By Sebastián Líppez-De Castro (GA, Institute for Multigenerational Studies)
On Wednesday September 14, 2016 more than 60 guests visited the Binghamton University Downtown Center to see the new office space for Broome County Promise Zone and learn about the exciting plans for this academic year.
Luann Kida, Community Schools Director, presented Promise Zone staff, shared its accomplishments and plans to continue working with Broome County Schools. Kida pointed out the Promise Zone commitment to boost students’ retention and success, as well as to make schools a community asset where not only students, but also their families and communities at large, gather to join culture, diversity, learning, health, and other social services. In so doing, Promise Zone partners with school districts across the county to offer programs such as the Attendance Awareness Month, the Summer Zone (Camp), Social Skills Groups in Classrooms, Academic Support and Tutoring, After School Groups, Family Fun Nights, Parent Cafes, and much more. Promise Zone also collaborates with SUNY Broome, Binghamton University, the Broome County Office of Mental Health, Broome-Tioga BOCES and Broome County K-12 Schools, to promote Higher Education Access, Retention and Success (BC HEARS). Kida recalled that this is one of the five New York State Promise Zones, and that Broome County´s is made possible due to the collaboration between Binghamton University, Broome Tioga-BOCES, and the Broome County Department of Mental Health.
Laura Bronstein, Dean of the Binghamton University College of Community and Public Affairs, welcomed the guests and highlighted this pioneering endeavor. Dean Bronstein remarked that Broome County´s Promise Zone is the only initiative of its type in the country supported and hosted by a higher education institution. In that sense, Binghamton University, through its Institute for Multigenerational Studies, makes a unique contribution by decidedly investing its institutional, physical, research and professional strengths in this initiative. Dean Bronstein also acknowledged the critical role played by Governor Cuomo and State Assemblywomen Donna Lupardo in securing the funds needed.
Furthermore, Dean Bronstein shared her experiences and work with community schools. This construct collects numerous resources in the same place, promotes retention and graduation rates, and helps communities to unite, be more equitable, overcome hurdles, and raise their pride. Dean Bronstein signed copies of her book, School Linked Services: Promoting Equity for Children, Families and Communities, co-authored with Dr, Susan E. Mason. After the presentation attendees from the many university departments and community partner organizations toured the Promise Zone office.
Promoting Social-Emotional Wellbeing for Youth in Malawi
Culture shock: Simply put, I am feeling disoriented from the sudden re-entry into the U.S. way of life and set of attitudes. My senses are heightened to the “problems” here, that after my trip to Malawi, hardly even seem significant to me. Entry into a country living within the means of a vastly differently defined dollar, and the subsequent re-entry into a country full of noise and flash has my mind spinning. What consciousness allows individuals, such as me, to live an entire life oblivious of the cost of living in a disposable world? How many degrees of separation are there to sufficiently divert attention so that human lives are not considered worthy of nutrition, medical attention, clean, running water, and electricity? How can one group of people spend millions of dollars on election campaigns when babies are still dying of diseases that have preventative medicines?
If New York State residents gave up their lattes and espressos for a week we could raise enough money to build enough windmills and solar panels to power the entire country of Malawi! Upon my return, the neighborhoods that I used to consider lower income in my home town now seem like intimate palaces. The freedom we possess to enjoy our space without the requirement for barbed wire is blatantly obvious; the barbed wire is indicative of desperation incited by starvation.
I see Africa, as a continent, and wonder why there are so many small, individual countries. From Malawi to South Africa, we exchanged money from USD to Kwacha to Rand. In my own mind, I imagine Africa’s potential as “united states” instead of individual countries. Without implying they should follow the same laws as the U.S., I imagine the amount of power the continent would possess collectively when negotiating with other larger, wealthier countries. While this concept is unlikely, I find the idea appealing in that the playing field would level to some degree. This program has taught me that the value of money is relative.
This leads me one step further, as I imagine a world sharing the morals and values inclusive of human rights; one that increases a comfortable middle class internationally. This idea encompasses decreasing infant mortality, increasing economic development, reducing poverty levels, harnessing natural resources, and reducing the dependency of countries receiving aid while simultaneously developing global interactions that foster mutual aid. With determination, the economies currently supporting reliant countries could influence them to stabilize their governments through collaboration and compromise, reduce population growth, increase literacy, medical treatment options and providers.
