Another Day in my Life
I wake up around 7 to the pouring rain. That’s great because I needed extra sleep after staying up late. And there’s power this morning, so I’m excited to brew tea and make toast and oats for breakfast. The rain is so heavy that we can’t run like we planned, but that’s probably a good thing, because we have no running water, and so I’m better off without sweating this morning. That way, I figure I can wait one more day to wash my hair.
I put in an hour of work helping my friend Chifundo pull together a summary of the mission, impact, and budget for his Nkhoma-based nonprofit Alinafe. He asked for help earlier in the week and I’m just getting to it today. He might have found a donor to support the year’s programs, but he needs help with documentation. Luckily I have our grant submission on file from 2021, so it’s easy enough to update and send over. I tell him that I can meet with him tomorrow to discuss, but for today it’s off to the village.
The training starts at 9:00 today, but by 9:15 we’re still waiting for Ishmael’s friend to finish copying the rest of the handouts. With power difficulties throughout the city, we’re really down to the wire getting worksheets to the training participants. This “phase two” training in Mngwangwa includes five chiefs, the men and women who participated in conservation farming since last year’s training, their spouses, and a few pastors from other areas who want to learn what is going on. We meet up with Pastor Nzunga at the Mango Market in Area 25. Although we’ve been to his house countless times in the last 5 years, the roads are so bad with the rain that we need to take a new way today. I shudder remembering the last time we drove here in rainy season and got stuck in a ditch. But today everything goes well and we arrive before teatime. Teatime at Thoko’s is always fun. I use a teaspoon each of milk powder, sugar, and tea leaves. Greg takes his tea more Malawi-style with a third cup each of cream and sugar.
Thoko is excited to show us her fields of maize, which are growing taller than any others in the village even though she didn’t purchase any fertilizer. Even the agricultural trainer can’t believe that the farming demonstration field is doing so well this first year. Thoko points to a nearby field with maize about half as tall. “I planted this at the same time and it died, I had to replant” she says. “I used fertilizer for this field, 10 bags, so that’s 300,000 Malawi Kwacha.” That field cost about $350 to fertilize, compared to the composted demonstration field which looked much healthier and already had some cobs growing. It will be exciting to see how the harvest goes.
We go back to the house and talk about projects and budgets. The Blantyre CHE training was moved from March to May, we’re trying to squeeze in a preacher’s training in mid March, and Thoko wants me to talk at a women’s meeting in early March. I offer her a few topics I have in mind and she encourages me to go for Diabetes and Hypertension. “Everyone struggles with those” she says. It’s true, at least one in three Malawian adults has hypertension, and one in five has diabetes. We talk through the budget for this training. Everyone who attended today from Mngwangwa contributed 65 cents to pay for the maize flour, fuel, and veggies for the 3 days of lunches, and our partners provided the daily protein. We’re about $10 over budget but that’s not too bad – what’s $1.50 per person per day if it can bring food security to an entire community? And we’re hoping that the ideas will spread to other communities, too. Our partners and donors have been very generous this year, and my US-based work is offsetting most of our living expenses, so we have enough left over to help a pastor fix his motor bike and to pay for tuition to a community development teaching course for three lead pastors.
Soon it is lunchtime. We joke about the amount of starch each of us is taking. Today Thoko made boiled chicken and grilled chicken, both so delicious. We finish our food early and walk over to the church where community members are eating. Thoko told me that the women were excited that I was coming because they had questions for me. I expect questions about everyone’s health – that’s what they usually ask me. And we do stop to talk to a chief at the door to the church about his back pain. I recommend stretches and physiotherapy, but he wants an x-ray. I tell him he’s welcome to come to the clinic any time, and I can even help pay for the bill because he’s such a great supporter of the programs in this church. He says he’ll bring the money, it’s important for him to pay his own way. Inside the church the women gather in a half-circle around me and Thoko. They have been discussing budgeting today. “Now we see that a woman should help with the family finances” one woman relates. “But what do we do when our husbands take all the money and spend it on beer and cigarettes?” another asks.
“How many of you are attending this training with your husbands?” I ask. About half of the women raise their hands. “Those of you here with your husbands, do you think that they will let you have a say in finances this year?” The women say that they think the training will help their husbands save money for the future and involve their wives in the plans. “What about the women whose husbands are not here? What can we do for them?” The group discusses, and several ideas come up where pastors or church members can help explain to the absent husbands the importance of financial security and sharing money and money decisions with their wives.
The next questions are as practical as they are difficult: “We’ve learned about starting businesses, and we’ve been told not to borrow to start a business. But we don’t have anything to start with? Where can we get a starter pack for business?” Suddenly I wonder if showing my face in the village today, the presence of a wealthy foreigner, might undo much of the assets-based community development in which we had invested. “How many of you were part of the women’s saving’s group in the church last year?” I ask. About one quarter of the women raise their hands. “How many were part of the conservation farming committee this year?” About half. This leads to a discussion about the groups already existing in the community to help women start businesses and build financial security. I leave the group with a final consideration: “You don’t always need money to get started with a business. In the Bible, one widow got out of debt by collecting jars from her neighbors and filling them with oil. If you wanted to start a donut business, you could gather flour from your friends in this group here instead of taking out a loan. If you made manure this year, you could sell it next year for a profit without having to start with a lot of money. Harvest should be good this year - If you save a bag of maize after this, that can become your ‘starter pack’ for business investment later. This community has resources you can use. Keep listening to the rest of the training and I think you will get ideas.”
I am sure that was not the answer they wanted, but if I had committed to give even $20 to the group, it would have undermined the entire process of helping this community break cycles of dependence and poverty. I needed to provide just enough foreigner presence to help them believe in themselves, and maybe to believe that they couldn’t count on outsiders to fix things. Thoko and I walk back to her house. She already has ideas for forming a savings committee for women in the community. An entire bag of maize might be too difficult of a buy-in, but she estimates that most women could spare half a bag, which could serve as security for any borrowing they might do from the group. She plans to let the women form a committee and let them decide all the details. I smile, relieved that my work here is done.
Greg and I get back in the car, loaded up with two new skirts Thoko tailored for me and two bags of chicken manure. The smell is terrible so we keep our windows down the entire way back. We arrive home at 5 pm. I’m so tired that I just cuddle with a dog on the couch for 20 minutes. I should take more times of rest like this. Dinner is leftovers and dessert is more than half of a chocolate delicious chocolate bar. There’s still no water for a bath so Greg and I watch a quick show. It’s over by 7 and I sit down for just a little more work. I’m polishing up an abstract to submit to a Preventive Medicine conference, and communicating with a resident about opportunities at County and making a plan for moving forward with our program deliverables in California. Before I know it, it’s 9:45, definitely time to stop working.
It takes a while to get to sleep, a couple cups of calming tea and a bit more of that chocolate bar. I walk around the yard until just before midnight, I really wanted to get my 10,000 steps for the day. I resolve that I should put some effort into being less goal-oriented and resting more. Starting tomorrow, I tell myself.