Africa. What comes to mind? The heat, the poverty or the desert? As a young, wide eyed 16 year old, this is what I thought of. Many people may feel the same. Unfortunately for some, their view of Africa is based solely on the image that fronts the Trocaire Box every year. Malnourished children, skin and bones, gazing tiredly out at you. I, along with three other classmates, was lucky enough to visit the continent with Concern, after winning their National Debating Competition, some four years ago. It seems longer. My idea of Africa was challenged and as I gladly learnt, this stereotype was defeated.
Malawi was our destination. It is a long, slender nation in the southern half of Africa, located right above Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. He was an overlord I had debated about many times during the competition. Thankfully, Concern took care of our transport and accommodation and those who came with us from the organisation were dutiful guides. Travelling to our camp, I witnessed a different world. We passed a number of varying people and things. Men with cows and goats, boys on scooters with firewood stacked right up behind them and even at one point, a scooter weighted down with caged live chickens. A different world indeed.
If I was wide eyed going to Malawi, then I came home with my eyes pinned back to my ears. We observed numerous programmes run by Concern in villages in Northern Malawi. Programmes for irrigation, planting crops, sustainable growing and much more. Malawi is known as “The Warm Heart of Africa” and we saw just this. As we arrived in one such village, we were greeted to a chorus of local women singing their piece for expecting mothers. None of us were pregnant (I think!) yet the kindness we, as strangers, were shown was infectious. On another visit, we were treated like Royalty and were guests for a feast worthy of Kings. Sitting in the ground, eating Goat stew with your hands – you don’t exactly feel like a King, however the sentiment was highly appreciated.
An enemy to anyone visiting Africa are a range of insects and wildlife. Bees, flies, lizards, spiders and the dreaded Mosquito. Somehow, and I still don’t know why, the Mosquito’s had no interest in me or my blood. I suppose it was mutual, for I had no interest in them either! An outcome of this good fortune proved to be dangerous. Picture this. 16 years old, a bottle full of Insect Repellent, and it’s labelled ‘Flammable’ on the side. Now, add a basket made of paper and you should have an idea of what ensued.
Much of our trip was like this. Days full of eye opening education and experience, with evenings spent passing the time in whatever way we could. There was no swimming though. Despite at one stage, staying on the shores of the beautiful Lake Malawi, we were warned against getting in to the water. Not because of some tyrant from Concern, but rather due to a bacterium that lived in the Lake. The heat wasn’t overwhelming though, so it didn’t bother us and we were happy to return home without a new friend swimming around inside us.
A classmate of mine, Bronwyn, didn’t fare so well though. On the return trip to Ireland, during a stopover in Nairobi International Airport, she contracted a bug that literally left her doubled over. At one point, she wasn’t going to be allowed on the plane. Bizarrely enough, this incident created the most memorable part of our journey. Ron, an American Christian Rock singer approached us in Nairobi asking if our friend was okay. After chatting for some time, he told us he’d like to help Bronwyn in some way. The chances of him knowing how to play her favourite song must have been 100/1, but he did. What resulted was possibly the most surreal experience of my life. The 300 or so people were boarding our flight. We were in a circle around Bronwyn. Ron was serenading her with the Calling’s ‘Wherever You Will Go’. Bronwyn was in a wheelchair and soon came the eventual tears! I’ll never forget it.
I came home from Malawi with a new found awareness. I was now aware of the world, its people and the lives they live. Between all the arson and the ballads, I realised how lucky we in Ireland are. The great majority of us wake up, with the biggest worry on our heads being: Crunchy Nut or Cornflakes? Or both? Malawi is ranked as one of the poorest countries in the world, and the people of that nation, Africa and the Third World at large face harrowing conditions every day. But I learnt they also smile, and take joy in their lives. Difficult as our lives may be at times, with a spirit like theirs, it’s hard not to see what’s truly important. Faced with unemployment and recessionary gloom, we Irish are fortunate to share in some of their resolve and no matter what, we’ll always come out fighting.
Pic Credit: Wikimedia Commons