan (VSL) group and learned how the member’s lives had been completely transformed by learning how to save and how to pool their resources so that they could make loans to other VSL members. The women had used the money to pay for their children’s school fees, purchase metal sheet roofing to replace their leaky thatched roofs and some had even started a bike taxi business and now had their own employees! It was so unbelievable to hear that poor women villagers who had never worked before were now small business owners because of the VIP VSL training.
While the other group was at the VSL, Frank took my group to visit a group of farmers (all women) who were practicing small-scale irrigation. Almost all agriculture in Malawi is rain-fed, which is severely limiting, especially in Malawi, which experiences no rain for over half of the year. With the population booming and drought becoming more frequent, it is crucial that Malawian’s begin to embrace irrigation and begin growing crops throughout the entire year. The women were using a treadle pump provided by VIP to pump water uphill from the nearby river to irrigate their fields. It was so exciting to see crops being sown in the midst of the dry season. It is crucial that VIP and farmers throughout Malawi continue to pursue irrigation, as rain fed agriculture will not be able to sustain the population within a few decades. Even now the population is just barely scraping by, and economic progress cannot be made until all Malawians can attain food security.
On Saturday morning the entire team headed to the Sakata School again where we met representatives from many of the villages in the surrounding area who would be helping us work. We would be working on a VIP bridge that crossed a river. When we got there, the river was barely a stream, but in the heart of the rainy season the river can surge ten feet, making it impassable and preventing children from getting to Sakata School and villagers from accessing the nearby medical clinic. This new bridge will be a crucial artery of communication that will underlie progress across several areas of development. Our first assignment was to use a sledgehammer to crack rocks to use to in making the base of the bridge. Sydney Chikilema picked up the sledgehammer and took a few mighty swings before breaking the sledgehammer on the giant boulders that lay near the river.
With the sledgehammer out of commission the team moved on to taking river sand and bringing it up in wheelbarrows to use in the mix for the concrete. The place where we were gathering the river sand was less than a hundred yards, as the crow flies, from the bridge. But in order to get there we had to follow a quarter mile path winding up and down hills, through the brush. This made carrying the heavily loaded wheelbarrow full of wet sand back up extremely difficult, backbreaking labor. As Sydney and I made our second trip up the hill with the wheelbarrow, trading off whenever one of us got tired, I heard Jim Garst remarking to Tom “There’s got to be an easier way to do this. We can just design a pulley system and get all this sand up there in a few minutes.” As sweat poured down my forehead and painted wet streaks down the front of my shirts, I couldn’t help but agree with him. But as I thought more about it, I realized that it wasn’t for lack of imagination that we were carrying sand in the hot Malawi mid-day sun. People will always try to make use of their most plentiful resources, and in Malawi that is not tools or metal or wood, but people. It makes more sense to use manpower and brute force labor than to try to buy extremely rare and costly materials to speed up the building process by a few weeks. So from the Malawian’ point of view, our inefficient backbreaking labor was the best strategy. Later, after I had moved from hauling river sand to carrying stones across fields from over a half mile away, I shared my thoughts with Tom, adding that it wasn’t until after the Black Death and the massive drop in population, that Europe really began to embrace the use of tools and machines to make work easier. Before that, it made more sense for Europeans to rely on cheap, plentiful manpower than to invest in costly, uncertain machines. Until we can find a way to improve infrastructure and technological development to the point where tools become worthwhile, Malawians will continue to use the old ways of getting things done.
After several hours of carrying heavy sand and large stones several miles we were ready for a break. So we bit into our sugar cane and followed the rest of the men to cut firewood and then lie in the shade beneath the trees while the women prepared lunch. After a minute or two of rest under the tree, the young men that we had been working with asked us if we wanted to go up to the field by the Sakata School to play some soccer with them. As tired as we were it sounded like too much fun to pass up. So Sydney, Isaac Mwalabu, Jim, Tom and I joined the rest of the young men and walked up to the soccer field. After passing around for a few minutes we broke into two teams and started the game. For the next hour we played non-stop soccer with no shade during the hottest part of the day, after working hard all morning, dressed in our work boots and jeans. But I’m so glad we did, it was one of the best experiences I had all trip.