The small elite upper class in Malawi controlling the wealth and resources in my view is the country’s principal issue, leading to a trickle-down waterfall effect of other problems. I can’t help but wonder if there was global influence and human rights were protected first and foremost, how would Malawi, and Africa as a whole, transform? If people miraculously realized that exploiting others is corrupt and began trading within a humane network, exchanging goods and crops with a balanced financial approach, wouldn’t we all benefit in the long term?
Human equity: An investment, the kind of stock that isn’t sold out when the trends get a little bumpy. This is the kind of investment one holds and rides out, because the long term benefits far outweigh the short term sale. Gains are emotional, spiritual, communal, economic, environmental, and global.
Global citizenship to protect human rights and a global definition of employment rates and living costs to balance the financial playing field would eradicate the confusion. Actions to clarify that people who are poor and starving in places like Malawi are like this because they are paid cents a day—not because they aren’t working hard enough—would prove invaluable internationally.
As I assimilate back into my everyday living, I find I have learned far more than I taught. While we left with intentions to teach children activities, the young women more ventures for their initiatives project, and even microfinance for the adult women, I’m finding I am the one that learned the most in this exchange. My heart rests; my spirit is calm; my mind is centered. I appreciate so much more, and with so much less. As a competitive type, I find the challenge within my newly acquired knowledge and look forward to harnessing my, and my community’s, inner strengths to educate others of our global needs and further the work underway in Malawi.
The first week in Malawi went by so quickly! So much happened during the first week between meeting the women from the villages, organizing activities with the children at MCM, and physically and emotionally adjusting to our new environment. I noticed how quickly time was passing and how exhausted I was at the end of each day. Finally when the weekend came around, I was really looking forward to going to a wildlife reserve called Majete.
We arrived at the game reserve park and got into a safari jeep. We started driving around and started seeing the animals pop up! We saw impala, water hogs, hippos, crocodiles and so many more animals! It was absolutely amazing. I was looking around and spotted a family of elephants!!!! I really appreciated having the time to take it easy and really enjoy nature and everything Malawi has to offer.
The next day, a couple of us were feeling adventurous and decided to leave at 6:00 a.m. to hike Mt. Mulanje. Caught between wanting to catch up on some much needed rest and wanting to explore, my adventurous side won and I found myself super excited to see another side of Malawi. I found out that the highest point in Central Africa is called “Sapitwa” which translates into “a place where people do not go.” It takes two days to hike up to the peak. You would have to hike up, then stay overnight in a hut and then continue your journey.
I would have loved to do this! Due to a shortage of time we hiked up to the Likhubula waterfall, which was absolutely beautiful. Next time I come to Malawi, I plan to conquer Saptitwa!
During the first week our team took the time to explore career opportunities and desires with the older children at MCM. Then we started planning field trips for the second week. We were going to take about 40 children in small groups to different places according to what careers and jobs they were interested in. We had been planning this since before arriving to Malawi, but it was more complicated to actually figure out the logistics of the trips. Once we figured out what places we were going to take them, everything just fell into place.
In the morning the kids would get into the minivan departing for the trip and the younger children would be there to cheer and send them off. The music in the van would be playing and they would be dancing and were so happy seeing their friends off. It was such a joy to see. I know that these children couldn’t wait until their friends got back to hear all about their adventure.
Two classmates and I took a group of 14 children to the Teachers Training College in Blantyre. With the help of Phoebe, we were able arrange a tour for the children of the campus. We toured their facilities, dining hall and the children got to see a class of college students in session. The tour of the campus was so great. It was very educational and really provided children with insight of what a college is like. I think it was very motivating for the children and when I asked a couple of the girls (who wanted to become teachers) what they thought of the place, they excitedly said that they would want to come here!
