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Family Trip to Malawi
Posted on: Wednesday, August 05, 2015
Blog Category: 'Personal Experience '

In this blog Ann Whipple Marr talks about her family trip to Malawi in August 2014. Read about their work with nonprofit community organisation goodsforgood, “transformative travel” organisation Epic Road and their breathtaking Malawi journey below.

There may be no place on earth where the breathtaking beauty of the natural landscape is in more stark and unforgiving contrast to the urgent needs of its people than the continent of Africa.  Ongoing headlines overwhelm us with the horrors of Ebola, of AIDS, of tribal cruelty and gender violence, of devastating water shortages and a growing orphan population amidst stark poverty.  And while so many long to travel to Africa, to experience the beautiful culture, the majestic wildlife in its natural habitat, the breathtaking terrain, and extraordinary coastlines, we’d like to be socially responsible as tourists, too, to contribute in some way, to leave a positive, humanitarian footprint when we leave.   We admire those who have made it their lives’ work to alleviate poverty here, bring educational opportunities to villagers, and attend to those suffering from disease.   Can the rest of us be tourists and humanitarians?  Well, maybe.  Let me tell you about a transformative and life-affirming, multi-generational trip to Africa this past summer, one that our family will never forget.

Our journey had its origins a year ago, when my daughter Abby traveled to Lilongwe, capital of Malawi, to visit the sustainability projects of goodsforgood (http://goodsforgood.org/ ), a nonprofit community organization founded in 2006 by  New York entrepreneur Melissa Kushner to provide care for vulnerable children in this impoverished nation where nearly 18% of all children are orphans.   The original goodsforgood model reached out to US corporations for donations of needed supplies (clipboards, pencils, etc.) which were then transported to Malawi, hence the charity’s name.  Hugely successful, the results nonetheless did not satisfy Kushner who questioned how the acquisition of goods could effect meaningful changes in people’s lives.  So she rethought the purpose of her initiative, turning instead to the creation of projects to help communities become self-sustaining, while at the same time raising funds to finance her mission of providing care for vulnerable children.  

While in Malawi, Abby learned about the sustainability projects: small on-site businesses devoted to chicken farming, tailoring, and small-scale agriculture.  She and her daughter Lucy had already discussed raising funds to support one such project in celebration of Lucy’s upcoming bat mitzvah, and so Abby paid particular attention to the chicken farms – how they operated and profited.  She visited several working farms and several potential sites, including Mchenga, soon to become the chicken farm created through Lucy’s fund-raising efforts. 

Awed by her experiences in Malawi, Abby returned time and again to one question:  how could she bring such a life-affirming, transformative experience home to her children and family?  The answer: she couldn’t.   But with her on the trip, fortuitously, was Mark Lakin, one-time corporate attorney and Board member of goodsforgood.  Mark is the co-founder of a “transformative travel” organization called Epic Road (www.epicroad.com), which combines luxury travel to places like Africa, Asia, and the Arctic with opportunities for involvement in humanitarian and environmental initiatives.    Epic Road plans individual tourist excursions that combine extraordinary and authentic travel adventures with “responsible tourism.”  Lakin believes that “travel can power massive positive changes in the world” by building awareness, empathy, compassion, and leadership.   

Before long, Abby began to envision a family trip which would, with Lakin’s help, simultaneously celebrate Lucy’s generous outreach on behalf of goodsforgood and provide an opportunity for her family both to witness first-hand and to participate in the philanthropic efforts of such organizations as goodsforgood in making real quality-of-life differences in individual African communities.   Lucy’s siblings and cousins would experience not only the incredible impact of community-based philanthropy (and, specifically, the Mchenga chicken farm) but the enormous beauty of the African continent, its animals, bustling cities, welcoming culture.  Before the actual planning for the trip began, Abby also reached out to CARE in Malawi.  Involved for many years in CARE’s Women’s Initiative and projects which benefit women’s safety, literacy, and entrepreneurship worldwide, she knew firsthand the impact of CARE’s interactions in such communities and met with individuals in Lilongwe to discuss ways in which our group might become involved in ongoing initiatives. 

