As I boarded the plane my mind raced; I was going to Africa. Fourteen hours, no Wi-Fi, and no legroom. All I had was a book, a journal, and the collection of seven songs I had downloaded to my phone. As we soared past thousands of miles of open ocean my mind entered a contemplative period. I began to think about where I was heading, what I knew, what I didn’t know, and what the people would think of me there. Despite having an incredibly optimistic hope for the future of the developing world, a basic inquiry prevailed: what could be done? It often seems that no matter how much money non-governmental organizations and the international community invests in developing nations, corruption and local government fail to build sustainable infrastructure. My doubts began to outweigh my expectations so I began to journal about my uncertainty.
When we landed at Mzuzu airport early the next day we were guided off the plane across the tarmac to the desk of irritated receptionists who assisted us with our international visas. After meeting our Irish colleagues, we picked up our bags, exchanged our dollars to kwacha and headed toward the queue of buses outside. As we exited the airport I began to see the Malawi that was represented in the statistics and graphs. Rivers dried up, barren fields, children and women walking for miles with incredible loads over their heads. Miles upon miles of dry flatland were peppered with handmade brick houses with thatched roofs.
After a night in Lilongwe we began our week long cross-country expedition. We visited many villages but one stood out to me in particular–the village of Mchinji. It is truly amazing to see the work that Concern Worldwide has done there. The town was saddening, joyful, and inspiring all at the same time.
For the first time in my life, I had witnessed true material poverty. It was eye-opening to see what people can manage to live without. And even still, the vibrancy and the soul of this community cannot be refuted–-they’re some of the happiest people that I’ve ever met. I’d go as far as to say that I’ve never met a group of people that were happier than the people in Mchinji, despite no running water, no plumbing, no supermarkets, no television, no laundry machines, etc. In America we strive to climb ladders and push boundaries and here is this community in southeastern Africa that finds incredible joy singing and welcoming guests to their village.
The beautiful “takulandilani” welcoming and the friendliness of the people aside, Concern’s work in Mchinji has really transformed these peoples’ lives. Concern Worldwide is currently facilitating three principle programs in Mchinji. The first program is a mother’s education facility. Concern promotes the diversification of the diets of children. Surprisingly, papaya and mango are quite accessible in Malawi but fruits are often sold for profit instead of being consumed. Nsema, a beaten maize porridge, is the staple food of Malawi and parents often choose to feed it to their children above everything else on account of how filling it is. If children are only eating nsema, however, it leads to child stunting, or stunted growth, can be a serious problem later in life.
Concern’s work with the mothers also includes help with financial management. The field team in Malawi sponsors a program called the one-to-one program in which a family owning a goat will pass its kid on to another family. Oddly enough, goats are not frequently consumed in Malawi but are instead used as a form of wealth (if they are consumed it is usually for a celebration or a feast). The one-to-one program has allowed families to gain financial security in the form of goats. In addition to the one-to-one program, Concern has been educating women to start their own local trust-funds. The mothers of village will get together with other women they trust and begin to put their money into a fund that they can borrow from if they need food, cooking utensils, seeds, etc.
Perhaps the thing that stuck with me the most from Mchinji was the backyard gardens. When Concern Worldwide began the program in Mchinji three years ago, they decided to create a community garden where the town could begin growing crops and then transfer them to their own backyards to manage independently. With seeds provided by Concern Worldwide, the whole Mchinji community can grow crops such as mustard seeds, tomatoes, and cabbage, and then transfer them to their own personal gardens allowing for ample food to be both consumed and sold at the town market.
Concern’s work in Malawi is truly incredible. They’ve even sponsored hand-washing devices called a “tippy-tappys” in order to create a facsimile of a faucet for the community.
Malawi was many things for me. It was life changing, it was eye-opening, and it was by far the best international experience I’ve had. Most of all, however, the trip was a calling. Having just graduated from BC High and entering college, I feel closer to the passion that God is calling me to in my life. As we pulled away from of Mchinji, and the children waved at us and ran after the truck, I felt a pull in my chest. I felt compelled to be there and to do something, I love research but I genuinely want to get my hands dirty and do something. If anything gives me hope for the third-world, it’s the work the good people at Concern Worldwide are doing in Malawi; one day I hope to be a part of it.
Steven LeGere’s was a GCC participant at Boston College High School and now a freshmen at Boston College.