After the tour of the college, we brought them back to Annie’s Lodge. The staff generously took time off their schedule to show the lodge’s facilities and taught the children how to make a bed. The children were shy and in a completely new environment. I could see apprehension and curiosity but also wonder and excitement. I’m so happy that we were able to arrange these trips for the students. It is so important that they see the world out there and all the possibilities. I hope the groups that visit MCM in the future will be able to continue these trips and and help the children to see and think of life beyond their village and realize all the opportunities that are out there.
The last week in Malawi also went by so quickly. Soon enough, our last day at MCM came around and we were already preparing to say our goodbyes. It was incredibly emotional standing on the stage saying goodbye to all the little faces and wonderful people we had just met. I will dearly miss all the children at MCM. I loved waking up and spending my days working and playing with the kids. It warmed my heart each and every time one of them called out “Aunty Melissa”.
I will miss Phoebe, the wonderful social director of MCM who works so hard and truly is the spirit of MCM. I admire her so much. It was a pleasure meeting Henock, the educational director who does such a great job running the mission, and everyone who makes MCM such a wonderful place. I’m looking forward to staying connected to the children and the program.
This trip has truly been exceptional. I have travelled to countries as both a tourist and a student but the things that I have gotten to experience during my time in Malawi has been like no other. I feel so lucky to have had the chance to see Malawi through the lens that I had. I was able to walk through the villages, talk to the local villagers, interview them, and really listen to what they had to say. I have taken away so much from this trip. The Women’s Initiative is such a powerful project that will help the community in so many ways. This trip to Malawi has gone way too fast but what I have learned here in such a short time amazes me. I’m truly thankful to have been able to come to such a wonderful place, meet all these amazing people and have been part of such a meaningful program. I can’t wait to see how the initiative progresses and hopefully make my way back to Malawi someday soon!!
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.
Well, my time in Malawi has come to its inevitable conclusion. Two weeks have flown by as if they were mere hours and now I’m preparing to depart this beautiful country. The experiences I’ve been able to have on this trip are truly unique and unlike the adventures a typical visitor to Malawi would have. As I begin the process of packing my luggage to begin our journey home I can’t help but look back and think fondly of the two weeks.
One of the most insightful experiences on this trip came from the series of interviews conducted in the three villages of M’bwana, Jamali and Mwanzama. Throughout these interviews Clark, Professor Yull and I held candid conversations with the men of these villages discussing the realities of their lives. Following the conclusion of these interviews Clark and I found ourselves touring the villages. What struck me through this experience was the kindness of the men who toured us through their homes. Despite the extreme hardships these individuals face when it comes to their daily search for food, work, and water they still too the time to give us this tour.
At the home of one of the men we explored his workspace, a wooden table from which he conducts his carpentry. After this, the carpenter journeyed to a tree and returned with an entire bag of nuts for us to take back to the lodge. The generosity did not stop here as when we ventured further into the village men at the local hangout allowed me to partake in the home-brewed beer. One quick swallow of this fermented and creamy grain/sorghum based alcohol was enough for me, but it only further established the kindness and generosity of these people. They were just merely appreciative that we were there listening to their concerns and treating them as human beings with real issues.
Located about an hour away from Blantyre in the Chikawa province Mulanje Mountain is the highest point in the country, and one of the highest in all of Southern Africa. Leaving from the lodge around 6:30 A.M. we drove through a number of small towns encapsulated by the morning fog until we reached our destination: the behemoth granite mountain of Mulanje. Our hiking expedition didn’t last as long as originally hoped for, however the most magical experience of this trip came after the climb. Our driver, Alistair, decided to take us to the home of his aunt and uncle.
It was here that we had conversation for nearly an hour while devouring fresh fruit from their papaya and grapefruit trees. We walked amongst the rest of their garden consisting of a smorgasbord of tropical fruits: passion fruit, papaya, banana, lime, and mango. By the conclusion of our time at their home we learned about their lives in Zimbabwe, how they came to own the house, and Clark and I left with a bottle of homemade hot sauce made with chilies grown in their backyard. It was a unique experience that allowed us to gain some insight into the lives of the average Malawian.
