It’s often said that travel broadens the mind and I believe that there is a lot of truth in that.
My name is Joanne and this is my first ever trip to Malawi. As a family we have travelled quite a lot and I think it’s fair to say that our youngest daughter is well accustomed to airports and flying. Over the years we have encountered every stage of childhood and we are now entering the phase of young adults and teens whereby our oldest children are approaching the time that they will fly the nest and begin their own journeys. It’s a strange feeling, letting your children go into the world. So much is happening globally and the world seems a great deal smaller than when I went to university.
I have always felt very strongly that our children’s goals should be nothing more than inner happiness, not material wealth. I have tried hard to promote those values and ideals in each of our children, but it’s the unexpected events in life that test our values and beliefs most thoroughly and almost losing a child through a sudden life-threatening accident is definitely a way of putting those foundations of life to the test.
In December 2015 we almost lost our middle child to a sudden and horrific accident that ripped through the very core of our emotional beings. Being exposed to that sudden dose of pure, raw emotion and having to reach out to others beyond our immediate family revealed a deep human need to be heard, understood and part of a loving community. The impact changes you instantly, tearing down social barriers. I realised in that moment that we have grown busy and superior and filled our lives with objects, filling every moment so that there is no time left to reflect and just exist. Despite my vision of inner happiness I realised that we had collected more and more objects and been offered greater and greater choice. We judge, compare ourselves to others who have less material wealth than we do and envy those who appear to have gained more.
Over the days and weeks that followed, while our son lay in critical care and during his gradual painful recovery all of this stopped. We stopped caring about objects. We found solace in a charity based communal house within the hospital, which offered free accommodation for families of critically ill children allowing us to stay close to our son. We found ourselves sharing stories and grief. Returning to basic needs, family and community. It was Christmas but we didn’t need or want to celebrate, we needed to be with our loved ones and feel them all around us.
It seemed odd a few short months later to be planning a trip to Malawi but we needed to regroup and we’d reached a mutual silent understanding that things usually happen for a reason. We had been overwhelmed by support from around the world while our son was laying in hospital and throughout his journey to recovery. We were told about a group of people in Malawi who had been praying daily for him to be restored back to us. Duncan Goose, lifelong friend of my husband and founder of The One Foundation had been visiting our son in hospital and had promoted positivity in the family throughout our darkest days. Duncan organised an expedition for the whole family to meet the Malawian people that he had grown to love, through various international aid projects that his organisation have been involved with in Malawi.
I didn’t really know what to expect, our son was still quite early in his recovery from a traumatic brain injury and quite addicted to social media and here we were about to embark on an adventure which would take them all so far out of their comfort zones.
Landing in Malawi was quite an experience after encountering Heathrow and Johannesburg. The airport is little more than a hut and the arrivals lounge, a tent. We were met at the airport by crowds of people greeting relatives and friends, shouting, jostling, hugging and embracing and smiling broadly in brightly coloured clothes.
Our host Wiktor proceeded to take us to our resting destination and the mini bus fell silent as we drove out of the city. We drove past grass and mud houses, dozens of people and children goats and cows. People walking barefoot along the roads, carrying papaya, beans, holding sticks with what looked like huge grasshoppers on and balancing enormous parcels of wood or pots of water on their heads. The air smelled sweet of maize and vegetation with overtones of burning. The road was bumpy, dusty and red. As we passed through villages we saw traders displaying their wares by the roadside, sitting huddled beside old cars and tumble down mud huts. The wind was warm and blew around a flurry of discarded blue bags wherever there was a space, those blue bags littered every roadside.
Fisherman’s rest is set in a beautiful, tranquil location overlooking a deep valley. We spent an evening relaxing and meeting staff at the rest, acclimatising and marvelling at the beaming faces of the staff who prepared and served our meal with such enthusiasm.
The following day we went to church in Blantyre and met some of the more well off city community and a diverse and colourful mix of volunteers and local people singing, reading scriptures and rejoicing. We also had our first taste of Malawian power sharing as the electricity was cut and a generator kicked into action.
During our time at Fisherman’s rest we did a lot more than rest, the family was encouraged to get involved in a variety of projects with local communities. Visiting schools and reading to the children, cooking and distributing fortified maize porridge to long queues of beaming smiling children of varying ages. The porridge is a pilot project aimed at improving attendance at school. Dishing out cups of the boiling hot porridge during the school day encourages families to send children to school rather than having them looking for food in the fields. Tiny children holding out plastic cups and squealing with delight and a sparkle in their eyes if they were lucky enough to get lumps in their serving.
We were introduced to a grandmother and five grandchildren of varying ages. She explained through an interpreter that she cared for all the children because their parents were victims of the HIV epidemic. She was not sure of her own age, life just seems to pass by in Malawi time. What struck me is the way small girls of around 10 years of age carried younger children on their backs all day long. They all lived together in a tiny house made of mud bricks with a grass roof and mud floor. Our interpreter explained that their homes were affected by recent unseasonal rainfall which had destroyed thousands of handmade mud bricks used to construct them. If the bricks are not baked before use they are destroyed by the rain.
