It’s a fair question. It’s not an African country a typical American knows. I traveled to Malawi because I am on the board of directors for a non-profit organization called EKARI Foundation, which operates in Malawi and aims to empower Malawians to create sustainable livelihoods, primarily through education. I joined EKARI a year after I graduated from college, when I had settled into my job in Seattle and wanted to volunteer somewhere I knew was making an impact in a developing country. I have been working with EKARI for two years now, and have learned so much about how a small organization is run effectively. The US Director of EKARI, Michelle, has created a balanced structure where she runs the fundraising and program development while the Malawi In-Country Director, Elias, implements the programs on the ground. I decided to quit my job for the summer so I could travel, after being accepted to graduate school at American University in the fall.
I wanted to actually see the day-to-day operations of EKARI in Phalombe, Malawi. Now that I am here, I am seeing the impact that EKARI has on the students we sponsor, as well as the community programs that we support. I was able to speak with some of the students that EKARI sponsors, as well as observe the education system and the general living conditions. I interviewed three students who have participated in two of EKARI’s programs: Tutoring and 3 Meals a Day. Speaking with them and actually observing the conditions here made a world of a difference to my understanding of how EKARI operates.
I spoke with Wilson, Promise and Stella who are all EKARI beneficiaries of the Sponsor a Student Program, and have participated in the 3 Meals a Day Program and the Tutoring Program. They each had a unique story to tell, but they all told me about their living conditions at home. At home, all three kids said that they normally get one meal a day, usually supper. Although the students attend a school that boards them and provides their meals, they told me that they get two meals a day, which mostly consist of vegetables and a maize (white corn) flour, porridge-texture food called nsima (pronounced seema), which is a staple of the Malawian diet. Due to poor funding from the government, the school cannot provide a wide variety of food. However, during school breaks when they go to the EKARI building for tutoring, they provide 3 meals which cover the 6 food groups recommended by the Malawi government, where the food variety is much greater, including protein from chicken and beef, plus other vegetables and fruits, and is more nutritious.
EKARI also runs a Sustainable Livelihoods Community Program, which supports groups of people who run small businesses, including two farms, a bakery and two chicken coops. I went with Elias (the Malawi In-Country Director) and the local program coordinator, Mabel, to see the Subiri farming co-op. When we arrived in the area where the farms are, we were greeted by more than twenty children yelling and laughing at us, it was wonderful. The area is very beautiful, and the people take care that their land looks pristine. Ten women are part of the co-op, and they had recently asked for the equivalent of a $200 loan to till and plot two more areas of land with more crops. When we visited, Elias and Mabel gave the women the good news that they received the money from EKARI to expand their production. The same day, we went to see the Bwanaisa baking co-op, and ate some delicious scones while we were there! I absolutely loved seeing where EKARI operates in the community, and how much of an impact a micro-loan can have to jumpstart a small business.
I also went with Elias to the Mpata Conservation Club. After traveling on a very bumpy road up a mountain pass, the meeting took place outside, with about twenty local Malawians who are all volunteers with the forest conservatory. These volunteers plant tree seedlings in small plastic tubes, which take fifteen years to grow into trees, when they are transplanted to other areas to increase soil fertility. Elias met with the Club to discuss a partnership between EKARI Foundation and their group so they could get trees to plant near the farming co-ops. Currently, the farmers use chemical fertilizer to keep the soil viable, but they would like to move towards more natural ways of nurturing the soil, so would like to plant trees near the farms and increase soil fertility.
This was a long explanation of why I am in Malawi, but I am passionate about the development of Malawi, and I have faith that the people here will continue to innovate despite their hardships.