It All Starts With A Plan
03/21/2018
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In Her Own Words

These are the memories and stories from one of our most recent volunteers. I hope you enjoy reading “Annie’s” account of her time visiting and volunteering with us in Malawi.

 

MALAWI

June 19 – July 1, 2018

     It’s the sweet children’s faces that have traveled back to the US with me along with so many  stories.  Their smiles, eyes and playful spirits remain living memories.  The different names of Asiatu, Chifundu, Sanifa and others took some time to remember.  But there were easy names too:  Annie, Ruthie, Emily and King to name a few.  

     For @ 10 years, I had been hearing about Malawi from Erin, who is married to my nephew Patrick.  The idea of joining her on one of her trips was appealing from the beginning but Africa was so far away.  My travel bug was satisfied with lots of other places but then one day …

     Going to Malawi became less of a fantasy and more of a reality when a friend and I decided to go on a  2 week safari in Kenya and Tanzania, which are in the same part of Africa as Malawi.  At this point, it was a matter of coordinating with Erin when to travel with With Change in Mind (WCIM).  It worked out perfectly.  After our safari, my friend returned to the USA and my humanitarian adventure vacation began.

     NKHALANGO YA MANGO means “forest of mango trees” and it’s the perfect name for WCIM’s school.  There are several very mature and healthy mango trees on the property providing shade with their enormous branches.  It’s ideal for all of the outside activities and, of course, there are plenty of mangos in season.

     The classroom building is also partially shaded.  It’s made of the best Malawian bricks, has a beautiful thatched roof and is definitely the nicest building that I saw in the village.  Glass for windows is non-existent.  All that is needed are shades.  There are no fans because there is no  electricity.  So, there’s no AC or lights either.  It’s reminiscent of our one room school houses of days gone by.  There is also a his and her outhouse of the same construction as the school on the property.

 

      While at the school, WCIM “created” a library by erecting @ a 3 1/2 feet wall in the back of the classroom, painting it, installing a foam floor and having 2 bookcases and many small pillows made.  Erin had obviously been very busy dealing with carpenters and a tailor in the week before my arrival.  The library was completed just in time for NKHALONGO YA MANGO Kindergarten’s one year anniversary.

    All shoes were removed before entering this very special part of the classroom, where the children sat quietly.  They listened as Hassan, the head teacher, read a story in English and simultaneously translated into Chichewa, the native language.  They were very attentive to the story and also to the texture of the foam floor of interlocking pieces.  Erin brought the floor with her in a box that she crafted to fit the 24 X 24 inch squares.  More books are definitely needed to fill the shelves.

     The students were very eager to learn in both languages at the same time in a country with no mandatory education.  The nearest primary school is @ 2 miles away.  There are few cars and no public transportation.  There are a few “taxi” motorbikes but most people, including students, walk everywhere.  It will be interesting to monitor the educational advancement of the 1st (as well as future) graduates of WCIM’s NKHALANGO YA MANGO Kindergarten. 

     My duties at the school included painting, gardening, cooking and creating graduation certificates, as well as interacting with the students.  Like children everywhere, these kindergarteners were high energy, big on hugs and so fun to observe.  They were very loving and seemed to enjoy being near.  Seeing themselves in pictures from my iPhone was such a treat and they giggled at seeing their own images.  It was the same reaction to seeing their reflections in my sunglasses. 

     Thankfully I have pictures and videos of the children.  Oh, what wonderful memories!  One of my favorites is captured on video that I’ll share.  The chant is “You are wonderful” and is sung to each other in recognition of a personal success.  It is also sung to anyone who bestows a kindness on them.  “You are wonderful” is followed by some very enthusiastic arm-flapping “checheche” in Chichewa.  “Winna” means “next.”  Note the pointer is a stick.  Everything is used in Malawi. 

     Inside, the students have class while quietly sitting in chairs, a recent addition to the classroom.  Sometimes the chairs are carried to the recently acquired tables.  Before these additions, the students sat on the floor as they do in their homes.  Furniture is rare in this village and I suspect, in most villages. 

