Today I am sharing a post specially written for you by my dear friend and former housemate, Alisha (crouching by a bike in the picture below). It is hard to believe that it has already been four months since she graced the land of Malawi with her presence.
Once upon a time, I was 7,839 miles from my home in the capital of Canada living in the capital of a small landlocked country in Southern Africa, infamously called the “Warm Heart of Africa”. It sounds like a fairy-tale because it now feels like a fairy-tale, but it happened in a flash (or 3 months to be specific). Before I went to Malawi I had never travelled overseas, and as many first-time travelers find, I am filled with wanderlust
The “Warm Heart of Africa”, or Malawi, is home to almost 16 million people. While Malawi faces many challenges as one of the world’s least developed countries (LDCs), there is also fascinating potential for change. A deep desire to improve the quality of life and boost community development can be found everywhere you go. Deeply set cultural beliefs may allow harmful practices such as early child marriage to persist, yet there is a vibrant and growing resistance demanding a fair chance for those historically disadvantaged. Transformation is taking place, and I feel honoured to have met some of the Malawians demanding that change.
My work with the Forum for African Women Educationalists in Malawi (FAWEMA) was the most inspiring work I have ever done. Not because my own work was particularly impactful (I did try my best—don’t get me wrong), but because I was able to work with Malawian women and men who demonstrated remarkable commitment to fighting for girls’ education. Many of the dedicated people at FAWEMA worked extremely long hours yet still struggled to get by. I would often try to convince my counterpart to go home, take a break, and let myself and the other intern pick up some of the workload. Despite all of our begging, she always refused emphasizing that the girls needed her to be there. She was right. Without adequate cultural knowledge and connections, there are tasks that a foreigner can simply not perform on his or her own. Without all my colleagues’ willingness to put in the extra time, I would have been unable to accomplish my mandate. It was a type of altruism I have never personally seen before. One to ensure the every girl in Malawi had a better education and a brighter future.
Like my colleagues at FAWEMA, education has always been the passion that drives me. When I say education now, I don’t necessarily mean formal education (although I am privileged to have had access to a Canadian education). I mean education under the shade of tree, education between community members, education in the local market, or education wherever and in whatever form it may appear. My time in Malawi taught me to appreciate the nuances of this diverse learning process. It taught me to be patient. Because there is nothing worse than an impatient development worker expecting another society to function the way he or she wants it to.
So my final advice for anyone reading Katiana’s insightful blog is to move with the Malawian current, not against it. Recognize the transformation that is currently taking place and provide as much support to those change agents as you can during your stay. Make an impression on the people you meet, not because of your alternate skin colour or blonde hair, but because you exemplified an unprecedented interest in the lessons they have to teach you. Appreciate each moment, because like all things, this too will pass.
Chitenge is the traditional fabric of this area of Africa, and it is absolutely beautiful! There are vendors at every market selling dozens of patterns in bright colours and prints, and you can purchase two metres of chitenge for between 1200 and 1500 Malawian Kwacha, which is equivalent to three to four Canadian dollars. As someone who loves art, colour, designing my own clothes, and “has” to walk past these stalls weekly, I ended up amassing quite the collection of chitenge! Thankfully, my housemates are similarly challenged in the area of self-restraint, and we banded together to design clothing and get it made by a tailor in the market area of the city. And, as a house full of girls is wont to do, we then had a fashion show so we could share the outcomes with you here!
P.S. The tailor is still busily working on a few (this is relative…) more items, so there may be a follow-up post in the future!
My extended family and close friends, as well as the Rotary Club of Mississauga have donated funds to outfit the Special Needs Education Program classroom, and I am excited to share what those donations have been able to purchase. I hope to share some pictures of the supplies in use in the near future, but am still waiting to have permission from parents to share their child’s picture.
We have ordered 2 child-size wheelchairs that are being made by a local NGO that works in special needs therapy and education, Children of Blessings Trust. There are also 3 hand-pedal-powered wheelchairs being made in various sizes for children, by another organization, Malawi Against Physical Disabilities.
And the rest of the funds have gone towards learning and therapeutic activities and toys. I did a lot of research on special needs education and learning, and consulted with some friends and contacts in Canada as to which supplies would be best for a general special needs classroom.
