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.

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.

Three Weeks In

This week is our third week in Malawi!  So far things have been really good.  We haven’t ventured out of the city yet, but that will change this Sunday when we head to Zambia for 4 days of safaris and relaxation!

The past three weeks have been consumed with work.   This past Friday it finally hit me that we had been going nonstop and I was so thankful for the weekend.  Since we’ve been around the house and city a lot, we’ve gotten a lot more settled in in Lilongwe.  We’ve found some favorite restaurants and cool cafes.  We have found a good running path that takes us through the neighborhood behind us.  We’ve gotten used to the power going out every once in a while.  (So far we’ve been lucky that it has only gone out twice and only for 20 minutes or so, so it hasn’tbeen an issue at all.)  We’re getting used to seeing people carrying huge loads of firewood, buckets of water, suitcases, and the occasional chicken in a box on their heads.  All in all, we feel much more settled here now.  I think yesterday was the first day since we’ve been here that I didn’t feel homesick at all.

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The house & rovers

Now that we are settling in, the fun is also starting!  While we will be working during the week, we have a lot of exciting adventures coming up.  This weekend we will go on safari in Zambia and I have to say I am thrilled to be going back to Croc Valley, the same lodge we stayed last time I was here.  We are planning a short visit to snorkel and enjoy Cape Maclear on Lake Malawi, Liwonde National Park for another safari and to see the Zambezi River, and the Zomba Plateau for some hiking!  The great thing about Africa is that once you are here, travel within is pretty inexpensive, so we’re going to be able to do a lot of fun things!

While we’ve been getting acclimated the past few weeks, we’re also seeing the great need that is present Malawi.   We’ve had a friend with a sick daughter who could not see the doctor because they did not have the $35 that it took to admit her to the hospital.  Luckily, Andrew and I were able to help our friend and his daughter, but it is a somber fact that many people die because they can’t afford medical treatment that is much less than $35.  We have had employees ask us for a pay advance so that they can buy their children’s school uniforms when the price inexplicably went up to around $60.  (School fees are a huge issue for many families.)  We’ve had employees ask for a raise and tell us that they don’t have enough money even for lunch.  We’ve listened to Malawians tell us about the many problems in the education system in Malawi and how it is actually perpetuating the cycle of poverty.   We’ve also listened to Malawians tell us about their concerns of corruption in the government and how it seems that no matter who is in power, the people are still hungry and don’t have enough to put their children through school.   We’ve seen first hand how women are still second-class citizens in Malawi.  We’ve just seen a whole lot of people that are struggling and hurting.

John & his wife, Monica

John & his wife, Monica

But we’ve also seen a whole lot of beauty.   The people here are so eager to help us and to know us.  Our guards who are at our house 24/7 are kind and hard working.  Our cook/house manager extraordinaire, John, goes out of his way to make sure we are comfortable and have the food that we like.  Today his wife is at the house doing our laundry, and she is so happy to have a small amount of income.

The Malawians are so grateful for what they have and it is truly an example for me.   I have been thinking about the Bible verse Phillipians 4:12 a lot since we’ve been here.

“I’m glad in God, far happier than you would ever guess—happy that you’re again showing such strong concern for me. Not that you ever quit praying and thinking about me. You just had no chance to show it. Actually, I don’t have a sense of needing anything personally. I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.”  Phillipians 4:12

 Many Africans seem to live out what we always seem to be talking about.

Leaving With A Heavy Heart

January 10, 2013

For our last full day in Lilongwe, we spent today at the Lilongwe Wildlife Center.  The center is a refuge for injured and rehabilitated animals, so it was right up my ally.  It was interesting that the government funds it.  I think it is great that the government is funding a wildlife center, but what about the schools and the infrastructure that desperately need funding?

Outside the Lilongwe Wildlife Center

Outside the Lilongwe Wildlife Center

We didn’t get to see as many animals as we did at the safari, but it was still a great tour.  I was very impressed with the quality of care the animals seemed to be receiving there.  After our tour, I went and spoke to the woman in their office about internships or volunteering, so that is an exciting prospect!

