All creatures great and small

by Jourdan Fairchild in ,


Screen Shot 2014-05-02 at 8.12.43 AM

After the adventures of yesterday, I felt ready for anything. But what I saw today and last night was mesmerizing. Why? Animals! So many African animals! Last night, we went on a night safari in the Liwonde National Park that overlooks a stretch of the Shire River. I felt like we’d been dropped into one of the nature shows my husband loves to watch.From our jeep, we spotted nocturnal animals like porcupines, plus more rare sightings of three bush creatures: a bush baby, bush pig, and bush buck. So many of these species were totally new to me, and we were seeing them in their natural habitat, rather than at a zoo. It was a beautiful thing. Did I mention the hippo mama and baby we saw just 20 feet from our car? That was enough to make Colleen and GoGo jump (hippos can be incredibly dangerous). The night ended with a bang when Amanda killed this poisonous baboon spider in our mosquito netting. She saved me!The fun continued the next morning as I dragged myself out of bed just after the sun rose for a private nature walk (with an armed guard to protect us from charging elephants and hippos). On the way, I was greeted my hungry warthogs and adorable veret monkeys. My guide, Duncan, filled my brain with dozens and dozens of facts about the trees, flowers, and animals—even elephant dung (which can be collected and used to make paper, among many things) along our path. How about this sausage tree, named for the fruit that hangs from it? Hilarious!The leaves and bark from certain trees are believed to help with fertility, strength, and a host of other health issues. One tree, the Moringa tree, is known as the Miracle tree, and you can even find Moringa powder in local pharmacies. After my walk, we took a boat safari along the river, spotting hippos, crocodiles, and fish eagles.And then Duncan spotted the most magnificent animal I’ve ever seen, the African elephant. He was in the bush, so Duncan cut the motor as we quietly floated closer. This park is home to more than 800 elephants, but you’re never guaranteed a sighting. We patiently waited for him to make a move, and when he did, all I can say is WOW. He moved so slowly, gracefully, and softly as he munched on grasses while a bird perched on his back. He knew we were watching him, and he gave us a great show.How do you follow up such an awesome experience? With another giant, beautiful natural creation! We didn’t plan on this one either. Our driver, Willie, had mentioned that on the way to Blantyre, there’s a tree with a root system that doesn’t end. We had to see it to believe it. It’s the only Banyan tree in Malawi, and it’s located on the campus of an Anglican school, so luckily, it’s protected. I couldn’t quite capture the tree’s size and beauty in photos, but it measures the length of two football fields. I can just imagine local children running through it, climbing, swinging, and exclaiming.

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Home at the Lake

by Jourdan Fairchild in ,


Each day I’m more and more amazed at the beauty of this country. After one final breakfast in Lilongwe, we hopped in the car to head down south to Lake Malawi. As you can see, it was stunning. Screen Shot 2014-04-29 at 10.10.38 PMScreen Shot 2014-04-30 at 6.16.35 PMDoesn’t it look like an ocean? It’s longer and deeper than Lake Michigan (365 miles long compared to 307 miles, and in places, 2700 feet deep). It borders Mozambique and Tanzania, and its the southernmost lake in the East African Rift system. In the center of the first photo, you can see Bird Island, as well as a pair of men paddling the traditional canoe (you sit atop it rather than inside). The lake is filled with fish; the most common and popular is chambo (similar to tilapia). Many Malawian families vacation along the lake, and you can see why. On the way there, we stopped by at an orphanage with Watering Malawi-provided hand-washing stations and bathrooms. As soon as we pulled up, the car was surrounded with children. They were happy and appeared to be well cared for by the women working there. Besides Madonna (who used her power to bend the rules), international adoptions from this country aren't permitted. It's because Malawians deeply care for their own. Side note: We saw the ground where Madonna's school was supposed to be built. It's untouched.  Screen Shot 2014-04-29 at 10.14.21 PMThis area also happens to be home for Colleen’s family. Her parents first moved to Malawi in 1962 as missionaries. They lived in a small village just steps from the water, where Colleen loved to swim as a kid. When we arrived at the village, we went to their church (here’s the story of what this church means to Colleen) and then spent the day with a childhood friend and his family. We snacked on local favorites like Fanta and cheese and tomato sandwiches.Screen Shot 2014-04-29 at 10.14.05 PMWe also popped into a store in town where we picked out bright patterned fabric for custom dresses. This is the way many Malawi women fill their closets, working with a tailor to keep making new pieces throughout the year. A local man told me that men joke with their wives because, like American men, women are constantly ordering new outfits for celebrations and events. And even though it sounds extravagant, the price is totally affordable by our standards (we’re each paying $20 or less for fabric + tailor!). Where we shopped, tailors sit in front of the stores waiting for customers to buy fabric. We found one who was willing to make us each a dress (I asked for a top and a skirt), and because we’re leaving town tomorrow morning, he has to work fast. We drew pictures of the design we wanted, and then he measured each of us. We can’t wait to pick them up!Desktop

