Laurie’s Trip to Malawi

 
 
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September 27th was, as they say, the first day of the rest of my life. Trite though the expression may be, I finally understood what it meant firsthand. As I boarded the first of many planes that would take me through New York, to Johannesburg, then finally on to my final destination, Lilongwe, Malawi, I remember thinking that I had absolutely no idea what my life would look like for the next eight days. As a well-seasoned traveler and someone who naturally tends toward routine, this was a rather unsettling thought. What was I getting myself into? As I crossed the equatorial line somewhere in the middle of the night, I knew Kansas was far behind me.

Fortunately, my nerves were for naught. I landed at the Lilongwe national airport around noon on Saturday (the short flights take about 27 hours), grabbed the suitcases full of equipment and sailed through customs. As you read from Kristen’s experience, we had some trouble clearing bags through Burkina Faso’s customs and I was expecting to encounter the same issues. For my first trip to Africa, however, I got off easy.

“Do you have anything to declare?” asked the customs agent sitting at a desk in the middle of the exit of the airport.

“Uhm, no.”

“Okay, go on that side.”

She pointed to the other side of the desk, and I walked out of the airport. Not bad though, knock on wood, I have a feeling next time won’t be so easy!

I was met by CARE International’s driver, Felix, who drove us around the rest of the week in a very cool Land Rover (now think I need one!). We were so fortunate to have CARE arrange transportation and were especially lucky to have Felix, who was one of the most incredible drivers I’ve ever met. A former mechanic, he knew the ins and outs of driving the car through back roads and rural areas and was an expert at dodging goats (they’re everywhere), bike traffic and generally oblivious pedestrians.

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We stayed in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city, for an evening to get acclimated and then headed out to Salima, where we’d be holding the workshop from Monday through Thursday. Lilongwe was fairly developed and easy to find places to eat or shop but Salima was much more rural. We arrived at a cute little lodge called the Avon Gardens where we met our Local Video Trainers and prepared them for the week ahead. If you ever run into Harris, Henry or Golden, be sure to give them a high five because they were a true joy to work with and clearly experts in their field.

Felix and our LVTs were also really instrumental in helping me learn about the culture of Malawi. I wanted to know all about traditions, customs and language. Although everybody educated in the cities speaks English, here are a few of the gems I learned in the more commonly-spoken local language, Chichewa:

Muli bwanji?: How are you?

Ndiri bwino: I am fine.

Mwadzuka bwanji?: Good morning

Zikomo kwambiri: Thank you very much.

As for the workshop itself, the days flew by. About 20 people attended the workshop, most of them CARE staff but also a handful of Malawi government officials. On the first day, the participants were a bit reserved and quiet during the lecture portions of the day (which we later learned was a cultural normality-- - they’re all a bit shy in big groups!) but they were much more animated upon breaking into smaller groups and working together to create the scripts and storyboards for their videos.

The second day was where the true passion of all the participants came to life and was, hands-down, my favorite day. Malawi is called “the warm heart of Africa,” and that day proved the truth of those words. The focus of day two in a workshop is going into a local community and filming footage to be edited later in the workshop so at around 10 a.m. we piled at least 18 people into the Land Rover (driving laws seem to be more suggestions than rules in Malawi). 15 minutes later and we arrived at a very small village made of buildings crafted from straw, mud and stones.

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The women in the workshop helped me tie a wrap around my waist out of respect for the local culture. In the cities, most women wear regular dresses and skinny jeans and tops but out in the communities, a wrap--a large rectangle of colorful cloth--is extremely important for all women to wear. It’s typically worn over a t-shirt and shorts or tied on over another dress and not usually worn alone. The rest of the women in the Workshop had them stuffed into their bags and had just pulled them out for the trip into the community.

Once there, we filmed our video with community members participating and it was such a joy to see them eager and willing to be a part of the video. It was a very unique experience for me as well as I was the only American in the group and pretty tall as well! I was expecting to garner a lot of looks but nobody minded me being there and all the CARE and government staff took me under their wings, translating throughout the day, explaining the traditional culture I was seeing and telling me when it was okay to take pictures.

On the third and fourth day, participants edited their videos and were able to share them with the whole group. It was amazing to see everybody sharing the responsibilities, offering ideas and contributing to the projects. I was especially happy to see the women who had been nervous at the beginning be empowered to take the helm of editing and filming. By the end of the workshop, we had three full-length (5 - 7 minutes) videos created by the Workshop participants (you can see one here). They created videos on handwashing, proper breastfeeding techniques, and infant nutrition.

Everybody was really excited and proud of the work they’d done and we were so thrilled with the progress they had made. CARE Malawi was definitely one of the most prepared and interactive groups we’ve ever had and we feel confident that they will be making incredibly impactful videos in the future that will really benefit the lives of the kind and compassionate people they work with.

A few other highlights of the trip included a quick visit to Lake Malawi (which takes up ⅓ of the country!). It’s home to the Chambo fish, found only in Lake Malawi, which was a common meal (note to all vegetarians/vegans: it’s actually quite easy to get plenty of delicious food without eating meat or animal products in Malawi and nobody objected! Don’t let it hold back your travels!). On our last day in Malawi, we were also able to walk around Lilongwe and see some more residential areas and establishments visited by locals including a huge flea market. Nobody minded us walking around and it was eye-opening to experience life as a local for a few minutes.

Overall, our trip was incredible and we can’t wait to see the videos that are created to help the the beneficiaries of Malawi break the cycle of poverty and live happier, healthier lives. Personally, it was a trip that really forced me to step back from the comfortable obliviousness of life in America and open my heart and mind to be a part of something much bigger and more important than me. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to pump my water out of a water station each day or live without a microwave for my morning coffee and, honestly, I’m embarrassed that I take these things for granted. It’s a gift and a privilege to live where we do and I will never forget that after this trip.