Our time in Malawi was challenging and enlightening.  It made me question things about myself and my country.  Why isn’t Malawi’s government more proactive?  Why do Malawians only eat maize? How did Zambia get it together?  Why did Malawian’s start cutting down all of their trees?   Why do they LOVE nsima so much?  Why does everyone smell the same?  Why do they sleep in their clothes?  Why are the taxes so high in Malawi when it discourages people from starting legitimate businesses?  Why are Malawians happier than Americans when they are in poverty?  Are we really all that different?  How do we help?  Would they take our suggestions?  Would they even be relevant?

Children of Malawi

Children of Malawi

It is difficult to think of the most important thing I learned on this trip is.  If I had to narrow it down from all the lessons I’ve learned, it would probably be the value of resourcefulness.  Seeing William’s windmills that he made electricity from without even having finished elementary school truly rocked my world and continues to make it difficult for me to make excuses for anything in my life.  Even when a situation looks hopeless, there is a way if we use the resources we are given and never give up.

Children Everywhere

Children Everywhere

Personally, I think that Sam from Cool Runnings made the biggest impact on me from all of the entrepreneurs we met.  Her selflessness and the extent to which she is invested in the community were so evident.   But from a standpoint of looking at Malawi as a whole, rather than just my own experience, the Neverending Food permaculture site really impacted me.  From seeing only the rows and rows of maize in Malawi, I thought that that was all that they could grow.  Seeing that this not only isn’t the case, but that Malawi has an abundant supply of food available if only the people would grow it was insane.  My hope is that Kristof and his family continue to do their work and show the people of Malawi that they do not have to die of starvation or even have a hungry season.

Life is so predetermined in Malawi, partly due to gender roles and partly due to the poverty.  It is almost as if there is no way out.  Look at William Kamkwamba, though.  He is a self taught scientist who travels the world and then returns home to a village with mud huts.  William’s village is quite rich in comparison to most due to William bringing solar energy to the village.  Most villages aren’t so lucky.  It was hard for me to be around the filth and the children clothed in rags.  I was constantly afraid of getting sick.  But out of the chaos and the poverty was Jesus and beauty.  The family I stayed with in Mchezi had so much faith.  When we woke in the morning, Martin said “the sun is shining, and that means God is still loving us.”  Seeing this display of faith in a place of poverty filled me with hope.

Sundown

Sundown

It is with a heavy heart that I leave Malawi, but I have a feeling that this isn’t the last time I will be in Africa.  I believe that after we see something or learn something we are responsible for it, so now I am responsible for what I saw and what I know.  There are children starving and dying of preventable diseases and people spending their days in an endless cycle of poverty.  I hope that some portion of my life can be committed to making even a tiny impact in Africa, because Africa has certainly made an impact on me.

“The sun is shining, and that means God is still loving us.”

Chickens & Ants in Mchezi Village

January 9, 2013

Yesterday we arrived in Mchezi Village.  We were greeted by smiling faces and, as always, lots of children! I swear I have never seen as many children in one place as I have in Malawi.

Children of Mchezi

Children of Mchezi

When we arrived at Mchezi we were shown around the village and the Community Based Organization that is in Mchezi.  The CBO has three income generating activities: a chicken coop, a tailoring program, and a youth group. One of our goals during our time in Mchezi, is to do a SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity, threats) analysis for the different income generating activities and basically act as consultants for the CBO.  I chose to work with the chicken coop.  Chris, who runs the CBO, showed us around and introduced us to Johovo who runs the chicken coop.  (Ironically, I will be staying with Johovo’s family tonight.)  They explained to us that they raise chickens and then sell them to restaurants and vendors in Lilongwe. I was impressed by their bookkeeping.  On the wall of the chicken coop was a taped up piece of paper where they recorded chick mortality and the number of chickens they have at any given time to sell.  Their bookkeeping seemed accurate and thorough.  I was very impressed that 25% of the chicken coop’s net profit goes into savings.  (Like Suze Orman says, if you have an emergency fund, you never have emergencies!)  Of the remaining 75% of their net profit, 70% goes back to the community to orphans and vulnerable children (OVC’s), and the remaining 30% goes to operations.  I love that the CBO is run by the village people, who have assessed their community’s needs and are helping to provide answers themselves rather than waiting for handouts.

