Over the next several weeks VIP will be hosting two friendship teams here in Malawi. Humanitarians and missionaries from Texas, Illinois, New York and New Jersey will be traveling here and coming alongside our partner villagers as we work together to eradicate extreme poverty. I am already learning why Liz has always used the term “Friendship Trips” to describe the time that our teams spend in Malawi. One of the primary purposes of these trips is to build relationships that will last far longer than the week that each of our teams spend here. A week spent together in Malawi can turn into a lifelong friendship. Jordan Heinzel-Nelson, the youngest daughter of VIP founder Liz Heinzel-Nelson, recently remarked that in total, she has really only spent a few dozen hours with Sydney Chikilema and Isaac Mwalabu. But despite this relatively short time together, they have always remained close friends and a huge part of each other’s lives. Relationships and friendships like these lie at the core of everything that VIP believes in and works to create between supporters and villagers. On Tuesday I learned that this applies to the VIP staff as well.
Liz has always stressed to me that VIP is a family. And I have really felt that in my brief time working with VIP on the American side. If Liz hasn’t seen me for a few days she always greets me with a hug and a big smile. She has invited me into her home to eat alongside her family. She takes me out to lunch and breakfast and is always sure to make time to see how things are going in my life. I even take care of her pets when the family is away. So I was so excited when I began to form those same kind of familial relationships with our Malawian VIP staff. It all started with delivering medicine.
When our medical team came in May they brought medicine and medical supplies, not only to use on the medical trip itself, but to stock our clinics that operate year round in the villages. Every member of the medical team carried over as many supplies as they could in their two 50 pound suitcases, including supplies donated by some of our partners like Vitamin Angels and Direct Relief.These medical supplies had been stored in N’amangazi Farm, until they were needed to restock our medical clinics. Yesterday VIP driver Kondwani Mihowa, VIP Health Officer Madalitso (Mada) Chikani and I delivered these medical supplies to Naisi and Makwapala clinics and helped the clinic staff to organize and account for them.
As important and worthwhile as delivering this medicine was, what truly made it a memorable day was the time that I was able to spend with Mada and Kondwani. Liz dropped Mada and me off at Mada’s house as we waited for Kondwami to meet us with the truck that we would use to deliver the medicine. After welcoming me in, Mada gave me a tour of her house and we talked about what drew us to VIP and how excited we were to be working together for the next few weeks. After we had talked for a bit about VIP I asked her about her family. Mada sat me down in her room and pulled out hundreds and hundreds of photographs from various brown envelopes and folders. For the next hour we went through the hundreds of photographs, from various stages of her life, one by one. There were pictures from her primary school days, from her time at Nursing School and from her graduation, where she received an award after finishing first overall in her class. But the vast majority of the pictures were of her family. And as we flipped through the pictures she would tell me all about the people smiling back at us. I learned about her great aunt and her grandmother. I heard all about her twin sister and her cousin’s wedding. She talked about her mother, who was also a government health official and Mada’s inspiration to become a nurse. She told me about her father who was once a successful businessman in Lilongwe but who now struggles with health issues that have forced him into an early retirement. She spoke in hushed tones about her husband who had passed away, a quiet, deep with understanding, settling between us until she turned slowly to the next picture. But she would get so excited every time she showed me a picture of her daughter Rebecca. Rebecca is 15 years old and is now away at secondary school, and it is obvious how much Mada misses having her around. But as we leafed through the photos together and paused a few seconds longer over every photo of Rebecca I could tell how excited she was to be getting her back when the term ends in a few weeks.
Far too soon Kondwami arrived and it was time to get back to work. But driving through the dusty and rutted village roads can be slow going, and as the three of us sat together, squished into the cab of the truck, we had plenty of time to continue to talk. Now Kondwami spoke about his family, including his 5 month old baby boy, the 4th of his children, and, as he laughingly and loudly proclaims, the last! I started to open up as well and I told them how close I was with my family, and how, even now that I live almost an hour and a half away from them, I try to see them every weekend. I told them about my brother Jonathan and how close we are and how, only 5 days into my trip, I already miss him. After we dropped off the medicine, we started the long drive back to Zomba just as the shadows of dusk began to descend. As we drove through the smoky night air the conversation shifted to match the atmosphere and we talked about lost loves and the lessons and scars that they had left us.
It was just before we pulled back onto the paved road that Kondwami asked me what I did before I came to VIP. I told him that I had been a history teacher at a Jewish Day School in New Jersey. And I told him that the kids there were a big part of the reason why I was sitting next to him driving down a dirt road in Malawi. It was really my students who motivated me to join a development organization like VIP. As our classes moved through two millennium of human civilization together, we were often overwhelmed by the terrible atrocities that people have carried out against one another, merely because they worshipped different Gods, had different skin colors, or because they were simply in each other’s way. As we studied these tragedies, I felt as if it were my responsibility to leave them a far better world than the one we were learning about. A world free of poverty and despair, a world in which every single human being is able to live their lives to their fullest potential. Where the circumstances and place of someone’s birth do not determine their destiny. But even more than being my motivation, my students were also my inspiration. As we get older we tend to lose our innocence, our belief that all of the problems of the world can be solved if we work together and put the greater good over our narrow self-interest. People lose their innocence and optimism and we begin to confuse cynicism with wisdom and we are taught to equate pessimism with intellectual maturity. But the eternal optimism of my students convinced me that these were false lessons, and they helped me believe that the pressing issues of our time could be solved, if we simply believed it was possible. In that way they taught me far more than I ever taught them.
As I spoke about this, Kondwami could see how important my students were to me and he asked me more about them. I told him that during the second semester of their senior year my students travel to Poland and then to Israel as they move from the darkest period of Jewish history back into the light. Kondwami was quiet for a moment and then asked me what happened in Poland to the Jewish people. As the truck drove through the gathering darkness I realized that he had never heard of the Holocaust before. And as I told him of the death squads and mass graves in dark forests, the gas chambers and the crematoria and the six million killed I could see the shock and sorrow filling his face. He grew even sadder when I told him that many of the grandparents and relatives of my students had lived through and died in the Holocaust. He couldn’t believe that something like that could have happened in living memory. Especially not in the “civilized” western world. And as we parted for the night he asked me if I could tell him more about it the next time we were together. I said I would if he promised to tell me more about Malawi and teach me more Chichewa.
And as I hugged him and Mada goodbye I realized that this was the real purpose of friendship trips. Over the next few weeks our teams will do a lot of good here in Malawi. They will teach children and mold bricks. They will lay down bridges and raise school blocks. They will solarize schools and distribute supplies. But ultimately they will be limited by the time that they spend here. But the friendships we form with our partners in Malawi, the lessons we teach each other and the new perspectives we give one another, those things last forever.