Blog: June 2010

June 29, 2010

I can’t believe I’m already halfway done with my stay here! I’ve gotten some questions about Malawian life, so I thought I would take a step back and explain a little about the typical lifestyle here in Madisi. I’m not an expert, but I hope my observations thus far can help enhance understanding about the surroundings the youth of RiseMalawi encounter.

Madisi is a small town about an hour’s drive north on the main M1 Malawian road from the capital city of Lilongwe.  It has a trading center with some shops and market vendors, but lacks a bank, which keeps it in the ‘less developed’ category according to local residents. Transportation around town and the surrounding village areas is by walking and bicycles. The only paved road is the M1, where there are mini-buses available to take you to other towns along the main road. There is a fairly large rural area surrounding Madisi from which people travel to school or the mission hospital here. So even though the leaders and I consider a weekend ride to the capital city Lilongwe as our trip “into town”, many consider trekking in from the villages to Madisi as their excursion “into town” for business and trading. Most houses are small and made of brick, with iron sheet or thatched roofs, some are wired for electricity while others are not (although rationing power outages average one 2 hr period per day). Some families cook over fire, others on hotplates or small electric stoves. Most households have a garden from which they feed their family and they also farm crops to sell such as maize and tobacco (interestingly- hardly anyone smokes here). Kids in the Rise program have walking school commutes ranging from 25-60 minutes. There is a mix of public primary schools and hybrid/charter-type schools.
The education system is quite different the US, and faces many challenges, so I hope to post a more detailed reflection in the near future that focuses on it. I’ll have lots to discuss with all my teacher family members and friends upon returning-so get ready!
It’s intriguing that many people, both Malawians and Americans, are curious about what is eaten in the other culture. I guess since it’s such a basic necessity and part of everyone’s daily routine, it can be fascinating to compare how others differ in this area. The staple food here is nsima, which is a soft grain dish made from maize or cassava flour. I’m told that learning how to make quality nsima is a sort of right of passage for children here (especially the girls, traditionally). I am still in the apprenticeship stage of learning how to prepare nsima, still requiring supervision and instructions.
The command is always, “too many lumps-keep stirring!” My goal is to cook it independently before I leave in a month and maybe even incorporate it into my American diet when I return! Vegetables and protein such as beans, eggs, or meat, depending on the family’s means, are served with the nsima and it is eaten with hands. The most traditional side dish in the villages actually also comes from the cassava plant by mashing and cooking the leaves. I love that there can be a resourceful and complete meal from using all the parts of one plant, although I also support the public health messages here to encourage variety in the diet to increase nutritional status. A more diluted porridge form is often eaten with sugar for breakfast, along with some locally grown tea. Other common foods include sweet potatoes, bananas, rice, and tomatoes.
Thanks for reading Malawian Life 101 :) In other news, we’ve had a productive week here, working with the CampLeaders and kids on their term 3 schoolwork as the weeks tick away and exams approach. I had two really good days at the hospital working alongside staff that helped me get more involved. Malaria, anemia, and pregnancy problems are the most common things seen. However, there is currently an outbreak of Measles in the region, so I’ve seen several cases of this and heard about the challenge of re-vaccination efforts by the government health department. I’m quite impressed with how the hospital functions considering the limited resources such as laboratory tests and imaging that are available. I’m also impressed at the dedicated support given by the family members of those admitted. The hospital does not provide any food, so someone must stay nearby and provide meals and other caretaking for the patients.
It seems that most things here usually get accomplished by communal rather than individual efforts, I love seeing and being a part of that!

Pictures:  Za and Tinashe hard at work in the RiseMalawi office, Regina and Veronica enjoying small group paint activity, and me enjoying a nsima meal.

June 28, 2010

The other day I had the privilege to join the staff on their bi-weekly home visits, where they rotate visiting the parents of the children in camp to build relationships and communicate about how they can better partner to help the children. I was a little nervous, feeling like there might be confusion about who I was or why I was intruding on their lives. However, it was one of the most insightful times so far for me to understand the RiseMalawi children and for them to feel more connected to the program staff. I was on a team with the CampLeaders Jane and Annette and we put on our traditional chitenje wrap skirts and started off walking about 20 minutes to one village where 3 of the children live: Mphatso, Anastasia, and Florence. When we arrived, a 4th kid Henry (who wasn’t on the day’s list) was so excited to see us, he declared we must also visit his home and ran off to prepare his mom before we could say no!