     On one of the days, the children were seated at the three tables and each given a page from a coloring book.  Crayons were then placed in 2 piles per table with 8 students per table.  Well, immediately the children started grabbing them by the fistfuls.  They had never seen crayons!    What a surprise to realize they did not know about this basic activity.  They had never “colored” before and were in awe of seeing the color stay on the paper.  Needless to say, they proudly packed their “artwork” in their bags to take home.   

     Class is inside but everything else is outside.  It’s for recess & meals, of which they are served 2 healthy meals a day.  The mothers take turns cooking outside over an open fire just as they do at home.  The difference, of course, is the number for which they’re cooking.  At school, there are generally 25-30 students daily plus the staff.  Tovia, as project manager, oversees the volunteers.  Guess who fills in when somebody doesn’t show up?  And she does it with her sweet personality and radiant smile. 

     The parent volunteers cook, chop, peel & everything else that goes into providing wholesome meals. But it’s prepared without countertops or tables or ovens or stoves or microwaves or running water or any other convenience that you can think of.  And women do all this bent over with maybe a child sleeping on her back tied on with a chitenje.  This is a long piece of fabric that is multi-functional as a baby backpack, a skirt, a blanket, or a napkin to clean a dirty hand or face or any of a multitude of uses.   

     Most of what is eaten comes from the school’s private garden, thanks to Joseph, the garden guru, who tends his veggies with pride.  And right he should.  It is flourishing.  He has devised a self-watering system with diverted water directly from the well.  It’s quite ingenious and his harvests are proof of it’s success.  There are tomatoes, which are a daily staple in Malawi, mustard greens, eggplants, tomatoes, corn, sweet potatoes, and did I say tomatoes?  What is not eaten by the children is sold to the villagers.

     WCIM has already had a great impact on the village of Chutila in providing the classroom building with it’s recently added library.  Next there will be a kitchen.  Sales of produce from the garden, which was started by WCIM even before the school was built, generates money for the school.  Tuition is the equivalent of $3. a month, with some families struggling with that amount.  Tovia and Joseph have taken on the added job of bill collectors.  Donations really help with operating costs and with expansion.

     A well was also dug by WCIM for the school and it’s also used by the villagers.  Now Chutila has 2 wells for this village of @ 2000 people.  Imagine going with a bucket to actually “fetch a pail of water.”  The women do that after gathering firewood from atop a steep, rugged mountain barefoot and maybe even with a child strapped on their back in a chitenje.  Then they climb back down that same steep slope with a huge bundle of sticks bound & balanced on their heads.  Amazing.  It’s about a 4-5 hour roundtrip.  The wood is then used to cook the food on an outside fire-pit.  

     There are no indoor kitchens, no indoor plumbing, no electricity, no grocery stores as we know them, no post office, no FedEx, no UPS, no deliveries, no lawns, no sidewalks and no roads.  It is “no” for many things that one takes completely for granted.  There is dirt everywhere.  It is very organic living.

     Before you get scared off,  WCIM’s resort accommodations are quite nice with many of the creature comforts of home.  And the setting on beautiful Lake Malawi is always great to come back to at the end of the day.     

     So much of Malawi is a big YES.  Yes to the staff at WCIM’s NKHALANGO YA MANGO Kindergarten.  Tovia, Hassan, Joseph, and Witness are dedicated to the mission in each of their special ways.  The latest addition to the team is Esther, the new adult literacy teacher.  Yes, that’s right, for the  adults, many of whom are only verbal.  They want to read and write in their own language.  

     The children’s enthusiasm for learning has caught on in the village.  43 adults signed up for classes.  They will meet 3 times a week for 2 hours per class for 10 months at NKHALANGO YA MANGO.  The seeds of education have been planted in this remote part of the world. 

