Volunteering in Malawi

Volunteering with Engineers Without Borders in Malawi in 2010

It is better to give then to receive?

I think it’s time I shared some of my religious and spiritual experiences here in Malawi with you. As I’ve mentioned before (I think) Christianity is the majority religion here in Malawi; approximately 70% of the population practices Christianity. I’m not sure what percentage of Canadians associate themselves with Christianity, but I imagine that whatever that number is, many of that percentage doesn’t actively practice Christianity. I don’t find that to be the case here in Malawi.

From my experience, pretty much all Malawians who practice Christianity go to church every Sunday, pray, and trust in Jesus to protect them and their families from day to day; they unwaveringly trust in God to provide for them. Christian and gospel music and dancing is much more popular and I’ve heard a couple of songs my church sings in Canada on the radio (Geoff Moore’s ‘He knows my name’ anyone?). One message I’ve heard preached to Malawians is that “their individual situation is an opportunity to be a witness and that others will find salvation from their situation.”

As someone who would call themselves one of Canadians actively practicing Christianity, I was very interested to experience the faith of Malawians. I think that being a Christian has definitely helped me to bond with my family; because we have little in common and because I can never escape white privilege, there’s something powerful about being able to meet in the middle and share the same core beliefs. I’ve been quite moved being able to hang out with the kids and have them sing “I have decided to follow Jesus” and to then later play some songs on guitar for them that they sing in church.

Over the past few months I’ve really been looking for God in Malawi, but I have to admit that I was finding it difficult to find him. I’ve been going to the Salvation Army church in Thyolo, but the entire service is conducted in Chichewa and so I wasn’t getting a whole lot out of it after the initial excitement. However this morning I felt incredibly moved by the service and the display of love and passion for God shown by Malawians.

Church usually starts at 10 and is attended by about 15 people on average. There’s tambourines, a drum, and lots of singing and dancing. I got quite a surprise at the scene that met me when I arrived at church this morning though. There must have been 100 people lining the road in Salvation Army uniforms and SA chitenges and there was an actual brass band! (very exciting for me – I’m sorry if I confuse some of you with Salvation Army references now). It turns out that there’s a new District Commander for Blantyre Division and so people from churches all throughout Blantyre and Thyolo had travelled to the Boma to celebrate.

It was a service of energetic dancing, singing, and fellowship. What really moved me though was at the end of the service each corps had the opportunity to present a gift to the Commanders to welcome them to Malawi and help them get settled. As each corps name was called out, everyone would get up and dance excitedly to the back of the church to grab their gifts. In true Malawian fashion, huge stalks of bananas, baskets of tomatoes and cassava, and chickens were all brought to the front of the church as people sang happily. My friends at the church made sure I knew what was going down and when we were called I got to dance up to the front of the church with them and offer the couples dollars of kwacha that I had, feeling so inadequate next to such generosity.

A bunch of bananas or a chicken are not small gifts for a Malawian family, they are huge gestures of generosity and thanks, and the manner in which people are excited to give them away amazes me! Anything you give away is money you will not make. So it was there, in a small brick church, on a wooden bench, that I found God in Malawi; it was pretty simple. Not that I don’t see evidence of Malawian generosity every day, but it was presented to me in a different way this morning. Malawians may be poor by our Canadian standards, but they are so rich in spirit. I hope your internal image of Malawi, and dare I say Africa, is not one of desperation, but one of passionate, energetic and intelligent people that unfortunately lack opportunity and security in their lives.

I had no intention of doing this, but on that note, I’d like to make you all aware that EWB has kicked off it’s holiday campaign and that I, in turn, have also kicked off my own personal campaign to fundraise for our overseas programs. I have learned so much from this experience and I would formally like to ask you for your support. So I’m asking you to support me and EWB’s work like Malawians support each other and in Malawian spirit, (if you feel so inclined) to support me generously 😉      (I promise this entry was not a plot to get donations!)

To donate or to read more about what EWB actually does overseas, go to https://perspectives.ewb.ca/mariaadey

Thank you all so much for the support you’ve been offering me already, I appreciate it enormously and I am very excited to see you all again in three weeks.

With much much love,

Maria

Categories: Volunteering in Malawi | Leave a comment

More Short Stories

Everyone seemed to like my short stories entry, so here I go with Short Stories Part 2:

Zambia

After spending 90 days in Malawi on a visitors visa you are required to leave the country and then re-enter it. So this past weekend me and my fellow JF Don headed up to Zambia to take in a safari! I was a bit of a rebel when we were crossing the border; I forgot my yellow fever card so I had to sneak Don’s and use that instead, luckily they didn’t look at the name! I kind of wanted to argue with the guards though because Malawi is not a yellow fever country and so I shouldn’t have needed it; Trevor told the JF’s not to do this though and I was a good JF and listened. Anyways, Malawi is known as “the warm heart of Africa” and apparently Zambia is known as “the real Africa” because of it’s unspoiled wildlife. I found this easy to understand driving through the Eastern part of Zambia because there is a lot more open space in Zambia as there’s a lot less people living there (about the same population as Malawi).