We have building sets, shape sorters, theraputty, various kinds of therapy balls, construction sets, latches and fastener sets, lacing activities, puzzles, bean bags with numbers and shapes on them, alphabet blocks, a pound-a-peg, wooden nesting block tower, a band in a box, and more coming to Malawi with my brother when he visits!
We are also trying to work together with the Rotary Club of Mississauga and the Rotary Club of Bwaila (in Lilongwe) to find and purchase a Braille typewriter and other Braille supplies such as frames and styluses in Malawi.
I have also been liaising with the carpentry shop in camp to create low tables and benches, child-sized chairs with arms and back-rests, and a U-shaped bench to fully outfit the classroom. A local tailor was also commissioned to make curtains for the windows, as the class seems to attract a lot of attention from the rest of the school’s students, and the constant stares, questions, and interruptions make concentration difficult for the children in our class. The tailor has also made fabric pockets that we have hung on the walls of the classroom for the children to store the class books in – we are trying to develop their sense of responsibility and ownership, and also have them begin to recognize their own names. Finally, we have bought paint and the driver for JRS has agreed to draw the alphabet, sign language alphabet, and Braille alphabet on the walls and then paint them to make the classroom more colourful and welcoming.
So that is where we are at right now! It is very exciting, and while I do not think everything will be completed before I leave, I am confident that the teachers, volunteers, and JRS staff will continue the projects and it will result in a quality education program for local children with special needs.
The camp is difficult to describe to people who have not seen pictures, so I will do my best to illustrate with the few that I can share with you!
Dzaleka Refugee Camp is located about an hour north of Lilongwe, and is in Dowa region, which is mountainous, meaning that the camp is windier than the city, and temperatures are augmented. On cooler days, it is typical to see people walking around in winter parkas and big wool hats (cold here means less than about 25 degrees Celcius). The camp is currently at a population of nearly 20,000 refugees, and is run by the UNHCR. JRS is responsible for the education, and there are a few other implementing partners in charge of healthcare and other sectors.
Dzaleka is a permanent camp, so it is not made up of tents, and is not surrounded by a fence. It actually looks nearly identical to the surrounding Malawian villages, except for the large official buildings of UNHCR and their implementing partners. Houses are typically made of mud bricks, with roofs made of tin sheets, tarps, thatch, or a combination of these materials. It used to be a prison, so there are a few larger buildings with tin roofs that remain from that time period. The rest of the camp sprawls out from that point, and has grown so much that it there is a section across the highway, and a new section where a field used to be at the back of the camp.
Residents get water from boreholes that are scattered around the camp, and can often be found washing their clothing and dishes at the boreholes. There are two main roads in camp that are lined with markets and small shops, and a few restaurants. There is a permanent market that I purchase my vegetables at, and a twice-weekly larger market where one can find more household items and is where I often buy my chitenge.
The refugee and Malawian population of the area generally mingle and are neighbourly towards each other. Some refugees have been living in Dzaleka for ten to fifteen years, and are fluent in Chichewa. Children growing up in camp all learn Chichewa in school. Some Malawians rent houses in camp or run businesses in camp, and refugees sometimes rent fields from the nearby villages to supplement their food rations.
A cultural aspect that I have found difficult to understand is that showing unhappiness, unless someone has died, is not normal. So, most refugees seem generally happy, but when you get to know them and speak with them in depth, they often share that they struggle with feelings of despair and hopelessness.
It is difficult for me to decide what to share on this topic, as it is hard to step outside of my experience and evaluate what you may want to know, so please ask questions in the comments if I have neglected to share on an area you are interested in knowing more about! I will do my best to answer any questions.
An interesting and sometimes frightening aspect of Malawian culture is the tendency towards mob justice. The police here are not paid a living wage and are often prone to asking for bribes or levy fines under false pretenses. They also do not generally have vehicular transport to get from their location to the location of an accident or crime. These issues combined, mean that Malawians tend to band together and defend each other when crimes take place. However, these reactions often are extreme, and may result in deaths. Since I have arrived in Malawi, I have encountered a few instances of mob justice, and I thought I’d share the stories and some thoughts that they sparked.
