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.