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

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!

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.

Back in Malawi

I’m happy to say that I am writing this blog post from the front porch of the house that I will call home for the next three months…in Malawi!   The last time I wrote, I was heading home after being here for two weeks.  Now I’m back working for the same non-profit, World Camp, that I visited the last time I was here!  Except with one very special addition…my fiancé, Andrew!

 

After I finished my MBA in May, I was so unsure of what I wanted to do next.  Andrew was also feeling that it was time for him to pursue something different. When Andrew and I began discussing the idea of returning to Malawi, we thought that coming here for a short period of time would be a huge adventure, but not something we were sure we could do right now, but we wanted to consider it.    Around this time, one of the World Camp founders approached me about coming back to Malawi for the summer.  Well, Andrew and I had just gotten engaged and I didn’t want to be gone for so long.  After discussing this with World Camp, they offered to take BOTH of us for this job!   World Camp wanted me to come and do management consulting and some accounting work, as well as a number of other jobs and it just so happened that Andrew has a business degree as well and is currently working on his MBA.  I guess we were the perfect fit!  After a number of other things simply fell into place, we felt like this was the right time for us to go on this adventure.  My awesome mom and I got so much of the wedding planning done before we left this summer, so when we return home in November all of the major wedding planning items will be done! 

 

Our time in Africa so far has been a whirlwind.  It’s hard to talk about everything we’ve done in the past two weeks, but I’ll try to touch on the highlights.

 

The first couple of days after we got here were spent exploring Lilongwe.  Lilongwe is a bustling city, unlike what Andrew and I are really used to.   We quickly learned we need to look right before crossing a street as the cars drive on the left hand side here.  In Lilongwe, there are lots of little shops and people selling fruits and vegetable on the streets.  There is a lot of activity here.  Our house is conveniently located right down the street from an outdoor market that sells fresh vegetables and a few grocery stores as well.  I’m always so surprised and humbled by how kind the people here are when we have to ask for help or directions.  We’re also getting used to the fact that grocery stores aren’t as well stocked here as they are at home.  Cheese is imported here and hard to find, but we just simply could not eat our spaghetti without shredded cheese on the top, so we walked to the grocery store and found two little cheese wedges in a ten foot long display case.  Success!

 

After a couple days of getting used to our new/temporary city, we headed down to Dedza for Camp Hope.  Camp Hope is a collaboration between Baylor Clinic (associated with Baylor University) and Paul Newman’s SeriousFun.  The three organizations put on Camp Hope once a year and by doing so bring together about 80 children that live near Lilongwe that are HIV+ for a week of fun and learning.  At Camp Hope, these sweet kids learn how to properly take their medication (they are all patients at Baylor), learn about the importance of nutrition, how to deal with depression and stigma, and perhaps most importantly, the campers were able to discuss their disease and their struggles in a positive, open environment with others who were dealing with the same issues.   Andrew and I were so happy to get to help out at this camp.  One of our favorite jobs was just serving food to the kiddos, and let me tell you, those kids can eat!  Andrew and I were always shocked at the portions they would want, (and eat!), but were happy to give out seconds.  You could truly see how much these kids loved learning in this environment.  In Malawi, a lot of times schools are more memorization based, rather than classes that encourage participation and hands on learning.  The kids were so engaged and loved getting to share their ideas and thoughts.  They also spent a whole lot of time learning different songs and dances.  I have never seen so much singing and dancing in my life!  Unfortunately, we couldn’t take any pictures of the kids for confidentiality reasons, but there was a whole lot of smiling faces at Camp Hope.

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A couple other highlights since we’ve been here:

 

-Setting out goals for our time here and beginning to look at the current accounting issues

-Going to a social event for expats in the city (There are a lot of other expats here!)

-Navigating public transportation

-Riding in a packed van at night and watching Andy sit on a bag of onions instead of a seat

-Eating a delicious cheeseburger at a nearby restaurant when we were missing American food

-Having an awesome cook, John, to make us meals

-Having no hot water for two days…and counting

-Watching 6 Harry Potter DVD’s (It gets dark early here.)

 

We’ve had a great time in Africa so far even though we are missing our families so much.  We are so lucky to have so much to miss back at home, and I know it will make Thanksgiving that much sweeter this year.

 

 

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.”