I am sitting in Nairobi airport on my way home from a long, tiring, eventful, enjoyable yet at times heart breaking second visit to Malawi. It really is a beautiful, gorgeous country and it is filled with an amazing people who I have grown to be very fond of in my two trips.
When I arrived into Malawi over a week ago, I had mixed feelings about coming back to the country which I first visited in October last year. When I came back from my first visit I was overwhelmed by the challenges and problems which I was exposed to and if I am being honest I was unclear what myself and IRRI could do to make a real difference to the people we were trying to help. The list of challenges is endless but the Malawian’s I met are an incredible people. They have faith, they have hope and they are always the most courteous and happy people I have ever met in my life. Makes me feel incredibly humble when you think of how we all moan and grumble at the slightest thing that goes wrong and live our lives in the materialistic way that we do.
On this trip I wanted to spend as much of time as I could out in the communities which we are working with on our project to see first hand whether we are making a difference in any way, shape or form. I had an incredible time in the communities of Dzenje, Phalombe District (near the Mozambique border) and Bvumbwe, Thylo District around an hour of out Blantyre. Not only did I want to go and visit the Renewable Energy Kiosks which we had set up and meet the kiosk managers and committees but I also wanted to meet some of the customers of the kiosks to try and get a sense for how the kiosk had benefited them and their families.
I was amazed at what I found. I was not prepared for the breadth of benefits that some of the customers had experienced to date. I guess in my own ignorance, I was expecting one or two basic enhancements to their daily lives, but the scope of the benefits I was not prepared for. Walking into a very small one bedroom house with one living area in Bvumbwe (a house that had 6 people living in it), you could see the pride on the husband and wife when they showed me the light bulb in the main living area. Not only did this give them light in the evening but it enabled their sons to study into the evenings which they hadn’t been able to do before. The biggest impact was when they told me that they hadn’t needed to buy paraffin stoves for the past 6 weeks, which not only saved them money but almost immediately gave enormous health benefits to the children in the house. The running eyes, the chesty coughs had almost gone and they were seemingly in better health. The next house I went to had the same story, it was amazing to see. As I was walking out of the second of third house, the husband came up to me and held me by the hand and pleaded with me to make sure that the kiosk would be here for a long time and not just stop like so many projects do. I did my best to hold back the tears as you could see the genuine desire from this person to build a better life for himself and his family. All I could do was tell him that we were committed to making the project sustainable and we intended to make sure it was there for a long time to come.
After meeting the kiosk, the committee and customers I spent an hour or two in the primary school meeting the most brilliant group of kids ever!!! They came to chat to me about what they did at school, what they would like to have in their school in terms of additional equipment and learning materials and generally give me a chance to get to know them. They were all incredibly bright yet very few of them had shoes or what you could term school uniform, again a very humbling experience!!
On to Dzenje a couple of days later. After taking many hours to get there we met with the committee members and the kiosk managers. Some of the operational challenges were significant in this community in what was essentially communication, process and procedures. All very important otherwise the chances of making this kiosk sustainable were going to be challenging, but at the same time the expectation levels of some of the community were unrealistic in many ways, so we sat down and tried to resolve some of these issues. After a few hours of meetings and conversations, I hesitantly asked if I could meet a few customers just to see what their reactions were to the kiosk. I guess my expectation levels were limited given some of the challenges we had encountered earlier, yet I was very pleasantly surprised.
I went and visited a couple of houses who were sitting proudly with their light bulbs on in the evening allowing their children to study and the wife of the house to be able to do some sewing and mending of clothes which was fantastic to see. In one of the households lived a school teacher who after proudly telling me of the benefits of the kiosk to him and his family took me across the courtyard to the primary school where I could see a light in the distance. By this time it was around 7pm and completely dark outside, yet inside the school there were dozens of kids busy studying hard for their primary school leaving certificate exams which are happening next week. The kiosk has enabled the kids to go back to the classroom each school night for 2 – 3 hours of extra studying which according to the teacher is already making a significant difference.
After the school we walked along to the trading centre which would have been closed by 5pm (darkness) before the kiosk opened up. At 8pm there were half a dozen little shops open to the villagers enabling them to buy supplies for the house. In talking to the business owners this was having a major positive effect on their business in terms of increased turnover, again a fantastic benefit from our little kiosk!!!
So in summary, during this trip I have seen from my own eyes the difference that we can, and are making to the lives of individuals, families and businesses in some remote rural communities in Malawi. I know the problems in this fantastic country are far greater than we will ever be able to solve but at least I can head for home safe in the knowledge that we are indeed making a difference. Now the challenge is to make this difference an everlasting one and one that can help the communities help themselves in the long term.
My last drive out of Blantyre summed up my this country I guess. Street kids running up to the car tapping on the window in tears pleading for some food or money…… These kids could have been no more than 5 and were in bare feet, wearing very little clothes and looking like they hadn’t washed in a long long time. They had a look of hopelessness in their eyes and yet with a little bit of support I know that we could make their lives just that little bit better, if we can help them to make more of their resources they undoubtedly have within their country.
These pictures are also available on Flickr.
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