Bearing Witness and Raising Awareness

When I first arrived in Malawi, the word that continually sprang into my head was thirsty. Thirsty grass, thirsty trees, thirsty dirt. Because of El Niño, an irregular climate change which causes warmer temperatures and less rainfall, Malawi was experiencing extreme droughts and a food crisis. About 6.5 million people face severe food insecurity in Malawi, which is one of the highest rates in the world. The effects of the food crisis were everywhere.

Farming Lilongwe

The vegetable farm in the Lilongwe area where the farmer used Concern’s irrigation techniques.

On our first day of visiting the programs, we met two farmers. One practiced mulching and the other used irrigation techniques. Both practices were introduced to them by Concern. The two farmers shared with us that the practices had drastically improved their crop production and that they were extremely grateful for Concern’s help.

Around lunchtime, we stopped near a cluster of five or six houses to ask to use their outhouses. They happily obliged and chatted with our translator. While we were there, about 10 children swarmed around us. After a few minutes, they burst into song and dance. It was simple moments like this one which captured the friendliness and welcoming nature of the Malawian people.

Later in the day, we passed a group of people working together to pave a road that ran through their village. Many of them were spreading asphalt by hand or with small brooms. Our driver explained that the villagers were not being paid to help pave the road; they all simply knew it would improve their lives and benefit the village as a whole. It truly struck me how the people were willing to work so hard without personal compensation. It was a truly inspirational sight.

Luna children

The children of Luna learning how to play hand games.

The next day we visited the Mchinji region. First we stopped in a small village called Luna to learn about a nutrition program which Concern had implemented. The program targeted women who were pregnant, lactating, or had children under five and taught them the importance of a well balanced diet. At first, the people of Luna seemed nervous to be around us but after a few minutes, everyone was singing and dancing. Shortly after, we were introduced to the women in the program. We were allowed to ask them questions about how the program affected their lives and the lives of their children. They told us that because of Concern’s program, stunting, or the hindering of physical and mental development, was no longer a problem in Luna. Bearing witness to such important progress in Luna was the first moment I truly realized that big change is possible and that real and tangible improvements in people’s lives can be on a large scale with the help of education, resources, and dedication to change.

Our group also traveled to Nkhotakota, which is a region near Lake Malawi. While we were there, we visited a fish farm. It was built by 14 people over five days. Concern Worldwide provided the people with tools and knowledge on how to build and run the farm and then provided fingerlings, which are baby fish. Families that benefit were able to feed themselves and sell the extra fish for profit. All the people in the program were extremely proud and excited about their work. I believe that the fish farm also brought the community closer together so they could lean on each other in times of need.

Unis

Unis, the lead farmer of a vegetable garden in the Nkhotakota area.

Nearby, we stopped at another village which had a vegetable garden that had 12 beneficiaries. The lead farmer was a woman named Unis who told us that after participating in the program, she is going to go to a university to study agriculture so that she could help even more people learn to farm. While in this village, the children asked us, not for money, but for our water bottles. This was a reminder of the effects of El Niño. People were unable to provide themselves and their children with basic human needs such as drinking water.

The next and final program we saw was a Village Savings and Loans (VSL) group. In VSL, women can give small amounts of money to the group fund and in an emergency they can borrow money. The women said they greatly depended on the VSL fund, especially during the beginning of the school year to pay for school fees for their children. This was just one more example of the community coming together to help each other.

I was very upset to leave Malawi; I had fallen deeply in love with its amicable people, beautiful language and intriguing culture but I was also excited to share my experience with my family, friends, and school community so that people would be more aware of the struggles that developing nations like Malawi face. Although I was emotional on my way to the airport in Malawi, I knew that my journey would not end when I stepped off my plane at JFK airport.

Concern field visit student participants with translators in Malawi.

Concern field visit students with translators in Malawi.

When I got home, the whole experience felt surreal. After a few days of being home, I began to deeply reflect on my time in Malawi and I really began to tell everyone about my experiences. Some people were very well informed about the conditions in Eastern Africa and even about Malawi specifically but to my dismay, most had never heard of the nation of 17 million people. I knew beforehand that I would want to teach people who were uninformed about what I would learn. However, after my trip, I realized just how important this task would be.

It was my job in Malawi to bear witness to their struggles and now it is my job to raise awareness. Far too many people do not know what is happening in developing nations and do not fully understand the severity of the issues. People do not know that there are children dying of thirst or that the crops are failing. In order for nations to develop, there must first be awareness and then there must be people working together to help those in need. It is not an easy task to pull Malawi out of its food crisis or end the droughts caused by El Niño but if everyone works together just like the villagers building the road, we can change the lives of the poorest people in our world for the better.

Mary McKnight is a senior at Saint Vincent Ferrer High School in NYC. She has been a member of the Global Concerns club at her school, where she took part in the GCC program and was given the opportunity to participate in this year’s GCC Malawi Field Visit.