Moments from Malawi: Reflections from student volunteers

Featuring Eboniqua Smith, MSW ’18

Malawi Children’s Mission (MCM) Partnership
May-June 2017

Eboniqua Smith Bronx, NY, MSW 2018

“Experiencing economic poverty does not equate to unhappiness.”

Part 1:  Cautious anticipation and the bolstering effect of a journal

As the time quickly approaches to travel 7,762  miles away from family and close friends, I am at a loss for words. When I initially heard about the service learning trip I was head-over-heels, I knew it was an experience I wanted.

Now that I have completed all the requirements, packed my bags, starting planning and laid the foundation for the projects–I feel stuck. My family and friends continuously ask me “if I’m excited” and I reply with a soft and simple “yea.”

I’m not sure what’s going on, but I think it has a lot to do with nerves. Embarking on a journey I’ve never been on before, flying for over 15 hours to my destination, new food, new people, the unknown – I’m  on autopilot. I keep thinking once I get to the airport, I’ll shake it off and re-light my fire of excitement, but for now, I guess I’m ready.

My ho12191168_893388424043743_2309800312640665944_opes for arrival in Malawi is to take it day-by-day and to fully absorb everything I’m hearing, seeing and feeling.

I also took the advice of my peers, those who embarked on this journey last year, and invested in a journal. I want to be able to track and take notes of my journey and experiences as they happen. This, I know, will be a good resource for my own growth and the change I will experience when I get back to New York.

I also can’t wait to run around and play with the kids. The videos and pictures of them from the past trip were something that made me submit my application and I can’t wait to make my own memories.

Part 2: A feeling of home, the kid connection and the unimportance of things

This first week has been nothing less than heartwarming. I must say my excitement stems from a feeling of finally being “home.” Taking a trip to the motherland was a dream that has now turned into reality. Oddly enough I don’t feel out of place–driving around Malawi makes me feel at home. I feel as if I belong here and I’m already sure that this will not be the last trip I make to the country.

After landing in the Malawian airport and driving to Annie’s Lodge, I couldn’t wait to call my Mom and tell her how similar it is to being on the island of St. Croix, where my family is from. Attending church here and trying the local food helped me immediately identify parallels between the Malawian culture and the culture of my Caribbean family.

After traveling over a dirt road to the MCM community and finally meeting the children, I have to say I was surprised by their immediate connection with us. I felt even more at home with them at my side. They were not afraid to take a hand and play a game, but honestly kids are kids no matter the location.

There were moments that took me aback during visits to the village. I believed I had a vast amount of knowledge concerning the struggles these families endure. However, as we well know, hearing about something is not the same as actually seeing it.

Touring the homes of some of the kids, and hearing guardians share their experiences, stories, dreams and hopes for the children, warmed my heart. Each time a guardian shared something, the wheels in my head were turning, trying to figure out how I might be able to help these families after I leave. Their work ethic, sense of community and care for each membe10750329_744290485620205_652511957943088434_or touched my heart.

My main concern so far is the confused perception of these families’ situations with the absence of happiness. I cannot and will not cease to express that these families are strong, resilient and HAPPY. Experiencing economic poverty does not equate to unhappiness.

My concern is more for their well-being. For example, the challenge of obtaining water. It is unbelievable how much they have to go through to get this necessity of life. One of the projects I would like to concern myself with when I return home is raising money to provide water bore holes for each village community that is home to children from the MCM academy. It may not be a project that will reap an immediate outcome, but it will happen.

Part 3: Girls demonstrate the value of “teaching a man to fish”

The services that MCM offers the families and children of the villages exceeded my expectations. I am amazed at the work being done to serve 150 students. One of the things that impresses me the most is that, even with limited staff and resources, they still manage to do so much.

The project that I came to MCM prepared for was to work with the Young Women’s Initiative. As we prepared projects and ideas to share, nothing felt effective because I didn’t know the girls I was going to meet; I didn’t know their attitudes, their work ethic or what they like to do. I was thinking of the girls I met in New York and how making sanitary pads, one of the proposed projects, would not have appealed to them. But it was a brilliant idea and we decided to proceed with it in Malawi.

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As the time came closer for us to show the MCM girls the steps to make the pads, I became nervous.

To my surprise the girls were motivated to complete this project. They never complained, never gave up and the week-long project was completed successfully.

The girls exceeded my expectations and their work ethic surpasses that of most people I know. They were also very grateful to not just be given something, but to learn such an important skill.

MCM’s Ken shared his thoughts on “handouts,” saying that he finds it important for the children to learn skills, to have the ability to create things themselves and also to pass those skills on to peers and future generations. The community seemed to share that view.

We met with the village chiefs, who expressed their gratitude about the skills being learned by people in the villages. The chiefs also expressed their want for the young men to be included in similar learning.  At the mention of this, my wheels started turning as to what ideas I can contribute to help the boys find a project, so they can learn valuable skills and potentially make money for their communities and themselves.

I love and appreciate all the possibilities for entrepreneurship that MCM allows. This organization will continue to have a place in my heart, as will the people of MCM, the driving force behind such a phenomenal mission to change lives. The children of the three villages are lucky, in my opinion, to have such a strong community raising them. My time here illustrated to me the well-known saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

Part 4: Gratitude 

I remember when I initially told family and friends I had applied to a service-abroad project, that their reaction was one of excitement. Everyone couldn’t wait to hear about how I helped “those orphaned kids on the other side of the world.” Even I couldn’t wait for what adventure might unfold. During the two-and-a-half weeks of our trip, my mind raced to process and interpret everything that I saw, smelled, touched and heard.

The most mind boggling part for me, as I previously shared, is that everything felt so familiar, that I felt so at home. The only thing different was the language, although the language barrier did not interfere with the love and care I quickly developed for the people and the country of Malawi.

On my immediate return to New York, I began sharing stories of my Malawian experience. Many of my family and friends were shocked, unaware of how westernized Malawi is, especially referring to how much English they spoke.

Many people were also amazed that the children at MCM didn’t look “starving.” (The images of starving orphaned African children was what many people unfortunately knew about Africa.) One thing I always share about the people I met in Malawi is how extremely hard working they are. Everyone I met was inquisitive and ready to learn.

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As I write this, I’m still trying to understand fully the ways this experience will stay with me forever. Of course I’ve met a great deal of people that I may never forget, thanks to special photographs and videos, but what can I take away and apply to my professional life?

The answer currently is that this Malawian experience has added onto my drive to help people excel in life. It has also pushed me to take advantage of everything that I am afforded. I am fortunate to be in a position where my parents still  work countless hours to afford necessities, but they can acquire them.

I interacted with people in Malawi who have few material things, but a lot of heart and drive. If the opportunity to further themselves or their community presented itself, I’m positive they will take advantage of it.

As a person living in America, I see opportunity and feel obliged to take advantage of it. Whether it be an opportunity to help myself excel or to help others, an opportunity presented should not be passed up.

I don’t want to take anything for granted, because even my ability to walk to the supermarket is an opportunity that children and families living in a rural Malawian village don’t have. As I continue to process my thoughts, reactions and reflections from this trip, I will remind myself to not take my situation for granted.

~Eboniqua

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