On June 5th, 11 volunteer members of United Village Transformation from all over the United States departed for Malawi, Africa with no idea what to expect. They knew their friends, Claudia Sansone and her husband, Rob Hampton, DDS, had been traveling to Malawi annually since 2010 to administer dental care, deliver supplies, and support the ongoing efforts to improve the quality of life for the people of Lilongwe. On June 6th a team of 14 arrived at Kamuzu International Airport Lilongwe after flying for 38 hours, carrying with them 25 bags of donated goods for the Dental clinic, school, and gardens. We were greeted by our dear friend and adopted son Malious Samson who arrived in an ambulance graciously donated by Daeyang Luke Hospital and our driver Patrick, from the Malawi Tourism Board.
Education is UVT’s major focus. Although elementary education enrollment in Sub-Saharan Africa increased from 60% in 2000 to 85% in 2012, a quarter of all young people are still illiterate. When Rob and Claudia visited in June 2013 they suggested to the Chief of Dothi Village that they would like to support a school. They asked him if they raised the funds would his villagers be able to build the structure. He consented. When they returned in the October 2014 the school had only brick walls, mud floors and a thatched roof. The villagers acquired two volunteer teachers and were holding classes for children ages 3 to 5 years of age.
Our first stop was our adopted Dothi village to show our team the progress that was being made. It would help them think about all the things we intended to do. Idah Samidu, our social worker, who is our liaison in Malawi, was there helping to prepare the new pre-school for action.
The village was formed in 1932 and houses a population of over 2200 villagers governed by 9 Chiefs, one for each zone and one overall Chief. Most of the children do not attend school because of the poor living conditions and the distance the younger children must travel to get there.
Over the last 10 months the villagers have proudly completed a 24x30 foot pre-school, adding on a metal roof, cement floors and walls, blackboards, and painted an educational motif all around the perimeter of the room. The windows were in and the door was on! The large cement step right outside of door serves as a landing to help keep the mud and dirt out during the rainy season. We were so overwhelmed by the progress we shed tears of joy and excitement.
Along with the pre-school our focus extended to nutrition and the best way to teach this was to help the villagers learn about crops other than their staple Maize. During our October 2014 visit the women of the village started growing beans, tomatoes, cabbage and, of course, corn upon a suggestion from Claudia Sansone. The Chief was so overwhelmed by the success of the new founded crops that he extended the available land and requested more villagers participate in farming. Upon our arrival in June we walked to the newly expanded garden area and noticed that they had recently harvested their crops and were in the process of turning over the dirt in preparation for our visit. They also prepared the earth near the school for a children’s garden. Surrounding each garden were fences made of weaved cornstalks which are so ingenious to keep out the wandering goats and other livestock.
On Sunday, June 7th, our teachers Francie Arcadi, Kathy Rini and Katie Keener spent most of the day shopping for school supplies and separating the bags graciously supplied by our volunteers and donors while our founders Claudia Sansone and Rebecca Gouveia sorted through the many bags of clothes collected for distribution to the villagers.
During the morning hours of June 8th our team visited the Kusamala Permaculture Center to meet with Molly and the brilliant young Biswick who took us on a tour of their organic gardens that totally changed everyone’s perception of living and planting as one with the environment. Thom Arcadi, our agronomist, recognized the philosophy and was inspired by the concepts of life, albeit plant or human. It was a remarkable learning experience. UVT will be working with Biswick to consult on our Dothi Village Garden Project as he knows the soil and the lay of the land. Dothi Chiefs are so open to learn and grow and develop and become self-sustaining.
Once our farming trip was completed we decided to visit other schools in the area to learn how they are educating the students. Kumbali Kindergarten, a part of the Pickering Estate was heart-warming. Everyone of our team fell in love with the children in their little green uniforms and yellow shirts singing as loud as they could. The school is located in an old horse stable, now converted classrooms and offices. They have a room with pegs for their coats and backpacks separate from the classroom. The children were so thrill to see the “mzungu”, the white people, and followed us around. Our Co-founder Kevin Gouveia was a pushover surrounded by the little ones. I think he would take them all home if he could.
Monday, June 9th, we departed early to reach the school in time for our three U.S. teachers to begin working with the children and train the local teacher volunteers. The children could not get close enough to them and were so eager to learn everything. It was such a precious sight to watch Katie, Francie and Kathy interact with the children.
Thom Arcadi's focus was the children's garden to help them understand the value of gardening, introduce new foods and that there are other ways to get nutrition in addition to maize which the children have grown accustom to eating at every meal. They will learn to grow their own vegetables and be responsible for the plants welfare.
