Welcome & Mwalandiridwa!

Follow three recent U.C. Berkeley grads' journey to make a difference halfway across the globe in Malawi, Africa. This blog documents the struggles of a infant non-profit organization, Bamboo Lota, Inc.

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It is, truly, about the circle of life.

In the beginning, Kyson and I were struck by stark similarities between our project expectations and the humble realities of Malawi. Our project focuses on cutting back on deforestation, but we didn’t expect to see charcoal to be so engrained in everybody’s lives. We sure didn’t expect charcoal traders pushing bicycles toppling with maize bags full of charcoal to be the first thing we see; neither did we expect to be again and again engulfed in smoke from burning trees and forests on the streets by storefronts, by our house in the mountains.

Through our talks with district commissioners, a professor and head of the Department of Forestry, bamboo enthusiasts, charcoal producers, traders and consumers, anti-charcoal law enforcers, farmers, USAID/Emmanuel International employees, small business owners, church congregations, consultants, chiefs of villages, agroforestry groups, and, most importantly, communities, Bamboo Lota has received an overwhelming welcome in Malawi. We are everlastingly thankful for Helen and Paul of Emmanuel International, who has not only let us stay in their home, but allowed us access to their most important resources—to be able to see village projects and to have EI’s credibility of promoting good work behind us.

Our journey to Malawi has brought new insights and further desire to instigate change. You have seen through my camera’s lens, my typed words, a significantly small percentage of what is actually going on in this country. There are many, many more pressing needs than I have presented. Food is scarce—oftentimes, our leftovers are collected, cooked again and fed to those who are less fortunate; some children eat an average of two meals a week; and droughts and flooding ruin many agricultural harvests. Daily nutritional necessities are even categorized as six food groups—things cooked with oil being one. Main agricultural exports include tobacco and tea; neither of which are particularly booming. Other agricultural staples are maize and wheat—not any of these productions are sufficient to feed the 14 million people living in Malawi.

The need for a recycling program is duly noted for plastics and compost—but much of what people buy is reused over, and over and over and over, in a way that would put Americans to utter shame. A child once came up to me and asked, “Can I have your plastic?” and smiled delightedly when I handed my bottle to him. Where a bottle would otherwise be tossed, helping create that awful Texas-sized plastic island in the Pacific Ocean, here it is used for Tippy Taps or refilled over again. Plastic is not waste to the impoverished. Even our food at home was wrapped in their bowls by reusable shower caps that were probably tens of years old.

Helaine, Pezo and the Govala community taught us about the importance of education, which has always been the first priority in my life, my family’s, my friends and neighbors. It is through education that poverty can be alleviated, yet the programs in Malawi are so unorganized and unenforced that the future of Malawi is further compromised.  It is not necessary for children to go to school—some children have never stepped in school at ages 9 or 10, because there is no pressure insisting the importance of education in the big picture. There is a shortage of teachers—classes of 4-year-olds in public primary schools have sizes up to 200 students. Just imagine the outrage if this occurred in ANY other country!

I’ve talked about the state of water sanitation in the country for Blog Action Day, and facts about how the predicted spike in population growth combined with declining resources will lead to increased strife. Kyson and I are sure to return back to the States with changed perceptions of waste and consumption. Americans are about 4% of the entire world’s population, but consume about 40% of the earth’s resources. If you can personally decrease your water and carbon footprints, be conscious of what you consume, encourage others to do the same, you can move the Earth.

Electricity is rare, most nights are spent in complete darkness as blackouts are more common than not. Blackouts during the day are much like when there is poop in the kiddie pool where I worked as a lifeguard—you cheer and get to take the day off; how unproductive is that? Inefficiency is frustrating even to patient individuals like Kyson and myself—we are used to America’s pressure to multitask efficiently. Here, one cooks one pot at a time, spends eight hours on a project that could be done in an hour. It is entirely different, but slow is the way of life out here.

As we watched Aunt Mary’s wedding video from the 90s, she pointed out at various moments family members or friends who have passed; what struck me the most was that it seemed like most of her relatives and friends (who were all so young, even children who would have been my age at that time) were gone. Malaria and sexually transmitted diseases plague the lives of many, and many do not even see the ripe age of 20.

All in all, Malawians are tied together through their united faith in God. There are differences between churches, yes, there are Catholics, Muslims, Presbytarians, Baptists, etc. But diversity ends there—the smiling faces clearly dictate that life, to them, is by their standards manageable. Albeit living in tattered rags, unemployed and sitting on dirt streets picking through trash, there is chitter-chatter and laughter to be heard everywhere. No where else in the world have I ever encountered such bright smiles from people biking, the “Muli bwanje”s and “Zikomo”s are abundant, their praises for the little they have humble me to my knees. So there is hope, faith that God provides well for the poor in Heaven. And there is, at least, the reassurance that Malawi is, for now, still the “Warm Heart of Africa.” But what can we do to prevent it from a future heart attack, a failure in existing systems, the complete deterioration of a country?

