A New Initiative

I have a love/hate relationship with the beginning phases of starting a new project.  At first I feel really excited at all of the possibilities that a new project can bring, and then once I realize how much work, coordination, and reliance on other people that most projects require, I immediately get a series of minor anxiety attacks about how everything will come together.  I’m a bit of a control freak, so in Africa when people not keeping their word (example: “sure I will be there at 10:00.”  1:30 rolls around and the wrong person shows up and doesn’t have the right tools for the job.) is pretty common, I am always trying to figure out how to do things myself so I don’t have to rely on someone else.   This is probably not one of my best traits.

Aren’t you glad we had this talk?  Anyway.

One of my former coworkers had begun working on an initiative in Malawi before she had to return to the states.  The project involved working with a CBO (community based organization) that is one of the nearby villages and run entirely by Malawians.  The ideal was to distribute reusable, cloth pads to 68 girls who were interested in receiving them in the village primary school.  I immediately loved the project and was happy to take over this initiative when she left.

In many undeveloped countries, periods are an extremely taboo topic. It is a misunderstood phenomenon that girls are not educated about and are made to feel ashamed of. Since no one is talking to these girls about how to deal with a period, a lot of times they are using unsanitary items such as dirty cloth, leaves, sand, and newspaper to deal with it, which as you can imagine often leads to infection.

In Malawi, girls are typically missing around 3-5 days of school (or work) a month due to their periods.  This in itself has a number of consequences.  Girls are then educationally disadvantaged, which leads to being economically disadvantaged. Being uneducated makes it more likely for girls to be abused and to participate in behaviors that can lead to HIV, which is already so common in Malawi.

If you’re like me, you like facts and numbers. These stats aren’t about Malawi (it’s really hard to find hard numbers on this pertaining directly to Malawi), but I think they give an accurate illustration of what women in any third world country go through.

In India 23% of girls leave school altogether when they start their periods.
75% were forbidden to worship on their periods.
45% were not allowed in the kitchen.

In Ghana, 68% of girls didn’t know anything about menstruation when they started their periods.
When education and pads were provided to these girls in Ghana, absenteeism in school was cut in HALF.

Not too much had been done when I came on board with the project besides initial conversation and plans (not that this wasn’t valuable, it absolutely paved the way for the project), so I pretty much had a clean slate to work with as far as strategizing and budgeting.   Here is what I came up with (in a neat, bullet pointed format so I don’t get too confused):

– First, raise a small amount of money from friends in the United States that would cover the costs of giving 68 girls 4 pads each.   Goal = $125
– Give money to Chris, manager of the CBO.
– Chris buys cloth to make pads with said money.
– Chris pays orphans and vulnerable women in the village that are in the CBO’s tailoring program to make the pads.   (This is nice because the orphans and woman making the pads are participating in an income generating activity. Win, win.)
– Chris brings pads to school and gives them to Sarah, an amazing woman we are working with, who will instruct the girls who requested the pads on proper use and cleaning.
– 68 girls are provided with pads and can attend school every day of the month!
– Win, win, win.  (Anyone else an Office fan?)

Within an hour of reaching out to friends and family in the U.S., we had over DOUBLE the amount of money I was hoping to raise!!  I felt like this was just confirmation that this was God’s plan all along.  As soon as I acted and did what He was calling me to do, He provided.  Not only did He provide, but He far exceeded my expectations and I blown away at His faithfulness and love for these girls!

“Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” –James 2:5

I am working on getting all of the money out of my bank account now from the donations that so lovingly poured in.  In Malawi you can only withdraw about $80 a day from the bank, which is slightly annoying because it means I have to wait a few days to get all of the money out and thus the girls have to wait before the tailors can get started on their pads.  My goal is to have the money to the CBO within the week so I can monitor at least some of the progress before I have to go back to the states.

Because we were able to raise so much money, we can now provide 120 girls with 5 pads each.  Yep, 120.  I almost fell over when I saw this number.  Amazing.  I am still blown away by the support of this project and the faith that people at home have in me to see this through.

Sometimes it is so easy for me to look at these people in abject poverty and forget the God has a plan for each of them and that He is in control.  I have seen the poorest of the poor, the absolute bottom of the pyramid.  When you read about people in poverty, it hurts and it makes you angry, but when it isn’t a person far away in some article, but it is a man covered in sores looking into your eyes, you see the monster that poverty really is.  These people are not different than us.  We have much, much more, but we are not different.  We are all human beings, but some of us are forced to live in truly dehumanizing conditions.  At the end of the day we each have a responsibility to stop ignoring those that seem so different and far away, and reach out and help one another.  I think sometimes we have this image of the type of people that do aid work as dogooders, missionaries, and peace corps volunteering hippies that live out in a village for two years without running water or electricity, basically an image that most of us don’t think we could ever live up to (or want to).  The truth is, that isn’t the case.  You don’t have to be some weird traveling, nomad giving up the luxuries of the Western world to help.  I certainly don’t fit the bill for that and neither does Andrew.  We were both involved in Greek life in college, love football games, having fun with our friends, and the luxuries that living in America provides, like a really awesome date night filled with wine and sushi.   I think sometimes people are surprised I do this kind of work.  People have actually said that I “don’t look like I would do that stuff.”  Hmmm…okay.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that you don’t have to give up your lifestyle, your nice things, and travel the world living in remote villages to change someone’s world.  We are each called to help those in need, but first we must stop ignoring it because those in need seem so different and far away.  The man I saw today covered head to toe in sores is just like me.  And you.