Jay Rini and his son, Jason were kept busy getting the lay of the land. Jason has the uncanny ability to learn languages. He began studying Chechwa, Malawi's local language, prior to departing for our trip and was communicating in a matter of days.
Since our school attendance could potentially grown from 54 to 200 children in the future it was decided that we needed a larger kitchen and utilized the old one for the storage of the grain donated by each family. Thom and villagers drafted plans to build a Changu Changu Moto stoves that we learned from Ripple Africa, another successful foundation in northern Malawi. When we approached the Chief about the idea of another kitchen, he immediately said we will start it tomorrow! They are so incredibly appreciative of our help.
While we were at the village the Doctors were at the hospital working with patients. Dr. David Meuller dove right in and performed three surgeries while Dr. Rob Hampton and Dr. Peter Silcher shopped for supplies for the conference they were giving the following week and delivered dental supplies to the clinic in the hospital that Rob orchestrates and supplies from yearly donations. In addition to being a dentist, Rob is an artist and a sculpture. All of the money from sales of his art goes directly to supplying the dental clinic at Daeyang Luke Hospital from year to year.
Next we visited The Four Seasons Nursery. Thom Arcadi and Claudia met with Lesley and John Sprowson, owners of the complex, and toured the nursery with an eye on purchasing fruit trees. Guava, mango, custard apple, banana trees will be our first purchase this week for what will be the Dothi Village/Perfect Puree of Napa Valley Orchard.
Over the next few day our teams worked tirelessly with the gardens, school and kitchen. They were able to build a few more stoves for the villagers while the teachers continued to share their wisdom and tools of the trade with the pre-schoolers who screeched with excitement. Our three Dentist headed to the Hospital to give lectures on updated procedures and perform several more surgeries. They were able to perform dental exams on some of the local villagers and even fill a few cavities and pull more than a few teeth. Malawi has approximately 1 dentist for ever 1 million people so it is very rare that an individual is able to be seen.
The following week at the pre-school chaos prevailed. We arrived Monday morning and children had come out of the wood work. It was wonderful to see all of the new excited faces. Instead of the 54 children we had the week before we were faced with 84, some as young as 2 years old. It was obvious the parents wanted to encourage their little ones to go to school and the children did not want to be left out, however it was impossible for our patient teachers to maintain control. We asked each child how old they were and asked the parents to take the ones under 3 home and be sure to register them in this September when the new year stated. Afterwards Francie, Katie and Kathy did what they do best, the hokey pokey with about 60+ children. Francie is so animated and the kids loved their new dance.
Elizabeth Chikoya, a local seamstress, and her assistant arrived with supplies for making menstrual pads. The women, very private about such matters, surrounded the teachers and couldn't wait to learn how to sew. The next day Elizabeth and two more assistants arrived with palm oil and lye to make soap. This time they were surrounded by both women and men eager to learn.
Meanwhile, Thom and guys laid out the children’s garden permaculture-style with three fruit trees as garnish. Next they carried the remainder of the trees to the big garden finding the perfect location for each tree, banana trees near a source of water and the others protected inside the corn weaved fence line. While all this action was taking place Claudia introduced solar cooking. There were at least 30 villagers, both men and women hovering around our table fascinated with harnessing the power of the sun to cook. They didn't understand that they didn't need firewood. Claudia made three dishes from local ingredients: rice with chard and peas; veggie stew with cabbage, tomatoes, carrots and shallots and a pot of sweet potatoes. After 4 hours they were delicious.
After graduation from Dr. Rob's dental clinic the nine students paraded into the village, along with two Doctors, Rob and Peter Silcher. Chief Thomas introduced the village to the nurses and Doctors and everyone lined up for an exam. There had to have been over 250 villagers excited to be seen. Each student practiced what they had learned during the dental conference while the doctors gently guided them. It was quite a site to behold each child receiving their first ever toothbrush.
The next day we arranged a ribbon cutting ceremony for the school. We invited a few news papers and member from the various Ministry departments but were very over whelmed at the our come. By 2:00 pm throngs of Malawians arrived. Everyone we worked with during our two weeks, Minister of Parliament David Bisnowty, Patricia Liabuba Director of Tourism, Representatives from the Ministry of Education, Ministers from Social Services, Minister from Deayang Luke Church, Chiefs from all of the Dothi village Zones, Chiefs from out laying villages, the District Chief, journalist from three news sources. Everyone came out in their best attire.
After a few days it was time to depart to the airport where we received a huge surprise. MP David Bisnowty arranged for members from the village to see us off. There laughs, hugs and many tears as we said our "be wells". We promised that this was not good bye because we would return very soon.