Friday, January 3, 2014

Warm Heart of Africa

 A couple of days ago we departed Malawi after two of the most incredible weeks of our lives. We’re forever grateful for the opportunity to travel and to be able to meet the community we’ll be working with for the next 5 to 10 years. This will be our last post for this travel team, so we’d like to wrap it up with some final thoughts.

          Malawi is one of the most peaceful countries in Africa, but it is also one of the 10 poorest counties in the world. As we drove along the bumpy roads of this impoverished nation, signs of its weak economy and almost total lack of infrastructure stood out to all of us. Both sides of the path were lined with people walking or biking with a load of cargo - sometimes as heavy as 50 lbs - creatively held to their person. In our two weeks of driving around town we hardly ever ran into traffic due to the lack of vehicles in the area. Gas costs about $8 a gallon, so if someone could somehow afford to purchase a car, the cost of maintaining the vehicle would probably deter them. 
          Our EWB team is working within a community called Kumponda, which is found off the main roads of the city of Blantyre (pronounced Blan-tire). As we drove to Kumponda, our car struggled over numerous pot holes created by years of heavy rainfall. It’s rare for people here to see a running car, and it’s rarer for them to see White people as its passengers. We moved slowly along the road (if you can call it that) and were greeted by the pleasant faces of all the locals. Their wide smiles revealed their incredibly white teeth, which we presume is a result of a diet lacking in much sugar - or any food for that matter. The kids were always especially happy to see us. They would wave vigorously at us in the hopes that we’d return the gesture (as we always did). We’d pass a couple of water pumps - the only clean water for miles - before finally arriving to the main community center of the village. Most days we were greeted by a group of children who we called our “usual gang.” They’d arrive in their tattered clothing giggling and posing for us as we took pictures to bring back to the states. We admired their positive attitudes which went quite a ways in masking the reality of their situation in Kumponda. 
          Their clothes are ragged, ripped and faded from years of overuse and much of the original colors are covered by permanent layers of dirt. Probably more striking is their actual physical appearance. All of the kids wear their hair short (girls included) to keep cool during the hot rainy season. Their feet are rugged and callused from years of walking barefoot on the uneven dirt environment and though they have dark skin, the red-colored dirt can be seen in patches across all their exposed body parts. Just by looking at them you’d be forgiven for believing they were well fed. Their distended bellies - caused by filling up on water as opposed to food - reflects the true irony of the situation; okay on the outside, but hurting on the inside. These are the happy children of Kumponda and these are the people our club’s work will benefit most.
          The condition of Kumponda itself tells its own story. For a village lacking a garbage collection service there was an unsettling lack of trash. People here can’t afford packaged goods so they don’t generate any plastic waste. Everything they grow, they try to eat and what little they don’t eat, they try and sell in the hopes of being able to afford seeds for the next year’s planting. Power lines can be seen crossing the village at seemingly random points, but no house in the area has access to electricity. The lines simply pass through the village on their way to more affluent parts of Blantyre. With no fans to cool them off in the afternoon, people must seek refuge in the shade of their brick homes to help cool off. 
          As mentioned in previous posts, there is no running water in the community. The only clean water comes from the couple of pumps dug by past aid organizations. As a result, restrooms are hand dug pits - measuring somewhere between 7 and 10 feet deep - which need to be covered and rebuilt about once a year. Whenever the wells dry up the locals are forced to draw water from the nearby river. The water there is brown from the mud that runs in during the rainy season and water tests show a dangerous amount of biological agents living in there as well. During the rainy season the river can overflow and washout the roads the people need to access clean water points and paths that children need to get to school. 
          Most kids go to school when they can. Attendance isn’t consistent for most children due a large number of factors. They don’t go when they’re sick, when they need to help on the farm, when the roads wash out or when they’re having their period (pertaining to the girls of course). Grades K-8 are free in Malawi, but a high school education costs money; money that none of the families in Kumponda have to spare. Even the K-8 education in Kumponda is lacking a bit. The schools consist of single room buildings with little to no materials to read or write with. The teachers are all volunteer based and they aren’t necessarily qualified to be teaching either. The kids are enthusiastic and willing to learn, but they just don’t have the means to do so. 
          Despite all of the above, the people of Kumponda are never short of laughs and smiles. They are a hard working people and, with the help of our NGO, will surely take full ownership of any project we propose to them. They may be lacking in resources, but  no one here is lacking in heart. We love this community and we hope that our blog, the photos and the videos we bring back will help you all to share in our love for them. EWB is about helping real people with problems that are hindering their standard of living. We can quit EWB any time we want, but the people of Kumponda won’t stop hoping that we’ll back to help them out. It’s going to be a long process, but we believe that this community is well and truly set up to succeed in the future. They just need a little push in the right direction to get them started.

From the Warm Heart of Africa,

EWB Malawi Travel Team of Winter 2013