“The poor and needy search for water, but there is none; tongues are parched with thirst. But I the LORD will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.” –Isaiah 41:17

Doomed From the Start

Do you ever have one of those days where it seems like everything is just doomed from the start?  We had a weekend like that here in Malawi.

Last week we were planning on heading to the Zomba Plateau in Southern Malawi early on Friday morning.   On Thursday we went to our schools to visit our kiddos and check on our clubs.  Everything went pretty well and I think all of the kinks are now out of my neck after hours of driving on the bumpy dirt roads.

Friday morning we woke up bright and early and headed out on the road to Zomba.  Andrew is pretty good at driving on the left hand side of the road while dodging people on bikes, goats, cows, and kids.  The speed limits here in Malawi aren’t very clearly marked. Sometimes you will see a sign that says “60” with a line through it and we’re still not quite sure what that means.  Driving in Malawi is a completely different experience than driving in America.  In America all of the cars on a highway almost move as one big unit, and here in Malawi it is extremely chaotic with cars passing each other, honking at each other and quite literally trying to not run over goats.  Anyway, we were driving along minding our own business when we came to a traffic stop.  This happens pretty frequently.  Sometimes the cops just sit and watch you drive by and other times they want you to show your license.  This time one of the police had a speed monitor and caught Andrew speeding.  After trying our best but still having no luck at getting out of the ticket, we paid our $10 fine and kept going.   Luckily we had cash on hand and you won’t be seeing Andrew on this season’s Locked Up Abroad.

About four hours later we reached the Zomba plateau and unloaded our car at the cutest little cottage.  We were getting to stay there for free since we knew the owners and no one else had rented it out that weekend.  We ate some lunch and decided to go for a walk to see the beautiful plateau and views.  On our way back from our walk there was another car parked next to ours.  We went inside and before we could even look around a woman approached us and said, “You have taken our spot! We have a wedding and you are in our spot and this is a huge problem!  You told the cook that you were us!”   Andrew and I have kind of gotten to the point where nothing in Africa really surprises us anymore, so we weren’t very upset.  After politely asking this crazy lady what in the hell she was talking about, we figured out that the cook at the cottage, in attempt to not get blamed for the mishap, had told this couple that we had said we were them.  I told the woman that this was not true, I had never heard of them before, much less tried to impersonate them!  I got my ipad out and showed everyone our confirmation of booking the cottage.  At this point the woman was almost in tears and told us that it was HER son that was getting married tomorrow!  I told her that we were willing to help them out, but that we didn’t have anywhere to go.  We were able to find a place at a hotel just a couple of minutes away, but only for one night as most of the rooms were booked for the wedding the following day.  If it were our parents we wouldn’t have wanted them to leave (they also had another couple staying with them at the cottage) so we packed up our stuff and left the little cottage.  When we arrived this woman was absolutely furious and by the time we left she was crying and hugging me, thanking me for helping.  Yikes. Wedding stress!

Hiking to the Waterfalls

Hiking to the Waterfalls

So we checked into the$180 a night Sunbird Hotel on the owner of the cottages tab since it was their fault for overbooking.  We weren’t very impressed with the hotel.  They charged high American prices and paid Malawian wages, so I’m sure their balance sheet looks quite nice.  The service wasn’t that great, but the room was clean and we got to watch TV for the first time in three months!  There was a Malawian sitcom that took place in a village on TV, so we had to watch that for a bit.  Pure entertainment.  The travel company also paid for our dinner and bar tab, so that was a plus.  This was the first time we have stayed in a hotel since we’ve been in Africa, and we were reminded why we prefer a more local accommodation.

Waterfalls

The next morning we packed up (again) and checked out of the hotel.  Before we left we decided to rent some mountain bikes from Sunbird Hotel to explore the mountain.  Little did we know, this was an extremely bad decision.  We took our rented bikes and set out on a trail.  For almost two hours we were going straight uphill on a road that you had to have four-wheel drive to get up!  We had to walk a lot of the way since the handlebars on Andrews bike kept rotating and my gears wouldn’t change.  By the time we made it up the hill my legs were shaking and we were drenched in sweat.  We ran out of water at the top and by then we were more than ready to get back.  The views almost made up for the fact that my entire body felt like it was broken.   Unfortunately for us, the way down wasn’t much easier.  The brakes on my bike didn’t work very well, so that forced us to walk a lot of the way.  (By the way, this is the second time in two weeks I’ve been quite sure that the mode of transportation that I have been on was going to kill me.  See last post concerning the boat ride and hippos.)  By the time we got down the mountain I was literally on the verge of tears.  I would consider Andrew and I pretty active people…we love to bike ride, run, swim, work out…Basically, we aren’t wimps!  But this mountain biking left both of us never wanting to see a bike ever again.