We stayed in South Luangwa Park in a chalet that was located right on the Luangwa River. The river is absolutely beautiful but it was really low because it’s the end of the dry season; we saw some crocodiles swimming down there though! In the park we saw giraffes, elephants, zebras, buffalo, monkeys, baboons, impala, hippos, and all sorts of other animals; we even got to see a pack of lions! We saw them once lying around in the shade and then later in the night we were about 6 feet away from them when they were hunting! It was a little scary, but pretty cool! I’m going to try and post some pictures on facebook soon.

Culture Exchange

So my sisters have been teaching me some of the stuff they do for fun. They taught me this skipping game a little while ago that involves two ropes that are tied to two trees; you have to hop back and forth between the rope from one foot to the other, it’s kind of hard to explain so I’ll try and get a video! They also play regular skipping games and they have all their own chichewa rhymes for them! The girls also taught me this card game they love to play that’s a lot like crazy eights. Instead of 8 cards you get 4 and the ace is the card that has the power to change suit. In this version the 8 reverses the direction of play and jokers are pick up 4.

In turn I’ve made a couple of “Canadian” meals for my family. It was challenging to find something I felt comfortable cooking over a fire though! First I made them french toast with maple syrup that I brought from home. Watching them eat the maple syrup was pretty funny; my family thought it was honey and they spread it really carefully over their toast with a knife as if it was butter! They found it really sweet. The second time I made them spaghetti; it had an interesting spaghetti sauce because I basically chopped up and threw in every vegetable I could find at the market. The girls loved it though!

On a side note, I finally learned how to spell my sisters names: Tacondwa is the oldest at 13; Pemphero is in the middle and is 9, and Nicky is the youngest at 6.

Frustrations Abound

I had a short period where I was getting pretty frustrated with work and the way things happen around here. Everyone is really excited about collecting data on water points and I’ve made a lot of progress with training in the office, however not a lot of progress was being made on actually collecting data. Collecting the data involves getting the health office, water office, and planning office to coordinate. They’ve all admitted that coordinating between sectors is a weakness and that they need to meet and talk about it; however because they’re so poor at coordinating it is really hard to get them all in the same room. So things have been moving very slowly as it’s hard to track people down and even when you schedule meetings, people often don’t show up or show up late.

The second thing that was frustrating was trying to get the data collection forms photocopied. It’s really cool because the Water Office is running Water Point Monitoring without an external donor, which is quite unique for them to pilot a program like this on their own. It’s quite frustrating though because the Water Office’s budget for each month is very small. A lot of the budget goes toward fuel which is very expensive here ($1.86 CAD per litre). So when we were trying to get the forms photocopied at the end of the month it turned out there was no money left to pay for them until the following month. Basically the water office was held up for over a week because they didn’t have $27 CAD to pay for photocopying. It’s incredibly frustrating to not have a functional system because of such a small sum of money. The good news is we now have the forms, the bad news is my meeting was cancelled again today when Health never showed up.

Keep an eye out

It was a rough day at the Limbe bus depot last week. I was coming back from Blantyre on a minibus and I had to stop at the Limbe bus depot to get a bus back to Thyolo. As you’ve probably gathered from my previous entries, bus depots are crazy! So as I was trying to get off the bus a lot of people were crowding me trying to get on the bus. There was one guy in particular who was standing right in front of me and would not move out of my way, next thing I know I feel my pocket go really light and I see this guy stalking off through the crowd. That’s right, I got pickpocketed!

It took me a minute to realize that this guy had stolen my phone, when I did I started calling after him but I couldn’t follow him because there were so many people crowding me. One guy who works on a minibus asked me what was wrong and I pointed at the guy walking off with my phone and told him that he had stolen it. The bus worker looked at the guy, sized him up, sighed tiredly, and said, “okay, I will go get it back”. So he disappeared off while I checked the minibus I was on to make sure I hadn’t just dropped it (I wasn’t 100% sure it had been stolen). Anyways, a few minutes later the bus guy came back with my phone! I was amazed that I had gotten it back so I thanked him profusely and went to find my next bus. The reason I say it was a rough day at the bus depot though is because about 3 minutes later I saw two other guys get in a fist fight next to my bus that almost involved one guy breaking a beer bottle over the other guy’s head! Thankfully a bunch of people pulled them apart though. (I swear Malawi is a safe place though Mom!)

Anyways, keep the questions and emails coming!
Love you guys,
Maria

Categories: Volunteering in Malawi | 4 Comments

The Road to Development

I got a great question last week from Ian Froude; I’ve been thinking about it all week and I want to share my insights with you. The question was “What are the major barriers to the development of the community in which you are living? OR if it is already on the road to development, what is fueling that?” My thoughts on this question are based on my own personal experiences in Thyolo and on discussions I’ve had with my host family and co-workers. My family might be a bit biased since they live here, but I did try to be objective.

