College of Community and Public Affairs Dean Laura Bronstein and Dr. Lisa Blitz, Assistant Professor of Social Work, spent their winter break working with children, many orphaned and living in extreme poverty, in partnership with the Malawi Children’s Mission. The MCM provides nutrition, education, healthcare, and emotional support to children near Blantyre, Malawi. Founded in 2007, director Ken Mpemba, and co-founders and board members Sean Robinson, and Binghamton native Steven Koffman (who accompanied Drs. Bronstein and Blitz on the trip) determined that the challenges in the rural villages of M’bwana, Jamali and Mwazama were significant. In response, they mobilized a team to develop a Center that supports local children by providing a daily food program, education, psychosocial support and medical care, including malaria and HIV/AIDS testing.
The feeding center started serving lunch to fifty children and has expanded to feed and provide after school activities for 150 children daily. In addition, MCM has now expanded to a school for pre-kindergarten through 3rd grade for 50 children, offering them educational opportunities not available at overcrowded local government schools, and provides after school educational enrichment for all children served by the feeding center. Dr. Bronstein and Dr. Blitz went to see the conditions that the children are living in, and to perform an asset-based assessment in order to create opportunities for Binghamton University students and faculty to play an integral role in supporting MCM’s mission to promote bright futures of the children, their families, and their communities.
Dr. Bronstein discusses some of the challenges she experienced working with a particular family: “There was a one month old baby who cried for an hour straight. The mother, who looked to be very, very young, was unable to nurse the baby because she is HIV positive. There wasn’t any formula for the baby. They were attempting to feed the baby nsima, which is made from maize, though this is not optimal, and was not working. The family didn’t have any money for formula, so we gave her some and the use of a bike so that she could go buy formula. The only feeding bottle the family had to use was unsanitary, and we were able to purchase this young mother bottles and a bottle brush. It was incredibly unsettling to know that this baby was crying for an hour as a result of hunger. It was very difficult.” Another particularly difficult moment came when the team happened upon a woman in her 30s laying on a mat crying. The team stopped and asked a few questions, determining that the woman, who displayed symptoms of malaria, had traveled several miles by foot, sans shoes, to go to the hospital, where she was denied treatment because the hospital had run out of malaria testing kits. The team administered a home-testing kit for malaria and was able to treat the woman for the disease. Had they not been traveling in that area at that time, the woman may have died as a result of this treatable illness.
Besides poor housing, limited food and health care, other hardships faced by many of these families include the lack of electricity, which is only available in 9% of the country, and limited access to clean water. Dr. Bronstein discussed that though the number living in poverty is significant, there are those in the area who have more resources, including electricity and access to clean water, and these Malawians are able to promote community development for the poorer regions. However, due to horrific flooding in the January rainy season, even those who have more access and ability were at a disadvantage. The recent flood engulfed large areas under water and eroded the mud hut homes of many in the areas hardest hit. In the January 2015 floods, over 100,000 people were reported homeless and about 100 people were missing and presumed dead—swept away by the torrential rain and flash floods at rivers. Those in the urban area who had electricity were being told that it could take up to three months before the electricity will function again. The electrical problems also contributed to a water shutdown, and much of the metropolitan area of Blantyre was without running water for more than a week. This also raises the risk of infectious disease like cholera and malaria, as the result of a lack of clean drinking water and sewage contamination.
The problems are profound and need to be understood in the context of history and social justice concerns. But the problems are not the whole story of Malawi. To understand Malawi, Dr. Blitz emphasizes, it is important to see the truth of their national slogan as “the warm heart of Africa.” The generosity of spirit, the resiliency of culture, the strength of individuals and families were also evident. One young man, who has been connected to MCM since its inception and who is now finishing high school, is like 18 year old young men anywhere: vacillating between career ambitions in the broadcast field or a more practical route in nursing. Dr. Bronstein and Dr. Blitz were the first university professors he had ever met, and he had many questions about college. The little kids had a blast playing “duck-duck-goose” and the middle-schoolers loved telling stories in call-and-response style about the clever but short-sighted hare who was repeatedly undone by the persistent and determined tortoise (some stories, it seems, are quite universal!).
Something that struck me when interviewing Dr. Bronstein about her time in Malawi is how important she feels the research is, not just because of what the impact could be, but in that she could play in role in that impact. Dr. Bronstein is a passionate researcher. When an academic and a researcher takes a position such as dean of a college, it can be empowering and rewarding to facilitate research opportunities for the faculty you work with, but often the demands of such a position preclude one’s ability to take on initiatives like this. Opportunities to go into the field have the potential to create a vision and a new way of partnering and increasing not only the visibility for the college and its dynamic programs, but to make a difference in the lives of people, the heart of what it means to be “CCPA.”
True to visionary form, Dr. Bronstein and Dr. Blitz are in the early planning stages of developing an academic opportunity, in conjunction with the University of Malawi and MCM, that hopes to send transdisciplinary teams of students and faculty researchers into rural Malawi. Faculty and students from across Binghamton University are well positioned to collaborate among and with students and faculty from CCPA in order to create an asset-based community development assessment and to support the goals and vision of Malawians for their next generation of leaders. For the greater good of people on both continents.