Toughest mountain biking of our lives

The second night of our displacement, the owner of the cottage had arranged (and luckily, paid) for us to stay at a nearby campsite owned by an Italian couple.  Basically, we were camping at an Italian restaurant called Bella Rosa.  A very good Italian restaurant I might add!  We stayed in a tent on site and they had bathrooms and showers and everything for us to use, so it was like a normal campsite that just happened to come with a fantastic dining experience!  We were starved and traumatized after our biking, so we sat down and ordered lunch as soon as we got there.  I ordered tortellini and it was easily the best food I’ve had since I have been in Africa.  Andrew got crocodile spaghetti and we both agreed it was good!  I don’t really like to eat meat for ethical reasons, but I also really like to eat meat for taste reasons.  Yep, I’m conflicted.  Andrew was pretty proud of me for eating crocodile after he convinced me that they are not endangered by any means.  We also ordered croc bites as an appetizer for our dinner later that night!  After finishing up our lunch, we sat on the porch and looked over the beautiful plateau and read and talked.  The owner of the cottage who had royally screwed up our plans had told the owner of Bella Rosa that they were paying for our dinner, accommodation, and a bottle of wine.  The Italian owner selected the most expensive wine he had and set it on our table!   Not a bad way to spend the day.

Beautiful Zomba View

After a crazy weekend that forced us both to just go with the flow and stay positive and be in the moment, we were able to finally relax and just enjoy ourselves and the view.  This was definitely one of those weekends that you have to look back and laugh at.  Africa always keeps us on our toes and it is always an adventure.  I’m not sure how I am going to adjust back to normal American life, with all of its luxuries and predictability.  I have learned so much from Africa and from the people we’ve been blessed to meet along the way.  More and more I realize that God has a plan, unique to each of us, and when we stop making plans and start trusting, that’s when we can really see Him work.

Wake Up Call in Liwonde

Life has been pretty interesting around here lately!

Recently we have gone camping in the Liwonde National Park, rescued a puppy, and dealt with craziness at work.  Not too shabby!

If you’re like me, you probably want to hear about the puppy situation first, so let’s get to it.  Last week Andrew and I were minding our own business and walking to get a cup of coffee down the street from our house on our lunch break.  As soon as we turned the corner outside our house, this man pulled a tiny puppy out of a dirty box and waved him in the air.  My heart immediately sank.  A lot of times people will sell puppies and in the process of doing so, not feed them or provide them with medical care.  They will hold the puppies up by their little scruffs for so long that their necks actually break.  When I saw this little pup so close I immediately grabbed him away from the man.  I pulled on his skin and when it immediately didn’t return to the normal shape I knew he was very dehydrated.  I looked at his little gums and they were white, meaning that he was anemic due to all of the fleas and ticks on his little body.  I felt his tummy and knew it was full of worms. (I’ve volunteered at the humane society a lot…) As I basically ran away with this mans puppy, he followed me and told me I had to pay for him.   I gave the puppy some of my water and we could all tell he was so thirsty.  I tried to explain to the man that he needed medical attention and would likely die.  The man was not interested in the puppy’s health, only making a profit.  He then tried to tell us how he would make a good, strong guard dog. The guard dogs in Malawi are terribly abused, often kept on short chains and muzzled their entire lives.  When he said this to me, we immediately paid him for the puppy and rushed him home.  We washed him and tried to give him some water.  The poor guy was so exhausted from being thrown around all day in a little box that he fell asleep immediately.  We walked him to the vet down the street where he got all of his puppy shots, flea and tick treatment, and worm treatment.  The poor little guy is safe now and will never be a guard dog.  I know that it wasn’t the right thing to do because now that man will continue to take puppies away from their mother at a young age (this puppy was only about 6 weeks old) because he thinks he can make money.  We tried to call the LSPCA, but their phone was disconnected and I just could not leave him.   I’m at peace with the decision now, just knowing he won’t have the same fate as so many guard dogs here in Malawi that spend their days chained up and emaciated.

Liwonde National Park

Liwonde National Park

After that emotionally draining day, we had some fun going camping in the Liwonde National Park!  Liwonde isn’t as big as South Luangwa and does not have as large of a variety of animals.  There aren’t buffalo or lions in this park, but there were plenty of elephants, warthogs (with babies!), baboons, vervets, and many antelope.  I hadn’t been camping in quite some time, so this was quite a treat.  We got to our camp and as soon as we arrived a herd of about twenty elephants passed through.  We loved sitting and watching them play,  eat, and interact with each other.  The camp we stayed at had observation decks built about 30 feet of the ground, so we got to sit on them and talk and read as we watched animals pass by.  It was such a great way to spend the day.

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Elephants passing by

One of the more special things we’ve been able to do in Africa was walk through the African bush with a local guide: a walking safari.  This isn’t something that most tourists do, so we really wanted to check it out.  Because Liwonde doesn’t have leopards or lions, walking through the bush is relatively safe if you can keep a watch for elephants and hippos if you are by the river.   We walked through the bush with our guide and were able to walk near a family of elephants.  Two young elephants played and splashed in the stream.  We kept a respectful distance and the elephants didn’t seem to mind us hanging out.  Walking among these animals was really special and a totally different experience than being in a jeep.  Andrew and I both agreed it was so nice to just walk among the animals and be in nature in a much less intrusive way.