By far, however, the most meaningful experiences of this entire trip would come from the Malawi Children’s Mission. Arriving on that first Monday I wasn’t prepared to develop the level of attachment I did to the children of the center. Throughout the course of the two weeks each of the members of the Binghamton team found themselves with a number of children who formed our own little cohort. We would pull up in the mornings and the children would immediately come, grab a hold of our hands, and take us through the school to begin our day with them. I became essentially the King of the Swing Set during my time for my ability to push the children to the highest level possible of the swings. One of the young women of the mission even developed a crush on me whilst teaching me words in her native language of Chichewa. The children’s scream of “Uncle Matthews” and “mzungu” as our Toyota pulled up to the center each morning is something that I’ll remember fondly forever.
I’m extremely grateful to Binghamton University, Professor Blitz and Professor Yull for this opportunity. The adventures that I’ve had on this trip are not the norm for the average visitor to Malawi and for that I’m truly appreciative. The two weeks that we had in this friendly and inviting country will stay with me for the rest of my life. This isn’t goodbye Malawi, instead this is a tionana, or see you. I can’t wait until we meet again and I can continue my exploration of the Warm Heart of Africa.
In the past few days, I’ve had time to reflect on the trip. Every time I talk to someone about it, they tell me the same thing. Which is how much of a great experience I must’ve had. I believe that it runs deeper than that. For a long time I felt lost, in regards to my career goals. I always knew that I wanted to help people, but my passion has evolved on a greater scale. I want to travel, to help communities develop self-sustainable businesses. I want to fight for social justice alongside these communities that have been affected through exploitation, selfishness and greed. Malawi has inspired me to keep reaching for my goals and to not settle for anything less. It has taught me how to be grateful, not just for the big things, but for the little things too. The people have shown me pure kindness and love throughout the two weeks. Saying goodbye was so difficult, I made incredible friendships with wonderful people.
I’ve grown attached to the children in MCM. I can’t stop talking about Yvone to my friends. She’s in standard three; she loves to dance and read books. I was able to witness her eagerness to improve her English and learn more. The first time I met her, was during the welcome show that the MCM children prepared for us. Yvone was sitting in one of the chairs and she would look at me and every time I would wave at her, she would giggle. The next day she grabbed my hand and excitedly pulled me to the library. This routine continued for the rest of the two weeks. She would pick out a book and read it. When she was unsure of a word she would pronounce it as best as she could and look at me for approval. She would also point to objects in the book that she has never seen. She once pointed at an airplane and I explained to her how it flies and how it’s used for travel. I could see her eyes brighten up with more curiosity. She taught me some Chichewa, including the words beautiful, happy and the phrase “see you tomorrow”. I know she will be an amazing person when she grows up.
One day we were playing with five other girls. At one point, one of the little girls pushed another girl. Yvone got in between and talked to both of them in a very sweet manner (this should’ve been my “what” for the day but it completely slipped my mind). I didn’t understand what the exchange of words was but I noticed how the two girls quickly stopped fighting and were friends again. Yvone has many strong, powerful characteristics and she’s so young to even realize it. On the last day, she didn’t want to let go of my hand for a second. Every step that we took closer to the car, she would whisper “no”. I felt the sadness in her voice and it made me tear up. I remember looking at Professor Blitz and telling her “Yvone doesn’t want to let go”. I eventually kneeled down to say goodbye and she looked at me and gave me a long, warm hug. She said, “Goodbye Aunty Maria. Miss you.” I didn’t expect this to happen, I realized the impact that I had on this little girl was just as equal as the impact that she has had on me. Yvone truly stole my heart and she has allowed me to be her friend, and for that I will forever be grateful.
I feel so lucky and blessed to have the life that I do. To have my parents who are healthy and support my dreams. I’m so appreciative for my siblings who are in good schools filled with opportunities that I used to take for granted. I may not have it all, but I have a healthy life and family. That’s more than enough.
While I was away in Africa, upstate New York erupted in green. Green thickly covered the hills that I stared at from my Greyhound bus seat, en route to Binghamton, and from my passenger seat as my husband drove the last leg of the journey home. Greenery, bathed in sunlight, glowed with life.
“How would all this look different if there was a drought, do you think?” I asked my husband, as we made our way north on Route 89, Cayuga Lake a deep, cold blue to our left.