In the fall, an accountant was walking the day’s profit from a supermarket in a city mall to a bank three doors down in the same complex. Five armed men attacked her and stole the bag of money, and the ensuing shouting brought the owner of the supermarket outside. He brought his gun, and ended up shooting one robber and killing him, and injuring a second. Two thieves got away in a vehicle. The two thieves that were still on the scene ran away, with a crowd of people following them. When the crowd caught them, they began beating them, threw gasoline on them, and burnt them to death.
The second act of mob justice that I heard of occurred early in the year, when the rainy season had begun in earnest and the grasses around the city were very tall. Two men hid in the six-foot-tall grass at one part of an intersection, and when a woman cut through a path in the grass to get to her bus stop, they attacked her and tried to rape her. She shouted for help, and a crowd formed, chased the men, and beat them.
The most recent happened at a local school and was shocking. A father decided that he did not like the way his child was being taught, went into the school during a class, and beat up the teacher. This was quickly stopped, and the teacher was taken to the hospital and the assailant was taken to the police. However, the child of this man is of a minority group, and all the children from the school left their classes and banded together to hunt down more members of this minority in the area. They jeered at these people, and at their worst, attempted to stone them.
This extreme reaction has prompted me and my housemates to have multiple discussions about what we would do in a situation of a mugging or a similar ‘minor’ offense. We don’t want people do get away with crime, but if we called out for help, the person would probably be killed or severely injured. And yet, the show of solidarity and culture of assistance that is present is something that I admire and that contradicts the response in many areas of North America, where the ‘bystander’ effect results in many witnesses and no action. The ideal reaction would be somewhere in the middle – where people take action but do not maim the perpetrator, though having a working justice system would be a huge help in that as well!
Today I am excited to introduce you to my friend, co-worker, and housemate - Lara Gooding. Lara is here in Malawi for three months from Seattle, and is volunteering with JRS in JC:HEM, the higher education centre in Dzaleka. If you'd like to read some more of her experiences, including one exciting one about almost being t-boned by a cow, visit her at http://laragoestoafrica.wordpress.com/ and check out her blog!
Preparing to leave Malawi, I'm having a lot of bittersweet thoughts about my impending departure. Things I'm going to miss like crazy (my coworkers, mandazi, chitenge, the scenery..). Things I'm going to absolutely 100% never want to see again (looking at you, massive cockroaches).
There's a lot of reflection going on throughout this process, but it's easiest to start with the more tangible things.
For those of you who know me, I loathe this process. During the career test we took in like 8th grade, that asked if we liked putting things into boxes, my answer was no. And my answer is still no. It always feels like I'm forcing myself into a little compartment, which ultimately leads to crippling panic, which then leads to an adamant refusal to proceed with the task.
Therefore, for future me, or for future ex-pats with the itch to travel to Malawi, I bring you:
The Malawi Packing List
• Two long skirts (Cover your knees!)
• Seven t-shirts
• Two tank tops (Ex-pats are allowed to show shoulders outside of work)
• One pair of jeans (Seriously. It's too hot for them. Don't bring more.)
• Work out shorts (In case of hiking or dance class or exercise)
• Your three second favorite bras
• Lots of sturdy underwear
• Two swimsuits
• Approximately $1500 USD hidden all over your carryon and person
• Makeup and tampons and favorite toiletries, because they probably don't exist here
• Your medicine, including favorite OTC stuff. (Again, doesn't exist here.)
• One pair of tennis shoes, one pair of sandals, one pair of nice shoes, one pair of water proof shoes. (I went for Birkenstocks and Crocs, and got flats here. Make sure they’re durable, because Malawi beats your shoes up! Especially in rainy season.)
• Cards and pictures from home
• An unlocked smart phone with a SIM card (not necessary, but definitely nice to have.)