The parents of each home were so welcoming to us and my fears left (or rather just shifted to slight awkwardness as the crowds of younger siblings and cousins gathered from near and far to look at the weird American visitor). Annette and Jane spent time discussing the children’s progress in school and any issues that are challenging in the home. They mentioned things ranging from a lack of soap to wash school uniforms to inadequate food for the large families to difficult relationships between stepfathers and children. Annette shared with Mphatso’s mom that she has faced similar challenges when her education had been halted due to the death of her father and limited family resources. She encouraged her to trust God, and shared how she is now a CampLeader and able to further her education at teacher training college in September. At another point, Jane also shared a bit of her story about how she has made it through issues of divorce in her family. It was a good time to give the kids some personal attention that can be difficult in the large group setting, and let them know that there are adults rooting for them and caring about their futures. Seeing Annette and Jane in action, I was struck by the importance and power of equipping indigenous leaders who can relate to members of their communities in ways that outsiders never could. Even with noble efforts or immense resources, I would not have been able to minister to their needs in the same way. I still think there is a call for cross-cultural service for myself as well as the church as a whole, but it was beautiful to see these young women sharing their experiences and gifts in a setting where they are uniquely relevant.

Picture: walking back to town after home visits with gift baskets of groundnuts. Back row: Jane, Annette, & Henry Front: Florence, Anastasia, & Mphatso

June 22, 2010

Well, a lot has happened since last week! We’re getting into the swing of things with the third term of after-school program. I’ve been so impressed with how smoothly-run and structured the RiseMalawi camp is, you can tell that the team has really developed a rhythm to which the kids respond well. I’ve been helping out where I can, leading a few lessons and games and helping to cook or serve lunch. Unfortunately for me, the 8th graders, who have the most confidence in their English, have been leaving early to return for extra classes at their schools to prepare for their upcoming national exams. So, my direct communication is often limited with the kids, although everyone understands smiles, laughs, and wheel barrel races! One of the grade 6 girls, Ivy, has made several special efforts to be my translator and make sure I know what’s going on at the program. It was really funny though, because during a red-light-green-light type game the other day, she was translating the English words “freeze” and “go” into “stop” and “run”. When I tried to indicate that I already understood, she got confused and we almost got tagged out of the game, so I just had a good chuckle and let her keep guiding me! Please keep those 8th graders in your prayers, these tests determine whether they are eligible to go to secondary school or not. If not, they can repeat 8th grade, which several of them have already done, or some may be tempted to forgo their education all together. We’d really love to see them all selected to go to high school and also have the means to pay the school fees that are required at that level!

As a hospital volunteer, I’ve had some opportunities to observe different areas, including pediatric ward, outpatient department, and the HIV anti-retroviral clinic. I’ve mostly been just shadowing the clinical officers (they do not have any full medical doctors on staff currently) and trying to understand how things work here. My limited training and language barrier make it hard some days to really feel like I’ve accomplished a lot during my morning shifts. How humbling to remember that I’m just one person with nothing to offer on my own merit except whatever gifts and love God fills me with! I’ve been reminded of how some friends at the Romero Center in Camden speak of “ministry of presence”, that sometimes the most selfless service we can offer is just to be present with someone else and not be concerned about fixing their situation or completing a project. I’m trying to cultivate that attitude here; listening, learning and validating those around me by being fully present each day and offering my prayers, if nothing else.

Our trip last weekend to Nkhata Bay, Tinashe’s parents’ village in the Northern Region, will definitely stand out in my memories from my time here. We were so graciously welcomed into her family’s home and spent our time visiting her extended family that populates the lush, green hills covered with trees and tea plantations. I had my first classic village experiences of eating raw sugarcane, pounding groundnuts into flour, and pumping water from the borehole, although I was a bit ungraceful and messy at all of these tasks! It was interesting to hear from Tinashe’s parents how they have tried to influence their community by promoting education. Her father is a retired schoolteacher and has really set the pace to break the cycle of poverty by supporting many members of his extended family through school, who have subsequently supported others. While major change efforts are warranted in Malawi at the level of systems and infrastructure, these grassroots efforts of family and friends lifting one another up by sponsoring children through school can really have more genuine and lasting effects. Most of the UrbanPromise International fellows have stories of how someone helped them and how it has motivated them to give back, so they are living proof of this phenomenon bearing fruit in Malawi. What a privilege to meet and share this time with the Saka family, it definitely makes the world seem like a smaller place to travel so far, but still feel so much at home!