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 The following morning we got up bright and early for a boat safari on the Shire River that runs into the more well known Zambezi River. When I say that we got up, I really mean we were woken up by an elephant noisily munching on a tree outside of the tent.  Being so close to these animals never fails to leave me in awe.  Not a bad wake up call!  “Boat safari” sounds much more glamorous than it actually was.  We boarded a very small boat that I was sure would sink at any moment and made our way (slowly) up and down that part of the river.  Being on the boat allowed us to get close to the hippos and crocodiles in their natural habitat.  I thought it was so funny how the hippo families like to get very snuggled as they sit together in the water, literally almost on top of each other.  The hippos didn’t seem to mind us boating around, but the crocodiles would swim away if our boat got too close.  I’m happy to report that I was incorrect  in my assumption that the boat would sink and we would be eaten by hippos.

Fisherman on the Shire River

Fisherman on the Shire River

On this river many locals make their living by fishing in tiny boats made of hollowed out trees.  Almost every week a fisherman is killed by a hippo.  This showed us how truly desperate the locals are for income and for food.  Everyday they go out fishing, knowing that it could be their last day.

In a much less physically dangerous way, we see this sort of desperation from our staff here at the house.  Just this week we have had 4 staff members ask for advances on their pay.  We always give them the advances because they almost always need them for medicine for a family member.  Most of these advances are less than $20.  I’ve also had staff tell me they can’t afford to eat this day.  Obviously I’m not going to let anyone go hungry in my house, so I provide them with food or give them an advance, but we always have to talk about it after. We keep trying to work with our staff to encourage savings and try to help them create realistic savings plans, but in Africa that is much less easier said than done.  These men make good wages for Malawians, but there is still rarely much leftover at the end of the month to put away for savings if they aren’t careful about their spending.

I believe that part of the problem is that many of these people have come to expect handouts, and their ambition has been stifled by this.  I was recently talking to our youngest staff member who only works on the weekends because he is in high school.  After asking him what he wanted to do after high school he told me that he would like to be a teacher.  I told him that was wonderful and asked him how he planned on going to school.  He said that he will wait until someone comes along that can help him and pay his school fees.  After I picked my jaw up off the floor (I have to do this a lot these days), I asked him why he couldn’t save his own money to go to college.  I made a savings plan for him and showed him how much he would need to save each month based on his current income to pay for his tuition.  I told him that Andrew and I both worked during college and that he would have to work also, but that it was very doable.  After looking back and forth between the plan and me, he finally said, “are you sure?”  I told him I was absolutely sure he could do this as long as he was careful with his spending and would save his money.  I told him we would start his plan at his next paycheck.  Well, payday rolled around and when I asked him how much he had planned to put away this month he told me he didn’t think he could do it.   I told him that I understood that sometimes it is easier to save than others, so maybe he can start next month.  He sort of nodded and shrugged and then we said goodbye.  I want to encourage him and help him, but at the end of the day there is only so much I can do.  I can’t force him to save money or to get another job.

I will end this post by urging you to consider which organizations you give your money to when you donate to charity.  For example, are you donating to a project that builds schools?  Ask yourself if there is a reason that the locals cannot build their owns schools.  Are we contributing to something meaningful or just taking away responsibility from the locals to improve their school structures?  Just consider where your money is going and if it is going to perpetuate the problem of people looking for handouts rather than saving money or being entrepreneurial.  Before I really saw need firsthand, I didn’t know if was so important to really look into where your money is going, but after being here I can contend that often aid does more harm than good if it isn’t done in the right way.  Just something to think about!

Also, if you had three meals today and will go to sleep tonight with a roof over your head, remember how truly blessed you are.   Being in Africa means that for us, this notion isn’t some faraway concept, but these people that are hungry are our friends and have names and families and hopes and dreams just like you do.

We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike. -Maya Angelou

Adventures on Lake Malawi

I’m a bit behind on blogging due to being under the weather last week, (more on that later) so let’s catch up!

Two weekends ago, Andy and I went on a group trip to Lake Malawi, one of the biggest lakes in Africa that has over 1,000 species of cichlid fish!  One of the local travel companies puts together a trip to Cape Maclear (the spot on the lake where we were) once a month.  You stay in a less than luxurious “cottage” but it is right on the lake with a fantastic view and since it is a group trip, the prices are very, very reasonable.

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We woke up very early to head out to Cape Maclear on Friday morning and met up with some others to car pool down to the lake.  We arrived at the lake before lunch time and immediately got into our bathing suits and went out on the company’s boat for some tubing and swimming!  After boating and tubingfor a bit, we came back in to eat some fish that was caught right in the lake and headed back out for something that we both love, snorkeling!  I hadn’t been snorkeling since I was in Mexico as a kid, so it was such a treat.  The fish in Lake Malawi are really incredible.   I wish I had had an underwater camera to take pictures of them.  There were truly fish of every color: bright blue, light blue with black stripes, neon yellow, neon orange, orange and purple stripes, yellow and black stripes, and on and on.  We had taken a boat out to one of the small, uninhabited islands off of the shore where the fish like to hang out and the visibility was really great.   The water is so clear it reminded us of the Caribbean.

