Malawi Memories 2018
Each year, as part of the VVS Global Goals program, a group of our students travels to Malawi for almost a month of service projects where the focus is to provide grassroots support to emergent communities to empower their own youth to create positive change. The scope of projects ranges from labor-intense infrastructure building to the simple yet meaningful caring for babies and young children. Along the way, VVS students share the gifts they have collected throughout the year in other locally-based service projects such as menstrual kits that enable young women to stay in school, and reading glasses that transform the quality of life for young and old alike. As with any gift of giving, there is receiving, and our VVS students come away from this experience transformed by awareness.
From the journal of Caroline Diehl, VVS Director of Global Goals
June 9, 2018
The VVS Malawi crew has been having an incredible time in Mangochi these last four days. As I listen to the students debrief our day each night after dinner, I’m moved by the things they are learning and their deep appreciation for this unique experience. They are quickly falling in love with the warm people of Malawi and finding new rhythms in the way their days unfold. Life is simpler but incredibly full.
We awake to spectacular sunrises over Lake Malawi and monkeys swinging from nearby branches or wrestling on the little beach below us as we eat breakfast. Days have centered around building a feeding center/nursery school in a nearby village, working with orphaned babies, and building a covered laundry area at the Pemphero School’s boarding hostel for girls that we helped build a couple years ago. We’ve spent time with the girls we sponsor at Hillside and Pemphero schools and had a great soccer game with Hillside this evening as the sun slowly sunk below the horizon between the baobab trees.
Our projects are fantastic, but it’s the relationships we are developing with the Malawian builders, with the local village children, with the babies and “mommas” at Open Arms that are having the biggest impact. Students constantly comment about the joy they feel being here, about how open and friendly everyone is, and about how alive they feel. Constant laughter and incredible singing surround us. The students may feel exhausted each night from all the work, but it’s that good tired of a day well spent. They are learning, examining why they believe what they do and comparing what they’ve known before with this very different reality here in Malawi. They are asking lots of questions and jumping in 100%. Mostly I think they are reveling in the sense of deep connection that pervades life in Malawi and colors even the briefest interactions. That connection is the “magic of Malawi” and I can feel it taking a grip on their hearts. It’s so cool and moving to witness.
We will be in Mangochi until Wednesday afternoon when we will head to Liwonde National Park for one night. Thursday we will go on a game drive and then boat safari on the Shire River.
Know your children are all safe, healthy and amazing.
All the best from “The Warm Heart of Africa”, Caroline
June 17, 2018
It’s been a very busy and exciting week since I last updated you all. We finished up our projects in Mangochi last Wednesday. At the Mchocholo nursery/feeding center we were building, the pit latrine is now dug, the walls are up to the top of the windows, and there is a large supply of bricks we made for the next groups to continue the building. Several groups will come over the next two months to complete the construction. VVS has also paid the salary for the incoming nursery teacher for her first year. Malawi has one of the highest rates of nutritional stunting in Africa (over 42% of children under 5 years), so one of the main purposes of the nursery school is to make sure at-risk children receive at least one meal a day that meets all of their nutritional needs (vitamins, minerals, protein, and sufficient calories for proper mental and physical growth). The nursery/feeding center is scheduled to open in October or November for about 100 preschoolers.
It was difficult Tuesday evening to pull our students away from the Hillside students as they knew this would be their last time together. There was so much laughter and great conversation, as well as singing and sharing of dance moves. It was great to watch this all happening as the sun was setting and the Hillside Form 4 students (12th graders) were doing physical science experiments and practicals out on the lawn in preparation for their National Exams which start next week. Our students joined some classes at Hillside, spent time with the boarding girls at Pemphero who we sponsor, and played netball and soccer with them as well. The laundry shed we built at Pemphero is complete and the girls are thrilled. We also provided 50 Days for Girls Menstrual Hygiene Kits to Pemphero and another 100 kits to the girls at Hillside School. These kits last for 3 years and have been shown to significantly reduce absenteeism because menstrual hygiene supplies are too expensive for many girls in Malawi, so they must stay at home each month during their cycles. The girls were so excited and grateful to get the kits.
