Category Archives: Malawi

Meet Emily’s Family

As I was finishing the preparation of this post, two things went through my head:

  1. “Wow – this blog is becoming so serious! I need to post some more fun things…” I DO travel a lot for fun.  OK – so the post after this will be something just for fun. 🙂
  2. “Hmmm…this has gotten longer than I intended…” Two options: break the post into Part 1 and Part 2, to make it easier to digest, or just go for it. Well, I decided the story tells itself best as one big post. Take your time – it’ll be here when you’re ready!

So here we go.  🙂

In July, I embarked on a one week volunteer trip with Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village Program, leading a group of 15 other volunteers to Salima, Malawi building homes for families in need. This was my fifth time volunteering in Africa, but my first time visiting Malawi. I quickly learned why they call Malawi “the warm heart of Africa”!

Because we were such a large group, we were split onto two different build sites. Our goal was to complete one home per team over the course of just 5 days. Would we be able to accomplish this task? The stakes were never higher, so we gave it our all.

On my build site, the family we were working for is headed by a 45-year old woman named Emily. Emily had lost her own family some years ago, and was willing to take on responsibility for several orphaned children within the village she called home. Currently, she cares for three siblings: Mercy (age 18), Yakobo (age 13), and Brenda (age 10). Here they are!


At the start of the year, these four people were living in a two-roomed house made of unburnt clay bricks with a grass thatched roof and a dirt floor.* The house contained no windows and had very poor ventilation – which led to many illnesses including colds, malaria and skin irritations. The roof was not waterproof. There was no proper toilet. Here’s a photo of Emily, Yakobo and Brenda in front of their old home:

OldHouse In fact, the house was in such poor condition that prior to our arrival it completely collapsed (luckily no one was hurt). The family was forced to move in with a neighbor. Here are some photos of the house where they were living when I arrived:


(left) Exterior view of current home (right) View of living/eating            space and childrens room

Because of their poor living conditions, each of the children often miss school (Mercy is in grade 4, Yakobo in grade 3, and Brenda in grade 2). Mercy summed up their troubles in a very succinct way: “We often skip classes at school because our books get wet and clothes soaked from rain water. It’s hard to sleep when standing up but we do it because we have no choice. Our life is miserable and very hard because of the house we live in.”

Sleep standing up because your house is all wet????  I can’t imagine.

The vision of Habitat for Humanity is “a world where everyone has a decent place to live.” In a village like the one we visited, the need is obvious. We were lucky to participate in a special program supporting Orphans and Vulnerable Children in Malawi. According to the mandate of this program, community organizations and village chiefs identify families who are in the greatest need and then work with Habitat to provide a new home for them at no cost. The houses are basic, around 300 square feet, but safe and durable. There are generally 2 or 3 rooms with little to no furniture. Cooking is done outside. An outdoor, brick and cement latrine is also provided. We had a chance to visit one finished home and meet the proud home owner during our time in Salima:

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clockwise from top left:  a) exterior of finished home, b) sleeping area for the family, with sacks used to store all belongings (clothing, fertilizer, and food), c) living area with cooking utensils d) permanent, non-leaking tin roof!

When Emily’s family learned that they had been selected, their joy was palpable. “We are happy that Habitat has given us a chance of owning a house. A lot will change in our lives and I look forward to that day”, said Mercy.

So what can a team of 8 volunteers and 3 local workers accomplish in a week? You’d be surprised! When we arrived, the foundation and corners of the house had been already prepared.


Over the course of the next three days, we successfully built up the walls to roof level!


After the gables were added by the local workers, tin was installed and we finished leveling the floors:

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Although our time was up, the family was expecting to move into their new home within 1-2 weeks following our departure. The only tasks remaining were to install the doors and windows, and then pour the concrete floor. On our last day, everyone celebrated this huge life changing moment!

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My impressions of Malawi are both joyful and tragic. The people are incredibly resilient in the face of so many obstacles. I’m grateful to have experienced such a welcoming community, and to have spent a week getting to learn more about these families. My heart aches for even the most basic physical comforts that they will never know, but I have learned from them that even in hardship, there are important things in life that we should never take for granted: the pleasure of being part of a family, the incredible amount of support that a close knit community provides, the capacity of the human spirit to always strive to make yourself a better person – no matter what your circumstances. Their smiles touch your soul. I can’t wait to return. 🙂

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*family details and quotes were provided by Habitat for Humanity Malawi

Primary School in Malawi

During my volunteer trip with Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village Program in Malawi last month, our team had an opportunity to visit a primary school. Since the first day of school in the US is upon us, it seems fitting to share some thoughts on this experience. I’m so glad we made the visit…but I still wonder just how I should feel about what we saw.

IMG_5780In Malawi, children are eligible to begin “Standard 1” at the age of 5 or 6. Since the mid-1990’s, primary school has been free (but not mandatory) in Malawi – an effort by the government to encourage literacy and opportunity. However, practical challenges remain and there are many reasons why children may not attend school, including distance from the nearest school, health issues, family obligations, etc. Girls are especially at risk of dropping out, since it is often impossible to attend school during menstruation (lack of supplies and social stigma) and early marriage/pregnancy is common. A polarizing article from 2012 describes some of the  struggles.

When I was in Malawi, school was not in session. Luckily, the principal of a local primary school was more than willing to meet with us and share some information about his school. He, along with one of his teachers, spent about 2 hours of their time talking with us about the details of the school day. It was obvious that despite the hardships that teachers endure (low pay, poor facilities, large number of students who drop out or attend only intermittently, and an overwhelming work load to name just a few), they were dedicated to their work and take pride in what they do.

IMG_5784The school day here runs from 7:30-1:30. Students walk to the school, from as far as 5-10km away. Only classes take place – students eat before coming to school and, if they are lucky, will carry water with them for the day. They will not receive any other nutrition or free time until they get back home. Here’s the “bell” that calls the children to class!


The primary school that we visited is fairly typical of schools in the area. There are 1,565 students in 8 grades. There are 49 teachers.

I’m going to let that sink in for a minute. The ratio at this school is better than most in Malawi – 32 students per teacher.

9 subjects are included in the curriculum. These include: Math, Science, English, Chichewa (the local language), Life Skills (including agriculture, HIV/AIDS training, and everything in between), Expressive Arts (art, music, PE, sports) and Bible Knowledge (I’m missing two!). Unfortunately, the chances of continuing on to higher education are so minimal that schools primarily focus on teaching life skills and practical subjects. The Wikipedia headline highlights the reality: Education in Malawi no longer stresses academic preparation leading to access to secondary school and universities, rather the stress is now on agriculture and practical training since few students go on to high school or university and most begin work immediately after primary school.”

We were able to visit a classroom and I hope it gives you a sense for the positive spirit that exists in this place. This is a Standard 8 room and accommodates about 70 students (3 per desk).IMG_5775 IMG_5776

IMG_5758The walls are covered with various lessons.


We even brought a few supplies – insufficient to make a difference but appreciated nonetheless.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESOf the two families that I worked with in Malawi, only one has school age children. Luckily, all three attend – but their “status” may surprise you. Brenda (age 10) is currently in Standard 2. Yakobo (age 13) is in Standard 3 and Mercy (age 18) attends Standard 4. Good for them for sticking with it. 🙂 Here’s a photo of the kids with their caretaker, Emily:IMG_5571It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t visit on a day when students were attending, but our short trip gave us a glimpse into the education system that we needed to see.