For many years there has been this little dream simmering away in my heart, to somehow make myself useful in Africa. I’ve always had this fascination with all things African, even as a child, and when I traveled to Tanzania several years ago, I absolutely fell in love and just knew I had to come back someday. But it wasn’t until after my husband and I separated, I decided to focus on turning this dream into reality and the planning got underway. And no matter how hard things got, I reminded myself it was OK, because I was going to Africa. How blessed are we to have the resources to make our dreams come true? But as often happens when the universe works it’s magic, things turn out even better than you could dream up yourself. This was definitley the case when late last year I traveled to Malawi to work for ADRA Australia / ADRA Malawi (a development organisation, which if I can do anything about it will soon be a household name, as it already is in Malawi, because their work is just incredible!).
How do I even start by describing my experience? Probably the best way is to say that I’ve never felt so alive! I cried so many happy tears while I was there, and it simply felt like my soul had come home. Every day was a pinch-me-now moment! My brief from ADRA was “go capture the amazing things that are happening” (music to any photographer’s ears, right?!), and I was absolutely blown away by what I saw and learned. For almost two weeks I was surrounded by positivity, gratitude and hearty Malawian laughter, as I listened to stories of empowerment and how people were able to thrive and realise their individual gifts by being given the opportunity they needed. Having worked in rehab here in Australia, I feel so lucky that I was able to come in at the very end of a programme that has been running for several years, after all the hard work has already been done, and hear all about the amazing progress made overall. Each day I interviewed and photographed two people, and sitting on the ground or the front porch, chatting and listening to stories shared from the heart, was truly my happy place. And have I mentioned the singing??? I best not or I might start crying again ;-)
What struck me the most was how every.single.person I spoke to was so proud of their accomplishments, and the feeling of empowerment and gratitude simply shone out from them. ADRA takes on the approach of rather than giving hand-outs, to give a hand-up, and all interventions are based on community consultation and self-direction. For example, after a community has demonstrated commitment to a savings and loans (community banking) programme, whereby they pool their own resources and grow their own funds through interest paid, then incentives are given to complement the hard work already being done by themselves. This may include incentives such as goats, or a window or a door for their home. At the end of the trip we delivered the images taken whilst there, as a way of saying thanks, and the reaction within communities was just priceless! It was one of the happiest days of my life! Don’t miss the video below (but please excuse the shaky footage-it was my first time videoing and I was just a tad excited!!!).
I feel so grateful to have been part of the ADRA team, and to finally at the age of 38 to have found my passion in life! Thank-you so much for having me. To my beautiful Malawian family, thank-you a million times over for making me feel so welcome, and for just being you. The passion and care you have for your work was truly inspiring, and none of the images taken would have been possible if it wasn’t for the warm relationship you have within communities. Thinking of you all as you deal with the flooding at the moment.
So I invite you to imagine you’ve just received this warm Malawian welcome and the straw mat has been laid out for you. Come and sit with us and enjoy some amazing success stories…some of the most treasured memories of my life…Muli Bwanji
I’ll start with my favourite village…Oh how I loved it there! As soon as we arrived we were greeted with excitement and surrounded by the spirit of happiness and gratitude. This community is so far from paved roads that children may go years without ever seeing one. We were shown around by Larry and his wife Daris, and taken down to their river that used to be their only water source. Living on the edge of a national park, the river is also frequented by elephants, so apart from the water being dirty, and containing tree deposits that cause skin lesions, people were also afraid for their lives when fetching water there (one bucket at a time!!!). When the river was particularly dirty, there might be days when cooking wasn’t possible, so hunger was common, as were water borne diseases. Larry had lobbied for ADRA to install a water bore, and the level of gratitude for the gift of clean, readily available water within the village was something I have never seen before…the women literally burst into song and continued to sing for almost our entire stay! You can hear some of the singing here:
“When we heard that ADRA would provide us with a water bore, we thought it was a lie, because we are so far from the road. We didn’t believe it until we saw the truck arrive, that ADRA lives by it’s word. It’s a dream come true! I never thought it was possible to drink water from a bore hole. Water is the most valuable commodity in life. Water IS life.” Daris.
