My journal the result of a trip I made to the village of Dindi in Malawi back in January 2007.
Originally written 7 February 2007
Several mornings ago, as I stood freezing on the platform for the train breathing in the bitter airs of a wintry February morning, my mind wandered back to just a few days prior when everything was different. For the past several days, I have been trying to process all that had happened. What I am left with is a bucketful of experiences, conversations and images – so much so that it has all been a jumbled mess only to lead to writer’s block. I didn’t know where to begin.
And so after several more days, I begin at the beginning. I realize now what I already knew then. What I saw did not surprise me, but instead validated what I thought I would see. I knew what I would see, would remind me of the place I was born, of the place my parents lived. And I knew it would be hard. But I also knew that I needed to see it. I needed to feel it. And I needed to once again know it.
And so once again, I start at the beginning…
“We can change the world, dramatically end suffering, dramatically reduce the instability, the number of failed states, the violence, the torture, the mass refugees, desperation and impoverishment in the world.”
Even before our trip to Malawi started, I was overcome with a sense of camaraderie for my friends and my colleagues with whom I was making this journey. I knew that not very often in one’s life does one know unequivocally that their life – their mindset and their outlook upon the world – will change irrevocably for the good – this time in just a matter of days. I smiled inside with that revelation. Luck and perspective and circumstance and determination had given me this opportunity; I was not going to let it and me and those that know me down.
Last year, Matt Ferguson, the CEO of Careerbuilder, recommended a book for us to read (as he does about once a quarter) – “The End of Poverty,” by Dr. Jeffrey Sachs. (The book moved me.) As a result of several different conversations and events, Careerbuilder and Millennium Promise (of which Dr. Sachs is the President) partnered with each other. The vision and mission of Millennium Promise is to eradicate extreme poverty throughout the world by the year 2025. The purpose of Millennium Promise (and it’s counterpart in Africa – Millennium Villages) is to empower the villagers into believing they themselves control their own destiny to escape the clutches of extreme poverty through affordable, practical, proven and science-based solutions. According to Sachs, “The goal is not to necessarily make the villages wealthy, but rather to make them viable.” Almost 20% of the world lived in extreme poverty (defined by living on less than one US dollar per day); and almost half lived in poverty (on less than two US dollars per day).
On Monday 2/12/07, I attended a presentation by Jeffrey Flug (CEO of Millennium Promise) and Dr. Sachs at the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel for the launch of Chicago Promise. With several hundred people in attendance, their words were both inspiring and insightful. In September 2000, at the Millennium Summit, all the nations of the UN agreed upon a series of initiatives that comprised the Millennium Development Goals (below). Millennium Promise exists to promote and achieve these goals.
- Goal 1: Eradicate Extreme Hunger and Poverty
- Goal 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education
- Goal 3: Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women
- Goal 4: Reduce Child Mortality
- Goal 5: Improve Maternal Health
- Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other diseases
- Goal 7: Ensure Environmental Sustainability
- Goal 8: Develop a Global Partnership for Development
We arrived Monday on a warm and muggy afternoon (22 January 2007) at Chileka Airport in Malawi. That morning, we chartered a bus to drive us to Soweto (outside Johannesburg). Though we did not spend much time there, we were still able to visit Nelson & Winnie Mandela’s modest home (before he was incarcerated), which had been turned into a small museum. Afterwards, we visited the monument and museum in honor of Hector Pieterson (and the student uprising of 1976). Both museums gave us a glimpse into the sad, harsh realities of Apartheid. We walked down Vilakazi Street, the only street in the world that could claim housing two Nobel Peace Prize winners (Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu).
At Chileka, the purpose for our trip was at hand. The airport itself was small and rundown, with just a few rooms serving the travelers. We were greeted by several members of the Millennium Villages and congregated in a wood-paneled room fashioned with both mustard-coloured an floral-printed furniture right out of an old 70’s movie. Outside we had several pickups and SUV’s waiting to drive us to the Ku Chawe Inn almost two hours away. Escorted by a UN consort both leading the front and following in the back, we drove through the Malawian countryside, dotted with the beauty of its lush hills, fields of maize, people carrying firewood on little bicycles, and small towns with local peddlers housing their wares. So many people walked up and down the roads, some with and some without animals. Each set of eyes looked upon us with that curious stare of something and someone unknown, strange and new. Many of those eyes were also accompanied by a smile and a wave of the hand.
While run-down shacks were not a surprise, evidence of modern progress were. A strip mall said hello halfway through our drive, containing a “Shop-Rite” as well as a number of other rather familiar stores. However, many of the areas where townspeople had congregated were sad, some downright frightening. Off the black-topped roads lay wet, red clay and dirt stepped upon by barefoot men and women and children. The dilapidated structures were adorned with indigents, nothing to do perhaps save for conversations with each other about the strange foreigners driving by or maybe about nothing at all. Many sat and stood and walked and possibly talked, with nothing more than a vacant look in their eyes.
The children were different. They smiled. They laughed. They ran with our cars. I saw hope in their faces, maybe even traces of confidence, almost defiant to the strangers in their midst – a look that declared, “We will prevail!” I liked that look as I waved back. I would see that look often in the days that followed.
