Malawi, “the warm heart of Africa”, they say. My parents and I were cramped in the minibus driving down the valley into the Chikwawa district when I already realized it was much going to be much more than warm.
The first thing that hit me when I stepped out of the bus in Dyaratu was the amount of trash, mainly blue plastic bags lying around all over the place. Then the smell. A smell of manure, a bitter sweet aroma that only my dad, who grew up on a farm, didn’t seem to mind. We soon discovered its the smell of the ethanol’s factory waste dumping, which although the community was opposed, some people allowed it on their own land in exchange for a few kwachas.
We were greeted by Anderson, the director of Development Initiative Network (DIN). He hosted us in his rented house, still under construction, with his wife, two daughters and Agnes: the nanny, cleaner, cooker and water collector. Life conditions were very tough in the Lower Shire River Valley, with electricity black-outs most of the time, no running water and extremely high temperatures, reaching 43C. Sometimes I was amazed by my parents, since I myself would often dropped to the floor with low blood pressure or extreme exhaustion and dehydration. We had to put mineral and vitamin tablets in the salty water we drank from the bore hole to keep us going, we learned to wash ourselves with one liter of water and to use the bathroom in the dark.
We spent the first week being taken around the different youth clubs and projects, learning about DIN’s work and the struggles of the local people. The first thing we wanted to do was get cleaning up the trash, involving the locals and the children, that seemed absolutely captured by our presence in the village: in fact, most days I ended up playing with them, singing songs and doing exercise.
The trash couldn’t just be picked up, we were told. The local chiefs had to be involved in everything that happened in the communities, and the negotiations about the environmental project were still ongoing. So, we had to live with the fields of trash. My mum, Patty, did take some yuta bags to the kindergarten one morning and got the kids to clean up, but when I visited I still saw the teachers instructing the children on throwing the wrapping of their crisps in the bush (I told her the was a bag inside and she was completely baffled).
Patty was actually here to teach a sowing workshop, but the course kept being delayed until we realized it would never start and she was sent to volunteer with the children, which she felt was an impossible job given her age, language barriers and weak energies. Adam, my father wanted to start teaching in a secondary school, but no headmaster in the area was willing to accept a volunteer for only a few weeks, even though he was ready to teach every morning in various classes. He ended up inventing himself as an IT skills teacher, DIN recruited a small group of beginners from the youth club and he was able to make himself useful for three mornings. On his last morning, one of his students said: “I never thought it would be possible to learn so much in so little time”, which really kicked him off his head.
I was supposed to work with fundraising, but the lack of electricity and internet made it all awfully complicated. By the middle of the second week, after my mother had been breaking down every morning in tears of exasperation, I also gave through to a great discomfort which had been building up inside me. My cries reached the whole neighborhood, Anderson came in to ask me if I was ok. Of course, I wasn’t. I was very upset and there was no need to hide my emotions. I was completely frustrated with what we were doing. How could we expect our friends back in Europe to donate money for the fundraising campaign I was setting up to help the people living with HIV and AIDS when WE, who had traveled all the way to Africa to help, were only sitting around the office feeling useless? I know how it feels back in Europe, when you are bombarded with donation requests, you think: “well, someone will help” and maybe “I’ll share it with my friends and spread the message, but I can’t spare money, then where do I stop?” everyone needs help.
That night we stayed up talking for hours. We decided that we needed to act, do something real, kick-start the project, so in case the fundraising campaign wouldn’t go through, at least WE had brought them a little bit of hope. And we had to act immediately, avoiding DIN bureaucracy, because Patty couldn’t handle the situation any longer.
Having visited the Nanyerere support group, in the isolated community of Biasi, we all agreed that the people there were authentic and our small contribution would’ve gone far. Lovemore, the field officer from DIN who lives in the village assured us they were in great need. “They always come to me,” he said, “to borrow my bicycle because they have no way of getting to hospital to take their medication”. And we knew it must be hard for him too, since he needs the bike to cycle the 30km to the office every day. We also learned from DIN staff that the village of Biasi is particularly affected by the HIV virus due to the sugarcane plantation nearby, owned by Illovo LDT, which at times contracts the villagers for the cutting of the cane. It is the truck drivers who pick-up the sugarcane, that have brought the virus to the village, we were told.
This immediate response impressed us. My positive feeling about these people grew even more during our second visit, when they showed us the land and the well, after which we sat in the shade of a tree while I told them of the wonders of ginger and garlic. While I explained to them how to grow, eat, heal and how to use garlic and onions for pest control, they were attentive and asked smart questions, took the demonstration pieces I had brought them promising to apply the knowledge at once.We got home that last evening and played outside in the dark one last time with Anderson’s little girls while their mother cooked, breathing in the fumes of the coal stove which is slowly killing her and thousands of other women in Africa. By then, Agnes had become depressed, self-aware of her condition as a consequence of the empathy we had shown her. This is, they always say, the risk of westerners visiting poverty.
When we had met the beautiful people at Nanyerere, they had told us of their work together. They had joined their efforts to fight the illness and their status as outcast and HIV and AIDS victims in August 2016. Since then, they have been teaching each-other to take the medicines regularly, and have started a micro-credit village bank. They talked to us of their struggles to reach hospital and take their medication, about having to walk more that 50 km under the rain or the raging sun. They also told us they have been growing their own vegetables, on a patch of land the village chief assigned to them, an hour’s walk away. We gave them the immediate advice to ask the chief for a closer piece of land, since their condition was already fragile.
Our advice was greeted with immediate response, already the next day Lovemore told us that one of the members had donated her land for the support group to have a garden just outside of the village and next to the dry river bank with its its hole in the ground reaching the water level.
The morning after the emotional drama, we rented a car and went to the town of Nchalo to buy a fence for the support group’s new garden. However, as we were unsatisfied with the products we found, Lovemore gave us a great advice. He said that the fence could wait until the rainy season when the vegetables would be growing and would need protection from the animals, but what we could do to give an immediate support was to buy a couple of bicycles for the support group. We immediately took up Lovemore’s suggestion and soon the bikes were in the village, greeted by the happy faces of their new owners.
As we drove away, I drew a deep breath and thought that although we had given a small help, it would have made a great change and it was the beginning of a brighter future for those people and their families.
To help these people in their project
The hot air was blowing through the sand across the mud shacks and brick ovens (in cover photo), little Daina was falling asleep every time she could lie down, already exhausted of the life that laid ahead of her. It was sad to leave, but we knew that we would find another community of beautiful people to feel at home in.