Daris also explained that since the the availability of water within the village, 90% of their marital problems are gone, with the day to day stresses surrounding water now over. “My source of happiness is through my husband…he is a hero because he lobbied for the bore”.
Meet Jonis, age 19, who has an inner strength and self-assuredness far beyond his years. The look of determination you see on his face here was a genuine as it gets. Most kids would be happy to have a day off school to be interviewed and photographed, but Jonis was actually a bit peeved about the whole thing, afraid he would fall behind in class! He has spent much of his school life juggling study and caring for his sick mother, who has now passed, leaving him at a loss as to how to fund his school fees. (In Malawi primary education is free, however high school education requires the payment of fees). Also the distance from home to his school was 1.5 hours walk each EACH way!!! He would often arrive late for school, and as a punishment they would make him fill up the water holes for hand washing and remove tree stumps!!! Can you believe it?! You can imagine how many times my boys have heard this story when they complain about our 10 min walk to school and the playground! Anyway, it all became too much and feeling hopeless Jonis left school, thinking that his only option to get by would be to get married.
Jonis initially became involved with ADRA as part of the savings and loan programme. At the tender age of 16 Jonis was elected by his community as a volunteer to run the groups, given his literacy, empathic personality and that he had always put his hand up in community consultations to advocate for his sick mother. Jonis explained he was initially very nervous, but his confidence was boosted that his community believed in him. He very humbly shared that 4 out of the 7 groups he led were given grants by ADRA to start income generating activities through goats, which is a very high success rate! His groups had shown maturity in their interactions (not many quarrels), and had been able to successfully grow their pool of money. ADRA provided Jonis with a one-off grant for his school uniform, shoes, books and pens, and after this he was able to self fund his schooling through the sale of his goat kids. At 18 he returned to school, and currently has 2 years left to go. ADRA provided him with a bike to make the trip more manageable, however as students would often meet after school for additional study, eventually he decided to board closer by.
“I have learned that nothing in life is impossible. Never give up! Life has good options other than getting married”. He explained that he knows that succeeding in life requires hard work, and he knows he is hard working and can achieve his goals. Jonis dreams of becoming a doctor, and thinks one day when he achieves his dream, the excitement will be all too much.
And here is Jonis and his grandma…she was telling him that she prays for him every day…don’t you just want to give her a big squishy hug? (Which I did on our last day!).
And now onto Phylis’ story. First of all, can I just say, how stunning is Phylis? Seriously one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen! What I would give for bone structure like that! But I am getting distracted. Phylis has participated in ADRA’s stove making programme, whereby training is given in the manufacturing of more energy efficient stoves (rather than open fires). Additionally Phylis received small business training and help with networking, to be able to sell and profit from the stoves made. These stoves also have environmental benefits, as they require less firewood, and therefore less trees are having to be cut down. Rather than firewood lasting 2-3 days, it last 1-2 weeks. As she now has an income, Phylis can afford to to buy school books, school uniforms, soap, and salt. “I am a more caring mother” said Phylis, as she has more time for her children now the stress of finding firewood is lessened.
This happy soul is Andrew, who works as a store owner, farmer and volunteer community facilitator. In his role of community facilitator, he brings together groups to discuss issues affecting communities, advocating and linking communities with projects, as well as training others so the word can spread far and wide. When Andrew lost his eye in a work accident, he faced a whole new set of challenges, including community perceptions about his ability to continue his work. Often people with disabilities feel inferior within the community. However Andrew applied what he had learned about advocacy to his own life, and now has become a role model and well respected within communities as a “living example” of the success that can be achieved following injury or disability. His advice “make the best out of your disability, demonstrate what you can do and people will support you”. His involvement with the ADRA project has now ended, but Andrew explained “my future is brighter, because I will never lose the skills I learned”. His business and livestock ensures that he and his family have enough food all year round. “I can help others because I have enough. It feels good”.
And here is Andrew’s family having a laugh at that crazy photographer from Australia trying to get a portrait of them!