The colour green owned our view. The rainy season left us with green trees, tall green blades of grass, green stalks of maize, green mountains… green, green, and more green. The green was only broken by a sky so blue and later the bright oranges, reds and yellows of the setting sun. My mind could not imagine a more beautiful setting.
The reason for our trip had begun, and no words could really describe what we saw and what we felt. A giant rainbow appeared in the sky, a precursor of things to come.
We passed the city of Blantyre and the small town of Zomba (the former capital of Malawi) before we eventually drove up a large mountain, by now in the dark, our destination not too far off up at the top – the Ku Chawe Inn welcomed us with a smiling wait staff who led us to our quaint, rather surprisingly large and musty rooms. Dinner was served and drinks bade us good night – anxiously awaiting the moments of the next day, which when it arrived brought with it the beauty of the inn grounds – the view outside my room breathtaking… once again filled with green, with gardens, with trees, with shrubs, with a life-size chess board, with stone walk-ways, with monkeys…
Our first day in Malawi opened with a drive to the Mswaswa Village, the first of several villages we would visit comprising the Mwandama Villages. We were greeted outside the village by the maize field, the villagers singing and dancing a traditional African welcome song of hope and triumph, rhythmic and beautiful – “We will be together.” A recurring pattern, we were greeted with warmth at each of the village locations, and each time with that wonderful song. (At one point, Hunter and I commented to each other that we wished it was available on iTunes.) Still, many of their faces are hard, lined with the trials of their lives. And, yet I felt, they still believed.
Whereas tobacco is Malawi’s largest export crop, maize is the staple crop the villagers grow for their own sustenance. Basic fertilizer, including those with urea-based nitrogen, would replenish depleted soil and significantly increase crop yields. We learned of the symbiotic relationship between maize and legumes; and by planting both once again put into the soil the nutrients the other needed. The methods employed presently reduced the dependency of the crops on chemical fertilizers, and even increase the yield by as much as 50% with the natural fertilizers.
While HIV is a massive problem, malaria gets less attention, though it too is a huge problem in Malawi (as well as other areas in Africa) as it is the single greatest killer of children in Africa (on average 9,000 dead each and every day). What is sad is that malaria is a fully preventable and fully treatable. As technology has improved, the bednets provided now are longer lasting (at least five years and retreatable) than the previous versions. Ten dollars pays for the manufacturing and distributing of bednets. The goal is to provide mosquito/bednets to cover all sleeping sites per household in the Millennium villages and to ensure access to effective medicines for complete coverage against the disease by the year 2008.
We visited a school, which for the most part consisted of the red dirt beneath our feet, trees or a rudimentary structure consisting of sticks and a thatched roof for covering, and stones for seats. A mound of red bricks lay in the background where, by next year this time, it would be used to build the new school. Another initiative planned was to provide lunch for the children during the day; it was realized that there was a direct causal relationship between adequate sustenance and the capacity to learn. Malnutrition would be a common theme.
We lived with the rain each day of our visit, its presence a constant factor in where we went, what we did, and how we did it. On one day, the rain changed our schedule simply because driving conditions would not allow us entry to our destination. On another, a village which had prepared an elaborate skit had to entertain us with a shortened version as the rain halted the festivities. While it may have served us an inconvenience, the rain was welcomed by the villagers as it generally foretold a good harvest. For the visitors, it only accentuated the green around us.
Without a doubt the most difficult part of our journey was our visits to the hospital and to the health center. The stark and brutal reality of what the villagers’ lives were hit us hard in the face. In most cases, the villagers live so far away from a hospital (eight to twenty kilometers), that they really have to weigh the day or so it takes to get there versus how sick their children really is. Health centers have been built, but many of them do not have adequate equipment or staff. (The one we visited – the Thondwe dispensary which sees an average of about 300 outpatients daily – had no reliable piped water supply system. And the one hundred or so patients present were tended to by only one nurse. There is no maternity service.) However, the goal is for the dispensary to provide HIV testing, family planning, immunizations for children under five, and basic clinical services for families in the area.
We visited the pediatrics ward at the Central Hospital in Zomba, which is ten kilometers away from the Millennium villages. And we visited the malnutrition center at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Blantyre which opened our eyes and broke our hearts. Drs. Bunri and Molyneux (associate professors at St. Elizabeth), as well as Mr. Michael Keating (the resident coordinator for the United Nations who was in charge of all UN agencies in Malawi), explained the level of care is exacerbated by the shortage of qualified healthcare professionals. While there are adequate, in some cases excellent, training facilities and universities, the Malawian government is unable to retain doctors and nurses simply because they cannot pay them. They go on to explain that the requests of these doctors and nurses are not exorbitant; they just want a home, to be able to care for their families, to be able to send their children to a good school, and in some cases, to be able to own a car. Unfortunately where they can get paid well, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s), often do not offer contracts for more than two to five years, after which finding employment (especially one that pays well) becomes that much more difficult. As far as medical conditions and diseases, HIV was the huge problem, and garnered the most press. We found out that children in these areas were often significantly malnourished throughout their lives, which result in stunted growth, and was very much at the root of many other ailments suffered by them. The facilities were all overcrowded. We saw two patients to a bed and in many cases a mattress underneath the bed to house another patient. Dr. Molyneux sadly commented that “No longer can we tell patients that we can make them better, but instead can only make them feel better.”
