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Malawi: the Warm Heart of Africa

July, 2010
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As soon as I returned from my two-week long Habitat trip to Malawi, countless friends and family have asked me the earnest question of, “How was it?” Every time, I would find myself at a loss for fitting adjectives. How can all the experiences and insights gained on the trip be expressed in a mere one or two words? Good? Great? Yes, indeed it was.malawi-2s

Tiring? Educational? On more levels than one, considering that we were engaged in physical labor through helping out on the Habitat site in the rural areas of Mulanje while also spending time at the Jacaranda School for Orphans in Limbe, Malawi. Life-changing? Uplifting? Empowering? Inspiring? Although any of these words would fit, my experiences on this Habitat trip have created memories no adjectives can equate.

Our Malawi adventure started long before our actual arrival. In fact, in our 32 hours of travelling to Malawi, we had already filled our passports with stamps from Bangkok and South Africa, stops we made during the transfer flight to Malawi, and our hearts with the first of our trip memories. With surprisingly good airplane food and a smooth journey, we were eager to arrive at our final destination. Our arrival at the airport in the city of Blantyre, referred to by the Chinese ambassador as the “Shanghai of Malawi, coincided with that of the Malawian president, Dr. Mutharika. Needless to say, a marching band and a newly rolled out red carpet, even while not intended for us, created memorable first impressions. Then, we received another warm welcome, this time intended for us, from the Jacaranda School. They had prepared a greeting banner, written, to our surprise, partly in Chinese. After meeting some of the Jacaranda students, we got into the bus to drive to our lodge in Mulanje, as we were not scheduled to help out at Jacaranda for a few more days. 

IMG_0660The hour-long bus ride to Likhubula House Lodge opened our eyes to Malawi. Everything about the country showed it to be polar opposites with Shanghai. Spiraling highways were swapped for rustic paths, skyscrapers for mountains in the distance, and a cloudy grayness for the bluest sky we’d ever seen. Perhaps the most memorable difference was in the attitudes of the local Malawians. Throughout our entire ride, the people we passed while on the bus waved at us with immeasurable enthusiasm. As the days went on, our list of impressions of Malawi grew. The friendliness of the children both at the Habitat site and Jacaranda filled our hearts. I also distinctly remember being in awe of the natural surroundings. In Mulanje, we discovered with childish enthusiasm the African night sky studded with a million stars and a beautiful lake to swim in. Around our Habitat site, we admired the sprawling fields of wild sunflowers, their petals towering way over our heads. On our last night in Malawi, while driving to the capital of Lilongwe, we came across another brilliant spectacle— a red sunset that illuminated the sky and sent a rainbow of warm hues into the night. Our entire bus immediately became went into tourist mode. A flurry of cameras and exclamations of praise were passed around as our bus drove deeper into the direction of the setting sun.

Working on the Habitat site in rural Mulanje has taught me much more than simply the methods of bricklaying. Although we only spent a total of four days at the site, there were many opportunities for us to immerse ourselves in the Malawian culture and bond with the locals. Upon arriving on the first work day, our group of 22 students and 4 teachers was divided as there were two separate projects on the site. It didn’t take us long to realize that in both sections of the site, there were almost just as many little kids as there were bricks. From the moment we arrived, an entourage of about two hundred kids from the nearby school in the village gathered around to watch us. They were probably just as curious about us as we were about them. Soon, it became our habit to play with them during our breaks from work. With amusement, we discovered how much the kids liked to repeat English words after us and pose for photos with their radiant smiles. At the closing ceremony for the Habitat site, we were able to see that our days of work had yielded the result of a finished exterior to a house. We all knew that the real heroes of the completed house were the family it was built for, an aunt and her three orphaned nephews and nieces, and the Habitat workers who worked alongside us. Being able to help with Habitat for Humanity and take a look at a way of life very different from the kind we lead in Shanghai has taught us to appreciate the opportunities we as international school students are given, both in scholastic and practical aspects of our lives.

DSC_1326The Jacaranda School for Orphans, founded by Marie Da Silva, is an inspiring institution that offers free education to HIV/AIDS orphans. For the past two years, Shanghai American School’s Habitat for Humanity organization has fundraised for Jacaranda, selling Jacaranda T-shirts, donating proceeds from concerts, and collecting items to send over to the school. When we were finally able to visit and see for ourselves the effect our donations had had on the lives of the schoolchildren, we were not only proud to have helped but also motivated by the passion and dedication of the teachers, supervisors, and volunteers working at Jacaranda. For the next few days, our Habitat team helped around at the school. Some sorted through books in the library while others helped out in the classrooms. During recess, the kids at Jacaranda played with us and taught us words in Chichewa, the local Malawian language. By the end of the trip, we all were deeply inspired by the love for learning and infectious spirit of the Jacaranda pupils.

This trip has perhaps taught me just as much about myself as it has about Malawi. On our last night before flying back, while we were enjoying the last of our trip at a hotel in South Africa, our team discussed the impact of the last few days had had on us. Throughout the discussion, reoccurring themes continuously circled around. We all agreed that this experience was insightful. Powerful. Educational. And that we were extremely fortunate. Privileged. Grateful. Yet, in the end, these are merely superfluous adjectives used to convey the surface of our thoughts. Years later, even when the memories of our trip grow hazy, when the hundreds of photos we took are shelved away, and when we find ourselves using simple adjectives to talk about our trip without hesitation, hopefully some of the lessons we learned about life and education will continue to stay with us.   

By Yinglu (Lucy) Wang

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