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To the past through the future

Now and again, when I have a minute, I reflect on my life and maybe wonder at how far I have come from my West Roscommon heritage. I mean the astonishing pace of progress, from thatch, candles, tilly lamps, bringing the sod of turf to school, long desks, messy inkwells, dry toilets, calves, my mother’s pigs, lambs and turkeys, making hay and cutting turf. Carrying buckets of water from an open spring well and watching Tom Coll, my grandfather saving cabbage seeds are all particularly beneficial in my life now. This was a post famine Ireland, in Cromwell’s Connacht.

I reflect on what must have been an enormous struggle for my parents to send me to Secondary school, to an almost unique, fee paying, a co-ed, academy, run and owned by one of the most formidable characters I have ever known, the late Mary O’Flanagan, a powerful, one off, lovingly or sometimes not so lovingly called Mary O. There was a real patriot, someone with real vision and years ahead of her time. It must have been even harder to manage University, but such was their hunger for education that, for them, there wasn’t a choice, much like the rural women we work with inMalawi, they saw education as a way of ensuring a better future.

Looking at the people who formed and molded me, I can only whisper about my successes. There was a time when I could attribute these to hard work, lifestyle and good decisions I made and opportunities I took advantage of.

Of course Br Aidan Clohessy, (SJOG, Mzuzu) is right when he attributes all his success to the grace of God: if only I could be so humble.

But he is absolutely correct.

I had no part in the biggest decision in my life; where to be born, which is the most crucial of all, affecting health, wellbeing, opportunities, in fact every potential for success

But what if this wasn’t true?

There was a 50% chance that you would be born into a set of circumstances that would limit your earning to €2.00 a day, and an 80% chance that you would be unable to earn more than €10 a day. If you aren’t in either of these categories, then it was against the odds, and a decision you had no control over at all.

It’s easy to be humble when faced with the simplest of statistics

If you were born in Malawi, your average earning would be around $1.39 a day for a man and 84 cents for a woman.

To put that in perspective, a bottle of water in Malawi costs 30 cents, so after a hard day’s work all you would be able to buy a litre. The alternative maybe to drink dirty water and take the risk of dying.

In Malawi we help, some of the poorest to find a way out of poverty. We do this in the following ways ways:


1. Water: We enable people to access clean water, using the simplest of hand pumps which we make in Mzuzu. Clean water changes everything and is the beginning of all potential development. We have made and installed hundreds of pumps and brought clean, safe drinking water to over 125,000 of the world’s poorest



2. Food: the provision of seed and training in agriculture enables farmers to grow enough food for their family for the rest of their lives. We research and multiply open pollinated seeds (like my grandfather) and give them to farmers to use, save and share, a system many farmers in the world are going back to. Health and Nutrition education is vital in a country so dependant on Maize, alone, as the staple diet. We also produce improved variety citrus, mango, avocado, peaches, apples, guava…

3. Preschool education: We support rural communities in their efforts to have preschools in their villages. We train local women, help them with equipment, sometimes food, have our travelling principal teacher visit once a week, on his bicycle for support, training and encouragement and assist with transfer to primary schools. We work in many areas where primary school absenteeism is huge. We find that where there is a preschool, children move to primary school, and are more likely to remain.



4. Adult Education

I think this is the most exciting project we have. As a former educator it makes me weep to see adults learning, to see a grandmother learn to read her, six year old grand daughter’s book then jump up and dance. Then there’s the English and Chichewa, the language of the Country, one word at a time. To see them learning enough maths to do a little business. They are the best students I have ever seen. Of course there’s nutrition, sanitation, hygiene, agriculture, knitting as well as skills like budding and grafting of plants, all in a building used as a preschool in the mornings. But its their school, they have built it with a little help from us. Its their plan, their way, their effort. Starting them off and sliding aside is such a pleasure, as is realising that you will be back regularly with smaller and smaller interventions until a time when they will they will relate that we did this by ourselves.



In each of these endeavors, Wells for Zoe makes sure its impact is of a long term nature, by working closely with self help women’s groups, on their plans, the community take over is more than gradual. Local women who have gained confidence have amazed us and have shown much more ability and drive that you can imagine.


We don’t just give hand outs and disappear. We provide people with choices and opportunities, encourage their plans and befriend them.

We don’t just talk about education, we have got together with the District Education Managers support communities to build the schools and stick with them.

We don’t just install wells and pumps, we ensure communities are involved in all decision making, particularly the women, who have the traditional responsibility for providing water. We also teach the women so that they can repair and maintain the pumps by themselves, with the most rudimentary of tools.

We are in this for the the long haul and prepared to take as long as it takes. Our people will only develop at their face. Any guru arriving with a quick fix plan will find that the fix quickly evaporates as soon as the term is up, and their grant is depleted. Of course another Guru will soon arrive with a new quick fix plan as has happened for the past 50 years.

How did I get myself back to where I started, but 10,000 Kilometers away? It’s like back to the past through the future. Now, at this stage of my life, I believe that this is where I am meant to be. There are no coincidences.

I’m glad that someone has a plan, although if I’m in His plan, maybe it’s not much of a plan after all.


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