Despite a great goalie on the other team, and staunch defending by Tom, who had played college soccer at TCU, Jim, Isaac and I finished up on the winning side, and I even scored a pair of goals in a 3-2 victory. But as much as I love to win, the most important thing to me about sports is how it brings people together and forms connections that wouldn’t be possible almost anywhere else. While we had been working together on the bridge the Malawians and our team hadn’t interacted as much as we had on other days. The young men in Malawi are often harder to form quick friendships with than children, women and the elderly. But now we were shouting each other’s names as if we were old friends. We hadn’t been able to speak to each other before because of the language barrier, but sports is a universal language. After every goal and great pass, every save or key defensive play we smiled at each other and clapped hands. And when the game was over, players from both teams shook hands and hugged.
The game had just been a joyous affair and really allowed us to see each other in a whole new light. We weren’t strange azungu, come from thousands of miles away to help the less fortunate Malawians, or whatever thoughts either side might have harbored about the other. We were no longer alien to one another. We were competitors, teammates, friends. As we walked back from the field we talked about the game as best we could, sometimes asking Isaac and Sydney to help us translate. When we got back we washed up, shared our bottles of water and had a lunch of nsima together under a papaya tree. As we dipped our hands into the communal bowls all of the earlier awkwardness had vanished away. We were no longer divided into Americans and Malawians, rich and poor, black and white, we finally were what we always had been: equals.
On Wednesday morning after dropping Trudi off at the Chimpeni School for her daily lesson, Liz, Jordan, Kwondani and I drove into Blantyre to pick up the first of our friendship teams this July, from their flight from JFK. On this first trip we have six people joining the four of us who are already here. From Christ Church of Oak Brook, in the suburbs of Chicago we welcomed Susan Zidlicky, Tom Marrero, and Jim and Jennie Garst. From Plano Texas, a suburb of Dallas, we have former VIP Board Member and head of the “Texas Chapter” of VIP Randa Nelson, and her friend Sydney Gantzer. After welcoming them to Malawi with hugs and smiles we picked up some supplies from the local supermarket and took the beautiful hour and a half drive from Blantyre to our home base on the slopes of Zomba Plateau. As we were pulling into the farm we found that it was experiencing one of its intermittent blackouts. Malawi relies a great deal on hydroelectric power, and as the river levels drop during the dry season, a trend which has been exacerbated in recent years by lower rainfall due to climate change, less electricity is generated and rolling blackouts are the norm.
While this was a slight inconvenience as the newcomers unpacked and settled into their new rooms it was actually a blessing in disguise. When we went down for our first dinner together, we found our dining room lit by candles, which gave the whole dinner a real feeling of intimacy. By the time we finished dinner and had gone through formal introductions, small talk and an overview of the trip and VIP’s mission, the group felt like it was already becoming a team. The next morning after breakfast we were greeted at the farm by all of the Malawian VIP senior staff, the men and women that oversee all of our initiatives and who would be leading us and we worked on various projects together over the next week. After meeting the staff we separated into two teams for our morning assignments, with Randa, Syndey, Susan and Jennie going to work with primary school students and at a CBCC, or community organized preschool, built and supported by VIP.
While they went to work with the children, Jordan, Liz, Jim, my new roommate Tom and I all went with Frank Mwenjemeka, the VIP officer in charge of food security, to work with a farmer who had just decided to embrace conservation agriculture. Conservation agriculture is a form of environmental management which uses low cost, natural strategies to improve soil quality and crop yields. As we rode with Frank to the field where we would be working, he told us how difficult it was for him to convince farmers not to till the land and to cover their land with the remains of last year’s crop, in complete opposition with what farmers in Malawi have been doing for generations. After a discussion of what we the day’s task, Frank began to talk at length about what he has been working on the pasts several years, impressing everyone in the Landcruiser with his soft-spoken knowledge and experience. One of the most interesting things that he talked about was reforestation, and the pressures forests in Malawi faced from the twin forces of democracy and poverty.
Frank began by telling us that Malawi is one of the most deforested countries in the world. As he spoke he pointed out the Landcruiser windows at the mountains that surround our catchment area and that are a constant presence as we drive through our partner villages. These mountains are stark and almost completely bare of trees, just bare rock shooting skyward, as if the bones of the earth had suddenly erupted through the soil. Frank said that less than 30 years ago all of these mountains were green and full of trees. But once President Banda’s dictatorship ended and Malawi became a multi-party democracy with free elections, people no longer voted for politicians who passed laws to protect the forests. Firewood was the cheapest fuel source around for heating and cooking and people began to cut down trees left and right because they simply could not afford anything else.