 

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It takes a village

by Jourdan Fairchild in ,


As we pull into the small village, the women surround the car, dancing and singing and making the most gloriously joyful noise. We step out of the car and join in the celebration, and I feel so purely happy that I start to cry. The feeling is overwhelming and surreal (watch it here).Screen Shot 2014-04-29 at 9.09.18 PMThat moment today will be seared in my memory forever. We spent the day with a group of local leaders connected to MATAMA, first meeting the director of public health at a district hospital who explained that, among many things, he’s seen a vast improvement in access to HIV/AIDS medicine in the area. We broke from meetings to indulge in a traditional lunch of nsima (a cornmeal and water mixture akin to grits) roasted chicken, beef and vegetables—all of which we ate with our hands. Our driver Willie showed me how it's done. It was messy, but surprisingly tasty. Screen Shot 2014-04-29 at 9.12.35 PMFollowing lunch, we headed to a remote village for a celebration. What was the occasion? We were praising the fact that 10 villages had successfully completed training to make their villages free of open defecation. How’s that for perspective?!! This meant that the chiefs of 10 villages were willing to adopt clean water hygiene and sanitation practices to help make their people healthier. They instructed the men in their villages to build toilets and women to help them teach the children how to use the toilets and wash their hands in clean water. Amongst the 200-ish people present, men and women who had led their villages were presented with certificates of achievement. They were dressed in their best clothes, and they beamed with pride upon receiving their certificates. To us, a simple piece of paper can be just that. I can’t count the number of certificates I received in grade school. To them, it was a great honor, as it should be. They'd cleaned their homes from top to bottom in anticipation of our arrival, and you'd be amazed at how beautiful it looked given they're resources. Screen Shot 2014-04-29 at 9.08.11 PMScreen Shot 2014-04-29 at 9.07.35 PMScreen Shot 2014-04-29 at 9.07.17 PMThe women performed songs that told the stories of what they’d learned, and they stepped and swayed to the leader’s beat in perfect syncopation—intermixed with some seriously awesome twerking (see above). I could’ve watched them perform all day long. And the children were most mesmerized by our cameras. I took photos and showed them to the children. They couldn’t get enough, and swarmed around me to keep snapping more and more.Screen Shot 2014-04-29 at 9.08.50 PMPS: Have I mentioned the sunsets here? Cause they're kinda gorgeous.Screen Shot 2014-04-29 at 9.28.42 PM

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Discovering Lilongwe

by Jourdan Fairchild in ,


After a long night’s rest under mosquito netting—which felt magical and odd all at once—we awoke with warm(ish) showers and a spread of delicious breakfast food. Our first meeting was held at the national headquarters of World Vision Malawi. We met with a woman named Lucy, head of MWASH, which stands for Malawi Water Sanitation Hygiene. Since 2006, Watering Malawi has been partnering with the organization to access clean water and sanitation—everything from toilets and hand-washing stations to fish ponds. MWASH is large-scale, long-term program with many organizations involved, but as Lucy explained with a deep sense of gratitude, “Colleen, you brought MWASH to Malawi.” It was a touching moment to witness (no doubt many, many more will follow).Screen Shot 2014-04-26 at 11.26.44 PMTalk turned to a new program that World Vision is launching in other countries called Strong Women, Strong World.  It is currently in Mali, Niger, and Rwanda. Watering Malawi is interested in furthering a conversation with World Vision Malawi about how to leverage the work we are already doing to empower young girls.  Lucy had copies of new reading materials they were distributing. What’s the connection to water? It is hard to teach water and sanitation hygiene to people who don’t have a basic education. The concepts around the importance of healthcare are too complicated to grasp. So we discussed the development of literacy programs with young girls (exciting!), and we compared a Watering Malawi-designed coloring book with primary school pamphlets designed by World Vision. Before we left, we laughed about a wrap Colleen wore on her last visit. Lucy remembered her wearing it because it was a very dated print. Yes ladies, fashion is everywhere! New Malawian prints come in and out of style.  Just like us, Malawian women love color and design in their fabric.

