By Ryan Cassidy
Stepping off the plane in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, you are instantly hit by a rich, heavy, burnt smell. It was here that we spent our first few days and were introduced to the Malawian minibuses (which proved to be quite an experience!). If I could summarize Lilongwe in one word it would be: DUSTY! I still have a couple of t-shirts and a pair of Converses that are dyed orange from the streets. Although the Capital is an exciting place, filled with lively people, it just doesn’t compare to the rest of the places we visited on our African journey.
Our trip to Malawi was the second student venture to Africa by the University of Strathclyde Students’ Association (USSA) and ‘Students for Malawi’ and proved to be even better than the first – maybe slightly biased since I wasn’t actually there last time! Despite the fuel strikes, no petrol, no academic freedom, the university being closed and having my passport stolen (will get back to this one later) I still had the best few weeks of my life.
From Lilongwe we traveled to Blantyre, the ‘Glasgow’ of Malawi and a world apart from every other town across the country. Traveling through the streets we were given a true Malawian welcome and everyone who greeted us were extremely friendly and eager to help. It was in Blantyre that we witnessed the severity of the fuel shortages; at times three of the four garages were overrun with people, their cars lining the streets waiting for fuel. Another joy of Blantyre life is what they call ‘power sharing’. Every so often they have blackouts to conserve energy – well that’s what they say: from our cottage you could clearly see that the wealthy area was well lit whilst the slums it overlooked were in complete darkness.
Before we left, we had the privilege of visiting Lake Malawi – “the most beautiful lake in the world” according to the enthusiastic locals. And of course we indulged in the local dish, Chambo, as you can’t visit Malawi without trying their fish! One of the more spectacular sights I saw during my time in Malawi was witnessing the true African sunset whilst sitting on the lakeshore in the early evening with the hills in the distance.
Whilst we were out in Malawi, building on the links with the local Polytechnic was the main goal, but what came with it was so much more special. Literally stumbling into meetings with radio execs, broadcasters and journalists gave a much wider and intense look on Bingu’s “tyrannical regime” and the increasingly worrying presence of Jinato and his ‘aid’. Working along side the Polytechnic Student Union we have uncovered some breathtaking projects and have started to aid in the set up of community projects helping the elderly in Blantyre, Malawi.
Our trip also took us to some incredible projects; from STEKA to Victory Primary to Mary’s Meals and then Open Arms and Making Wonders. Alongside this we had the privilege of meeting an array of passionate and beautiful people.
One project in particular that we visited was simply extraordinary. STEKA, run by a man named Godknows Maseko, is a children’s home for street children. Currently he and his wife take care of 33 children, providing them all with much needed love and affection. Just looking at their little faces, it’s hard to imagine how they came to be in the care of STEKA in the first place.
Having lost three babies, Godknows decided that he could not put his wife through the heartbreak any longer. Sickened by the way people treated their children, a gift he had longed for all his life, he decided to open up his home and his heart. All the kids he cares for are sent to school, they go to mass, do their chores and are taught to appreciate what they have and to never waste the gift of life.
I know it’s not right to have favorites but out of all Godknows’ kids, there was one little boy who was just so lovely – it’s lucky I never brought him home with me! Joshua, aged 4 wants to be a priest when he grows up. At the moment though, he spends his time in the search of cameras to brighten up with his smile. In 2007, Joshua – then a newborn – was found abandoned in a rubbish bin; how someone could not want him is unthinkable. He told me “my parents did not want me, they did not want me to be alive”. Since then he has been under the care of Maseko and has become the star he is today.
Living on maize and soap gifted to him by the community, Godknows struggles to feed his children never mind send them to school but they get by, hopefully with the help of MMP and you, yep you, we can ease his burden and help him give more children a chance in life. This year STEKA will be one of our main projects, so there are plenty of opportunities for you to help the amazing kids I’ve mentioned and even get the chance to visit Joshua and his brothers and sisters yourself.
On another voyage we stayed with former Strathclyde student Thomesena O’Byrne at the Open Arms Orphanage, where we were introduced to a wonderful man named Victor. He moved to the Lakeshore area with his wife, the matron of the Infant home, a few years ago and has since established a small school there. Victory Primary is open to all and provides essential education that has not previously been available to the area. The trip to Victory was humbling and teaching maths and the ‘hokey cokey’ to the children was an unforgettable experience.
The one thing etched in my memory however, is the lack of supplies the children have access to. On each bench, six children would have to share just one pencil between them, and they wrote on scrap paper and tatty halved school jotters. Before we left the headmaster arranged for the children to take part in an assembly to thank us for our visit. Seeing how happy they were just to be at school was heartwarming and as we were leaving they sang the victory anthem and their goodbye song, I can guarantee it will be “bye bye, bye bye, but not forever”.
The ‘African experience’ has been deeply rewarding, especially working with such amazing charity projects – but I’ll be honest, it’s not for the faint-hearted. Confrontations are frequent, the living conditions can be horrendous, and if a problem arises (be it a diplomatic issue, or heaven forbid, a health issue – Malaria is always at the back of your mind) it’s undoubtedly more difficult to resolve than in the developed world. So in the tradition of the great ‘African adventure’ we ran into a bit of a problem and whilst it might not be the most enjoyable experience of the trip, it was certainly unforgettable…
Traveling from Lilongwe to Blantyre, I managed to lose a bag containing a big chunk of the groups’ money, as well as my passport. Sounds awful? Not so bad, we had insurance and fortunately managed to get another passport – a cool white one. Sadly you don’t get to keep them like the troll in Glasgow airport reminded me, “Eh, it’s no a souvenir, pal!”
The awful part was the Malawian police HQ. After a good few hours of being ‘interrogated’ by a woman who could have passed for Queen Latifa in Chicago, we eventually got a statement. What didn’t help was the number of times one of the female officers nearly hit me with the butt of her loaded rifle she was swinging about.
You’d think the Malawian CID HQ would be an okay looking place, maybe have a few chairs and tables, and office supplies? Think again! We even had to give them a pen to stop them charging us MK12,000 just for the office supplies to write the statement. But to be honest, I was more concerned about contracting Tetanus from the rusty chairs they gave us to sit on! Anyway, it worked out ok, we saved a few thousand Kwatcha, got a new passport and got our money back, no thanks to Queen Latifa and the “bad, unknown criminals” as she called them.
So what now? We are driving an appeal to Strathclyde students this year to help the school Victory. In order to help we are asking if you can donate some much needed supplies such as pens, pencils and books. Please help us support the school so that we can send hope to the kids at Victory.
This year we aim to do our upmost to help these inspirational projects, but to help them we need you! If you want to get make a donation, fundraise or if you’re interested in going to Malawi yourself next summer, then get in touch with us by email or head up to Level 7 of The Union. We look forward to seeing you soon!
Live below the Line for Mary’s Meal – October 10th-15th
International Development Discussion – 2nd November Vertigo 6pm
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