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

Moments from Malawi: Reflections from student volunteers

Featuring Shannon Rudy, MSW ’18

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

Shannon Rudy, Syracuse, MSW 2018

“They have taught me more than I ever feel I could begin to teach them about the human connection and what it means to be a good person in the face of adversity.  I cannot wait to learn more!”

Part 1:  Elation, anxiety and what to pack 

Yesterday, I stood at the foot of my bed for what seemed like forever, staring at the open luggage with my personal belongings neatly packed away. I went through my list about a dozen times, making absolutely sure that I had everything I could need. Frustrated, I dumped the luggage and repacked everything again. How can I possibly be ready for this kind of opportunity?

It’s hard to coherently put my feelings about studying abroad in Malawi into a blog. I’m elated, nervous, anxious, while at the same time I’m not really feeling anything at all because it hasn’t really sunk in yet. I don’t think it will until I’m on that 14-hour flight across the Atlantic. On another note, I got sick this week, so I haven’t exactly had the chance to get too excited about anything. I hope this throat thing goes away by the time I get on the plane.

All these worries and trivial things to get anxious about make me laugh as I type this. I’m going to Africa! My worries about what clothes I’ve packed and what snacks I’ll bring or what I’ll do on the plane will be null and void. It doesn’t matter there. What matters is the work that will be put into empowering the lives of teachers, grandparents and the kiddos in Malawi. I’m so excited to meet them all, and I’m hoping they’ll like me.

Life will be so different for the next three weeks. I keep forging scenarios in my head of what it might be like, feel like, taste like, but I know there’s no possible way to know. This unknown is what makes me most nervous. Will I succeed in what I’m trying to do? Will the people benefit from our work? Will it last on both them and myself? How can I carry this experience with me for the rest of my life? How will I change? These are just a few of the hundreds of questions bouncing around my head, and I hope to answer a fraction of them by the time the wheels drop back onto the U.S pavement.

This will change my life forever, and I am so ready.

Part 2:  A case of the cankles, the beauty of Africa and “oh my gosh, the kids!”

I have been in Blantyre, Malawi for a week already, and there is so much to reflect on that I hardly know where to start and how to finish. Being in Africa has surpassed all expectations and has quieted the initial anxieties I felt before the journey here. The flight itself was excruciatingly long, but the swollen ankles and tired crankiness of myself and my cohort made the arrival worth it.

The drive to our lodgings gave me my first look at Africa, and how beautiful and vast it is. The mountains in the distance and little shops on the side of the streets welcomed me temporarily home as people waved back at me and my eagerness. If random strangers waved at locals in the States, the general feelings would be confusion, disinterest or probably annoyance. Every person I smiled or waved at here greeted me with a genuine smile and wave in return. I was honestly surprised!

We were all welcomed by the exceedingly friendly staff at Annie’s Lodge, with Ms. Pauline quickly trying to teach us Chichewa. “Wawa!”, “Mulibwanje?”, “Dzinalakondani?”. Hello! How are you? What’s your name? She is still a VERY patient teacher. We were brought to our rooms, completed with mosquito nets over the beds to protect from the bugs and mosquitoes.

The next day we met our drivers, who have continued to be incredibly patient, protective and wonderful to us  slightly-boisterous Americans. Charles, Japhet and Peter have become part of our little family, and their knowledge of Blantyre and the culture has helped deepen our own understanding and learning experience. They never seem to tire of all our questions!

The first few days in Malawi were so emotionally demanding and overwhelming. The first ride to MCM was physically rough and none of us were prepared for the experience. I wasn’t prepared for many things, especially the way the staff and students at MCM made me feel.

Phoebe (pictured below) was the first to meet us, and I think she looked as nervous as I felt, only probably worse considering there were 20 pairs of eager eyes boring into her! Phoebe must be the most gracious, kind woman I’ve ever met. The love for her work, community, and kids at MCM clearly shows, and I can only hope to retain a fraction of that passion for my own pursuits in life.

Prof Youjung Lee and Phoebe Kufeyani, MCM Social Work Director
Phoebe Kufeyani, MCM Social Work Director (right), shown here with Prof Youjung Lee (left)

After touring the facilities, we got to walk in on the classrooms and get our first glimpse of the students and teachers. The rooms, while small, were inviting and emanated a positive learning environment. The teachers were very welcoming as well and were excited to have us and introduce us to the kids.

Oh my goodness, the kids! I was not prepared at all for how instantly loving, trusting and excited they all were to meet us! They made posters and songs in welcome and blessings, yet I was the one who truly felt blessed. I was very surprised that small clusters of kids seemed to “choose” each of us, and the same groups have stuck with me ever since! They held my hand, took an abundance of pictures and videos with me, attempted to teach me Chichewa, and played any and every game they could with me.

