Malawi has its own phrase: “The warm heart of Africa.” After being here for only a week, it is completely obvious and completely true. The people here are so kind: lodge staff where we are staying and eating many of our meals, staff at the different restaurants we have gone to, shopkeepers, our drivers who have already been incredibly helpful and, of course, the kids and faculty/staff at MCM have all been exceptionally welcoming and kind to us.
In some ways, it doesn’t surprise me. Malawi is a place where respect and kindness are still a part of everyday life, not just something that is reserved for guests or adults. Adults are kind to adults and children are kind to children (for the most part, that is – I did witness some schoolyard bullying, so I guess that’s universal). What did surprise me, though, is how I have already been changed by it. I try to be fair in my everyday life but I know that I often fail. I often want more just to have more, instead of giving it to someone else who truly needs it. I haven’t experienced that here. I’m sure that the people I have met here that do not have a lot to offer would love to have more, but they have also offered us what little they have. I hate to say that it is “amazing” because that word doesn’t accurately describe my experience here, but I’m having trouble finding the right word.
Part of our time here has been spent working with the three villages served by MCM on micro-financing. For three days we went out into the three villages to speak with the women and while we were there, they gave us their mats to sit on or brought chairs for us while they sat on the ground, typically in the dirt and dust. Last year, Professor Blitz came and laid some of the groundwork for this project. She spoke with the women about what they feel are strengths and challenges of their communities and what they feel would make life a little easier. This year we spoke with them about starting a small jewelry and soap-making business. Now, I realize that for many people, especially in the United States, jewelry and soap would not be life-changing. What is life-changing, however, is the price that American tourists will pay for truly Malawian-made jewelry or soap. Trust me it is much more difficult to find items made in Malawi than you would think!
After presenting our idea, the women responded with clapping and collective “ehs” (yes). They also expressed legitimate concerns and questions about running a business. We spoke for approximately two hours at each of the villages and then for another two hours, at least, with all of the villages together. The collective meeting was at MCM and was attended by over 150 people! Most of the attendees were women, but some men, including the chiefs of the villages, came to listen, support, and participate.
In Malawi, much like in the U.S., the women are responsible for the housework and for taking care of the children. Some of the women in the village work, but there are limited jobs available. One of our concerns was how the men in the village would feel if the women, at least to start, were going to work and make money for their families. During the collective meeting at MCM, one of the husbands stood up and said something to the effect of “the men and husbands may need to take on some of the responsibility at home if the women are going to be working.” The claps that came from the meeting room were loud and happy!
So often we mistake language differences and economic differences as differences in ability. This project and these women, as well as some of the men, have shown me just how wrong this assumption is. The people we have worked with are incredibly smart and determined. They are resilient and hard-working. They are kind and selfless and I am privileged to have met them and been a part of this development. I feel a little awkward when the women say “zikomo” (thank you) to me because it feels, to me, that we have offered them so much less than what they have offered to me. We have given them some beginning materials and some support in getting started with their business, but who hasn’t had a little help in getting started in anything they’ve done?