Last month, Katherine Shoesmith of the IDHL Group company NetConstruct journeyed to Malawi to build an educational garden in the village of Nkope, close to the village and training centre of Chilema that her late grandfather helped establish more than 50 years ago. This is her account of the expedition.
Growing up with my mum telling me about her childhood in Malawi I don’t think I ever entirely understood just how different her upbringing was to mine. That was until I was given the opportunity to go on a volunteering project to Malawi with a charity called MACS (Malawi Association for Christian Support). My maternal grandma (mum’s mum) has always been keen for her 12 grandchildren to experience life in Malawi so she very kindly helped her four eldest to achieve her ambition and ours, providing we also raised some money to be spent on projects in Malawi. In July my sister Elizabeth (25), my two cousins Camiel (16) and Gemma (20) and I set off on our African adventure.
I really did not know what to expect. Since signing up for the expedition back in October 2015 I regrettably hadn’t given the trip much thought. Don’t get me wrong, I had been doing my part in fundraising and doing bits of research here and there but I hadn’t really got my teeth into exactly what it was we were going to be doing in Malawi or what life over there is like. This was until Dennis Engel (CEO of IDHL) sent me an email declaring an interest and wanted to meet up for a briefing. I thought perhaps it was about time I got my act together! After many conversations with my grandmother, mum and dad (he likes to be involved) I really started to get a feel for what was actually a fascinating family story.
My mum, her brother, sister and my grandparents had lived in Malawi from 1962 until 1973. My grandfather was a missionary and the family lived frugally by western standards in a shack with a tin roof, contracting malaria and bouncing around dirt tracks in a battered old Peugeot. Sadly, my grandfather died at the age of 39 which meant that the rest of the family needed to move back to the UK. However, before this tragic event my grandparents had made a huge difference. Their pioneering work is still evident today. The Chilema lay-training centre they helped to create and build fifty years ago is still active. There is a play centre called the John Leake play centre (built in memory and named after my grandfather) which is still going strong as is the Women’s Empowerment course my grandmother initiated. I met a lady called Flower on my expedition who had attended the Women’s Empowerment course (in an area a hundred miles away from where the course is held). Where you have to walk or travel on overcrowded buses or bicycle taxis this is a really long way. Flower said the course had changed her life, hearing this brought tears to my eyes. Knowing that my grandparents are still making a difference to people’s lives so many years down the line is a truly humbling experience and something I long to be able to do. The course aims to teach women things we take for granted here in England – cooking, sewing, agriculture and basic accounts for setting up their own business (e.g. selling bananas). They have had almost no schooling and these skills really are life changing.
Katherine’s mum in the bush – this is where they build their house
Katherine’s grandfather who died in 1974
After an exciting and constructive meeting with Dennis he told me that he wanted to make a significant donation on behalf of IDHL towards the trip. After some deliberation Dennis suggested part of the donation could go towards filling two extra suitcases (one for me, one for my sister) with all sorts of life enhancing gifts. This was the fun part; that Saturday my mum, dad and I headed out to the shops. There is something very satisfying buying things that you know could change the life of someone. Some of the things we purchased include:
- Bike repair kits
- Bike pumps
- Disposable gloves
- Power cells
- Gardening gloves
- All sorts of children’s musical instruments – triangles, maracas, tambourines, thunder shakers, mouth organs etc.
- Bean bags
- Books and much more!
The group handing over gifts to the John Leake play centre
Due to space restraints I wasn’t able to spend all of the money. However, we agreed that I would assess where the balance of the donation could be put to good use in Malawi. One area I was keen to support was new playground equipment for the John Leake play centre. I had seen pictures and it looked very old and run down. Since returning I have made it my mission to ensure the play centre has new equipment by the end of October.
Current playground equipment at the John Leake play centre
On Tuesday 5th July the group of 13 set off from Heathrow. We flew to Nairobi in Kenya then on to Lilongwe in Malawi – the most basic airport I have ever been to. Surprisingly all 26 suitcases arrived – it’s almost a miracle in Africa!
Here on in, it was like nothing I have ever experienced – not even in movies. There were people selling anything from hand carved wooden sofas to potatoes on the side of the roads. Some were carrying hundreds of eggs on their heads and many would look at us on the bus like we were aliens (white people are very rare in some parts of Africa). We travelled to an area called Nkope which is a mission station (similar to Chilema which my grandfather helped to establish) where we were going to spend the majority of our time. The rest of the group would travel to other places, including Chilema after Nkope. I had to leave early because I had only been working at NetConstruct for a few weeks when I signed up for the trip. Asking for all my holiday allowance in one chunk did not seem like a good career move at the time! All the more reason for me to go back to Malawi in the future!
Throughout the week we spent most of our time building an educational garden. The aim was to show practically how to grow simple organic produce so that they in turn could pass on these skills to their families and friends on the mission. The problem in Malawi is that they don’t have the education about growing organic foods – they think that chemicals are essential for this which obviously isn’t the case especially with their climate. We made compost using chicken poo and did our very own landscape designing i.e. working out where we needed to leave room for paths so that people could water the plants and trees easily. We dug holes using homemade hoes and carried 20l buckets of water on our heads up a steep hill from Lake Malawi. It was very tiring but by the end of the week the difference we had made was phenomenal. My sister planted the first banana tree on her 25th birthday so we called it the BBT (birthday banana tree).
During our down times we were kept occupied in many ways. We played netball, football and volley ball with some of the local children. This was extremely exciting for them as we provided proper balls for them to be able to use rather than the plastic bags wrapped in elastic bands type of balls they are used to. Some of the women teachers joined in with the netball; safe to say they would have been sent off if they were playing a proper match – it all got rather competitive!
We were also given tours of the different areas of Nkope; the health centre, the primary school, secondary school and blind school. All of these tours were really emotional as it hit home the difference in facilities from Malawi and England. From the primary school having more orphans than not (HIV is a big problem), the secondary school having a bigger fail rate than pass rate in their exams due to lack of teachers, the health centre having 1 birth a week (it was once 5-6 births a day but the government brought in a very small charge for having babies in the health centre so people can no longer afford to use it) and the blind school that almost closed down due to lack of funding. It was all very hard to take in. However, what was humbling was seeing the difference MACS had already made. They have provided the two dormitories for the blind school, a water tank producing clean water for the village, computers for the blind school and some classroom blocks for the primary and secondary schools.
One of my highlights of the trip was playing on the lake shore with some of the children. Lake Malawi takes up around the third of the country so the shore is like a beach in some places. We danced and sang and played as the sun went down most nights, it was truly magical.
This is only the start of the difference I would like to make in Malawi. I would like to thank IDHL for contributing to such a fantastic cause.