After we spoke with Johovo about the chicken coop and asked enough questions to make his head spin, we sat down in one of the rooms in the CBO for a lunch of nsima and greens that some of the ladies in the village cooked.  (Nsima is a substance made of corn that is sort of like hard grits in a patty form, and Malawian’s eat it at every. single. meal.)  We ate with our hands and were thankful for the food the women prepared for us.   After eating, we went back to the chicken coop and asked some more questions and started to think about the different aspects that we wanted to include in the SWOT analysis.

Soon after, I learned that I would be staying with Johovo’s family for the night.  Johovo’s house didn’t have quite enough room to house me, so I would be staying next door at his son, Martin’s, house.  We made the short walk to Johovo’s house from the chicken coop with my sleeping bag and back pack in tow.  When we arrived to Johovo’s house we saw that it was a small mud hut with no electricity or running water.  The sun was setting so the inside of his home was rather dark, but I could see his wife sitting on a tattered couch, and his daughter, Naomi, leaning over a pot with smoke rising out of it.  They lit a candle when we arrived to provide some light inside their home.  I asked Naomi if I could help her cook, and she was happy for the help, even if I probably ended up making more of a mess than anything.  She showed me how to make (wait for it……..) nsima!  What else?  First she showed me how to sift the ground up corn so that it was very fine powder.  We added boiling water and stirred into a thick, grits-like substance.  Then we scooped some of the nsima out of one pot into another pot of water where it formed into nsima patties.  While we cooked, chickens and a cat ran in and out of the house and over the plates that our food was being cooked on.  My germophobic nature was really being tested. Naomi had also prepared eggs and some greens to us to eat with our nsima.  Quite a feast!  The house was so smoky from the cooking that my eyes were burning and the smell of maize is stuck in my nose.

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Naomi & Jehovo Outside of Martin’s House

The Gang Inside Jehovo's House

The Gang Inside Jehovo’s House

Before Naomi served the food, Johovo prayed and then Naomi came around with a cup of warm water to wash our hands with.  I found it interesting that they were interested in cleanliness and wanted us to wash our hands, but there was no soap.  I know soap is a very expensive, luxury item, and I really wish I had brought them some as a gift.  As terrible as I felt, I couldn’t eat very much of the food.  My stomach was already still trying to handle the nsima from lunch today.  A combination of an already upset stomach with the smoke in the room did not do much for my appetite.  We ate with our hands and I tried to scoop up as much nsima at a time as I could or at least push it around my plate some.  People in Africa literally starve to death, so wasting food in the home of a Malawian was not something I wanted to do.

Naomi, Me, Jehovo

Naomi, Me, Jehovo

During dinner Johovo did most of the talking, while his wife and Naomi were almost silent.  He is very wise and claims to be the oldest person in the village.   He told us that he never wanted to take another wife and that he “tried to always be faithful to his wife.”  I’m not sure if that means he was unfaithful or not.  After dinner we “washed” our hands again and then we were shown to Martin’s house where we would be sleeping.  Martin’s home is made of concrete and has a tin roof.  This is definitely a step up from a mud hut with a thatched roof, and I have to say I was thankful for it since it was raining outside.  Martin showed one of the girls I was traveling with and I to our room.   The room was a small space just big enough for two people to lie down in and had a sheet as a make-shift door.  We laid out our sleeping bags down and brushed our teeth.  Before long Martin came back and I heard him say “Maaaryy.”  (They called me Mary because it is Jesus’ mother’s name.) “Mary, there are some ants along this wall of the room so…put your head on this side,” I heard Martin say. He said he didn’t want anything to happen while I was at his house.  So I switched the direction I was laying at Martin’s advice.  I had brought along a fitted sheet to put over me during the night in case there were no mosquito nets.  So I pulled my sheet over my head and tried to sleep.

