We left Pankaj in Calcutta at 5am to make our flight to Mumbai. After one night in Mumbai in a nice air conditioned airport hotel (our first a/c in over 4 months) we continued our flight to Nairobi, Kenya and then Blantyre, Malawi. From Blantyre, after 12 hours of travel, we took a 3 hour drive on a dirt road to the village of Muona.
Arriving in Malawi was surreal. We signed up for this project in August right after we realized we were going to be kicked out of Nepal. We didn’t want to leave Nepal because there was a lot of work still needed to be finished. Jumping onto another project would help us focus our disappointment in a more productive way. Right after All Hands confirmed our spot on Project Malawi, we bought our plane tickets and then I had to look up where Malawi was.
In early 2015, Malawi suffered heavy flooding which affected over a million people and displaced 336,000 people from their homes. The flood waters devastated rural farmlands and infrastructure in the Nsanje District, washing away an estimated 64,000 hectares of farmland. The people who worked these fields are subsistence farmers, almost entirely reliant upon the land to produce food for themselves and their families.
After the flood the area suffered a drought which further complicated the disaster. In August All Hands started their first African based project – to hand dig and brick 48 shallow irrigation wells in two farming cooperatives outside the town of Muona in Southern Malawi.
The project consisted of working mainly with local volunteers, which were the group of farmers who will ultimately benefit from the wells, with a goal of finishing the project before the rainy season in November. The end result will create a dependable water source for their crops, even during times of drought, and thus a sustainable food source for themselves and the surrounding communities. The wells directly impact about the 230 farmers and their families, which totaled to almost 1,200 people. All Hands estimates that these 48 wells could impact the lives of approx 10,000 people in the surrounding area.
We were 2 of only 12 international volunteers on this project with over 200 locals volunteering. A very different project than Nepal.
Once we got out of the tiny sweaty airport (at over 95 degrees) we met up with our driver and our old friend Ashley, a volunteer we worked with in Nepal. Our driver ushered us into a broken down van that would take us to Muona. When I commented on the heat he mentioned that we were in the mountains and it would be much hotter when we got to the low lying area of Nsanje.
I definitely felt a little culture shock when we first arrived. The first thing I noticed in the busy city of Blantyre was that everyone was black. Out of the thousands of people we saw on the 3 hour drive to project, we were the only white people. At first I thought this might make us a target but after talking to a few locals, and seeing their faces light up with joy, I could tell it didn’t matter too much to the people. Malawi is called “the warm heart of Africa” and I could immediately see why.
Malawi is, per GDP, the poorest country on earth. One out of 7 people has HIV. The average life expectancy is 58 years old and on average 1/10 children will die before the age of 5. The leading cause of death in the country is malaria. The impermanence of life is ingrained in the Malawian psyche. How could it not be? It seems most people have come to terms with the fact that life is short so they choose to be happy while they still can.
On the bumpy drive we descended into the lowlands of Nsanje where most of the flooding had wiped out businesses, homes, and food sources. The driver was right about the heat. Even after the sun went down it was easily over 100 degrees and we were all sweating heavily. We got to base well after dark and were reunited with our good friends Brendan and Joss from Project Nepal, whom we had planned to meet in Malawi. We met the other volunteers and were shown to our room.
The room was better than expected. Seeing how under developed the rest of the area was we didn’t even know if we would have 4 walls around us. We were given our own room with walls, a tin roof, dirty floor, no mattress, running water and a fan placed directly over the top bunk which was a life saver…. for Christina. We fell asleep on the spot knowing we would be waking up at 430am to start work the next day.
Surprisingly we slept deeply through the night. I woke up at 4am in a pool of sweat (like I did every morning for the rest of our time in Malawi). In comparison, Christina would get cold at night with the fan right above her head.
At 430 am we woke up, washed up under a hot dripping spigot, got dressed, and made our breakfast and lunch in the communal kitchen. Breakfast and lunch consisted of a boiled egg, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and nsima- a local grain soup. Since there was no refrigerator this was the best meal we could get. In comparison to the locals, we were eating like kings. We then packed the trucks full of supplies for the day and drove to site.
The landscape was full of identically shaped shrubbery that went on endlessly in each direction, so it was always difficult to determine where you were in relation to the exact well you were trying to find. The volunteer system with the farmers was pretty organized. It consisted of two teams of about 100 farmers per team. They were further divided into about 4-10 people per well which had a designated team leader that would make sure their group was digging the correct width and depth.
Each morning Christina and another volunteer named Sam would go around to all 24 wells in our area and measure their progress. I would joke with Christina about doing this instead of the hard work, but in actuality it served a very important purpose. The measurements were used to determine our progress and get a forecast for the completion time frames. Daily measurements were also a great way to encourage people to work harder. Everyone always wanted to know how much they had dug on a given day and if their team dug more than the other farmers.
After the day’s work there was a meeting for all team leaders to discuss any issues that may have arose during that day. There was always an argument during the meeting. The biggest issues were lack of tools, safety concerns that locals didn’t agree with or care about, and teams not building their wells according to the approved design. These arguments were more about power than anything else.
One of my favorite meetings was when Mr. Allen, the director of the Muona Foundation, came to encourage volunteers to bring their tools to site. These were either their personal tools or tools borrowed from All Hands. Mr. Allen made everyone stand up and promise they would bring the tools the following day. The next day no one showed up with tools.
Once a well was dug deep enough to start filling with water we used treadle pumps to get the water out so we could continue digging. Because the water turned the ground into a thick muddy paste, we weren’t able to shovel it out. A couple of us would have to get inside the well, fill a bucket with mud, then a person standing at the top would pull the bucket up by a rope, they would hand it to someone behind them who would dump the bucket, then the process would repeat…over and over again. This phase of the well construction was the hardest. At times progress felt slow to non-existent even after hours of bucketing. Eventually we finished and the masons were called in to start bricking.
The Mason teams were hired locally and were paid per well completed. Once they started bricking a well they usually finished within one or two days. After the bricking was done All Hands volunteers would come paint the wells, signifying their completion.
Everyone we worked with was so nice and jovial. The smiles of the farmers were constant. The local farmers got to know us and while working together we built trust. Because of my beard everyone thought I looked like Jesus. No one learned my real name they just called me Mr. Jesus.
Malawi is a very Christian country. Christ and missionary work have become ubiquitous throughout the nation but unfortunately food, housing, and medicine still remains scarce.
For me Malawi was a bitter sweet experience. It was definitely difficult at times to see such a high level poverty but at other times it was amazing to see the perseverance and positive demeanor of the people living in the poorest country on earth. Although the physical situation was horrible there were so many acts of love and kindness that made the bad circumstances feel much more tolerable. I hope the locals feel the same way but realistically we will never actually know what it feels like to be in their situation.
The goal was to finish 48 wells before the rainy season. When we left 26 of the 48 wells were completed and 19 were in progress. Over 34,910 volunteer hours had been put in to make this a reality. I am glad we could be a part of this project and hope that Project Malawi has the long term outcome we all want it to.
Christina put together a short awesome video showing us working the wells. The images give you a feel for what the landscape, the wells and the towns looked like. Select to watch in HD for best quality. (Our photos below were snapped quickly with our iphones while working, please excuse the poor quality)