Darkness just falls like a curtain in Malawi. By 6:00 pm and strictly no later than 6:30 pm the sun disappears for 12 hours, leaving you in a sudden night time, no matter where you are. On our first night in Malawi, we met the night on the top of a mountain at the start of the descent, leaving us to take on the bends in the road with a couple of fingers crossed and a sharp eye for cyclists. Like everything else here, however, our expectations were wide of the mark.
Maybe you don’t know what you expect, or maybe you just don’t want to say what you expect. You don’t expect there to be a shiny new Toyota dealership on the road into town, and yet there is. You don’t expect there to be a mini‐Wall St dense with banks, but there it is. You don’t expect to be staying in the Hot ‘n Spice Lodge, but you’ll keep that to yourself. You don’t expect to find the St John of God Centre offering education, training and care in a stunning structure that would put our HSE to shame, but you do. And yet that’s just the city itself, and new cities always surprise you. The people here are the real break with expectation.
The people in Áras Kate for example. We arrived here for a brief visit to see one of the projects that Wells for Zoë run, a day care centre for orphans that takes in 200 children every morning, and then invites the adults for the afternoon. You expect to visit for 20 minutes and tell yourself that that’s enough, not being renowned for your way with those who first saw light of day this side of the millennium. In truth though, you can’t leave after 20 minutes, or 2 hours. The energy, the action, the mania that can only come from a room packed with children grabs you, just before the children do, literally. And then you’re stuck there, and the time flies. And you leave in amazement.
There are volunteers in Áras Kate working with the local teachers in the classroom and the local cook in the kitchen. Volunteers built the building and dug the well but volunteers are only part of the story. Wells for Zoë is here not to do things for the community, but to work with the community. They’re here to work in partnership, recognising that only through partnership will the work sustain itself. Only through partnership will the work make any difference.
It’s a partnership that has seen a primary school building built, and a farm carved out of the land. It’s seen a new birthing centre and a new factory. It’s a partnership that employs and empowers men and women from the community who work on, and live in, and manage the many projects. It’s a partnership that has brought students and teachers and professionals from around the world to Mzuzu to learn and to work and to help. It’s a partnership that only works because Wells for Zoë produce results. It’s a partnership that works because of a trust that Wells for Zoë have earned.
And earned is the correct word, because they are not a body for talk without action. Though there’s plenty of both. They’re not there to talk about digging a well, they’ll just dig it. Then they’ll get more people trained in digging wells, and they’ll bring volunteers to the town to do the digging too. Then they’ll find out how to improve the wells, and then they’ll build a factory. Then they’ll go to another town and dig wells there too. Then they’ll go over the border to Tanzania and put wells deep in the ground there. They won’t tell you how many wells they’ve dug because that’s not the point.
The point is that when there’s a well in the village then the women of the village don’t need to walk for hours to carry water to their families. The point is that if mothers aren’t missing for four hours each day the children will be fed, and the children will go to school. The point is that if water and food are available for children, and if they go to school and get an education, then they’ll be the ones who make a better future for Malawi. And that’s the point of all this. Water first. Then food. Then education.
On two days in Mzuzu we tried to see what we could, but it would be a lie to say that our experience went beyond the superficial. With everyone else working hard while we leapt from project to project it’s difficult to think of yourself as something other than a politician wishing well but contributing little. So our job is to find out how we can get computers into the town in the future, and bring the expertise to make sure they serve a function.
There are computers here already, of course, in Mzuzu Technical College and in Mzuzu University, in the Ungwera Youth Centre and in the St John of God Centre. Our students will come here next year to try to fix the broken machines and bring new ones, or to train teachers in software, or to program with their counterparts in the college, or to play computer games with the children. We’re sending our students to learn about computing, and to learn about hard work, and to become professionals, and to learn about the real world, and the many worlds there are.
We hope they’ll make a difference, however small. We want it to make a difference to them. We can prepare them a bit, and teach them a lot, but to really learn they’ll need to get on a plane, work hard, and absorb the experience.
But it won’t be what they’re expecting.