So with fashion on the brain, we set out to discover a little place with a brilliant name: Smart Lady Boutique, run by a strong woman (notice a theme here?) named Rwinda. We practiced our bargaining skills at the local markets, then filled up on fried chicken and fries from Chicken Land (Malawi’s Chick-fil-A) before heading to our next meeting with another organization on the forefront of water education.Screen Shot 2014-04-26 at 11.14.12 PMAt MATAMA (Mineral and Appropriate Technology Applicable in Malawi), we met the executive director, Mr. Mapulanga, who took us to a school in the city.  Watering Malawi has partnered with MATAMA to put new bathroom and hand washing stations there. This statistics from this school are staggering, so prepare yourself. This school has 8,725 students (almost three times the size of my college!), 108 teachers, 32 toilets, 2 hand-washing stations, and 1 spigot for gathering fresh water. Yes, 1. Each classroom is about 20’ x 25,’ and on average, 400 students cram into the space. To handle the growing population, they’re building additional classrooms. But space will forever be an issue as over-crowding in the city remains a problem to be addressed on many levels. The toilets contained urinals, both for boys and for girls. Girls and urinals? (I asked). Girls squat to go to the bathroom (and they aren’t familiar with commodes), so urinals ensure that the run-off is collected somewhere sanitary. Wow.Screen Shot 2014-04-26 at 11.13.41 PMAs we gathered under an acacia tree with school board members, advisors, and head teachers, we listened to each person express their thanks for the work of MATAMA sponsored by Watering Malawi. But as Colleen explained, we weren’t the ones to thank. It is the gifts raised by young girls and boys from Boston to Hawaii who’ve made it possible.Screen Shot 2014-04-26 at 12.27.42 AMWhen the time came to leave the school, children ran up in packs, cheesing for photos and goofing off as they do. It was a wonderful reminder that children are children, no matter where they live. What separates us is merely a matter of where we’re born.Screen Shot 2014-04-26 at 10.52.13 PM

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Meeting Malawi

by Jourdan Fairchild in


Desktop17Hallelujah! We made it in one piece. The journey was long, the food was eh, but I was surprised at how quickly time seemed to pass in the sky. As you can imagine, the task of boiling down these adventures into short-ish blog posts is nearly impossible. My plan is to share the most interesting details, ie what I'd want to read, when I have wifi. Our DC to Ethiopia leg was smooth sailing (minus the dumb American holding up the security line to complain about his confiscated Capri Sun). I watched four movies, noshed on adorable plane-shaped crackers, and did my best to snooze. The meals were standard meat + rice + roll combos. But the wine was free! And did I mention the gorgeous flight attendants? Oh my. These African ladies had the milkiest brown skin accented by bright red lipstick and colorful yellow power suits. We deplaned in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city.  The airport’s shops were filled with sarongs, wooden tchotchkes, Ethiopian crosses and stitched bags. I limited myself to one shirt and a long printed dress that Colleen assured me we wouldn’t see elsewhere in Malawi. Our second flight to Lilongwe was the tougher leg. Between the cramped seating, our lack of sleep, and the pungent human smells (you can imagine them), we were all done. 

At customs, we waited…and waited. Apparently line cutting seems to be a permissible activity here. The nine Indians that cut us were lucky that one of the guys looks like Bruno Mars’ Indian brother. Studying his features (and the colorful saris) gave my mushy brain something to digest while we waited.

After a quick money exchange (approx. 385 kwacha = 1 dollar), we piled into our driver Willy’s Range Rover and set out to our hotel. About five miles down the road, Willy pointed out the patch of land where Madonna is "building" her school (see below photo). As you'll notice, the land is untouched. Madonna-Gate is one hot topic here, my friends. More on that later. We passed children selling pumpkins roadside, gas stations, and shops before arriving at our humble, yet perfectly homey abode (Heuglin's Lodge) that sits securely behind large walls with barbed wire. That sounds scary, but Malawi is surprisingly safe. In fact, it's one of the few Africa countries that hasn't had a civil war. Alas, we are Americans carrying money and expensive tech gadgets, so we're not taking any chances.