He thought. “Well, the lakes would be evaporated a great deal, if it lasted years. The trees would all be brown. They would be dead,” he said.
I imagined a layer of drought, the dryness, over the trees, the canopy that was shading us as we sped closer to home, where our kids were waiting for us.
“It’s just so different,” I said, remembering the dried fields of maize, the clouds of dust that had ended up in my eyes and that I cleaned out of my nose every day when I was at MCM. We coughed that dust; our eyes had watered. Drought had yielded a meager harvest. Several of my classmates had given Aunt Phoebe, Social Director of MCM, a twenty dollar bill for the 150 students to have an extra egg or a goat as part of their lunch while we were there. When we listened to the elders in the villages these children lived in, every adult spoke of hunger and lack of food, and that they were not eating because there was nothing to eat.
As my husband and I drive home, the back of our minivan was filled with food: grapes, peaches, carrots, peppers, jam, bread, some meat for dinner, a spaghetti squash. We had made a detour stop at Wegman’s in Ithaca before driving home on Route 89, next to the lake. I remember the weight of the large cart under my hands as we maneuvered our way through the produce aisles. In my head, I remembered passing out the steaming plates of nsima, greens, and goat to individual children as they entered MCM’s smoky dark kitchen. The hearty mounds of fruits and vegetables spread before us. My mind’s eye could see the rustling of the thin, bleached stalks of maize. After two weeks eating more flour and grain products than I had been used to, I admit that I relished plucking handfuls of produce from tables, grateful it was summer, that I could bring my kids home a cold, crisp watermelon, grateful I could cook again, grateful for…
It’s hard to finish that sentence.
Gratitude alone is too simple, too clean. Gratitude rubs up against guilt, and coils around ideas of what is enough—what is justice—and finally rests, held by the arbitrary circumstance of life.
At the cash register, we ran the Visa card. $130 dollars. Out of habit, I took out my phone and used the calculator: MK 91,000. That’s got to be more money than most families in the villages make in a year. I thought about the men who drove us and acted as interpreters. Alistair and Charles would be stunned witnessing the same calculation.
I wondered how long this feeling would last. Re-immersing into my own culture would come eventually, just as I had adjusted well to the routine of the last two weeks. I wondered what pieces would stick with me that I could take forward. Like the food I looked forward to nourish my body with, what memories, what insights, would also become a part of me, stick to my ribs?
My first full day home was spent mostly on the couch. I felt ungrounded, despite getting all of my children off to school and taking my husband to the airport for a business trip. I needed to sit still in the dark and smell the earthy fur of my dogs. Every room I had wandered through at home, I had been making calculations of volume: mentally determining how many brick homes from the villages we saw would fit in my kitchen (three), my bedroom (two or three), the living room (three).
I remember reading in the study abroad preparation materials that the OIP provided for us that coming back home could be a challenge. It is normal to have the experience that friends and family would not be able to relate to the experiences we had had. I spent an embarrassing amount of time texting some of my fellow Malawi travelers, telling them I missed them. Swapping jet lag experiences. Sharing how guilty we felt using small appliances, drinking water from the taps in our homes. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at our pictures. I played the CD of Malawi music every day—given to us from Alistair, our driver and friend—as I prepared dinner.
I was a visitor in Blantyre, Malawi, for two weeks. I was not a savior, nor was I a tourist. My visit was a powerful experience, mainly because of the emotional impact of the relationships I began with people, my fellow travelers and the kind Malawians who assisted our work with MCM, cared for us at Annie’s Lodge, and navigated the journey for us back and forth between those two points, every day.
There are only nine people from Binghamton University who I know can share the deep experiences we had the last two weeks. Dr. Lisa Blitz regularly counted us all, several times a day, to make sure all of us were accounted for: “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine,” she’d say, with her right hand’s pointer finger bobbing in the air with each word. Counting is associated with accountability, my personal responsibility for how I am changed and act in the world as a result of these last couple weeks. Whatever memories stick for us all, my fellow travelers and I, may we carry them forward with us in our work for awareness and justice and in our relationships with those with whom we continue to travel, as visitors, in life.