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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.