• ATM card (Make sure your bank unlocks it in Malawi and in all of your country layovers)
• Water purifier – Steripen is best (super useful for travel, rural areas, and when the power is out and you are also out of boiled water/want something faster than boiled water)
• One liter water bottle with a lid that covers the mouthpiece
• Computer or tablet (but you'll have limited internet access, and laptops are easier to access the internet with)
• Sunscreen (the intensity of the sun here is very different from home, and it is super expensive here)
• Hand sanitizer (handy when you are travelling or in camp, not available here)
• Books or digital books (paper books can be donated, and a kindle or kindle app on a smartphone is very portable)
• Jewelry – small to pack and makes you feel more at home and put together
And there you have it. Anything else you need you can get here, and you can get it for cheaper. For what you do bring, don't bring anything you are very attached to, because the hand washing is hard on your clothes. And bring stuff you can leave, because you'll load up on chitenge and carvings and jewelry and beautiful Malawian things that trump anything you brought out.
And I hope you do make it out to Malawi because in its simplicity there is such beauty here. You don't need a lot to feel completely at home and to never want to leave.
Reading through Lara's list got me thinking as well, so here are some of my additions to what she has above! Most of these would have been wants or handy to have, but are not super necessary – good things to note for those of you who are planning to come for a longer period of time though!
• Extra batteries for devices – laptop, camera, phone… power goes out a lot and it is super helpful!
• Headlamp or good flashlight (preferably one that can be recharged) for when the power is out
• Hair dryer and flat-iron if you use them frequently – get a travel one (made for 240V) or you will quickly burn them out (they are available here but are not good quality, and if you’re out here in rainy season, these are a waste of money and space – the humidity combined with the flash storms will nullify any styling you do anyway.)
• Lots of videos and TV shows on an external hard drive or on your computer
• Familiar bedsheets (once again, makes you feel more at home)
• Playing cards and other portable games – fun with roommates, easy to transport
• Favourite teas – basically can only get black and rooibos here
• If you eat a lot of them, nuts and energy bars – can generally only find peanuts here (can sometimes get walnuts and almonds at the expensive grocery stores)
My biggest tip – pack light or pack a lot of things that you will use up or leave behind! You are going to find so many awesome things here, and if you are in need of almost anything, you’ll be able to find it or a substitute, possibly more expensive than at home, but it does exist here! Clothes can be bought in the open air market for really cheap and are from North American second hand stores, or new in some of the Chinese shops or South African retail chains here in Malawi. Or you can get them made by a tailor for pretty cheap. Shoes can be found at the open air market or along the side of the road. Food-wise, you may have to do some shopping around to get everything you long for, but it is generally possible to find everything (things I haven’t found: whole wheat flour or pasta, salsa, corn chips, chocolate chips and roastable marshmallows; rarities include good cheeses and pork).
This week, a WUSC staffer from Canada arrived to complete interviews for the Student Refugee Program in Dzaleka. One of the WUSC volunteers living in Blantyre right now, Sasha, has been involved in the Student Refugee Program in British Columbia, and was invited to assist this week. So, the girls and I had some visitors to hang out with, and on Friday afternoon when we were all done with work, we piled into my car and went on an adventure.
We headed out of the centre of Lilongwe to an area called Chinsapo, and spent nearly an hour meandering our way through the rutted back roads of the neighbourhood, trying to find our way to a specific church where the Zikomo Bags project is hosted. We eventually made it, with the help of a kind Rastafarian man who ran next to the car for a few blocks, making sure we took the correct turns!
Zikomo Bags (Zikomo primarily means thank you in Chichewa) is a project that was started by some WUSC volunteers, one of whom is an INDEVOUR, as a way for some local women living with HIV/AIDS to make a living. They make over the shoulder bags out of traditional chitenje material.
We were able to meet some of the women who make the bags, speak with the project manager, Rocky, about the work that the Rainbow Centre does, take photos, and then purchase some of the bags. Visit the website here to see some more of the work they do.
A super cool happening is that at a recent event that Zikomo Bags had a table at, the President of Malawi, Joyce Banda, walked past their table. The women presented her with a custom made bag that they had used her political party chitenje for, and she was so impressed that she immediately placed an order for 500 bags to give to her supporters as she heads into the electoral campaign!
My mum works for a church in my hometown as the Director of Adult Ministries, and she wrote this lovely article for the local paper recently. I asked her if I could share it here because I found it to be such a beautiful piece. Enjoy!