Meet Floris, my entrepreneurial hero! In the 4 years since Floris learned to learn read and write through participating in ADRA training programmes, (which included community savings and loans and small business skills training), she has been able to leave behind a life of working in the field to feed her family, and has now established a small grocery store next to her home. From there she sells medicines, soap, soy products and treats. She has also managed to purchase 2 cows and an ox cart, which not she not only uses herself, but hires out to the surrounding communities. “Out of 20 surrounding villages, hardly anyone has cattle”. Floris absolutely lit up when she spoke about how life has changed for her and her 4 children. She no longer has issues around childcare, as she works so close to home, she is able to feed and clothe her children and can afford to buy soap to wash. “Hungry children are history” she said proudly. Floris also said she feels like she is a better mother now, because she can provide for her family. She explained she is now well respected within the community because of her achievements. To me, it felt like Floris was just exuding empowerment. Within 4 years she has been able to establish a shop, buy cattle, build a brick house, buy a bed, pots, and can afford things such as meat and treats for her family. Amazing! A hidden entrepreneur, who just needed an opportunity to shine.
I just love this image of Floris and one of the ADRA staff members, Mercy, because it epitomises the warm relationship ADRA has within communities. I do believe that most of their success comes down to this beautiful connection they share. As Floris says “there is power in working together”.
Meet Salome…what an absolute legend! You’ll see why I laughed so much while I was in Malawi…Malawians just have an AWESOME sense of humour! I asked her what the best thing was about learning to read and write at the age of 63? I was expecting some deep and meaningful answer, but instead she replied with “Well, if I find any love letters lying around the house, I’ll know if my husband is cheating on me”! Seriously love this woman!!! Am still laughing…She was also pretty happy with her goats…”I am happy to be alive, and I have things I never thought I would have”.
And here is Salome’s fresh as fresh can be grandbaby!!! So squishable!!!
This is the gorgeous Ignis, who is reaping the benefits of attending ADRA’s literacy groups…she was absolutely radiating confidence when we spoke about how being able to read and write has opened so many other doors for her. She has since attended an abundance of additional training, including bee keeping training, nutritional forums, and tree planting activities. “I’m not afraid when I take my kids to the hospital anymore, because now I can fill out the forms”.
As cute as these homes are, did you know that traditional cottages only last 2 years before they are eaten away by termites? So every 2 years, families are having to cut more trees and rebuild their homes from scratch! Esau and his wife Flora participated in ADRA’s environmental programme that encourages tree planting and were given a window and door for their new brick home that they have subsequently built. Apart from having more living space at home (so they aren’t driving each other mental), they also have enough room to store goods and furniture. And due to the increase in ventilation in their home they have noticed an improvement in their overall health, with less spread of communicable diseases. This new brick house will last for around 10 years and Esau can now devote more time to his job in town as a taxi driver. “I feel more peaceful. I can go to town and not worry about what will happen to my home”.
This is Julius, who has just graduated from high school and now the world is his oyster! Initially struggling to pay for his schooling (fees are the equivalent of $15 AUD per term), after ADRA provided a water bore in his community, Julius has been able to grow his own produce to not only self fund his school fees but also build his own brick home. His community being proud of his accomplishments, were keen to elect him as chief, however Julius has a dream of becoming an extension worker like the ADRA staff. Struggling between the vision his community had for his future, and his own dreams, he approached ADRA for advice…and as you do, they advised him to run away on the day of his ceremony! The reason being that the community are unlikely to choose someone who is absent…and this is what happened! Luckily for Julius, his brother was elected as chief and Julius is still free to pursue his dreams! Gotta love a little rebellion. Julius was initially afraid of what the consequences might be, worried he may be fined. However as it turned out, after a few days of gossiping, everything settled back down to normal. “I have learned to follow my heart, even if it means saying no”.
On the last day we delivered the photos taken whilst I was there and it was one of the happiest days of my whole life! As my fellow photographers would appreciate, the first time a client sees their images is one of the favourite parts of our job, and this was the same feeling only x100! Happiness shared really is happiness doubled and I left Malawi on an absolute high! Don’t miss the video footage below to experience it yourself
If you would like to have your own inspiring adventure, check out the ADRA connections trips here, where you can make a difference and whilst having an amazing cultural experience. And if you feel like paying it forward, you can donate here.
And stay tuned for the second Malawi post, with my favourite travel images, coming soon!