Fast forward about two hours.

I wake up hearing a little squeaky sound.  It was like little squeaky tiny people talking to each other.  I couldn’t figure out what it was, so I tried to ignore it.  Then I started to feel something crawling on my face.  Then I felt a little, tiny something crawling on my back.  And in my ear.   And in my hair.  Now at this point, generally I would start to panic.  Scream.  Cry like a baby.  But at this moment I was oddly calm.  I found my glasses and my flashlight.  When I turned my flashlight on I was pretty horrified to find that my entire sheet and traveler’s pillow were covered in tiny, black ants.  I looked at my body and found them crawling on me as well.  I took off my clothes and shook them out and tried to assess the situation.  Here I am, in the middle of a Malawian village, at midnight, in the dark, covered in ants.  I pretty much just sat there trying to flick ants off of me as they came and tried to keep them from crawling onto my sleeping bag.  It was kind of like a raft in the middle of a sea of ants.  I checked my roommate and she was ant-free, so I didn’t wake her up.  I had my devotional with me and did some reading in that.  It wasn’t long before my roommate woke up because she too had felt ants on her.  We moved our sheets into the living room and sat on nearly demolished couches for the remainder of the night.  Needless to say, that was probably one of the longest nights of my life.  Hearing a rooster crow at 5:00AM has never sounded so good!

When Martin woke up and came out of his room a little after 5:00, he said “Mary, why you not in your bed?”   I told him I just like to wake up early, and he told me that I was “a good woman.”

I followed him outside where we walked over to Jehovo’s house and Martin started chopping wood.  I asked him if he does this every day, and he replied that yes, he does this every day to help the women with some of “their” work.  I thought this was kind of funny.  By the time I had walked next door, Naomi and her daughter had already gone to fetch water and been back.  I helped Naomi’s daughter wash the dishes from the night before.  We used one bucket of water to soap and clean the food off of the plates and cups, and the other bucket to rinse them.  It took quite some time and by the end my back was aching from leaning over so long.  Then I walked around to the front of the house to help Naomi cook the rice that we would eat for breakfast.  Again, just crouching down in front of the pot made my legs and back ache.  These women are so strong.  Naomi laughed at me when I told her my legs were hurting.  Eventually we all sat down in Jehovo’s house to a breakfast of rice.  At breakfast someone asked him what he thought of Joyce Banda, the president of Malawi.  He replied, “Her husband was a lawyer, so I think she might do a good job.”  Again, I wanted to laugh at these comments about women being inferior.  So often we take for granted that in America, women can truly be anything.  We have just as many rights as men and a world of opportunity open to us.  It is so easy to forget that in many places, women are looked down upon and discriminated against simply for being a woman.

After we ate, I asked Naomi about her schooling.  She had been to some high school it seemed, but had not graduated.  Her daughter’s father was a policeman in Lilongwe, but Naomi said he was not a good man.  I didn’t ask for details.  She told me she was going to school at night, and wanted to be a mechanic.  My heart broke for Naomi.  How easy would it be in the United States for Naomi to become a mechanic?  She could take online classes from her living room and achieve this goal with relative ease.  With all of the odds against her, I hope Naomi succeeds in her goal of pursuing her education.   I know that after meeting her I will appreciate my education and all of the opportunities I have been given more than ever.

My Friend, Naomi

My Friend, Naomi

After last night I have never been so thankful for my home and my family.  I consider myself a fairly adventurous person, but being awake all night with ants crawling through my hair truly tested my strength.    In Martin’s house there is a plaque that reads, “We cry out to the Lord for mercy.”  At first I thought it was kind of an interesting thing to have up in your home.  Not joy. Not peace. Mercy.  I think after last night I understand only a little better what it is like to live in an African village.  And keep in mind Martin’s house is considered extremely nice in Malawi!  My strength was tested, and I believe I came out of this experience a more compassionate person.  …With a much higher tolerance of creepy crawlers than I had previously thought.