A watermark is an image imprinted on important papers or photographs to prevent counterfeiting. You can see a watermark on your passport or on currency. The watermark indicates that these papers are authentic, and in a sense, verify who they belong to. The waters of baptism mark us as children of God. In believer’s baptism, they provide the opportunity for a follower of Jesus to publicly declare the authenticity of their faith. This is who I belong to. This is what I believe. I commit my life to walking with Jesus.
At Woodside, baptisms are a time of celebration as a church family. We listen, spellbound, to the faith stories. We are astounded by how God is working in the life of someone we sit with at church. God is real! We hold our breath with them as they are lowered into the water in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. We cheer as they come up grinning and crying and hugging their pastor. We celebrate how real life with Jesus brings transformation.
On just such a Sunday, as I left the sanctuary to find the girl who took the plunge, I saw a trail of wet footprints on the carpet of the church foyer. I wonder if there is a trail to follow from my baptism? Do I leave footprints of holy water wherever I go? Is the water of my baptism still dripping on the path of my day? The waters in which I die to myself? The living waters that raise me up, gasping and laughing and grasping at new life – soaked in the Spirit of Christ, washed in the cleansing flood of Jesus’ love. Can you see the direction of my footprints? Am I walking well, in step with the Spirit? Can those around me follow my trail back to the spring of living water? Does my trail take them on detours where they lose their way or lose interest in Jesus, or does it make them thirsty to find Him?
And then I noticed the trail of big splashes of water on the carpet. Messy, irregular, but clearly a trail to the baptistry. Early that morning we realized that no one had thought to fill the tank, and the tap would certainly not run fast enough to fill it in time. These splashes are a testimony to the Bucket Brigade of saints, who rolled up their sleeves and got their Sunday clothes wet, to carry bucket after bucket from the kitchen to the baptismal tank. So it is with the Body of Christ. God graciously uses each of us to prepare the tank, bucket by bucket, for a baptism. A bucketful may feel heavy and cumbersome, and once emptied into the tank, it looks woefully inadequate. But your bucket plus my bucket plus the bucket of the children’s pastor, and eventually the water rises ready to welcome a new member of the Family. We each do a bit, like a link in a chain, dragging our bucket as an act of faith, that God will take my small offering and do something wonderful. Water into wine perhaps? So we heard, in the life-giving stories, how a Bucket Brigade of saints had each poured a bucket of water into the lives of these who once were lost. And we choked back tears and applauded wildly as they rose from the living waters of baptism that morning.
Praise God that He has left his watermark on my life and yours! Welcome to the Family!
The Umoja Craft Group is working to build their self-sustainability and the developments are really exciting!
Currently, there are two volunteers working with Umoja - Violaine and me. I leave in two months and JRS does not plan to have another volunteer intern working with the group, and Violaine is leaving the country in August. So, one of my co-workers, Violaine, and I sat down and brainstormed way to help the Umoja group become fully self-sufficient and able to continue to grow the group and their market, and to maintain the current quality and quantity of product. We then had a big meeting with the Umoja ladies - almost all 50 of them came, and we asked them what they thought they should do to become more independent. Their ideas were very similar to the ideas that Violaine and I came up with, and so we were able to move forward with the plans.
We held a big election, starting with nominations of candidates for leadership of the group. Once we had 6 leaders, the women voted for one of them to be the group president, and the ladies subdivided into smaller groups under each leader. This means that there are now 6 groups of about 8 women, each with a group president and vice-president. We discussed roles that would be needed within each group - such as a quality control officer, and voted women into those roles as well.
We are now working with the leadership team to create official policies and procedures for the group, and running trainings for the individual roles, so that they can be completely self-sufficient by August. It has been very exciting to watch the women step into their roles and begin to take initiative and feel more confident in their abilities as they prove to themselves that the group can function without 'azungu' help.
Welcome! My name is Katiana and I am a development professional pursuing my dream to live out Isaiah 1:17 to the best of my abilities. I am passionate about teaching and working with vulnerable families and children to improve their lives sustainably.
This blog is composed of my personal opinions, which do not necessarily reflect the opinion or views of institutions or organizations that I may be or have been affiliated with.