Category: Malawi

Generosity of the Poor

Frank (far left) and Noel (right) explaining to Village Frank (middle) why we can't take the doves with us.

As I reflect on my time in Malawi, one of the things that stands out to me most is the generosity of its people. I have been very blessed, I know. Particularly in the last few months, friends, family and even strangers have given generously to help me help others here in Africa. The outpouring of support was incredibly moving to me, and continues to be as people send notes of encouragement. I often felt unworthy of the kindness, but I reasoned with myself that at least I would be able to give so much to others over the next year. I was unprepared, though, for the generosity of the poor.

On multiple occasions in Malawi, I was presented with gifts from people who did not have much to give. We visited some of the same areas over the few weeks and I had seen a woman named Ruth about five different times. The first three times Ruth was wearing the same outfit. This is common since most people only have a few outfits. The fourth time though, she was wearing something different. I commented that it was very pretty, which made her smile. The fifth time I saw Ruth, she was wearing that same outfit as the first three times. This time, she approached me with a big smile on her face and a bag in her hand. She said, “I have something for you,” and proceeded to give me her handmade dress. I tried to refuse, but she so pleased when I tried it on and it fit properly and she insisted I keep it.

Another woman, named Alpha, is the wife of a pastor we worked with in Lunzu. She cooked a delicious meal of rice, fish, chicken, tomatos and beans and gave each person on our team a gift of thanks. I received beautiful African fabric which many of the women use as a covering for their skirts or as a scarf. Several of the village people we visited gave us thobwa (a local drink made of maize) and bread.

In Shire Valley, the people walked for many miles to attend our meeting. One man said he and his 5 year old son had walked 18 miles. When we finished speaking, they began playing music, dancing and setting up a table for offerings. Some people brought maize, rice, beans, bananas, even money. I assumed this was to benefit the church, and it wasn’t until they handed it to me that I realized that was all for US. Here are people who lived in mud huts with no running water or electricity, few possessions and every reason to hoard their belongings, and they were generously giving whatever they could to thank us for our time. To refuse to accept it would have been considered incredibly rude though, so we packed it in the car and prepared to leave. I heard a noise in the back as we were pulling away and upon investigation, discovered two live doves in the bag. Our translator, Frank, took the doves out and handed them over to Valley Frank (our appointed name for him to keep all the Franks straight…who knew Frank would be a common Malawian name??) He explained why we couldn’t take them with us: “The airlines are funny these days. They won’t let them pack the doves in their bags.” It was comical.

Several other similar stories follow. It is a wonder I was able to fit it all in my bags. It often seems that those who have the least share the most. I learned from these people that it doesn’t matter what you have or don’t have; you can always show your appreciation. God says we should give “not out of regret or a sense of duty,” but rather we should “give cheerfully.” I have to admit, my yearly drop-offs to Catholic Charities are usually no more than closet cleaning, and I sometimes donate money out of obligation rather than purely a desire to help another person. Yet, I have so much more in comparison to most Malawians, who are happy to freely give of their belongings. Many people in the Western world have all the material things they could ever want, but many still are not happy. As it says in 2 Corinthians 5, those who serve the Lord “seem to possess nothing, but they really have everything.” So the question remains: who is really richer? At any rate, I know I will not forget the kindness of those I encountered in Malawi, and as my generous professor, Dr. Neidermeyer, said “just pay it forward.”

Gift of maize


Muli bwanji?—Lessons from an Azungu

Before arriving in Malawi, I am ashamed to admit that the only thing I knew about Malawi was that Madonna adopted a child from here and that it was a very poor nation. In order that my friends and loved ones may avoid this ignorance, I’d like to share some facts about the “warm heart of Africa.”

