This last trip was my third to Malawi, Africa and it was all about contrasts. Not comparing one as better than the other, just contrasts such as the environmental differences between the lake Malawi region, with its lush green trees, sandy beaches and sugar plantations and the dry mountain plains, almost completely lacking vegetation in some areas due to deforestation.
I’ve only been in Malawi during the end of the dry season when many areas are parched. The scenery shifts in different shades of brown, which has its own magnificence. There is a tree with purple leaves called the Jacaranda tree that grows there and the color is an eye popping contrast to the rest of the landscape, bringing out the beauty in both.
Then there was the contrast between the tribes of people. We worked mostly along the lake, which draws people from all over the country to fish. Thus, the people in each village can be from a different tribe and have totally dissimilar customs, manners, and looks – not to mention languages! We tried to at least keep up with the three main languages: chiTumbuka, chiChewa (the national language) and chiTonga. When I say keep up, I mean being able to say perfunctory phrases such as “hello, how are you?” “I’m fine and what about you?” and some other necessary words – like “sorry” and “thank you!” African languages are a different animal, I cannot compare to any others that I know so it’s just guess work. It’s fun though and the people love it when you try. They laugh and laugh and the kids plug their noses to imitate the nasal sounds we make. We had each other cracking up the whole time. Manners were also different from village to village. Some villages were more reserved whereas in others the people would greet you with hugs, song and dance. What I’ve learned is that a smile goes a long, long way and genuine happiness overcomes almost any cultural barrier.
Another contrast was between the village life and the cities. Out in the rural areas, time has stood still. People live in mud huts with thatch roofs. They have no electricity and live off the land. Then you travel a few miles and come to a “city” with cars, traffic lights, electric power, stores etc. The gap between the people is astonishing; I try not to think about it too much because then it seems insurmountable. When we roar into a village in a big huge truck with cameras, GPS, phones, more stuff than anyone can really need (and the people may never have seen a white person before), what must they think? One of the field officers said that America was the land of plenty. That’s an understatement isn’t it? I just keep thinking about how little it would take to help bring them out of extreme poverty!!!!
Everyone has cell phones these days in Malawi. They are very cheap and are a great help to our program as far as logistics go, and they represent another contrast: sitting at a well site with kids in tattered clothes and big bellies from malnutrition and a cell phone rings. Someone in the crowd answers “HELLO.” My brain had a hard time getting the picture to fit. I guess my picture needs to be more fluid.
Another powerful contrast was between the way that our society interacts and the way that the Malawians interact. I would watch them greet each other, the care they take at finding out how the other person is doing and what is going on in their lives. There were constant conversations and laughter, true dialogue between people. I thought of how we sometimes communicate with each other – all the texting, Facebook and other isolating behaviors. I’m not necessarily saying one way is better than the other – they just contrast. It does seem however that the Malawians have a very strong sense of community, which is something I’ve always wanted in my life. The electronic community is not always fulfilling my desire for belonging and love.
Then there is the stark contrast between the old water sources and new Shallow Wells. I try to imagine what it would be like to have to drink from the unprotected, contaminated, slimy water that is their only source of drinking water (before the well of course), but I simply can’t. I don’t know what it is like to have to walk for miles and miles, carrying buckets of water on my head, children on my back, knowing that the water I’m bringing back will probably make them sick. I don’t know what it is like to not have enough food to eat or a roof over my head or accessible heath care. I’ve been blessed and fortunate to have all these comforts in my life.
However, I do know what joy is and what love is and what it means when your life changes for the better. I can understand the exhilaration at knowing that my loved ones will be healthier and have a better life. That is what the Shallow Well represents: a better standard of living, healthier people, more time spent in the village instead of collecting water, more time spent in school instead of collecting water, empowerment, development, hope, life.
The villagers in Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia work tirelessly side-by-side, hand-in-hand with the Field Officers, Coordinators, Installation Supervisors, Well Builders, Maintenance People, pump manufacturers, volunteers from Africa and America to bring hope and health to their people.
It is truly a miracle that we witness year after year when we continue to reach our goal. This year MMM has built 2,071 new shallow wells providing over 400,000 people with a sustainable source of safe drinking water. It is an honor to be part of this journey!