Putting a village on the map
Malawi is described as the warm heart of Africa. It has a rich culture, stunning scenery, rolling plateaus, and happy smiling people.
Away from the tourist hotspots, of which there are many and will be mentioned later, it is very easy to see that Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world.
As I write some notes, I am sitting in the middle of Chamadenga, a small village, 6km off the main road and an hour away from the capital city, Lilongwe. This remote village wasn’t even on google maps until I went online, scoured satellite images for a couple of days and suggested it be shown there. It is reached by driving over a deeply rutted dirt track, passable only by a decent 4×4 jeep, by bicycle, or as most inhabitants would, on foot.
In many respects, the sights and sounds around me are typical of a rural scene. A family of goats wander past, investigate me and realise I am of no use to them, and wander on. As I look around, there are dogs, cats, pigs and a donkey all living in harmony. In the near distance, I can hear the cacophony of noise created by the pupils at the local school. It appears to be breaktime, so I take myself over to chat to one of the teachers, who tells me there are 1200 pupils in attendance today. I suspect the 10 teachers at the school are kept fairly busy. I comment on the lack of school-rooms, wondering where the pupils learn, to be told that its an open-air school. The classes are held under the shelter of nearby trees. The pupils learn English, so many run up to me and say “Hello Mister, My name is…” Quickly followed by “I need food” or “Do you have money”. Where would you even start? The children beside me are some of the most impoverished in the country. Through the work of a local charity, Bright Vision, they are only guaranteed three meals a week. By meal, I mean a bowl of high-protein porridge. Anything they may receive at home (which is unlikely) is a bonus. Home, to these children, is a one room dwelling built with earthen bricks and topped with a rough thatch, obviously there is no electricity, running water or toilet facilities. These buildings are no match for the seasonal torrential rains which arrive in December and January. I heard stories of houses collapsing and the inhabitants meagre possessions being washed away.
However, with volunteer tourism, there is a glimmer of hope for these children and the millions like them. Away from the hub-bub of the school and back in the centre of the village, I can hear the sound of hammering, voices shouting for more cement and can see people carrying bricks and erecting scaffolding. These people come from all over the world to do what they can to help. Some are builders by trade, some are office workers, some are retirees. Their main common goal is to better the lives of the people of this village. All of the volunteers have raised money through sponsorship from friends, colleagues or family and travelled there under the auspices of Habitat for Humanity, which carries out education, feeding, health and building projects year-round. The long-lasting nature of the project is the key. The 10 houses being built in a few days in Chamadenga will allow the children to be able to sleep properly at night, without fear of their house collapsing around them, in turn, better sleep will allow them to concentrate better at school, and improve their health. Ultimately, this basic provision of a roof over their heads will lead them to a better future.
The direct benefit to the families is clear, but the volunteers also benefit. They get to experience a new country, a different way of life and the satisfaction that they have helped those who are less fortunate.
Away from the building site, volunteers get to see other places. There are visits to markets, local sights of interest and tourist attractions. My trip allowed me to see the very different sides of life in the country.
Lilongwe is a sprawling “low-rise” city. It has the usual accommodation offerings. The Korea Garden Lodge where I stayed was unexpectedly good. The room was spacious and clean, though grappling with the mosquito net over the bed was an exercise in itself. As it enveloped me during the night I kept waking with a jump thinking I was drowning. Having said that, the net did its job and I managed the entire trip without being bitten.
Malawi has many attractions. The biggest is Lake Malawi, a freshwater inland sea fringed by sandy beaches and famous for its watersports. The landscape is also special, the highest peaks top 10,000 feet and the lowest touch sea-level. The country also has nine national parks and wildlife reserves. Yet, tourism is still in its relative infancy, so there is a great undiscovered feel to the place.
People travelling to Malawi will be greeted at lodges, driven round and guided by members of local communities who are all benefitting from the growth of tourism within the country. Accommodation owners and responsible tour operators recognise their role in ensuring the benefits of tourism reach local communities whether it be through local employment practices, ensuring their operations run with minimum environmental impact and in some cases through the active promotion of ecotourism activities.
I came away from Malawi with mixed emotions. Having only ever seen the plight of these families, and many like them, on television, it took on an entirely new meaning when I was standing in the village of Chamadenga, looking at the state of the homes, and the utter poverty that surrounded them. In the midst of all that though, there was happiness, singing and smiles, the embodiment of the warm heart of Africa. My contribution is telling their story, and literally, putting them and their village on the map.