Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Returning to Mwazisi, Hunger season, and the value of Eduction

One of the biggest highlights of this past winters trip to Africa was having the chance to return to my home away from home for three years Mwazisi, Malawi, and be reunited with all of the people I love there.  In the three years since I left, a lot has happened in Mwazisi…for one thing, there are paved roads and electricity in the trading center of Mwazisi now!  Something I wouldn’t have been able to imagine when I first walked down the dusty road from the Bowe turnoff 6 and a half years ago, so I’m happy to see that in Mwazisi “Chitikuko Yakwenda makola” development is moving well. 

I landed in Malawi 2 days later than I had planned to because civil service strikes had shut down the airport in Lilongwe.  So when I landed I didn’t waste any time, instead of spending a night in Lilongwe, I immediately started hitch-hiking north, and managed to make it to Mzuzu late that night, and continued on to Mwazisi the next day

Since I left Mwazisi two different Peace Corps volunteers have been placed there and have had a great impact on the community.  Prashanth Gubala from Boston took over for me and used his business and accounting skills to help the local People Living with Aids (PLA) group start a teahouse as an income generator.  He also worked with the same beekeepers association I did, finished the construction of the agriculture extension office that I started, and a whole slew of other projects. 

Towards the end of Prashanth’s time in Mwazisi the Peace Corps placed another volunteer in Mwazisi, this time it was a secondary school teacher named Kristen Olsen.  While I was back in Mwazisi I stayed with Kristen, and got to see first hand how well respected she is in the community, and what a great job she is doing at the secondary school.  It was really wonderful to see that the Peace Corps volunteers that came after me have been such great representatives of the Peace Corps and left their own mark on Mwazisi.

I spent 4 nights in Mwazisi, and it was a whirl-wind.  I made the mistake of telling my friends I was coming before I showed up, so they managed to fill up my schedule for me.  We had a full day meeting/workshop with the beekeepers association the day after I arrived.   I was amazed how many people showed up, and stayed from beginning to end.  I condensed the material from my two-day workshops in Uganda, and managed to touch on every topic in about 7 hours.  The rest of the week was filled with visiting old projects, meetings with village headman, and mostly reunions with friends.   These visits were mostly for meals and almost always embarrassingly over-generous.  This extreme generosity mostly made me uncomfortable  because I was there in February, which is the time of hunger “nyengo ya njala.”  The rains usually start mid-December in Malawi, so in February they are just about to harvest, but by then most people's stores from the previous year have run out, and they start getting desperate for food.  This year was particularly bad because of weak harvests the previous year, all across Malawi I saw huge food lines at the ADMARC offices which is a state run commodity trader who buys up people’s extra maize during the harvest and eventually sells it back to them at a slightly inflated price.  While I was there several people were killed at an ADMARC in Mzuzu because people rushed forward and stampeded when the gates to the office were opened.  I also heard reports of people robbing  maize from each other, and of course the number of people begging is significantly more during that time.  Despite all of that, literally everywhere I went I was greeted with the most overwhelming generosity in Mwazisi.  Nearly every shop I walked into somebody offered to buy me a coke, and every home I visited people cooked extravagant meals where they slaughtered a chicken or cooked rice which is seldom eaten in the village, because it has to be bought from the lake region.  It is hard to eat your friends most prized food when you know their families are facing desperate times, but to not eat what is served to you as a guest would be very rude. 

It is very difficult to see so many people struggling and to know that there is so little you can do to help, especially with these people who are so generous to me.  When I did give money I tried to be cautious and discreet, because it can lead to jealousy and resentment in the community.  I also constantly reminded myself that better times were just around the corner with harvest time.  Many people also approached me with bigger requests.  One friend asked me to help him start a community youth center, another friend asked me to help him start a natural medicine business, the village headman wrote a long letter requesting that I help build housing for an agricultural extension worker.  I always told people I don’t have extra money to spend on these projects, to which everybody inevitably replied,  “You can raise the money in America.”  I’ve seen too many people try to fund projects remotely, and seen things run awry unbeknownst to the people raising money in a far off wealthy country.  I didn’t pursue a career in international development because as a Peace Corps volunteer I saw that often times even the most well intentioned development programs or projects can lead to even deeper problems and corruption.  I realized that the problems in countries like Malawi are far too complex for me to understand and I don’t want to ever create bigger problems out of hubris in thinking I have the answers.

The one thing I do feel comfortable raising money for is education or school fees.  In my mind by supporting the ambitious young people of Malawi as they try to better themselves, we are investing in the future of the whole country.  As a Peace Corps Volunteer a lot of my time was spent working at the secondary school.  I taught physical science, and history, and also led an after school wildlife club that kept a tree nursery and a vegetable garden.  As any teacher might tell you working with teenagers always has its challenges, but if you can be patient and work through the temper tantrums and hormones, it gives you a direct link to the energy and enthusiasm of the best of the young people in a community, and in my opinion if you nurture and support that enthusiasm you have the best chance of making a positive impact on the future of the community.  

In Mwazisi I was very lucky to interact with a wide array of outstanding young people, but so few of them have any opportunity to go further with their education or live up to their full potential.  For example my first year teaching Form 1 (freshman) physical science, I had over 80 students in my class, by the beginning of the 2nd term I had close to forty students.  When I taught the same group of students in form two (sophomore year) I had close to 25 students in my class, by the time they were in form four there were only fifteen students, only 4 of which managed to get a passing grade on their Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) exam.  Granted some students did transfer to better schools where they thought they might have a better chance of passing the MSCE, but most of the other students were prevented from being able to finish their schooling because they either couldn’t pay for school fees, or needed to work in their families tobacco and maize fields, or they got pregnant and had to drop out.  Some of my very best students from the beginning didn’t make it through form three. 

One example that was particularly heart breaking for me was a girl who was a daughter of a friend of mine.  I taught her in both physical science and history, she was very quiet, yet also very poised.  She rarely answered questions in class, but her homework and essays completely stood out from her peers, due to her tremendous comprehension.  She somehow always managed to accomplish exactly what I asked for in a homework assignment, while most others in form 1 weren't even close.  At the end of the year, she had the highest grade in all of her classes, but the next year she didn’t come back for form 2, when I went to ask her father what happened, he told me that she was pregnant and going to get married.

I often wondered if there was anything I could do to help the problem of students dropping out before they can succeed in school.  The only  solution I ever came up with was to support those who have the ambition and opportunity to go further with their education, I believe the more successful students that are able to progress in their education become, the more serious the whole community starts taking education and the more families support their children in completing secondary school and hopefully they go further beyond in their studies.