Mis­sion to Malawi

Vol­un­teer tourism has its re­wards

Irish Daily Mail - - Travel - BY DAVID GOR­DON TURN TO NEXT PAGE

MALAWI is de­scribed as the warm heart of Africa. It has a rich cul­ture, stun­ning scenery, rolling plateaus, and happy smil­ing peo­ple.

Away from the tourist hotspots, of which there are many and I will men­tion later, it is easy to see that Malawi is one of the world’s poor­est coun­tries.

As I write some notes, I am sit­ting in the mid­dle of Chamadenga, a small vil- lage, 6km off the main road and an hour away from the cap­i­tal city, Li­longwe. This re­mote vil­lage wasn’t even on google maps un­til I went on­line, scoured satel­lite im­ages for a cou­ple of days and sug­gested it be shown there.

It is reached by driv­ing over a deeply rut­ted dirt track, pass­able only by a de­cent 4x4 Jeep, by bi­cy­cle, or as most in­hab­i­tants would, on foot.

In many ways, the sights and sounds around me are typ­i­cal of a ru­ral scene.

A fam­ily of goats wan­der past, in­vesti-

gate me and re­alise I am of no use to them, and wan­der on.

As I look around, there are dogs, cats, pigs and a don­key all liv­ing in har­mony.

In the near dis­tance, I can hear the ca­coph­ony of noise cre­ated by the pupils at the lo­cal school.

It ap­pears to be break­time, so I take my­self over to chat to one of the teach­ers, who tells me there are 1200 pupils in at­ten­dance to­day.

I sus­pect the ten teach­ers at the school are kept fairly busy.

I com­ment on the lack of school­rooms, won­der­ing where the pupils learn, to be told that it’s an open-air school. The classes are held un­der the shel­ter of nearby trees.

The pupils learn English, so many run up to me and say ‘Hello Mis­ter, My name is…’ Quickly fol­lowed by ‘I need food’ or ‘Do you have money’? Where would you even start? The chil­dren be­side me are some of the most im­pov­er­ished in the coun­try. Through the work of a lo­cal char­ity, Bright Vi­sion, they are only guar­an­teed three meals a week.

By meal, I mean a bowl of high­pro­tein por­ridge. Any­thing they may re­ceive at home (which is un­likely) is a bonus.

Home, to th­ese chil­dren, is a one-room dwelling built with earthen bricks and topped with a rough thatch, ob­vi­ously there is no elec­tric­ity, run­ning wa­ter or toi­let fa­cil­i­ties.

Th­ese build­ings are no match for the sea­sonal tor­ren­tial rains which ar­rive in De­cem­ber and Jan­uary. I heard sto­ries of houses col­laps­ing and the in­hab­i­tants’ mea­gre pos­ses­sions be­ing washed away.

HOW­EVER, with vol­un­teer tourism, there is a glim­mer of hope for th­ese chil­dren and the mil­lions like them. Away from the hub-bub of the school and back in the cen­tre of the vil­lage, I can hear the sound of ham­mer­ing, voices shout­ing for more ce­ment and can see peo­ple car­ry­ing bricks and erect­ing scaf­fold­ing.

Th­ese peo­ple come from all over the world to do what they can to help. Some are builders by trade, some are of­fice work­ers, some are re­tirees. Their main com­mon goal is to bet­ter the lives of the peo­ple of this vil­lage.

All of the vol­un­teers have raised money through spon­sor­ship from friends, col­leagues or fam­ily and trav­elled there un­der the aus­pices of Habi­tat for Hu­man­ity, which car­ries out ed­u­ca­tion, feed­ing, health and build­ing projects year-round.

The long-last­ing na­ture of the project is the key. The ten houses be­ing built in a few days in Chama-denga will al­low the chil­dren to be able to sleep prop­erly at night, with­out fear of their house col­laps­ing around them. In turn, bet­ter sleep will al­low them to con­cen­trate bet­ter at school, and im­prove their health.

Ul­ti­mately, this ba­sic pro­vi­sion of a roof over their heads will lead them to a bet­ter fu­ture.

The di­rect ben­e­fit to the fam­i­lies is clear, but the vol­un­teers also ben­e­fit. They get to ex­pe­ri­ence a new coun­try, a dif­fer­ent way of life and the sat­is­fac­tion that they have helped those less for­tu­nate.

Away from the build­ing site, vol­un­teers get to see other places. There are vis­its to mar­kets, lo­cal sights of in­ter­est and tourist at­trac­tions. My trip al­lowed me to see the very dif­fer­ent sides of life in the coun­try. Li­longwe is a sprawl­ing ‘low-rise’ city. It has the usual ac­com­mo­da­tion of­fer­ings. The Korea Gar­den Lodge where I stayed was un­ex­pect­edly good. The room was spa­cious and clean, though grap­pling with the mos­quito net over the bed was an ex­er­cise in it­self.

As it en­veloped me dur­ing the night I kept wak­ing with a jump think­ing I was drown­ing. Hav­ing said that, the net did its job and I man­aged the en­tire trip with­out be­ing bit­ten.

Malawi has many at­trac­tions. The big­gest is Lake Malawi, a fresh­wa­ter in­land sea fringed by sandy beaches and fa­mous for its wa­ter­sports. The land­scape is also spe­cial, the high­est peaks top 10,000 feet and the low­est touch sea-level.

The coun­try also has nine na­tional

parks and wildlife re­serves.

Yet, tourism is still in its rel­a­tive in­fancy, so there is a great undis­cov­ered feel to the place.

Peo­ple trav­el­ling to Malawi will be greeted at lodges, driven round and guided by mem­bers of lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties who are all ben­e­fit- ting from the growth of tourism within the coun­try.

Ac­com­mo­da­tion own­ers and re­spon­si­ble tour op­er­a­tors recog­nise their role in en­sur­ing the ben­e­fits of tourism reach lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties whether it be through lo­cal em­ploy­ment prac­tices, en­sur­ing their op­er­a­tions run with min­i­mum en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact and in some cases through the ac­tive pro­mo­tion of eco­tourism ac­tiv­i­ties.

Whilst there are no di­rect routes from Dublin to Malawi, Ethiopian Air­lines fly there via their hub in Ad­dis Ababa. If you fly in their Cloud Nine cabin, the eight-hour flight to Ad­dis Ababa is made all the more com­fort­able with lie-flat seats, a su­pe­rior meal ser­vice and lounge ac­cess at the air­port, so trav­ellers ar­rive re­freshed and re­laxed.

Hav­ing said that, I found the econ­omy class bet­ter than other ser­vices I have used re­cently. There is plenty of leg-room, the in-seat en­ter­tain­ment had a great se­lec­tion of movies and the seats are com­fort­able enough to get some sleep.

I came away from Malawi with mixed emo­tions. Hav­ing only ever seen the plight of th­ese fam­i­lies, and many like them, on tele­vi­sion, it took on an en­tirely new mean­ing when I was stand­ing in the vil­lage of Chamadenga, look­ing at the state of the homes, and the ut­ter poverty that sur­rounded them.

In the midst of all that though, there was hap­pi­ness, singing and smiles, the em­bod­i­ment of the warm heart of Africa.

My con­tri­bu­tion is telling their story, and lit­er­ally, putting them and their vil­lage on the map.

In the pic­ture: David and the ex­citable chil­dren The other lo­cals: Ka­sunga Na­tional Park

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