It’s a skinny little country in south-eastern Africa surrounded by Tanzania to the north, Zambia and Zimbabwe to the west and Mozambique to the south and east. Its capital is Lilongwe, which is centrally located.  I am in Blantyre, which is in the south, and holds over 4 million people. The total population is about 14.3 million. AIDS is quite a problem, and to make the situation worse, there is only one doctor for every 50,000 people. In England, there is one doctor for about every 1,800 people…big difference. Not sure on the numbers in the U.S., but I’m guessing it’s even better than England. The country was founded by a Scottish missionary in 1859. In 1891, the Brits took over. In 1966, full independence was granted to the Republic of Malawi…not all that long ago.

Fast forward to 2010. About 80 percent of Malawians are Christian. The official languages are English and Chichewa. People gather water from pumps which can be several miles away from their homes. The women have the job of collecting water in buckets and carrying it home on their heads, often many miles, several times a day, without shoes. Most people walk or ride a bike because they cannot afford a car. The streets are mostly made of dirt. Homes range from cinder block structures with tin roofs and mud floors to mud, straw and bamboo structures in the more rural areas. Many areas of the city have electricity, but there is often not enough to power the whole city, especially around dinner time, so at about 6 or 6:30 every evening, the power turns off for several hours leaving the city in darkness. The latest it ever stays light until is 7 pm in the summer. Right now it gets dark by about 6. Candles are used to light the booths in the market. It is common to see little girls about 5 years old carrying their 1-year-old or 3-year-old sibling on their backs. The children are often left to fend for themselves during the days because their parents must work and cannot pay anyone to watch after them. Needless to say, they grow up pretty quickly.

In the more rural areas, you feel as if you have taken a ride in a time machine back to primitive times. The women gather at the streams to wash clothes; logs, buckets of water and bags of rice or maize are perched on top of people’s heads; the babies are carried on the women’s backs (chitenje or chitonga); chickens, goats and cows run freely in the streets often blocking the roads; carts are pulled by oxen; meals are cooked over open fire; men hammer away to create mud molds which will eventually be bricks; women sit on the ground and peel beans and husk maize; children sit in small bamboo huts to guard the farms against intruding cows that might try to disturb their maize. When we drive through, many of the children excitedly yell “azungu” (white people) and wave and chase our car until their little legs can’t run any further. When we arrive, we are greeted by a welcome committee and children singing songs of praise to God and welcome to us. I am humbled beyond belief and almost always have to fight back tears (so far I have failed in this respect).

The children are very creative. They create soccer balls out of plastic bags that are melted and scrunched together and play chengelegele (sp?) by rolling a circular object like a tire and chasing it or moving it along with a stick. They know little English, but the children and adults alike know more in urban areas than those in the rural areas who have even less exposure to education.

I have embarrassed myself trying to speak to the people in their language. Although I can only give simple greetings, the people smile broadly and clearly appreciate my efforts. Frank, our translator, now introduces me as their half-Malawian sister (haha). Chichewa words I have learned so far:

  • Zabo (hello)
  • Muli bwanji? (How are you?) *used anytime
  • Fine, and you? (Ndili bwino, kaya inu?)
  • Mwazudka bwanji? (How are you) *this is used as a ‘good morning;’ used before noon
  • Musuela bwanji? (How are you?) *this is said as a ‘good evening;’ used after noon
  • Shab shab (Okay) *this is said while giving the thumbs up sign
  • Ehya (yes), ayi (no)
  • Moni (hello/good morning)
  • Zikomo kwamgiri (Thank you very much)\
  • Takulandilani (Welcome)
  • Dkondwa (I’m happy [to meet you])
  • Puno (ears); liso (eyes); mano (teeth); sisi (hair)
  • Tako (butt)<-proof that little boys are ornery no matter what country you’re in
  • Muana (baby)
  • Kugongola (beautiful)
  • God Bless You (Mulungu Akodalitseni)

Despite the hardships that most Malawians face (98% unemployment), they are a friendly, faith-filled and resilient people. I have always felt completely safe and very welcomed. They constantly express their gratitude and offer whatever food they have as a sign of appreciation. They gather together in each other’s homes to sing, dance and praise God. They work hard each day to survive. I am in awe of their ways, and inspired by their strength. I am so glad I have had the chance to experience the warm heart of Africa, for its people are so true to its name.