We met so many interesting, amazing, and deeply committed people; each gave us cause for such admiration. Besides the doctors and nurses we met at the hospitals and health centers, we met Scott Gration (CEO, Millennium Villages), Seth Rosen (Director of Development) and Conrad Pinnock (Director of Human Resources and Administration) both of Millennium Promise, Chrispin Magombo (Cluster Manager, Malawi Cluster) and Francis Magombo (Health Coordinator) and Rebbie (Science Coordinator) all with The Millennium Villages Project. The last three were the people on the frontlines. Whereas we have the luxury of seeing the growth change brings, they live this day-in and day-out where that change may not be as obvious. Another gentleman we met, Dr. Chikaonda (the former Governor of the Federal Reserve of Malawi and currently one of the principals of Press Corp, one of Malawi’s largest companies), espoused Malawi taking ownership of its future. He ended his presentation with the words, “A failure to plan is planning to fail.”
Scott Gration is one of the most impressive persons I have ever met. He was born and raised and lived a difficult life in the Congo before escaping to Kenya; he speaks fluent Swahili. After coming to the States for his teenage years, he went back to serve in the Kenyan army. He is a three-star general having served in the US Air Force and having flown more missions into Iraq than anyone else. At one point he had 24,000 soldiers under his command. Currently, he also is a special advisor to Barack Obama. Even with all of his many accomplishments, he is very accessible and extremely affable, very giving of his time to those (like me) that is curious. His life is the story of books; and what’s impressive is that he is still writing it. He left us with something to ponder, “Success is not what you do for yourself. It’s the difference you make in others.”
More than anything it’s the children that I will remember the most, for truly all the goals of the communities and Millennium Villages would have a life-changing effect on the villagers within five years, but was more specifically aimed at tomorrow’s generation. Just as they are the future of the society we live in, so too were they the future of the Millennium Villages. The children carried with them so much hope. Their eyes were big and the smiles were wide. And we were just struck with how much life lay within them – and because of that, the promise of tomorrow was so much better than yesterday had been. We reached out to them; and they reached out to us. As they crowded around us, we gave them, and received in kind, high-fives, fist pumps, and all other manner of greetings we have in the States. We took photos of them, and for the first time, many of the kids saw what they looked like.
Ram Charan wrote a book entitled “What the CEO Wants You to Know: How Your Company Really Works.” In the opening pages, he describes the street vendor the ultimate businessman, in many ways very similar to business giants like Jack Welch and Michael Dell. I witnessed first hand in Soweto near Mandela’s home and on the street just outside the Ku Chawe Inn, true businessmen peddling their wooden ornaments, statues, masks, Nativity sets, jewelry, clothing, and sundry items. I was greeted with the word “friend” from each one followed by the words “I have not sold anything today, friend. I am trying to feed my family, friend.” I admired their command of the English language. In the end, for what amounted to $39 plus my tube of carmex and a pen, I purchased a large wooden rhinoceros, five large wooden statues and two smaller ones depicting the local indigents.
Our last day was spent at the Mvuu Resort in Liwande, which housed a game preserve. That day was extremely hot and humid. The refreshing five-minute cold shower would quickly be a distant memory, sweating profusely in a matter of minutes. That afternoon and early evening we went on a safari. As we motor-boated through the river and later drove thru the jungle, we met (tons of) hippopotamuses (several of which at night literally plodding quickly in front of our Range Rover), (one) eagle, elephants, crocodiles, impalas, warthogs, monkeys, etc. Just before sundown, we congregated in a clearing – storm clouds in the distance with a ray of light shooting through an opening, a combination of the blues and the oranges of the sky in the forefront, the temperature mild, a herd of impalas in the distance, and a small group of hippos a mere hundred feet away bellowing in the river – the scene breathtaking. That night, we had dinner under the stars. It was wonderful, though bittersweet as we said goodbye to our Africa.
The heat and humidity gave way to much more temperate climate in the evenings and at night. Sleep came soundly most nights with its quiet. I embraced the quiet and the pitch blackness of the nights. One night I heard crickets and yet another, I heard the distant sounds of hippos. But for the most part, my dreams came alive alone to it and my thoughts amidst the deafening silence.
Life in the villages of Malawi is, in so many ways, simpler. It moves much slower. A life simple, slow, and hard – all at the same time. Their idea of a good day was to eat, to have clean water, and to get through it without getting sick.
So what is next? As I settle back into the routine of my everyday, the challenge is not to forget. The challenge is to keep what I saw, what I heard, what I experienced very much alive. I am fortunate that I work for a company that is wholly committed to our partnership with Millennium Promise and with Millennium Villages. And I for one am extremely proud to be involved… So what is next? Tomorrow will tell… and I am extremely excited about that.
Related and important websites…
- http://www.af.mil/bios/bio.asp?bioID=5605 – a short bio on Scott Gration