I awoke yesterday morning discombobulated, groggy, and feeling as if gravity and the weight of the blankets that made up my sleepy-time cocoon would be too much for me to overcome. Yawning, I tried to blink the sleep away, stretching to will myself awake. Slowly it dawned on me that I was waking up in Malawi.
Having slept away most of the exhaustion that came with the journey from Toronto to Lilongwe, I showered and then headed off for breakfast1. Around 8:15am, I was picked up along with Jonathan – the other Leave For Change volunteer that is staying at the Korea Garden Lodge – and driven to the WUSC2 headquarters for a day of orientation and training.
The day began with introductions to the team, both permanent staff and the short and long-term student interns and volunteers. The team, a collection of very talented and engaged people, was also very obviously a positive and friendly group. Their welcoming faces and attitudes made me feel as if I’d been part of the team forever.
After introductions we got down to business. Both Jonathan and I – the newbies – spent the day with Tendai and Richmond working through various modules to help us familiarize ourselves with the local community, understand some of the culture and history of Malawi, and better understand our specific mandates with the community partners with whom we’d be working for the next several weeks.
While some of the training was a repetition of things I’d learned in Canada (either at the pre-mandate training session in Toronto or in documents I’d previously received), it was still nice to review them and reflect on their meaning now that I was on the ground. Of course, not all of it was review. Regardless, several things jumped out at me. In particular:
- Malawi is predominantly an agriculturally based society, with primary exports and much of the economy based on tobacco, tea, coffee, and legumes. However, with non-smoking campaigns growing around the world, there’s a need to transition from tobacco to other products.
- In 2014, Malawi – one of the poorest countries in the world – ranked 174 of 187 countries on the Human Development Index. The majority of Malawians (88%) live on less than $2 US per day. This often means that education is out of reach of many, even though primary education is free.
- While HIV/AIDS rates have decreased significantly thanks to education campaigns and efforts to outlaw traditional practices considered risky3, 10% of the population are infected, and there is significant stigma connected to a diagnosis. It remains the leading cause of death in the country.
- While 70% of farmers are female, and 51% of the population are female, women do not have the same voice as men. Moreover, they face a triple-threat of pressure: they work to support their families, they raise the children and take care of the home, and they are expected to help the sick and elderly in the community.
- Youth (10-35 years of age) make up 40% of the population, but they struggle to find jobs even if they have an education.
Despite these challenges, the Malawian people are extremely friendly, extremely positive, and extremely welcoming.
In a few days, I’ll be meeting with my community partner to discuss the goals of my Leave For Change mandate. In a very general sense, I know that my mission is to work with them to develop capacity in the domains of mathematics, statistics, and computer science so that they can work to address these challenges.
To say that I’m humbled to be able to take part in this program is an understatement. And while I hope that I’ll be able to help out in some small way, I feel that I’m going to leave here learning and experiencing far more than a four-week job could ever provide.
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1 Or more specifically, I headed off in search of coffee – all the coffee. Food was really a side-effect of that search.
2 WUSC is the World University Service of Canada. Together with the Centre for International Students and Cooperation (CECI), they manage the Uniterra program which includes the Leave For Change program.
3 For example, tradition in some regions suggested that a widow would become a second wife to a man’s brother. In other regions, a widowed woman would be cleansed of the spirit of her departed through intercourse with a man in the community who’s job it was to provide this service.