We had a long stop over in Nairobi airport. We had already flown from Dublin to Amsterdam and from Amsterdam to Nairobi. From Nairobi we were about to fly to Zimbabwe and then from Zimbabwe to Lilongwe. Then, just a six-hour bus journey and we would be in Mzuzu, I think. Having over 27 hours of travel in total we were starting to get a little disconcerted.
There were so many things in Nairobi airport that were reminiscent of home. I saw Holly Willoughby’s face on a copy of Company magazine. Smirnoff vodka was sold next to Marlboro cigarettes, both priced in US dollars.
The airport was packed full of travellers – mothers and children dying to get home, businessmen clammy in their black suits, and us. We weren’t uncommon; many wide-eyed aid workers from the West had passed through this airport.
Dressed in our matching royal blue ‘DIT Wells for Zoë 2010’ we drew a lot of attention. Many people asked us where we were going, what we were doing and what we wanted to achieve.
The response was not what we expected. People sniggered. One suited businessman laughed at us and said we would achieve nothing. We could not, and certainly would not affect change. Those were his exact words.
I was still thinking of his words when we arrived in Mzuzu many hours later.
Josephine lived on the farm with her children. She cooked under a corrugated tin roof. Maize was piled on the ground. She cooked in a burnt pot which sat in an open flame. Her son played with the baby next to her. The pot over flowed of boiling water, to which Josephine added handfuls of floured maize. She stirred the bland mixture until it came to dough. She shaped the dough with her bare hands and fed the children. She herself ate the dough – nsima – with a pinch of spinach.
I sat and talked to Josephine. Her husband was a drunk – an unfortunate but common trait in Malawian men. He left her to care for their children and took another wife in Johannesburg. She worked now on the farm. As she talked I was taking pictures of the children playing, the fire burning, and the small pot of nsima. She was fascinated by my camera. I took a picture of her and showed it to her on the small digital display. She was completely in awe, and started sitting and posing with the children – laughing hysterically with each new image I showed her.
As I stood to leave a small time later she offered me a plate of the food she had prepared. I didn’t want to take the food – simply because I knew there were many mouths to feed and little nsima. But she was adamant so instead I sat and ate a small amount with her and her children. As utterly cheesey as it sounds, for the few moments I sat with Josephine and her children, I was part of her family.
When people ask me the most what significant thing we did in Malawi was, I don’t reel off the list of physical things we changed. I don’t tell them about the labour on the farm or about the work we did later in the preschool. I tell them we met people. I tell them we connected with people.
And if anyone asks me if I think we influenced change, I tell them we can’t affect change.