I’ve been asked to write down my thoughts and experiences from the Malawi Shallow Wells program. I’ve wrestled with whether or not I really have much to share that pertains to the installation of shallow wells and whether what I could add would help spread the word of the organization and its goals or whether it would just deter from the goals of Marion Medical Mission. So, some days I have felt like I have a lot to share and other days I have felt like I was just an outsider or an observer from a distance. Why is that? Well you see my experience was not what anyone had expected.
Despite being one of the youngest members on the Shallow Wells team I arrived in Malawi for our briefing in pain and not feeling anywhere near my usual, genial self. I had been in Tanzania for a few weeks prior doing more tourist type things and had developed a really bad tooth ache a few days before leaving for Malawi. By the time I arrived in Malawi I was in considerable pain and was taking many Tylenol to just get through the day.
I was so excited to be starting this project, especially considering how it all came about. You see I have never had a life long dream to go to Africa and never would have dreamed I would be there to help with an organization like Marion Medical Mission. Yet, after a very strange set of circumstances, there I was in the Malawi airport shaking hands with Tom Logan, Jim Nussbaumer and Hayden Boyd. It was pretty exciting to be apart of a team with a purpose and seeing all the purple shirts and action packers helped fuel that excitement.
Once the team was assembled we all headed out of town in a large mini van (I know it’s an oxymoron but that is what it was; a large mini van). Despite some drastic age differences between myself and most of the other volunteers we all seemed to really connect. Despite the varied backgrounds and varied beliefs we were all there for one purpose and that was clean water.
We had a day and a half of initiation and workshops where we were taught about the local customs, the language, driving on the opposite side of the road, driving in 4wd and various other oddities pertaining to the mission. Just as soon as we had all met we were all scattered into different areas in and around Malawi. I headed from our central base to a city a bit farther north called Mzuzu with a few others. I was lucky enough, being in a 3rd world country, to find a clean, accessible dentist and got to work on fixing my tooth ache. By the end of the week I was doing better having had a root canal, cleaning and a few other smaller procedures.
A few of the volunteers in the surrounding areas had come back to Mzuzu and it was a great time of fellowship and laughter; reconnecting and sharing the experiences of the first week in the field. We waited eagerly for word on where we would all be sent. After a 3 hour plus church service (and that was the short English service) we were told our destinations. Myself, Andrea Taeger and Jeff Wagley would be heading up north towards Tanzania along with a local Malawian who was to be our driver. The road north was particularly hazardous so they arranged for a guy named Mike to be our driver.
We set out early on a Monday morning hoping to rendezvous at the border with Tanzania but we never made it. Our Vehicle rolled on the tarmac. We were very fortunate to have a cell phone that the organization had given us. Andrea was able to call and inform Jocelyn what had happened. This was very vital as it set the team in motion to help us. Myself and Jeff were in the backseat and we were not wearing seat belts as there were none to put on. Andrea and Mike were in the front seats and had seat belts on and, although they got bruised up as well, they were in better shape generally speaking. Me and Jeff got banged up pretty good.
A paved highway in Malawi is called a Tarmac. At its best it is bad. Edges of the road will just be missing and it is very often pockmarked with crater like holes. Along the side of the road and sometimes more towards the center are people walking, sometimes alone and sometimes in groups. They do not have a fear of vehicles as they should have. Added to this confusion are the bicycles that are used to ferry all manner of things from, spouses to bricks, chairs and empty Coke bottles. On top of all this add in the average Malawi driver who does not have much experience.
The public medical system in Malawi is very slow and often under supplied and many of the things they do have don’t work. We waited 3 hours in a small clinic for an ambulance that never showed up. Luckily, many of the volunteers in the area showed up and before long we were in an impromptu ambulance made from a Landcruiser and a mattress and on our way to a hospital.
Everyone dropped what they did, those that were close enough to help, and they helped us through that awful day. In the days that passed myself and Jeff and Andrea were healing and the texts we would get or the calls on our cell phones really kept us going and kept us smiling throughout it all.
The days after the accident are a bit of a blur as I was in quite a lot of pain. I really felt like our accident put the project behind schedule. I still don’t know what the ‘master plan’ of all that was. Me and Jeff are still fighting injuries and it took 2 healthy, grown men out of the picture for installing more wells.
I stubbornly went out for 2 days to install wells and it was exactly how everyone has described the scenario: remote villages down dusty walking trails and hilly paths, grateful villagers and headmen who carry everything down to the well site, unbelievably huge smiles on the faces of villagers when clean water comes out of their new well, the expressed concern that we not forget them and the many other villages that need clean water but do not have it, the joy of the women at the well who probably never dreamed they would ever see clean, cold, pure water coming out of well that belongs to them.
My trip to Malawi was not like most of the trips had by the other volunteers. I was in a serious accident and am still hurting from that. I only got out to do 4 wells and that was while being in quite a bit of pain but I just wanted to experience it first hand. I don’t know why some things happen but I do know that these volunteers really go through tough situations to install these wells. I guess that is something that I take back from this trip.
I remember one of my first questions to Jim when I was going through an interview was why they even need ‘Western’ volunteers? Being there in Malawi myself gave me some answers. Anytime you bring in people from outside it helps to get people motivated and makes the locals feel like they are part of a bigger team and a much bigger picture. And ‘Western (Mzungu)’ people drive a lot better on the whole.
I did not get out to see many wells being completed first hand. What I did see was the way the other volunteers would light up when describing the events from their days doing the Shallow Wells project. I saw the tears as they talked about old men having waited 50 years for clean water to come, having had promise after promise broken by other organizations and by the governments.
So, while I can’t comment on the wells as I was only present for 4 of them personally, I can comment on what an impact it has on the volunteers. I’m sure everyone could say they are changed because of that trip. Malawi is called the warm heart of Africa and everyone commented on the friendliness and the openness of the people. They are so quick to smile and they love to laugh. I am from Canada and so it felt like home in that sense, the friendliness.
If you’re reading this and thinking about donating money for a well then by all means do so. The water holes the villagers are drinking out of are water holes we would not even want to walk through barefoot without washing off immediately afterwards. If you are reading this and thinking of volunteering then by all means do so. Malawians do not always have the means to help themselves and you can drastically improve their way of life, just be sure and buckle up. And lastly, if anyone from our team is reading this, thank you for being so generous and so much fun to hang around with. I took away something from all of you. God bless.