Kyson, Joanna and I have been working hard to process all of our information regarding Malawian culture to best see where we should lead Bamboo Lota in the near future. There are extreme needs that need to be attacked, and we want to face this head on. Westernization is spinning into Malawi slowly, with an increase of cars and pop culture, yet no aid to jump the price gap. The circle of life is such—deforestation leads to drying rivers, soil erosion, increased pollution, climate change, and the consumption of wood charcoal leads also to respiratory illnesses, decreased participation in schooling for children, thus spiraling Malawians further into the poverty trap, increasing the gap between the rich and the poor.

Bamboo Lota is continuing on this project. If you are in any way moved by what we are doing, please help us spread the word on what you have learned about Malawi from our project. You can add us on Facebook, donate to us, connect us to grant donors or any other compassionate friends.

Thank you for coming along with us for our adventure :) We thoroughly enjoyed talking to all of you about our experience in Malawi, and we welcome any more questions!

Paprika

Wife of the village chief, holding paprika— one of this village’s main exports.

Children in Malawi

Children in the second village we visited today, before saying “tionana” to us! :)

Sunday morning

Kumbaya, they sing, voices strengthening with every crescendo, harmonizing into one voice rising to thank God for the morning.

Faith is an intricate detail in the fabric of the lives of these Malawians. By the time I finish my shower at 7:30 in the morning, many colleagues of Emmanuel International filter in through our open doors and settle down in the living room for morning prayer. Hands and faces are lifted upwards, and I am astounded by the beauty of their collected worship. Whether in Chichewa or English, the oneness of the respect and awe for this one God is peaceful to me.

Early Sunday morning, Helaine, Kyson and I set out for our half-walk, half-catch-whatever-will-pick-us-up journey to the Baptist church in Zomba. Beatrice, a mother we met on the way down the hill, with children Jerome and Louise, waved us into her car, and excitedly tells me about her husband who is studying and teaching at Washington State— she will soon be joining him with her two children. The chance to leave Malawi is a rare occurrence, and those who leave feel lucky.

Outreached were the arms of many as Kyson and I stepped onto church-grounds. Surrounded by people of many different colors, I am thankful yet again that I have this opportunity to try to make a difference like many here do. I hear many stories, and many try to get to know mine; the pastor tells me about Paul’s sister, who has recently passed; his elder friend tells me about his great-grand-children, all surrounding him, one black and two white. The 7-year-old girl’s favorite subject is math and she shows off her coloring of Jesus’ apostles to her great-grandfather. He leans on his cane, jokingly telling us how the pastor never ceases to include him in a sermon, especially about his age. “I am the eldest, but he is the elder!” They grip hands and rejoice in their long friendship of over twenty years, and I smile at their companionship. Both hug me goodbye, and remind me to come back next Sunday and to visit their homes. The pastor’s wife is wearing a beautiful dark blue embroidered dress, and she insists that she give me one when we come visit.

Years ago in Watermark, I went on a life-changing trip to Tijuana, Mexico, with my youth group. Working with Amor Ministries, we ensconced ourselves into an environment completely foreign to us. I wrote my college admissions essay on the changes I personally went through— turning from a shy, unobtrusive wallpaper kid to a woman who wanted to create changes in communities, whether from building classrooms and houses to teaching children. Faith played a heavy role in showing me that sameness sang from the hands and hearts of people in different places and socioeconomic status; I was moved to tears by the prayers of a Catholic mass echoing the hymns I knew from home.

Today, I woke up with a solid sense of belonging in the universe. Pushing aside my handmade curtains, I blinked and opened my eyes into a magnificent sunrise climbing over the Zomba mountains. I’m truly in love with Malawi.

 

Focus Groups

Meeting with the traditional chief and his villagers; here, a woman stands up to ask us a question about our project. Symon tells us that the WALA (Wellness and Agriculture for Life Advancement) project targets the most vulnerable villages and provides the means for growing food, in this case— maize (aka, corn)!

Surprise!

We get many visitors here at the Emmanuel International office— first there was Zoltar, our Hungarian friend who was very familiar with our new home. Five years ago, he did research on food security in Malawi, surveying more than 250 households for his Ph.D. He sat me down at the piano and made me play the little that I remembered, then found a recorder and we created some duets. Zoltar then started singing songs that he learned in New Orleans recently, and we clapped our hands and laughed along with him. What a fun friend! We were also invited to run at 5:30 AM with him— of course, I prefer sleeping but Kyson is the ultimate trooper! Zoltar’s friend, Rosario (or “Little Bird”) also visited, with his humble, wise voice.

Also, the entire staff comes “visit” every day at our house. And Rotary members come at night after 15 hours of work a day. It is quite the zoo around here, there is almost always a full house!

And finally, the worst surprise visitor, one night while working on Bamboo Lota, Kyson leapt out of his chair and crouched down by the desk we were sharing. He told me not to look, so I immediately imagined Durkee #2 (our poor mouse at SAE which Yogi smashed into the door and then crushed with a broom several times). No, but this was worse (if one can even imagine so). This, my friend, was an African TARANTULA! I screamed bloody murder, while Kyson skipped around finding his camera (truly, men are from Mars), and tried to maintain as much space between me and enormous spider as I could (AKA climbed onto a chair and air-paddled viciously away from tarantula vicinity). Eventually, I sprinted to the kitchen to grab a bowl to throw over the massive spider and Kyson let it go back out into the wild (where it belongs. Definitely).