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 Our second day was another great day of snorkeling and swimming.  We headed out to a different island and snorkeled all around and laid out on the rocks on the shore.   When it was time to head in for dinner, one of the guys who works for the travel company bought some small fish from one of the local fisherman to feed the African Fish Eagles.  They are beautiful mostly black eagles with white chests.  We spotted them and then threw the fish into the water and sure enough the fish eagles dove right next to our boat to retrieve the fish!  It was incredible to see these birds so close.

Image Before we left on Sunday we headed out for one more round of snorkeling.  Unfortunately we went to an island that seems to be a bit more popular with tourists, so the visibility wasn’t quite as good and there was some trash at the bottom of the lake, which made me kind of sad.  Regardless, it was still great to get out and swim one more time.

Andrew and I talked about how we would love to come back here once we have kids because there is just so much to do here.  Snorkel, scuba dive, boat, tube, relax.  Another major plus of coming to Lake Malawi is that it is very inexpensive and not a tourist location.  I  think we saw maybe five people there that we not in our group.  We were wondering what this place will look like in fifteen years or so, and we both agreed it will probably be almost unrecognizable.  It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world discovers this beautiful little spot in Africa.  I think one of the main deterrents for people coming to Lake Malawi is the parasite that you are likely to get from swimming in the lake, bilharzia.  Bilharzia comes from snail eggs and can eventually cause liver failure if it is not treated, however it takes up to thirty or forty years for this occur.   The parasite did not used to be a problem in Lake Malawi at all until the 1980’s when overfishing began to occur.   When the fish near the shore that normally eat snails began to disappear, the snails began breeding without any population control.  There are now efforts in Malawi to try to bring these fish back into the lake in order to reduce bilharzia infections.  The locals use the lake to bath, cook with, wash dishes and clothes, and as drinking water, so almost everyone living around the lake is infected.  Fortunately, you can take one pill about 60 days after the last time you were exposed to kill the parasite.  Don’t worry, we will definitely be taking this medication!  The thought of snails swimming around in my liver is enough incentive for me.

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We were sad to leave the beautiful lake, but we had to get back to work on Monday, so we said goodbye to the lake and headed back to Lilongwe.  The day after we got back I started having really bad stomach pains, throwing up, and a fever.   Fortunately, one of the doctors we work with happened to be at our house that day and she immediately did a malaria test since I had a fever, which came out negative.  She put me on cipro (an antibiotic commonly used to treat traveler’s diarrhea) for five days.  Cipro is a really strong antibiotic, so we were getting a little concerned that while my fever was gone, I was still having really bad stomach pains days later.  I wanted to give it some time, but once a week had passed we decided to go to the doctor.  We went to one of the best private clinics in Lilongwe, African Bible College Clinic.  The public health system here is often very crowded and the care is not exceptional.  I didn’t want to take someone’s spot in line who was really sick and needed to be treated for malaria or something, and Andrew was skeptical about going to a public hospital, so we headed to ABC.  We expected it to be not very nice, as nothing in Lilongwe is up to America’s standard of “nice”, but when we walked in we were pleasantly surprised as it seemed like a pretty modern facility.  There were only two doctors working so we waited about two hours and finally got called back.   My doctor was a woman from New Zealand, which was nice because we didn’t have a language barrier.  She seemed to be pretty good and wanted to do a blood test and also to check for malaria again. I know everyone says you shouldn’t give blood in Africa because they used to sterilize and reuse needles (this was stopped years ago once the HIV epidemic got very bad), but we watched the nurse remove the needle from the packaging and were convinced it was new.  Once we were called back in after giving blood we were greeted by a Malawian doctor who told us that the doctor I had seen earlier was no longer available.   Our language barrier made it a bit hard to communicate, but we were really unimpressed with the level of care in general.  He didn’t read any of the previous doctors notes and didn’t ask many questions.  We had to pretty much do his job for him by offering all of the information about what had been going on all over again.  I could see the doctors notes on my blood work paperwork that said my blood work turned out to be fine and I again tested negative for malaria, so I was satisfied when he gave me medicine for my stomach and another round of antibiotics, but the experience definitely left both of us feeling very grateful for the level of care we receive in America.  When we went to the pharmacy inside the clinic, the pharmacist did not ask us if we had any question or really explain the medicine to us.  My medication was handed to us in a little plastic baggy with a picture of a sun rising, sun in the sky, and sun setting which meant I needed to take it three times a day.  When we went to pay we were shocked that the bill was over $50.   It seems that only the very wealthy in Malawi could afford to go to a private clinic like ABC, and even the level of care they will receive there is relatively poor.

Long story short, I’m feeling much, much better now and am hopeful that neither of us will have to go to another clinic while we are!

This week we worked on the company’s budget and spent a lot of time preparing for our next visit to our clubs to see the kiddos.  It is a lot of work and coordination to make these things happen in Africa when we cannot simply email the teachers in the villages and even when we think we have a meeting, they may or may not actually get the memo and show up.  The concept of being early to everything just doesn’t exist in Africa.  At home I feel like if I’m not early I’m late, and here I have to just go with the flow.