Gathering water at the stream in Shire Valley

My first week in Africa has been eye-opening and moving. The WVU team of Presha Neidermeyer (amazing teacher/mentor!), Tristan Gartin, Mac Festa and I gave a two day seminar and a separate one day seminar on business planning and development and the 4 D’s: Discover, Dream, Design and Deliver. We learned to work with an interpreter and change our teaching methods to better fit the intended audience. With many of those in attendance being illiterate and lacking an understanding of some basic business concepts, we communicated many of our lessons in the form of parables such as the goose that laid the golden egg and Biblical examples. I had no idea how much the Bible had to say about money and building community. The rest of the team, Michael, Annette, Nathan, Bianca and Dave amazed me with their abilities to work so well with the children, drive in hazardous conditions!, and inspire and motivate everyone around them. The kids are still talking about them even now that they’re gone.

My favorite thing about this week is that it has given me great hope for the future. This is a team of do-ers. After less than a week in Malawi, we have devised a plan to create a business plan that will allow the people of these communities in Blantyre to learn, work and thrive. My specific duty is to help create a model for the Savings Groups that we have encouraged them to form. This will help them raise the capital they need to start businesses since loans and other forms of payment are not available to them like what we are accustomed to in the U.S. There is no support system for them, so they must create their own opportunities, and I am so excited by the possibility that we may be able to help them help themselves. They’re excited about it. They want to change their situations. They want to be able to feed their families and send their children to school just like anyone else. When I discussed the savings group idea, they all started buzzing with enthusiasm, forming their groups and whispering business ideas to one another. I left feeling that we have the opportunity to make a real difference in these people’s lives. I’ve been spending all my money on Skyband internet cards so I can look up information on savings groups, business ideas and microfinance institutes in Malawi.

I already miss home and when I have even two minutes of quiet to myself I start thinking about all of the people and things I’ll be missing in the year to come, and I get sad for a while. But the thing is, when I’m doing all this work, I’m enjoying it more than any other work I’ve done in my life because I know very real, very positive results are possible. I can’t let this opportunity pass me by without putting in my absolute best work. They deserve it.

Prayers tonight for great ideas and the wisdom to recognize them.

Near the end of the Masters in Business Administration program at WVU, everyone started buzzing about their new jobs as bankers, financial analysts and sales representatives. I was excited to tell people about my decision to share my business knowledge in other parts of the worlds, where their economies were most in need of a boost in business development. I got used to some of the confused looks and less than genuine smiles of approval. (“Wow…that is so great…so you won’t be getting paid?”) What I had not yet figured out though, was what to put on that blank line on all the papers in the months ahead. “Occupation: ___________.” No longer could I play the student card. I guess I could put “volunteer,” but what does that mean anyway? It’s so vague. I resolved to leave it blank for the time being. The Malawian customs officer called me out on it though. “Miss, you forgot to fill out this one,” he said. “Oh! How careless of me!” I responded, and proceeded to fill in “Vice President of International Relations.” (Hey a girl can dream, right?) I pretended not to notice the surprised look on the officer’s face as he mentally evaluated whether that was actually possible given I look about 16 years old.

It wasn’t until a few days ago when I was instructing 120 Malawian adults how to construct a business plan and perform breakeven analysis that I discovered a solution to my little identity issue. During the question and answer portion of the seminar, one of the young men asked me what business I was in. I had a brief moment of anxiety. I was about to reveal my inadequacy…definitely a loss of face. But before I could respond, our gracious Malawian translator responded, “Our friend Natalie is in the business of giving. What other questions do you have for her?”

So there it is. I’m officially in the business of giving. Thus begins my year-long journey to dream, discover, live, learn, share, care and hopefully help others to do the same. As for the fill-in-the-blank dilemma, I have since noticed the ChildVoice organization chart included my name with the title “Technical Advisor- Business” underneath. Not quite VP, but somehow I like my title even more.

Beautiful faces