We all also found it incredibly hard to leave Open Arms and all of the “mommas” and babies that stole our hearts. They sang and danced an incredible goodbye on Wednesday which left most of us in tears and pondering how one can get so close to people in just one short week. Somehow it always happens in Malawi – deep friendships and relationships form more quickly and powerfully here it seems.
On Wednesday, before departing Mangochi, we took a boat ride on Lake Malawi to Bird Island where we all swam and snorkeled with the colorful cichlids. Sam, who doesn’t swim, not only conquered his fear of being on a boat on a huge lake but swam with a life jacket and even snorkeled. The group was so proud of him for pushing himself and trusting us all to keep him safe. Then we drove to Liwonde National Park arriving just in time to watch an incredible sunset. Everyone loved our “safari dorm”, the wonderful food, and playing darts by candlelight. Fred the owner shared lots of stories about adventures with the wildlife (having his Land Rover charged by a black rhino, leopard sightings, etc). He was psyched to share that they have released cheetahs and lions into Liwonde Park this year and that they are doing very well. We weren’t lucky enough to see them on our safari the next morning, but we did see over 40 elephants, tons of hippos both on the Shire River and on land, and huge numbers of waterbuck, antelope, impala, kudu, baboons, crocodiles, and warthogs. Caleb was also in heaven with the incredible number of gorgeous rare birds we saw. It was a very thrilling day for the whole crew and also very peaceful to be surrounded by so many amazing animals and spectacular scenery.
From Liwonde, we made our way south to Zomba where we took a hike up on the Zomba Plateau to visit Williams Falls. The views from the plateau are absolutely breathtaking and we gorged ourselves on fresh mountain strawberries and mulberries. For the past 3 days, we have been incredibly busy with the free eyeglass clinics. We met with the pre-identified, severely low vision children to give them their custom glasses on Friday and then gave out over 3300 free glasses this weekend. We had about 700 more pairs of glasses that we’ve left with the eye doctors to distribute in the upcoming weeks. I think we will all still be distributing glasses and trying to control the crowds in our sleep tonight, but it’s great to know that so many people who could never afford glasses are seeing more clearly now.
Tomorrow we head into Namalo Village until Saturday. It’s remote, with no running water and no electricity, but filled with some of my favorite people I’ve met in this country. It may be the “roughest” part of the trip as far as amenities, but is often the favorite part of the trip for the crew because of the incredible people and children. From there, we will climb Mt. Mulanje from Sunday to Tuesday. Please don’t worry if you don’t hear from us, as there will be no wifi for the rest of the trip. I’ll try to get a message out to you from Namalo or before hiking Mt. Mulanje if possible.
It’s been such a joy getting to know this incredible crew of young people on an even deeper level. They are amazing human beings and are giving everything we do 100%. They are also very supportive of each other and are having a great time. We’ve had a few come down with some minor stomach issues and colds, but it’s all been standard stuff one comes to expect while traveling in Africa. They are all in great spirits and eager for our next adventure in Namalo. Thanks again for entrusting them to our care and you can be looking forward to lots of great stories when they return.
All the best, Caroline
June 21, 2018
Just a quick note to tell you all that we are having an amazing time in Namalo Village. It is such a special place and the students are enjoying every moment with the wonderful children and women who run this village. We have been painting a nearby primary school, teaching in some of the classes there which is great fun, and were able to repair the well (borehole) that services the Namalo Feeding Center. There is so much impromptu singing and dancing and outbursts of joy that one can’t help feeling grateful to be part of this community. None of us want to leave tomorrow afternoon for Mt. Mulanje, although we are excited about that too.
The students are all healthy, happy and loving the traditional food in the village which is all prepared over an open fire or on a rocket stove. It’s delicious.