 

Kyson and Stephanie Play Farmer

Women welcome us into their village with a traditional song! At the WALA irrigation site in Mwamba, outside of Zomba, Malawi.

George’s truck left a thick red dust in its wake, bumping and thumping its way into the deepest heart of the Zomba district. The expedition was nothing short of arduous, as the road was essentially mauled through, but unpaved, by one enormous CAT machine—and yes, there was only a singular road that existed here. As our hands gripped the seats tightly for dear life, we jostled and jolted past villages and primary schools filled with kids rushing to wave and yell, “Ahh, zunguuuu!” at the passing vehicle, women splashing water into colorful buckets from hand pumps, men in the fields tending to the maize. A “Play Pump”, one invention we learnt a lot about in class, was seen in passing of a primary school—kids were merely sitting at the top, which lent to a conversation with our friend, Symon, about the benefits and detriments to such a pump.

Chanting and clapping, the women’s voices of the first village rose and fell, melting together and harmonizing to the shiny soprano voice of a woman in green, happily welcoming us into the lush fields of their home. The Wellness and Agriculture for Life Advancement (WALA) project is an $80 million US sponsored project, hoping to supply the poorest of the poor—measured by surveys on income, infant mortality, food availability, etc—with irrigation technologies and farming techniques. Essentially, they are helping supply these vulnerable families reliant on farming with a sustainable and secure food source. Only a year old, the WALA project is already seeing vast improvements in the growth and fertility of maize (corn) in the 2.5 hectares of land. With improved irrigation and farming efforts, the village of about 500 people now has enough to eat with a potential of three harvests per year.

After the tour winding through the daunting maize stalks, we sat in a circle under a tree and talked to the village chairmen and chiefs. One by one people would speak in Chichewa, and Symon, head of the WALA project, would translate. We would go back and forth in introductions, questions, answers, further questions, etc. Much of the information that we learned about bamboo usage was useful, as well as learning about how WALA worked with such desperate and hard-working families. It was a general consensus that only firewood was ever used, and there was little fear that the trees, albeit few, would run out before saplings would rise again from the stumps. Bamboo was, however, used for roofing, mats, flooring and for fishing baskets and poles. It was a “useless” and cheap weed, but many were amused by the proposition of a new crop to supplement their maize. After all was said, the villagers each shook our hands and we were sung off and waved goodbye to.

The second village we visited was in even worse of a state—most of their agricultural products had already died or were dying due to unsteady weather conditions. The main resource was paprika—however, the first company they sold through did not pay them nearly as much as they were quoted for, taken advantage of, and now the village was trying a new one. We helped with some farming, pulling dead maize out to cover the soil so that the sun wouldn’t evaporate the water from the land. Symon called out to us multiple times, in concern, saying that the villagers were afraid for our fragile-looking “pale zungu skin under the hot sun.” This was new to me, I’ve never been called pale before; I’m usually the “token black friend” to many friends at home!

Kids loooved us and followed us everywhere, striking in different yoga-like poses whenever they caught one of us with our cameras on, handing us dried maize they ripped out of the ground (because I fail at life) so I could feel accomplished, too. They fed us dried kasaba—which is like biting into a tree branch. However, it was their staple food—a starch-like potato that they ground up and ate in the wintertime. One lady (my FAVORITE, she was joking the whole time and giggling, I’m going to be her when I grow up) kept making faces at me and laughing as I made faces trying to take a big bite of the kasaba. All of it eventually ended up in my purse—and then to our driver, George (I LOVE George!).Again, after an hour or so of extremely hot sun and farming, we sat in a circle and asked/answered questions, and informed them about bamboo’s usage. We learned that the village uses it to keep the river from falling apart during floods, and to keep it from completely drowning all the plants.

Our project has grown from simply an interest in producing charcoal and bamboo, to surveying interested communities and presenting our project to government officials, non-profit leaders, botanists, environmental societies’ directors, forestry researchers, professors and locals. The more people we meet, the more conversations we elaborate on how charcoal making is the cause of many looming problems, with no alternatives to speak of. Our audience, the people interested, looms in the number of millions. The poor and the rich alike use charcoal, over 92,000 un-licensed traders work to produce and distribute charcoal, and the Forest Reserves are rapidly decreasing with no real alternative just yet. Where do we go from here?

This is where we said goodbye. Kids crowded around George’s truck, and the wife of the head of the village gave us some of their precious cabbage to take home as gifts. Seeing how rural communities in such unimaginable poverty could be so supportive and hardy for each other, I grieved for whoever those with extra resources couldn’t touch, couldn’t reach. However, Kyson and I left with great hopes in our hearts, with growing knowledge and ideas in our heads, and said “see you again.”

 

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