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

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.


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!