The afternoon lulled by, as I fought off sleep by exploring the lodge. Once dusk rolled in — and with it, those pesky mosquitoes — we retired to the dinner table, bonding with other visitors from America, UK, and beyond over delicious soup and fish. Tomorrow's day will be among our biggest, and I can't wait to share all we'll be doing (hint: schools and kiddos are involved!).Screen Shot 2014-04-24 at 9.56.01 PM Screen Shot 2014-04-24 at 9.56.09 PM Screen Shot 2014-04-24 at 9.56.41 PM Screen Shot 2014-04-24 at 9.56.50 PM Screen Shot 2014-04-24 at 9.57.53 PM Welcome

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Pack it up, pack it in

by Jourdan Fairchild in


DSC_0871I’ve never excelled at packing. In fact, magazine stories about rolling, folding, and stacking clothes in perfect little packages are generally way too uptight for me. But for this trip, I need to pack as efficiently as possible. Think 10 days in African climate, with highs in the 70s. Sounds like a breeze, no? Here's the catch: no pants, no shorts, and no skirts above the knee. Oh, and shoulders can’t be showing, so nothing sleeveless. No, Malawi isn't a predominantly Muslim country (most Malawians are, in fact, Christians). But Malawian women have only been allowed to wear pants in urban areas for the past 10 or so years. We’ll be arriving to and leaving from cities, but much of our time will be spent in rural villages where women still dress conservatively. In an effort to respect their way of life, we'll be dressing similarly.

Here’s what I'm planning to pack — all of which is (hopefully) happening on a $100 budget (special thanks to H&M, Forever 21, Target). It's also worth noting that the most popular trend of spring 14: African print everything. Don't think that'll go over so well, so sticking to neutrals.

  • Maxi dresses with cap sleeves (or light sweaters/sleeved tops like kimonos)
  • Long skirts (but not too long, so they don’t drag the dusty streets)
  • Comfy pants for the plane
  • Solid colored t-shirts
  • Sandals
  • Sneakers
  • Sunglasses
  • Sun hat
  • Hair wraps (there won't be a hair dryer in sight)

Add that to a host of shots (which I got last week for Hepatitis, Typhoid, Tdap) and pills (Malarone, antibiotics), plus some serious mosquito protection, snacks, reading materials, and tech stuff (computer, camera, chargers) — and I’ll be ready to go! I think. Actually, I'm sure I'll forget something.

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When losing a job leads you to Africa

by Jourdan Fairchild in


Watering MalawiRarely does life play out the way we anticipate. And learning to manage the twists and turns of it with grace and optimism can feel impossible. A friend recently shared this essay in the NY Times about a writer frustrated with her unfinished novel. When she began focusing on others and their needs, her own problems seemed less unique and, somehow, less pressing. The last time I was job-less, I felt sick with anxiety about the career I'd left behind and the unknown path ahead. Losing my job two weeks ago sucked. But now, I have a world of opportunity ahead of me—literally. This story really starts a few months ago, over dinner with my parents and a couple they've known for years. As we ate, the wife, (Colleen) who was raised in Malawi as a missionary kid, casually mentioned her non-profit, Watering Malawi, that uses money raised by kids (via lemonade stands, etc) to build wells in villages throughout the country. She makes somewhat regular visits to Africa to check on the status of the wells and meet with potential NGO partners, and she mentioned she'd be heading there in the next few months and was hoping to find women willing to join her. I told her that it sounded like an incredible opportunity, and that "I'd totally go if I didn't have a full-time gig!"

Africa didn't cross my mind again until the day after I found out about DailyCandy. Something led me to send Colleen a quick message asking if she'd found anyone to go with her. She responded immediately. Her mother, who still speaks the language (Chichewa) at age 79, would be joining her for a final visit, as would another woman handling logistics. But she was still looking for someone to help her record facts, document stories, take photos, and spread the word via social media and press. They'd be traveling between small villages, meeting with established global NGOs (like World Vision) as well as smaller organizations. They'd sit down with Girls Empowerment Network and potentially the female president of Malawi. And they'd spend time with the women who take care of the wells, and check in on the girls Colleen is worried have been married off.

How could I say no?

And so, within a matter of days (and the support of a few freelance assignments that just so happened to come my way), I'd made up my mind. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There was no way I wasn't going. At the time, all I knew about Malawi was the Madonna connection. Now, I know about the strides President Joyce Banda—who's up for re-election next May—is making for the sake of women (check it out).

This is not a mission trip, nor is it a vacation. We will be working, traveling, moving, meeting. And I will be listening, learning, and admiring. Our tickets are booked. I've gotten shots and an updated passport. We leave in one week, and we'll be gone for 10 days. I'll be documenting everything on this blog, from a few last-minute preparations to each day or so of the trip. My plan is to ingest as much information as I possibly can, and then carefully and passionately share it with the world. These women have stories to tell, but no outlet to tell them. Until now.

PS: Here are some photos I pulled from the internet of Malawian people, Lake Malawi (Africa's third largest lake that looks more Bora Bora than Africa to me), and Colleen in the field. Lake-Malawi20120214-World_Pneumonia_Day-Malawi-23311 Screen Shot 2014-04-13 at 9.49.45 PM Screen Shot 2014-04-13 at 9.50.30 PM

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