Another school visit later brought us to a village which was so remote that I just couldn’t imagine how the team had even discovered it. Wiktor told me that worried people from neighbouring villages had taken them there. The pickup truck we travelled in struggled to make its way over giant boulders, dusty crags and crevices, tilting and churning across the impossible terrain where sheer drops into deep valleys threatened to overturn us. There were 11 people on board including our children (one recovering from a brain injury) and tools to repair a bore hole which was out of action.
Eventually we arrived at a clearing and a newly built school almost ready for opening. The water supply to the village was some miles away because their borehole had stopped working. One of the daily struggles for the team was to try and educate villagers to service their own boreholes and to finance repairs by setting up committees and organising themselves. It turned out that the village borehole had in fact been repaired several times by the local villagers who had removed some of the pipes and rods which were damaged but hadn’t replaced them. The water table was now lower than the reach of the borehole. It took six strong men, a lot of heaving and team work to repair it and replace the pipes and rods restoring it to a functioning water source. By the time the job was done darkness had descended. Pitch black. Children were singing and dancing in the headlights of the pickup truck, squealing with delight at our cameras. We were frequently buried in the midst of a sea of bodies all wanting to see digital images of themselves in our cameras. They rarely saw images of themselves and I found myself wishing we could have left them with actual photos to cherish. Bare footed children chased us along the treacherous road as far as they could muster in the blackness, gesturing and shouting as we started back down the boulder littered gorge-way. Such delight and joy just because they had clean water and white people amongst them for a short time.
Our own children were working hard, enjoying the experiences and wondering about the lives of these joyous people. Living in a place with limited resources and no internet or TV was something I expected to be difficult for them. The teens initially found it hard to disconnect from their western digitally connected lives, constantly requesting data cards to use internet which I stubbornly refused. It was worth it, seeing them play card games together, listening to their debates about modern slavery and women in education and watching them interact with other volunteers and staff as well as people in the communities. My teenage sons were surprised to find that it is okay to hug the children and to pick them up, to ruffle their hair and to play with them. A big difference to the ways of western schools where physical contact is shunned. It was hard to see how emotionally detached my children had become because of western desensitisation. Sleep never felt so good. Sunset by 5pm, power outage by 9pm and sleep till around 5am when the house started to wake up ready for breakfast.
One of the most shocking experiences we encountered was a visit to the local prison. The borehole had broken and the team had been asked to repair it after local government borehole repair teams had failed. The borehole was in a terrible state of repair, someone had poured litres and litres of used engine oil into it. The team spent a whole day trying to recover rods, black oil covered their hands making the job near impossible. It was a shock to find out that this sabotage had occurred when a government team had attempted to repair the borehole. We left the team after 4 hours still trying to get the rods up from the depths of the well.
Once inside the prison walls we were introduced to the inmates, mainly accused of petty crime and we were told that they can spend at least a couple of years waiting to be convicted. Wiktor visited the prison at least once a month, taking bread for the prisoners to supplement a potato soup diet. We entertained the inmates with songs, our middle daughter teaching them the macarena which invoked laughter and applause. The men in our group then played 2 ball rugby against a team of enthused inmates, my 2 sons joined in eagerly with my husband and Wiktor, providing 20 minutes of entertaining footwork and ball passing. Basically we brought some laughter into some lives for a day. It was a good feeling.
Conditions in the prison are dire. Overcrowding is an understatement, men sitting against each other cross legged on stone floors with just one small mat each for sleeping. Sleep is conducted in shifts with half of the inmates in each cell standing against a wall while the rest slept for a while before swapping places. We handed out loaves of bread to the prisoners. I was stunned when I heard Wiktor declare that in the case of women (there were 9 in this prison), those with a child would be given 2 loaves. I couldn’t imagine having a child live in those conditions.
The remainder of our trip was spent between the Majete game reserve and Blue Zebra island. The intention being that we could get a true feel for Africa by experiencing these aspects as well. The children were delighted to have cola and snacks at meal times and the experience of both resorts was truly amazing but I just couldn’t remove those rural communities from my heart. Wiktor and his wife explained that the country could benefit hugely from tourism. These resorts have so much to offer. Zebra Island is a beautiful paradise which attracts wealthy Malawian business people and westerners alike.
I can’t help feeling that while tourism might save Malawi it would also increase the wealth of the privileged 10%. Those people just don’t seem able to recognise the extent of poverty and hardship amongst their own people. It’s as though they are invisible, despite being 90% of the population. Malawi has so much to offer but lacks the infrastructure to make it possible for those from the poorest communities to grow and prosper without foreign aid.
Having been back home for little over a week, we have quickly returned to our routines. National news headlines disputing an increasing childhood obesity problem. We hear about groups campaigning to prevent fast food advertising and the introduction of a sugar tax. I can’t help thinking about how this might impact Malawi. Their main exports are sugar, coffee and tea. I find myself asking how we can ever hope to help those in underdeveloped countries make good decisions when we can’t make healthy choices for ourselves.
We have so much to learn from these people with so little material wealth. Their commitment to upholding community spirit and their love of family are far greater assets than we could pay for. It is clear that education is key. Clean water, learning to read and encouraging independent funding through innovative business initiatives while tackling inequality, one community at a time has captured my imagination. Both myself and my husband will return to Malawi with renewed vision and hopes of a better life for the children of Malawi.
Thank you Duncan, The One Foundation and Fisherman’s Rest for showing us a taste of Africa through Malawi and for allowing us to experience the joy of giving something back and truly enriching our family.