I never felt so important to a person before, and I was so humbled and happy to meet them and learn from them. However, it was also very exhausting. They are definitely an energetic bunch! The physical exhaustion was closely aligned with mental and emotional exhaustion as well, partly from the jet lag and partially from the mere experience of it all.

The first couple days were village visits, and seeing where the kids lived was kind of bittersweet to me. On one hand, seeing the poverty and struggles of daily survival with their families and community broke my heart, I felt anguish for them. Yet interacting with them at the school and seeing how much love and kindness they have for others completely floored me. They have taught me more than I ever feel I could begin to teach them about the human connection and what it means to be a good person in the face of adversity. I cannot wait to learn more!

Part 3: Sex, beauty and the life-changing impact of kindness

Working with the Young Women’s Initiative, I realized that I had begun the work under the impression that young women in Malawi would be so much more culturally different than young women in the U.S. However, I found this to be untrue as I got to know the girls more. While some topics about womanhood and sexual education are considered taboo in this culture, I understand the reasoning behind that and the significance it holds on the girls attending MCM. For example, since MCM is a faith-based organization, abstinence is the primary focus in regard to sex education.

I struggled with this, especially since it is my personal belief that safe sex and preventive measures against pregnancy and STIs are crucial to young women’s education. Therefore, the service learning group working with the initiative could not teach these preventive tactics or discuss them in depth.

To promote safe sex in the culture emanates the idea of promiscuity. If a young woman attending MCM becomes pregnant, she is to leave the school. While I understand the reasoning behind this, I also find it frustrating to be unable to provide the knowledge and resources in possibly preventing that pregnancy to begin with.

Sex education and woman’s health are still relatively recent and controversial topics to openly have in the U.S. Even my own education consisted of scare tactics among the students, showing pictures of the worst diseases and encouraging abstinence. However, I feel that it is important and empowering to learn about our bodies and functions early in life, regardless of discomfort.

Despite inability to heavily focus on sex and health, I feel that the Young Women’s Initiative was a very inspiring group to work with. Chikondi was the group facilitator, and she was a wonderful asset to my own learning and experiences. She was very knowledgeable about what the girls were going through, and helped my group determine what topics we could and should not discuss.

One day we had a discussion on self-esteem and what that meant for all of us. While many of the girls said true beauty consisted of kindness, treating others well and being strong, they did not see themselves as beautiful based on physical features. This saddened me, but it sounded just like any girl their age ranging from 11-19.

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“I am smart, I am beautiful, I am worthy.”

We had the girls take out a piece of paper, write their name at the top, and write one thing they loved about themselves. They then had to pass it to the person next to them so they could write what they loved about that person.

This was repeated multiple times until the papers were filled with positivity and what the women liked about each other. This moment was so empowering and I could see the joy it brought the girls to see themselves as others did: beautiful.

We had the girls repeat a mantra to say to themselves every morning; “I am smart, I am beautiful, I am worthy.” Each repetition of the verse grew louder and more confident, and I could feel nothing but pride in the love they had for each other and the gaining love for themselves.

Part 4: Lessons in termination, non-assumption and cultural competency

A week ago today I said goodbye to the staff at MCM and the kids I worked with. It was such an emotionally hard and exhausting day, and I could  feel the sadness of my classmates as they also said their goodbyes. That day was hardest for me when the car was pulling away, and I could see one of the little girls I was closest with crying and trying to hide it.

It broke my heart because she didn’t shed a single tear the entire day or even act bothered by my pending departure. This in itself taught me not to make assumptions about what people may be feeling or how/when they express those feelings. It was a lesson I will carry with me throughout my career, and a moment I will never forget. I wish I could have comforted her.

Termination became a focused theme throughout our time in Malawi, but I don’t think it became a realistic process until we were already gone. Professionals discuss the importance of terminating with clients from the beginning of work and service, in order for it to be less painful for both workers and clients at the end.

For me personally, I realized that I had put termination on the back burner of my mind because I was so consumed with the present work I was trying to do. I was thrown into a whirlwind of emotions, practices, relationships, culture change and experiences that I didn’t have time in the short 3-week period to truly think about and prepare for what happens at the end. I was engrossed in my busy schedule, debriefing, then sleep.

How could I possibly prepare to say goodbye to the people I’d grown to love? It helped to write and receive letters from those I grew close to and I think it also helped that the students we served were used to groups coming and going throughout the year. However, this fact didn’t make it hurt any less for me.  I think these hard lessons about termination will help me later in my professional development.