All the best, Caroline
June 23, 2018
It was an amazing start to the day today. I luckily got to be at the birth of a perfect baby boy at 5:00 am this morning. His mother had walked almost 4 miles with her baby boy only 2 hours after his birth. The women are so incredibly strong! We all hated to say goodbye to the 102-year-old Chief of Namalo and everyone in the village this afternoon. There was lots of dancing and beautiful singing and hugs. We all agree that Namalo is a magical place so filled with love and joy.
We are now at the base of Mt Mulanje and will likely be out of reach for the next 3 days as we attempt to reach the Sapitwa Peak.
Everyone is safe and healthy and happy!
All the best, Caroline
June 26, 2018
The 2018 Malawi crew can now reserve the honor of being the first group to all make it to Sapitwa, which is the summit of Mt. Mulanje. Zeni Zeni Zoona – woohoo! We also invited Bruce, our fearless leader of all the painting projects we have done over the last 7 years in Malawi, to join us. He had never had the opportunity to hike Mt. Mulanje, which is the case for most Malawians. His huge smiles for the entire hike were something none of us will forget.
We had an amazing time hiking through incredibly beautiful mountain passes and enjoying spectacular waterfalls. The trek is very challenging, but this group was committed to all making it to the top together and luckily everyone was healthy enough to make that happen. We also were so lucky to have perfect weather this year. The views from Sapitwa were stunning! Today on our way off the mountain most of us enjoyed an exhilarating swim in the pool below a huge waterfall, washing away the days of sweat in the freezing clear water.
We are almost to Neville’s house where we will have a goodbye BBQ and spend the night before we all sadly depart this incredible country. Everyone is healthy and feeling great about all we’ve experienced together. What a fantastic trip it has been!
Thanks again to all of you parents for entrusting your wonderful kids to us for this adventure. Please remember that they have been going non-stop working on projects and then hiking a very tough mountain, right on the heels of finals, Project Period and graduation (which all feel like a lifetime ago to us). They will need some downtime to process and recuperate. It’s not uncommon for students to experience a bit of reverse culture shock upon return from Malawi, so please be there to listen to their stories and experiences. They will be so eager to have someone to share all of this with. Please also know that you can email me with any questions or concerns.
All the best, Caroline
June 27, 2018
We are waiting for our flight to depart at the Blantyre airport and are about to board. Thank you again for sharing your amazing children with Caleb and me. It was such an amazing trip and none of us are ready to leave. Hard to believe how fast the time went. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have questions or concerns.
All the best, Caroline
From the journal of Caleb Kulfan, VVS Big History Faculty
….. My other revelation came on my last flight home to Grand Rapids. I was thinking back to Malawi, one of the poorest countries in Africa. Most people there survive on about 60 cents a day. People sleep on grass mats on the floor of their modest home, which if they’re lucky has one or two lights. Mud bricks are made by hand on site, and if you can’t afford cement to mix in you run the risk of losing your house during the rainy season. You could always tell when it was dinner time because you could smell the smoke from all of the cooking fires. You could sometimes smell this smoke in the morning, but hardly ever during mid-day. Most people get only one or two meals a day of ground corn (called nsima) and a few vegetables from their garden. Despite this crushing poverty, Malawi is full of the most joyful, sincere, and kindest people I’ve ever met. During lunch breaks, I was struck by how much laughter came from the workers’ conversations. It seemed like they had something to laugh about in every other sentence, sometimes EVERY sentence. The kids were the same way. Many elementary schools in the villages have 60-100 students crammed into a room with no furniture, everyone just sprawled out on the floor. Of the children that had school books, it was hard to find one that actually had all of the pages. They carried their books in the plastic bags you buy vegetables in until they were falling apart so much they were rendered useless. At least to a westerner. The kids take those bags and ball them up really tightly, tying them with string or other plastic into surprisingly effective soccer balls. They actually bounced! It was quite amazing. But what’s most amazing is the resiliency of these people, to wake up every day happy to be alive despite not having so many of the things we think of as necessary to have a good life. What I realized on the plane is that they don’t need any of those material things to be happy because they have each other. That’s all they need. It’s all any one of us truly needs.