Moments from Malawi: Reflections from student volunteers

Featuring Thomas Mastro, MPA-SSA ’18

Malawi Children’s Mission (MCM) Partnership
May-June 2017
Tom Mastro, MPA-SAA 2018
 “He handed me a canvas that said “I love you Thom. Feel Freee.” This moment was filled with emotions and will be something that I remember for the rest of my life.”

Part 1: Excitement, challenges and a nervous mom

Never studying abroad before or even leaving the country prior to this trip, made me and more importantly, my mother very nervous! As a CCPA student in both undergrad and now graduate school, I always heard of study abroad opportunities throughout both CCPA and the University as a whole.

Starting as a graduate student this past fall I stumbled upon this program through an email list serve. What attracted me to the Malawi program over others was the sustainability aspect to the project that I saw and heard from students who attended the program last summer.

One of the struggles I faced leading up to this trip was how close my brother’s wedding was to the day that we’d be returning. With my brother’s wedding being in my parents yard a great deal of preparation around the house needs to be done leading up to the big day.

Another challenge…leaving the country has always been a major fear of mine. Being actively involved in student government, I’ve always been very interested in federal politics and international affairs. With everything going on in the world it has always frightened me to leave the U.S. and then have something happen, either here in the  States or abroad.

Two days before leaving for Africa it really hit me. It really came full circle that Malawi was no longer just a thing that I was going to be doing in May, but rather something that was really happening in a few days. Walking into JFK and seeing everyone ready to get on the plane, I became even more excited.

As I sit on the plane right now and look around at all the people from around the world, I couldn’t be more excited and thankful for this trip and all that will come out of it.

Part 2: Unexpected emotion, the shock of educating in poverty and a life-changing friend named “Chimwemwe”

Week one in Malawi, complete. There is and has been, a lot going on in my head throughout this week, much like many of my peers on this trip. Growing up, my friends have always made note that I don’t have “emotions” and if I do, you certainly won’t be seen me showing them in public.

This week, my emotions were tested. I have always had a passion for working with children and in the education arena. Driving up to MCM on Monday this week, my view and scoop on education, children living in extreme conditions and poverty, has drastically changed and changed for the better.

This week, I threw myself into as many activities and opportunities as possible. As a leader of the community schools work group, I visited classrooms and meeting with teachers. This experience was eye opening.

It was difficult for me to follow along with the class lecture because of the shock I was feeling as I looked around the classroom. Conditions seen in this room was ones I’d never seen before. For example, this classroom had no desks, but rather plastic chairs that the students worked at. Supplies for students are minimal in all classrooms and something that was discussed prior to our arrival, but I wasn’t anticipating it being to this degree.

Following my classroom visit, I was walking back to the main MCM building when I heard a voice behind say “Uncle!” This is when I met Chimwemwe. He stood there holding a soccer ball (football), smiling and eager to play. I knew this would be my buddy throughout my stay in Malawi.

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Tom with Chimwemwe

We ended up playing soccer every day since. Our soccer games started off as just the two of us and have grown to a large group of boys. I instantly came to the realization that I was not only out of shape, but every time I would get the ball I was reminded that my foot skills were not up to par with Chimwemwe and his friends at MCM!  Chimwemwe, myself and other boys at the school played not only soccer but basketball, baseball and made paper airplanes.

On Friday, Chimwemwe, grabbed my hand and brought me over the arts and crafts area and started drawing me a picture. He used a mini canvas board and shielded what he was writing from me until he was done with it.

He handed me a canvas that said “I love you Thom. Feel Freee.” This moment was filled with emotions and will be something that I remember for the rest of my life.

I am eager to return to MCM on Wednesday after the Lake and enjoy the five days left at MCM.

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Tom and the boys. Chimwemwe sporting the Cowboys tee and big grin.

Part 3: Program gratification, the importance of internet access and hopeful plans for the future

This past Saturday was one of my most enjoyable days here in Africa. For the second time, fellow classmates, Dr. Blitz and myself met with MCM’s teachers and administrators dove into the of best ways to teach and educate students who might be struggling with trauma and toxic stress. In my opinion, this was both engaging and informative.

The partnership MCM has with Binghamton University is unique in that the projects and initiatives such as teacher training, soap making or young women’s initiative, to name a few, are all looked at as long-term projects.

From the start, it was understood by all those attending this trip that whatever we provide to MCM with our projects, it needed to be sustainable and able to be continued once we leave. I believe we accomplished that across all our programs. The teachers’ who attended the training showed both enthusiasm and eagerness to learn from us, which was exciting.

Following our three-hour training, myself and my peers immediately started to discuss ways to make trainings such as the one we assisted with more consistent and frequent. We discussed why it would be difficult to provide additional trainings throughout the school year from the U.S.

I believe the biggest issue and difficulty is the poor internet and Wi-Fi in Malawi. Hosting an online video training from the U.S. would be challenging.

Exciting for both the partnership between the University and MCM is the possibility of bringing Malawi educators Phoebe and Henock to the U.S. for an education conference in New York and a visit to the Binghamton area.

This opportunity would allow them to attend a professional development conference surrounding education and meet like-minded educational professionals. Bringing Phoebe and Henock to the Binghamton area to visit local K-12 schools would be an amazing experience.

Watch for more Malawi Moments, sharing the first-hand experiences of Binghamton University student volunteers in the Malawi Children’s Mission (MCM) Program.

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