P.S. Last Tuesday was Malawian Mother’s Day!  Happy Malawian Mother’s Day to my awesome Mom, and all the other mom’s out there!

Black, White, and Gray

Our work here is fun and challenging and we are learning a lot.  I love getting to use my business background to bring fresh ideas to solve problems in a company whose work I believe in.  But some days, it feels like we are emptying the ocean with an eye-dropper.  The problem with working in a third world country, is that if you are in any kind of management position, you are also suddenly the head of human resources.  You suddenly must deal with complicated, personal issues involving staff and must make decisions based on what you believe to be the correct answer. What I’m learning is that there are very rarely situations that are just right and wrong, black and white.  Usually the problems fall somewhere between the two.

Shortly after we arrived in Malawi, a good friend told us that his daughter was quite sick.  She had been seen in small clinics in Lilongwe, but the xray machines were so old that the doctors actually couldn’t read the results.  Even if the machines had been brand new and the doctors able to read the results, the chances of those clinics having the proper medicine was slim.  When we asked our friend how much it would cost to send her to a better clinic, he told us probably the equivalent of $20.  Andrew and I didn’t even discuss it.  We gave him the money right then and told her to see the doctor that day.  After a three nights stay in the hospital, her bill only came out to $35 and it was money very well spent.

About a month later our friend came to us and told us that this same daughter was about to start her third year of accounting school.   This is extremely rare in Malawi and in all of Africa for that matter.  When parents don’t have the money to pay for secondary school or high school fees (primary school is free), it is almost always the girls who drop out of school first.  For a women to be entering her third year of accounting school is a huge feat and we are so proud of her.   But there’s a catch.  Our friend does not have the $330 dollars that would pay for her third year.  He asked us if we could pay for it.

A little background….Malawians do not plan for the future.  The thought of saving money in a paycheck is so foreign to them that it almost never happens.  Our manager works extensively with the staff here to help them save their money.  A few of them even have savings accounts in the bank.    Also, in Malawi people take care of their friends.   Is our friend taking advantage of us? Yes.  Is he asking us for money because he considers us a friend?  Yes.  If he did not believe us to be friends, he wouldn’t have asked.  This cultural nuance is hard to wrap your mind around, or at least it was for us.

A little more background…A girl who had previously worked for World Camp had given our friend the tuition money for his daughter’s  first year of accounting school.  The money obviously ran out and he contacted her to tell her.  She then gave him what she believed would be enough money to cover the next 3 years of school.  That money is now gone only one year later.

At first we felt like he wasn’t our friend at all.  We are white people and as far as he was concerned, we have giant dollar signs tattooed on our foreheads.  After thinking through the cultural implications, we decided this actually wasn’t the case.  He is looking for a hand out, but he is asking us because he likes us.  Weird, I know.

When our friend asked us, I immediately felt a pit form in my stomach.  Andrew always says I have good intuition and in this case, my intuition was speaking to me loud and clear.  Before the conversation was even over, I knew I would not be giving him this money.  I didn’t have a clear reason why yet, but I knew in my stomach that it wasn’t the right thing to do.

We considered paying for one term. What good is paying part of someone’s tuition if they don’t have the money for the rest?  We considered paying for two terms. We considered giving him an interest free loan. We considered paying for the whole thing.  But no matter which way we discussed the situation, neither of us felt right about paying for any of it somehow.  The most obvious answer wasn’t the right one.

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You might be thinking, “gosh guys, it’s only three hundred bucks, pay the dang bill so this girl can go to school.”  Yes, that is an easy solution.  A band-aid solution.  The trouble is that this problem goes much deeper than just paying for a term or a year of her schooling.  Her father knew this day was coming, knew this bill was due, and he didn’t save for it and neither did she.   The only reason that I have anything that I have is because my parents worked their whole lives to provide for me, and now my fiancé and I both work to provide for ourselves.   And even though that is true, I started working when I was fifteen and I still remember the day when my dad helped me open my own checking and savings account shortly after.  I was lucky to have parents that taught me how to budget my money and save it so that I can do the things that I want to do, or travel when I want to.  No, I do not understand these people’s situation and I don’t pretend to.  But I do understand the value of hard work and innovation and being creative to raise money.

Yes, it would be easy to pay for a year of her term.  I can’t say we wouldn’t miss the money (we’re not working in Africa to get rich), but I believe that would be doing them a gross injustice.  That money will inevitably run out.  Then what? Who will pay for her final year of schooling?  Who will pay for his other nine children to go to school?  We would be leaving him an unsustainable solution.  After three sleepless nights, and many hours of discussion, we told our friend that we would not be paying for his daughters’ school.  We told him we want nothing more than for her to finish school, and after explaining to him why this isn’t the solution to the problem because it isn’t sustainable, I think he began to understand, even if he was disappointed.