I think as Westerners a lot of people have this idea that the majority of people in Africa are living in extreme poverty. While it’s true that many Africans are living in poverty, there are also lots of Africans, and in this case villages, that work very hard and are privileged to have opportunities to lift themselves from poverty. While I still see poverty in my village, I think that it is currently on the road to development. I currently live in a village called Nchima. It is basically an extended part of the Boma and it also includes a large tea estate.

What makes me believe that Nchima is on the road to development? First of all, it has the benefit of being located very close to the Boma. This means that Nchima is located within walking distance of the huge MSF (Doctors Without Borders) hospital and government offices located in the Boma. Being located near a hospital has the obvious advantages of lower death rates due to diseases such as malaria and means that farmers spend less time away from their farms due to illness. The hospital has also done a pretty good job of promoting proper breastfeeding and handwashing in the vicinity (but a very poor job of promoting the use of toilet paper).

Since I have arrived in Thyolo the two main roads through the Boma have been flattened out and paved, the underground water system has been upgraded, and a new (and much better) marketplace is being constructed. Every time I walk up the road I have to be careful not to fall into holes that are being dug or get run over by tractors and trucks. There are also people everywhere selling their goods and produce, running small businesses, and preparing for the rainy season which means the beginning of the farming season.

The construction and upgrades in Thyolo are being funded by the Malawian government. I asked Mr. Nzengo why the government was giving Thyolo so much attention but I couldn’t really nail down a real reason. Personally I think it’s due to the fact that the president is from Thyolo (or as they call him in Malawi, “his Excellency the President Ngwazi Professor Bingu wa Mutharika”). Another contributing factor could also be that Thyolo is one of the more densely populated districts in Malawi. It has more than 600 000 people and because it has so many expansive tea plantations there are a lot of people squished onto a small amount of land.

Another reason why I believe Thyolo is on the road to development is because there are lots of job opportunities here. First of all, there are always jobs available in tea plantations as tea pickers. While these jobs are grossly underpaid, if you have a bad season farming you can at least be guaranteed a job to tide you over until the next season (the average tea picker makes MK110 or $0.80CAD per day). Second of all, growing bananas can be pretty profitable in Thyolo. I’m not sure what conditions make Thyolo a great place to grow bananas, but many of the bananas you will find throughout Malawi came from Thyolo. Some farmers in villages will form co-operatives that work together to produce enough bananas so that they can hire a truck to take the bananas to Lilongwe (or other areas) where they can get more for their bananas.

Finally, one last piece of construction on the agenda for Thyolo is to upgrade the road that goes through southern Thyolo and on to Nsanje District, which is the most southern district in Malawi. Right now Thyolo has one main highway that goes from Blantyre to the Boma and then halfway through Thyolo and into the neighbouring District of Mulanje. In order to access Nsanje you must go back to Blantyre and come down through another district called Chikwawa. The main reason that upgrading the road to Nsanje will promote development is because Malawi has just opened an inland port in Nsanje that is located on the Shire River. The Shire River runs through Malawi and up to the Lake, the opening of this port will allow Malawi to connect to the Zambezi River and the Indian Ocean; this should supposedly lower the cost of imported goods such as fuel. I have my doubts that prices will actually go down in any way that will benefit the general public, but a new road should increase traffic through Thyolo.

While there’s lots of exciting things going on around Nchima right now, I do want to mention some of the things that may also be hindering development. First of all, as I mentioned before, Thyolo is a very densely populated District and most of the good farming land is taken over by huge tea estates. Thyolo is also very hilly which leaves countless farmers squished onto terrible plots of land such as along the hillside. My family currently owns about an acre of land but it is located about 5 kilometers away from where we live which makes it hard to visit. My family is currently paying someone else to maintain their land. I haven’t seen the land yet because we haven’t been doing any farming, but Mr. Nzengo has promised to take me there this month when he starts planting maize.

The climate in Thyolo has also been changing and many farmers in Southern Thyolo found themselves unable to harvest any maize (the staple crop) last year. Malawians depend on their farms to supply both food for their families and income during the dry season when no farming takes place. My co-workers have attributed some of the climate change to deforestation that has been happening on Thyolo Mountain.

Anyways, I realize my analysis has been a little more related to Thyolo in general as opposed to just Nchima, but I think it’s all relevant. One thing I’ve been thinking about lately with the farming season arriving is subsidies. The Malawian government has recently started giving farmers fertilizer subsidies to help improve their crop yield. In Canada we tend to look down on subsidies as a bad thing for developing countries (In EWB we do anyways), I’m curious what thoughts you guys have on developing countries jumping on the subsidy train. Do you think it’ll help even up the playing field a little bit, or are developing countries just following in our harmful policies? (My knowledge on how Canadian subsidies work is pretty limited as well, so I’d love for the chapter especially to do some research!)

Missing you all,
Maria

PS – Going on a Zambian safari this weekend!!! Very stoked about it! (After being in Malawi for 90 days on a visitor visa they make you leave the country and come back in)

Categories: Thoughts and Opinions, Volunteering in Malawi | 3 Comments

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