This experience was so unique in regard to client/worker relationship building, because the relationships grew instantly and intensely in such short span of time. I think that is what made it difficult for me in the end to part ways. This will not always be the case throughout my career, but now I know how important it is to take that time aside to work through the end with my clients.

It’s difficult to concisely describe all the ways in which I know this service learning experience has helped shape my personal and professional development. All nine social work competencies were practiced while in Malawi, something I could not even say happened in my last field placement for a whole year.

18891640_1316728695043045_491104959336792479_oI learned the utmost importance of cultural competency and sensitivity to different belief systems, as well as beginning to understand where I stand as a white American woman with privilege and opportunity.

Hopefully, I will be able to practice in ways that fully encompass all that I have learned, and how to use my privilege in ways that empower instead of oppress.

This learning opportunity was incredible in so many ways, and I can only hope to share a fraction of the experiences, emotions and work with others to inspire people to do the same.

“We say goodbye, goodbye, but not forever.”

~Shannon

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

 

Researching and writing about children in the context of the armed conflict in Swat Valley, Pakistan

Researching/writing children in the context of the armed conflict in Swat Valley, Pakistan

I have collected data in the form of focus groups and one-on-one interviews with children aged 9-17 in Swat Valley, Pakistan, who lived through a phase of intense armed conflict and violence when the Pakistani Taliban basically set up a counter-regime in Swat from 2007-2009. My initial funding for the project came through CCPA travel funds and then I received both a Binghamton Universal internal grant and an external grant to continue my work. The data was collected in the 2009-2012 time frame, and currently I am writing an article based on that data.

While I was collecting my data I worked from the premise that children can actively shape their realities, although the extent to which they can do so is constrained by factors in their environment. Even then I was surprised by the eloquence of the interviews, especially the oral histories, the interviews where children narrated their life stories with minimal questioning on my part. Mainstream work on children has usually cast children as unable to speak for themselves: the thrust of most writing on children has been based on observations by adults or quantitative measures that render children as experimental subjects. More recently, what is called the “new sociology of childhood” has cautioned against the use of methodologies that make children “mute” and “invisible.” My research with children in the Swat Valley context centers around children’s voices: children in my writing are represented as social actors who can make meaning of the various facets of their lives.

At this point in time I am grappling with various theoretical lenses to analyze my data. Historically, research on children in armed conflict was heavily imbued by a biomedical paradigm that did not take into account sociological dimensions of conflict and its impact. In the last decade or so, a shift has occurred where more in-depth qualitative or mixed-methods designs have been used to study children’s experiences in armed conflict from what is called a “social ecological” perspective. The focus in this perspective is heavily on children’s capacity for resilience and the specific sociocultural context and mechanisms for the support of that resilience. While I do find this theoretical framework useful as I try to situate individual children in the various dimensions of the their life-worlds, I have also found social ecological models limited in their scope when it comes to trying make sense of how children locate themselves in historical and social processes.

Children’s accounts of their experiences of the armed conflict do tell individual stories, but what is striking is the degree to which children speak of themselves in terms of collective identities. While speaking of the manner in which evacuation processes during the chief military strike against the Taliban were bungled, most children spoke of the hardships that were inflicted on the Swatis as a group, framing the thoughtlessness of the higher-ups as a sign of disregard towards Swatis in general. Also remarkable is the manner in which children positioned themselves as historical subjects: the inability of the Pakistan government to intervene in a timely manner during the heyday of Taliban violence was seen as an indicator of the colonial relationship between the Pakistani state and Swat: Swatis were just not important enough and were really not Pakistani citizens.   They seemed very cognizant of their histories as Swatis: Swat was annexed by Pakistan in 1969 and relegated to the “tribal belt” the residents of which are seen by other Pakistanis as uncivilized and prone to violence. The children were acutely aware of these constructions, and spoke bitterly against them.

My research then complicates the social-ecological paradigm by showing how broader sociopolitical processes shape children’s experiences and that it is not enough to focus on children’s everyday contexts to understand their conceptions of armed conflict and violence. We need to be cognizant of how larger historical forces impact children’s everyday lives. By listening carefully to Swati children’s words I have come to the conclusion that interventions to build children’s resilience should perhaps include measures whereby children can be involved in advocacy initiatives that fight for equal rights for Swatis as Pakistani citizens. At the least, my research indicates that efforts need to be made to dispel negative stereotypes of Swatis.

Dr. Lubna Chaudhry

Associate Professor of Human Development and Department Chair

E-mail: chaudhry@binghamton.edu