Instead, Andrew is working on drawing up a savings plan for him and for his daughter.  She currently isn’t working.  Andrew and I told him that she should be out every single day applying for jobs, or starting a small business herself to help earn the fees.  Sitting around and waiting for someone to pay your way isn’t the answer.   The banks here pay between 7%-14% interest for savings accounts! In case you haven’t been to your bank recently, that is a LOT!   We’re working on drawing up this plan and helping him to see it through.  Our hope is that this will be a sustainable answer to the problem of not having enough money for things such as schooling.  If we can teach him to save his money, the importance of being innovative and finding a need in a market that you can fill, then I think we will be helping him for much longer than just the year that the school fees would have helped.

Our friend’s heart is in the right place.  He wants the best for his children and that is commendable, especially in Malawi where parents all to often don’t see the value of education.  But giving another handout wasn’t the answer, and although it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, I feel confident that we made the right decision.

But wait!  There’s an even bigger problem!

For so long, white people have been coming to Africa and handing out money like it’s candy.   We’ve handed out clothes and shoes and books and pencils.  When I donate money to causes like that it sure makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside because hey, I’m doing something good!  I’m buying my cute TOMS because some little kid across the world gets a pair of shoes too!  But what happens to the shoe peddler who used to make shoes for the village?  What happens when TOMS comes in and passes out shoes for everyone?  The shoe peddler is out of business, and people stop coming up with innovative ways to make a better shoe and sell it.   Don’t get me wrong, there is a pair of TOMS sitting in my closet right now and I wear them often.  Before I came here I thought it was such a neat idea.  One for one.  But then I got to a village where TOMS had distributed shoes months before.  Not one child was actually wearing the shoes.  A few lonely shoes were scattered around the village, enough for a foreigner to recognize that the company had in fact been here.  When kids grow up without wearing shoes, they don’t really see why they should start.  Shoes prevent cuts that could lead to infection, and jiggers burrowing in their feet, but these kids see no reason to wear these new shoes and I can attest to that because I’ve seen it myself.  But their parents did see a reason to stop purchasing the shoes made of tire from their neighbor.  Why buy from him when the white people will give them out for free if you want them?   Not only did the project not work in this particular village, but the market is now saturated with shoes and anyone who made them no longer has a job, because anyone who did want shoes could get them for free. We pass out money and innovation stops.  We pass out money and people begin to depend on it.  Our friends daughter is literally sitting at home this very minute rather than working because she thought that someone was going to pay her school fees for her.  Something is wrong with this picture.

There are certainly times when aid is desperately needed.  We paid for our friends hospital visit because she was ill and wouldn’t have gotten treatment otherwise.  I am a huge advocate of feeding programs in schools.  No child should be hungry, and they can’t be expected to learn if they are.  I think drilling water bore holes in villages that don’t have access to that kind of technology is great.  I think giving clothes to someone who has been wearing the same shirt for thirty years is fine.  But we must be more selective about where our money is going.  Too often our foreign aid gets caught at the top level and makes its way into pockets of powerful people and the poor never see any of it.   I think a better option than passing out money is to pass out skills.  Teach people a marketable skill so they can feed themselves and never have to rely on you again.  When we put boreholes in the ground, we must train someone in the village to fix it when it breaks or malfunctions.  This will provide a job and people with skills that they can use in other villages.

All of it is so confusing and I’m still wrestling with it and trying to figure it out.  There’s not much black and white here, just a whole lot of gray.

Disclaimer: I don’t know much at all about TOMS business practices and what I’ve said here is simply my observation in only one village here in Malawi.  I recently saw that TOMS is doing a new project with sunglasses. I’m assuming “one for one” still applies and they will give people glasses.  This seems like a really neat and much needed project, so props to TOMS!

Club Fun

This past week was a busy one for us here in Malawi!   As you might know, part of our job entails setting up after schools clubs in primary schools in the Malikha school district of Lilongwe.   “Why afterschool clubs,” you ask?   In Malawi there is a serious lack of extra curricular programming in the public schools.  The teachers are so worn down from teaching 100+ students in a class (or under a tree if there isn’t enough classrooms) that planning extracurricular activities sometimes gets lots in the list of things to do.  The teachers and administrators generally use extra time to lobby to the government to provide them with more classrooms, desks, books, and chairs that they desperately need.   When these kids don’t have anything constructive to do after school, they often engage in activities that aren’t exactly age appropriate.  Children here start having sex very young (often involuntarily) which is a huge problem, but an even bigger one considering the HIV/AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa.  Alcohol abuse is also a huge problem in some of the villages.   So, in our clubs we offer something constructive to do afterschool!  We focus on creative writing, which helps develop their language and writing skills, with an added benefit of psychosocial support, as journaling is often very therapeutic.  We do many workshops on HIV awareness, which helps the kids to learn how to identify behaviors that could lead to getting or spreading the disease, and how to cope with stigma.   We teach them to create s.m.a.r.t. (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timely) goals for different projects that they decide to take on as a club.  Some clubs decide to make a goal of growing a small garden, while other projects range from planting trees to visiting the elderly in the community.   It also is a great opportunity for the kids to take leadership positions that they otherwise would not be able to get in school.

