April 05, 2012
Having Class Outside: Microfinance on the Ground in Malawi (Culture)
Posted by Christine Hurt

So, I've tried to answer questions about our Malawi Study Tour, and I've told you about some of the microfinance meetings that we had in Malawi. But, our trip and these blog posts wouldn't be complete without some cultural immersion. As I was planning the trip and hoping that all of our scheduled events would pan out (some did, some didn't, new ones came our way), I kept telling myself that if all I did was show the students what a subsistence economy looked like, then the trip was worthwhile. So, some of what we did can only be categorized as "cultural immersion." Not only as understanding the culture essential to understanding and critiquing the mechanics of microfinance, it also translates into professional development. So, here is some of what we experienced.

We arrived in Malawi on Saturday. On Sunday, we walked 4.5 miles from our lodge to an area we call Lisanjala, after the spring that runs through there. Lisanjala is actually made up of 5 contiguous villages. We arrived there in time for a lengthy CCAP (Central Churches of Africa Presbyterian) service. I was nervous about this because as Americans, we are very used to a distinct separation of church and state. However, I knew that the students would not get a true sense of the culture if they did not observe how large a part church plays in the lives of most Malawians. (Malawi is heavily Christian, mostly Presbyterian, but with a sizeable Muslim population). The service provided us with many teachable moments. For one thing, we had talked before about whether Africans had a "culture of savings" and had read sources that argued that in many cultures, saving is akin to hoarding and frowned upon. Also, those with surplus are called upon to use their idle resources for others with current needs. We saw a lot of evidence of this during the service and compared it to the current U.S. church-based financial advice (a la Dave Ramsey) of "Save, Give, Spend." We were lucky enough to enjoy lunch cooked outside by the Women's Guild. The students were wonderful, and heartily ate what was put in front of them, including nsima (maize flour boiled into a gelatinous mound).

On Tuesday, we returned to the village to deliver our school supplies. The students were able to see public school in session, and I think even our most well-traveled students were a little stirred by the poverty they saw there -- tattered clothing, few uniforms, scant writing materials, no classroom furniture or resources. Then, we walked the half mile to the spring, following the oldest primary girls (11? 12?) who were fetching water, which they would then carry on their heads back to the school. These buckets weigh about 40-50 pounds, which you must hoist on your head, not even counting the walking part. Some of the male students were moved to offer to carry the buckets back themselves, and though they all made it, they were using every ounce of strength and stamina they had! The non-water carriers, who had more time to wander on the way back, visited with villagers and saw their kitchen gardens, a pilot project from the Mulanje Mission Hospital. One student was very moved by seeing a villager's family member outside his home who was obviously in the last stages of HIV/AIDS. Malawi has a very high rate of HIV/AIDS, and this brought it home.

Tuesday afternoon we toured the Mulanje Mission Hospital, which allowed the students to receive information about the delivery of health care in Malawi and also to see it in action. Another afternoon we toured a weaving factory staffed by and for the benefit of disabled individuals in Blantyre. Friday's microfinance meetings were cancelled, so we spent the day in Zomba, the "University town" of Malawi. We were treated to the company of one of my friends, who was a former ambassador to Germany and is now at the Theological Seminary there. While in Zomba, we got newspapers and read about the current political climate there. We also went shopping at various markets and took our time getting back to Blantyre, to prepare for our Saturday journey home. While driving around Malawi, the students learned a lot "on the way." We saw how scarce fuel (diesel and petrol) was and watched the three block queues for fuel that hadn't even arrived at the station yet. We were stopped at police stops many times a day, and had to pay for various documents that sped up these stops. We saw firsthand the importance of both hierarchy and community in daily life. Malawi is at a crossroads today. If you googled "Malawi" yesterday you would have found various articles about the abrupt turn the economy has taken in the past year, with foreign aid being witheld for political reasons, foreign exchange drying up, and economic problems causing shortages of fuel and other commodities such as sugar. (And of course, articles about Madonna and football.) Today, President Bingu Mutharika has been hospitalized following cardiac arrest, and accounts are uncertain as to his current condition and location. For my friends there and my own selfish desire to continue visiting Malawi, I hope that the rule of law prevails should there be a transition of power. Just one of many everyday fears that we are blissfully protected from here in the U.S.

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