The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep. Excerpt from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” - Robert Frost
Looking back on the time our Binghamton University team spent doing service work in Malawi, I believe that I have been a part of the foundation of a project that can grow into something extraordinary, to respectfully influence sustainable change in people’s lives. However, though I have a sincere intention to follow through with the promise I made to do everything in my power to return to MCM next year, the baton in the long-term relay of this program must be passed on to the next runner. I encourage the future team to take it and move forward.
Miles to Go
Borrowing from Frost’s poem and invoking a relay metaphor is fitting when describing the Malawi Program. The poem captures the largesse of a moment when one is fully absorbed in it. I experienced such a feeling of absorption multiple times: when visiting each village for the community meetings, planning field trips for the older children at MCM, and in the games, dances, and drawings of the younger children in the bright mornings and warm afternoons.
Collaboration between each year’s new team is essential to support and advance the interests of community members, allowing them more freedom to make choices in their villages and their families. Binghamton’s program is not virtual charity; it is genuine community building. “Change” is not something one can merely “click” on or “like” to make an appreciable difference in the lives of others. There is a physical element to the work, a presence of body and mind together, that, like running a relay or riding a horse, depends upon direct experience to deliver its benefits. Ultimately, this service learning program is about relationships which require consistency, trust, and reciprocity.
Lovely, Dark, and Deep
Frost describes the woods as “lovely, dark, and deep,” as a place that is unknown and is, at the same time, compelling to the degree that on a cold winter’s night, a traveler on horseback takes a long pause to behold the view, regardless of duty to move onwards. Darkness is beautiful and powerful and enduring, able to stop one in one’s tracks, awestruck. Stars are not stars without being tucked in the cozy deepness of the night sky.
In the 19th century, Europeans thought of Africa as “the dark continent,” described as such because Europeans were not aware of what the land and its people were like; it was unknown. I am the only person I know in my circle of family and friends who has travelled to Africa. The second largest continent on the world was (and remains) largely unknown to me, though before this learning experience I had glimpses of the creativity of its people by admiring African art in homes of friends and in museums.
My choice to go to Malawi was not only made for educational or aesthetic reasons. As a person of European descent, I also chose to participate in service learning for personal and political reasons: To challenge, through my own experiences, some of the stereotypes and biases I have as someone who has grown up in American culture, and then to expand my understanding about my own life as one drop in a sea of humanity.
Malawi’s tourist program proclaims that it is “the warm heart of Africa,” and, in my experience, its people live up to their country’s reputation in the most generous of ways. A third of the way around the world from home, I felt welcomed in Malawi immediately upon my arrival. The combination of people’s hospitality and spirit, the many views of the mountains kissing the deep blue sky, and the sincerity with which my fellow team members and I embraced our work sustained a warm feeling throughout my visit. More than once, that lovely, warm feeling led me to the real estate section of local newspapers. Maybe this is a good place to have a home, I thought.
Travel to a place different from home deepened my understanding of myself and what I value: Making a difference, balancing structure and freedom, exploring the power of language in its many forms, beholding beauty, and forging dependable relationships. Travel also deeply affects how I see myself in the larger context of humanity, as just another life on the planet, connected to other lives on the same blue ball in space.
Promises to Keep
As part of my research for my final class paper, I spent the morning of our last day at MCM interviewing people from the nearby communities. I wanted to know what their experiences were with other organizations from outside the community who have offered assistance in the past. Mainly, I wanted to know what the people perceived as helpful, and what wasn’t. What resulted were several uncomfortable (for me) hours of community members telling me what felt like the same story over and over again. They told me about a group that gave out supplies to be distributed to villagers but did not stay long enough to catalogue that the supplies were indeed distributed, and then never came back. They told me about another group who showed up once to write down names, but then never returned. Everyone mentioned in a dignified manner how they were hungry and how they hoped that this new women’s initiative and young women’s initiative would help them make and sell something so they could eat.
Later that day, at the farewell ceremony with the staff and students of MCM, I made my promise to do everything in my power to return again next year. I want to continue to build the relationships that were established. I want to witness change in this small part of the world. I don’t want to be just another white person who came once and was never seen again. I believe that I am better than that, and so are others at Binghamton University.
Before participating in this service learning project in Malawi, I understood the value of following through on promises that one makes to others. There are variations of this idea in colloquial language: “Talk the talk, but walk the walk,” “Practice what you preach,” “Actions speak louder than words,” among others. I look forward to meeting and hearing about the teams of future students who grasp the baton and make progress in meaningful, life-changing ways, so more people in this world can sleep in peace.