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After traveling on some seriously bumpy dirt roads, we were able to visit all 11 of the schools we are working in and it was a joy to see all of the little ones at school! The first you notice when pulling up at a school in Africa, is just the overhelming number of children. 40% of Malawi’s population is under the age of 14.  Being in the schools truly brings this statistic to life.  Some of the schools are much more involved in the club than others.  It seems to me that the main difference between the schools that are very involved and those that are not is simply leadership within the school.  The schools that lack strong leadership have a hard time pulling together to support the students in the clubs.  To help encourage leadership and accountability, we have a matron and patron in every club, who are generally teachers at the schools and work as club advisors.   Our first club meetings were mainly meeting with the matron, patron, head teacher (principal), PTA members, and the school management committee.  It is so important to have all of these people on board so that the students get the most out of this experience.

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Something that Andrew and I kept noticing is how some schools were much poorer than the others.  The children’s clothes were more tattered and the school was in disrepair.  The children in these schools also seemed more lethargic than others.  However, when we arrived at one of the schools, Chata, we couldn’t help but notice how lively all the kids were.  They all seemed so happy and excited to be at school!   The difference in Chata is that it has a feeding program sponsored by another NGO.  It is such a simple concept, feeding children breakfast before school and lunch during school, but it makes such a huge difference.  Many students walk many miles to get to school every day, often on an empty stomach and only after fetching water for their families and completing their chores.  This makes it extremely hard for children to concentrate, let alone excel at their studies.   I was so happy to see these kids looking so vibrant and also so sad that there aren’t feeding programs in every school.  Recently in Malawi, a huge scandal has come to light involving government officials stealing tax money.  I can’t help but feel more than disgusted when you think about all the wasted money within their government when there are hungry children everywhere. 

ImageIt is so easy to get in our routines and forget to be thankful for something as simple as a nutritious meal.  We are so privileged to get to work with these resilient kids.  These children were a wonderful reminder to me of how blessed I am, and I hope they can serve as a reminder to you as well.

Mango Stealing Elephants

Can you believe we have been in Malawi for over a month now?  Some days the time here flies by and it seems like we haven’t been here as long, and other days go by slower and it seems like it surely has been a month.  While some days are long and almost always challenging, I can see God working in this place, in us personally and in our relationship.  Being in Africa brings things to light that are often covered up at home by distractions.  We really have learned so much while we have been here, professionally and personally.

Due to our busy schedules and internet going in and out here, I haven’t been able to blog as much as I would have liked, but now that we are in the swing of things I’m hoping I can pick it back up! 

Two weeks ago Andrew and I went on our first vacation abroad together to Zambia!  Coming to Malawi is obviously traveling abroad, but we’re working everyday so even when we are having fun, it’s far from a vacation.

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We stayed at Croc Valley Camp in the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia and had a great time!  We were able to go on 4 safaris and saw some amazing animals as well as sunrises and sunsets.  Our tent was right on the river so we could easily hear hippos talking to one another from the river below.  I love Croc Valley because so many animals wander in and out of the camp.  Monkeys played on our tent and even stole my orange juice and scones from the breakfast buffet! The first night we were there, an elephant was eating a tree about 7 feet away from our tent!  I kept trying to poke my head outside to get a better look at him (my eyesight is bad as it is, and it was dark!), but Andrew quickly put a stop to that!  We watched him walk around our tent and munch on some trees until the guards at Croc Valley shooed him away.  They used little sling shots with rocks in them to persuade the elephants to leave and stop munching on the trees around the property.  If they didn’t there would be no trees left!

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Every morning we woke up around 5AM to watch the sunrise and head out for our early morning game drive.  Just as the sun was rising, the elephants that live nearby would be making their way back across the river and towards the center of the park.  They had to cross back because every night as the sun would go down, the elephants would cross the river right by our tent to go to the villages andsteal mangoes!! Who knew…elephants LOVE mangoes!  As you can imagine, this makes the villagers quite upset, as they grow the mangoes because they, in fact, also like to eat mangoes.  In an attempt to keep the villagers from killing or hurting the thieving elephants, they have been giving guns that shoot chili powder.  The elephants don’t like the smell of the powder so they leave and head to a village that they hope doesn’t have chili guns. 

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During one of our last game drives, we still hadn’t seen any lions and our guide was determined to show us these great animals.  He took us deep into the park and literally tracked the lions by finding their paw prints in the dirt.  We finally found 3 male lions way out in the park and it was well worth the long trek!  They were truly majestic and we were able to get almost uncomfortably close to them.  While we were parked and sitting next to them, Andrew stood up to take his hoodie off which got one of the lions attention.  He sat straight up and stared right at Andrew with the biggest yellow eyes.  Our guide then said, “oh, try not to move, they might attack.”  That information might have been useful beforehand!  But, luckily we came away uneaten and fully in awe of these powerful animals. 

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Being in Zambia was such a needed break from the congestion of Lilongwe.  It was so nice to relax and just be in nature without hearing any car horns or music playing.  I know that experience was one we will treasure forever. 

One last note:  We have been monitoring the situation in Kenya as we have two good friends there right now, and are happy to say that our friends are safe and so are we.  Everything is very quiet here in Malawi and we haven’t felt the least bit unsafe.  Please pray for our neighboring country in the North.