Back in New York, our trip was truly taking shape.   Information about Lucy’s hoped-for chicken farm was included in invitations to her February bat mitzvah; donors were directed to an online page set up by goodsforgood, complete with pictures and a personal letter from Lucy describing the influence such a business would have in the community.  Donations, remarkably, exceeded $36,000, and the chicken farm in Mchenga was completed in a matter of months.   Villagers were trained, employed, and put to work.  On our arrival, we loved seeing the enterprise up and running – the farm consists of a storage shed for the feed (maize and soy), a newly dug well for fresh water, and a main building which houses the pens.  For each raising cycle, more than a thousand day-old chicks are purchased for 94 cents apiece from a nearby hatchery.  When we visited, one large room held hundreds of two-week-old chicks, and, next door, four-week-old chickens were being raised; adorable and noisy, they filled each room with color and squawks.  The young members of our group loved holding the chicks and seeing the elaborate lighting (solar-powered, of course) and feeding set-ups constructed in each room.  At eight weeks, the chickens are sold for more than $4 apiece, and the cycle begins again.   Profits cover the costs for the chicks, feed, vaccines, care and salaries, and transportation.  By the time we were there, not only was Mchenga self-supporting and a boon to the community’s economy, but a portion of its profits were providing scholarship funds to support the education of a young midwifery student in the village.

In addition to visiting the farm itself, we spent time at a nearby community center also sponsored by goodsforgood which provides day care for a large number of village children, many of them under the age of five.  We were overwhelmed by the warmth of our welcome; the children sang and danced, and their smiles were beyond description.  Watching the little ones caring for even younger siblings was heartwarming.  We brought soccer balls along with us, and many of the young boys joined happily in a game with their American visitors.  Visiting some of the nearby households where extended family members are caring for AIDS orphans was poignant and inspiring.

Next on our schedule was a visit to Kuchitala, a small rural village about an hour outside of Lilongwe whose dusty roads wash out during the rainy season. Tiny and somewhat isolated, Kuchitala is nonetheless home to a CARE-sponsored initiative which has  transformed this primitive village into a 21st century model for thoughtful, creative, and forward thinking collaboration.   Community members have created and joined a number of village committees which address and assess their progress toward agreed-upon goals.  For example, Male Champions is a community group which discusses gender equality and shared decision-making, men’s full and positive participation in their families’ lives, and the importance of supporting their wives and daughters.  The Village Savings and Loan committee keeps track of and records Kuchitala’s finances and economic projects, including profits from their new irrigation system constructed with help from CARE, which has allowed them to grow more and varied crops, marketing some of them to neighboring villages.  Finally, the Women’s Literacy committee specifically promotes women’s increased financial literacy as the village women, often uneducated as children, take their rightful places as leaders within the bustling economy of Kuchitala.

Decorations for Lucy’s bat mitzvah in New York City had included fifty “Luci lights” (lightweight, solar-powered lanterns which can provide eco-friendly light for as many as twelve hours), and we brought them with us on our trip to Kuchitala, presenting them to the villagers so that, for the first time, family dwellings will have light after sunset.   What a positive impact they may already be having on this growing community.

No question -- we were pampered, privileged, and fed well on the “tourist” part of this luxurious journey:  three unforgettable days in South Africa’s Kruger National Park to see amazing animals, two days in Zambia, where we even visited the small island from which British explorer and missionary David Livingstone first saw Victoria Falls, and several days on Likoma Island, a small island in Lake Malawi whose white sandy beaches and brilliant sunsets are truly incomparable.  Our meals were delicious, the travel was luxurious, and our days were filled with unique experiences.

But as we think back to all the days of our transformative trip, our memories of majestic giraffes, extraordinary birds, mountains, and coastlines which must be the most breathtaking in the world -- all are trumped by memories of Malawi women smiling, with infant siblings wrapped snugly in brightly colored fabrics on their backs, of hundreds of spirited, raucous, weeks-old chicks, of the cautious, shy smiles on young faces waiting in line to wash their hands before lunch, of the adolescent boys who, seeing a bag full of soccer balls, ran into their schoolroom to don red jerseys for a joyful game, a young woman gratefully realizing her dream of becoming a midwife.  And we, in turn, are sustained by this life-affirming and purposeful experience which perhaps benefited us more than those we sought to help – as we watched our children interact with wonderful young people from another culture, developing with them in global awareness, empathy, and social commitment.  We watched children, maybe future world leaders, reaching out in friendship, compassion, and love, touching one another’s hearts, and touching ours.

Ann Whipple Marr, PhD

Goldens Bridge, NY

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