Only in the last few years has Malawi finally passed laws protecting the forests and this has led to ugly clashes between would be tree-cutters and soldiers protecting the few remaining forests. All of this deforestation has weakened the lands ability to absorb runoff and prevent erosion, which has led to increased floods, dropping water levels, and declining soil fertility. “But how can we convince people to spend time, effort and water to plant more trees, when they barely have enough time to feed their families?” asked Frank. When no one said anything, he supplied the answer himself; bees. Bees can save the forest.
Frank has worked closely with NJ State Apiarist Tim Schuler the past several years, in fact Frank was wearing a bee-keeping hat that Tim had given him as he spoke to us. People have a hard time making an investment in something that will be a public benefit 10 to 20 years down the road, especially when they are poor, but if they can make money while making that investment, that would completely change their calculus. And that is just what Frank has done. By training farmers to become bee-keepers and selling the honey from the bees to generate extra income, the farmers are also now actively planting trees and protecting existing groves, to ensure that their bees will have homes and food in the forests and continue to produce valuable honey. It was such an elegant solution to two incredibly important issues plaguing Malawi today.
By the time Frank finished talking about the bees and their connection to Malawi’s forests we arrived at the farm. We all got out of the car and introduced ourselves to the farmer we would be working with, who, to his own and Jim’s delight, was named James. We spent the next several hours cutting down vegetation and clearing the land, measuring the plot, digging the holes for the seed and then recovering the land with the cleared brush, which would then slowly decay, putting nutrients back into the ground while protecting the soil and stopping evaporation. Our team was joined by James and his wife, a “lead farmer” who had embraced conservation agriculture early on and who was now training other farmers on the techniques that had benefited him so much, and at least ten other villagers. The lead farmer was a very smart man. He had been intrigued by what Frank had told him about conservation several years ago, but he wanted to test for himself whether it was true. So he divided his land into two equal parts. On one side he used the conventional tilling and farming practices he had always used, and on the other he used the conservation agriculture techniques that Frank had taught him and waited to see the results. When the side using the conservation ag techniques produced almost double the yield of the conventionally farmed plot he was convinced. And not only was he going to use it, he agreed to become a spokesman and trainer of the techniques, donating his time so that he could help his neighbors benefit from these enhanced techniques.
The work proceeded smoothly with a lot of singing and laughing, despite a troublesome stump which, ignoring the shaking head that every single Malawian within earshot gave me, I brashly told the group that I could remove in a matter of minutes. Over half an hour later, with bloodied blisters from using the hoes and an ax to try to remove the offensive stump, which was not stronger than ever, I admitted defeat and went to suck on sugarcane with the rest of the group, laughing along with everyone at my own foolishness.
After conservation agriculture it was off to load and unload bricks for the new teacher house being built at the Sakata School, a useful activity which allowed us to ride on the back of a giant truck sitting atop thousands of bricks as we drove from one site to the other. Then we met up with the rest of our team and headed to Mphero Village for a ceremony commemorating the one year anniversary of the drilling of Mphero’s first successful borehole. Mphero was an extremely poor village that had always struggled with finding clean water. The villagers would often draw their water from the Naisi River, which lay beside the village. Less than a mile upstream was Naisi Prison, and every day the prison guards emptied the waste buckets from the prison into the river. As a result of this terribly polluted water, villagers were constantly suffering from diarrhea and many people, especially young children, were dying. That was until the Engineers Without Borders University of Delaware chapter, in partnership with VIP, built a well there last year, which provided the village with a constant, safe supply of water, even at the end of the dry season. We met under the shade of a large tree with the Chief and most of the village as we came back to the village as a team for the first time since the well had gone into operation last August. We listened as the Chief and the villagers thanked us and told us how life in Mphero had changed for the better since the drilling of the well. Diarrhea was gone from the village and no one was dying anymore from lack of the most basic necessity in life, a necessity that we all take for granted every day: clean water.
As I sat with Jordan, Isaac Mwalabu, Syndey Chikilema and Tom in the open air bed of a VIP pickup truck, the last of the quickly sinking sun warming our faces, enjoying our Mandazi and sodas that we had picked up on the way home after celebrating with the people of Mphero, I looked up at Zomba Plateau and smiled. Life was good. I was surrounded by laughter and singing, new friends and good food, enjoying the wind whipping through my hair and waving at the people we passed, secure in the knowledge that I was working for an organization that was saving lives every day.