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!