     Yes also goes to the staff at Kumbali Lake Retreat, who were all very accommodating during my entire stay.  Upon arrival, Erin introduced me to Stinga, the manager extraordinaire who everyone counts on for lots of things.  His English is exceptional (as are all the employees in hospitality) and he seemed to never tire of my many questions on history and culture.  There was also Shadrick, my Chichewa language teacher, who was very patient and ever so joyful.  Ashley was always with a ready smile as he went about serving us.  The rest of the men and women were also friendly, happy and very helpful.  It was tough saying farewell.

     Being a vegetarian, I was concerned about food options.  Well, what a wonderful surprise to realize that dear Jessica, the food director, prepared an incredibly delicious menu for all of my meals.  Each one became my new favorite.  Meals were a delightful part of every day that Erin and I shared.  In fact, we spent a lot of time together to the point that I jokingly referred to myself as her shadow.  But we had a great time.  At least, I did.  🙂

     Meals were served in a very serene setting overlooking Lake Malawi.  It’s a lovely place to relax and read.  There’s no wifi or tv so just, relax and read.  The beautiful white sandy beach is merely steps away and is complete with lounge chairs, kayaks and a boat for sunset cruises.  

     There is also a must-do hike from the Lake Retreat with spectacular views.   Be sure to wear hiking shoes or sports shoes with good gripping soles or you’ll risk the chance of being a griping soul.  LOL.  Patrick, the keen-eyed tour guide led the expedition and even made a walking stick for me to help with the climb.  The stick made it back as a carry-on.  Great souvenir!

     Once you’ve made this hike, envision doing it barefoot with a huge bundle on your head and maybe a child strapped on your back.  Malawian women are tough.  The men must be too in this fishing village.  Most of them go out fishing daily on Lake Malawi to feed their families and on a good day, possibly sell some of their catch.  They are basically living as they have for centuries with few exceptions such as wells.

     Yes to the people – again – for the joy that they exude daily in their poorest of conditions.  They are happy living very simple lives.  Basic lives.   

     The only jewelry worn are rings by married couples.  No earrings.  No bracelets.  No necklaces.  No tattoos.  It’s interesting to note Malawi’s total lack of any adornment in contrast with neighboring countries’ full body decorations.  I’m thinking in particular of Kenya and the beautiful beadwork found there.  Money spent by Malawians is more to meet basic human needs.

     Malawi has other charms, some of which are wood carvings:  little boxes, spoons, collapsible tables (which fit in my suitcase.  Yay!), masks, statues, etc.  The businessmen all spoke English and it was a very fun shopping experience.

     Yes to the positive impact WCIM is having on the community beginning with the children.  Besides 2 nutritious meals a day, they are being exposed to knowledge that has the potential to improve the quality of their lives.  Better nutrition as part of healthcare is just a start.  Erin’s vision for change is becoming a reality.  Please read on WCIM website for more news and community involvements.

     Learning is contagious.  The adult literacy program sign-up supports that statement.  A donation to WCIM is an investment in education in a most (I have heard it is the most)  impoverished country that will ultimately elevate many.  There is so much room to grow.

     “Zikomo” for reading this essay.  It’s been fun writing and reliving my most meaningful trip ever.  If you’ve made it to the end, I sure hope you’ll consider going with my dear niece-in-law Erin to Malawi.  Her next project is to build a better structure for the kitchen but still cooking on an open fire in the ground.  Even if you can’t go, please consider donating to Erin’s foundation:  With Change in Mind.   

     My Malawian WCIM humanitarian adventure trip was a beautiful experience that will remain with me forever.    As I was leaving Chutila, Joseph said to me “Remember us to your friends back in the United States” as I have and continue to do so.  Malawi will always be in my heart.  In the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, “I’ll be back” someday, hopefully, soon, maybe even with friends and family.

     On behalf of students like Emily, Asiatu, Chifundu, Hawa, Shalif, Ruthie, Shanifa, Jawadu and the adult leadership of Tovia, Hassan, Joseph, Witness, Esther and Erin, a big THANK YOU!  In Chichewa:  ZIKOMO!

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