Pictures: Me attempting to carry a bucket of rice to after-school program & some happy campers L-R Folace, Ivy, Christina, Florence, & Enala

June 10, 2010

Hey there! We have had a great week so far, completing two days of after-school programs with the children. Their energy and excitement to be back after their trimester holiday was encouraging and they were ready for the activities we had planned. I attempted to teach them ultimate frisbee for recreation time, which was a little confusing and chaotic at first, but they seemed to get the hang of it! The kids are quite shy speaking English so far, so I'm hoping they warm up more and I'm able to get to know them on a deeper level. They are so well behaved, respectful, and hardworking -sitting quietly while eating lunch, helping carry buckets of food and water to/from camp (perhaps they can teach me their head balancing skills by the end of the summer!), and following the leaders' instructions. I think they could teach American kids a thing or two!

I was also able to volunteer at the Madisi Mission Hospital two days this week. I did a lot of observing since my Chichewa language skills are not quite good enough to be interviewing patients nor are my clinical medical skills very advanced yet. I'm trying to keep my eyes open for exactly how I can be helpful there over the coming weeks. There are very limited resources and many challenges there, but I'm not sure how I can fit into the picture. The most exciting thing was that I got to see a baby get born in the operating room via c-section! While I felt a little light-headed at moments and had to sit down, it was a special moment to witness!

I'm sorry to keep this short and picture-less this week, but I hope to do a better job next time. Tinashe is taking me up to the Northern region of Malawi this weekend to meet her parents and see her home village. I'm quite excited to stay with her family and see another part of the country! Have a nice weekend! ~Janelle

June 5, 2010

Greetings!  I am continuing to enjoy the slower, simpler
lifestyle here in rural Malawi, it has been a welcome change from the
flustered month of May I had in the US and the usually hectic American
way of life.  I love strolling home with Tinashe through the Madisi
market and creating a meal from local produce such as tomatoes, sweet
potatoes, and bananas.  Listening to the radio, shelling peanuts from
the recent harvest, or playing cards with whichever visitors decide to
stop by has been a refreshing way to spend our evenings.  I’m even
perfecting my bucket shower and laundry techniques!

    However, things moving slower has manifested in two ways this
week that have been making me think a lot.  The first is the slower
pace of business getting done.  This is frustrating not only for me,
but also the local people who are trying to make a difference in the
community.  My approval as a hospital volunteer, Rise’s effort to
register with the Malawi NGO office, and two interns’ visa
applications are all currently victims to this difficulty.  Even Za’s
simple trip yesterday to the bank took over two hours inside!  We’ve
been having conversations about the causes and possible solutions to
this and cultural, bureaucratic, technological, and political aspects
all seem to contribute.  There was a consensus among the leaders that
this inefficiency majorly hinders efforts of development and growth in
the country. While the complexity and size of the problem can be
enough to paralyze those trying to navigate the system, I'm trying to
pray that creative and innovative solutions can be found to move
things forward for our own issues and for the future of Malawi.

    The second slow thing that has come to my attention is the pace
at which many in the community are able to move through school and
establish themselves in a career.  A hallmark of UrbanPromise
programs, the CampLeader program at Rise Ministries employs high
school students to work as counselors for the younger children.  I
have spent most of the week with the Rise team of Jen, Linda, Annette,
Chikondi, and Mpatso evaluating the past term and preparing lessons
and activities for the next term, starting Monday.  (I can’t wait -we
have lots of fun things planned and I’m realizing how much I miss
formally working with kids!)  I assumed they were mostly in their
teens due to their level in school, but I was astonished several days
into meetings to discover that I was the second youngest person in the
room at age 25!  Education has been delayed for different reasons for
each of them, but many times the poor quality or availability of
teachers and schools meant that they must repeat grade levels multiple
times before passing the exams and moving on.   Other delays have
occurred because of family or health issues that prevented the
students from attending for months at a time.  When these factors are
unfortunately coupled with a lack of expectations and encouragement,
many will never finish or reach their full potential.  This is
discouraging to see in the community, but it is promising to see the
CampLeaders eagerly working towards passing their national exams and
moving into professional schools or colleges.  Rise requires them to
be pursuing advanced education and provides the support necessary to
get there, such as tutoring, help with fees, and an encouraging staff
to bring optimism in the midst of a difficult journey.  My goal is to
add my voice and inspire others to join that chorus of hope here this
summer and in the years ahead.  Even though I sometimes get frustrated
to still be in a 'training' stage of life and not free to do medical
work yet, how humbling to be reminded of the many opportunities I have
to be thankful for that have fit into my first quarter-century of
    Thanks for reading, keep us in your prayers and I hope to share
again soon about the new term of after-school program!  ~Janelle

Picture outside Rise office after a planning session (from L-R:Tinashe
and Campleaders Annette, Jen, & Linda)

Subscribe to Blog: June 2010