‘This trip is different’. Those were the words used in the blog written in the run up to a charity trip to Malawi in which a group of Aberdeen colleagues took part in June. They were intended to describe the purpose of the trip for many: to remember two colleagues lost in a tragic accident, Andrew and Toby, and to build a lasting legacy in their memory. Now, writing from the vantage point of recollection after a successful trek, the prophetic accuracy of those words is even clearer.
We began our adventure a disparate group, in age, nationality and role at Aberdeen; not everyone knew Andrew or Toby. Everyone set out with their own motivations for participating, and their own goals for the trip. Some were there to pay tribute, not just for themselves but for the many colleagues who couldn’t join in person; others to challenge themselves, immersing themselves in an alien culture; and others to give the children of Kamowatimwa village a chance of an education and with it, we hope, a better future. In the end, it was a mix of all the above, and more. It was about opening our eyes to new experiences, opening our hearts to new people, and opening our minds to the challenges so many face outside of our comparatively comfortable existence. Most important of all though was to do all that with a sense of humour and feeling of community.
The new experiences were plentiful. Communication provided the first challenge. We had a short phrasebook of the local language, Chechewa, provided by our BuildOn charity representatives. Every attempt at speaking was met by squeals of delighted laughter. When the words ran out we turned to song and dance as our shared language, always met by the same hysterics. I can't ever imagine bursting into song amongst strangers, karaoke aside, but there it seemed so natural. The building work was also a shock to the system as our desk-bound bodies were quite clearly not used to the demands of physical labour. Once again, songs and laughter were the antidote, lightening our heavy loads.
The people will be the lasting memory. As our minibus rocked its way along the dirt track we were met by the entire village, children and elders alike, singing, dancing and clapping us towards the welcome ceremony. The greeting was like nothing else, and it was immediately clear to us why Malawi is known as the warm heart of Africa. On our first evening and throughout our stay, shacked up in our huts with the wider family members – grandparents, dogs, goats and even chickens - it was amazing how at home we were made to feel. We were all humbled by the kindness and generosity of our hosts. The community spirit was so evident in all facets of daily life; a stark comparison to our own daily grind. Could you imagine an impromptu sing-a-long on your daily commute, or your family and neighbours turning up for a dance in the evening along with an army of orphans in tow?
As happy and playful as it was, the challenges remain. The village will have a primary school for six to nine year olds, but that doesn’t guarantee a continuing education by any means. Secondary schools are sparse in Malawi, a key reason for many young boys and girls marrying early and taking on the traditional household roles. Job opportunities are equally as scant, and with very little opportunity for higher education it is no surprise these children grow up in much the same way as their parents and grandparents. The reality is that life is hard and there are numerous challenges to overcome, at both a local and national level, before villages such as Kamowatimwa can lift themselves out of poverty.
The reality is that life is hard for these people and there are numerous challenges to overcome, at both a local and national level.
Nonetheless, good humour and a feeling of community amongst the excitement for the school were the threads that tied the trip together. There was plenty to laugh about: our ridiculous dusty appearances and an interesting lingering aroma on the team bus after a week of sweaty work and infrequent washes; the oversharing of the hole-in-the-ground toilet experiences; and most of all the fun and games with our host families and the village as a whole. We admired their sense of community and, almost by accident, having started as a diverse group of individuals we left as a close-knit team of friends with our own sense of belonging. That unexpected element was one of the best things about the experience, what made it different. Those are the reasons people always say trips like this are life changing, and it would be fantastic to bring some of those positives to our work and our lives. That would be a true tribute to Andrew and Toby.
We started as a diverse group of individuals and left as a close-knit team of friends.