Doggone it!

May 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

Today was a very sobering day.

Back in 2010 when Stephanie and Kyson were last in Malawi, they spent some time at an orphan care center in Govala, playing with the children and teaching them English through songs. Stephanie wanted to go back to check up on the kids and also to deliver some books, toys, and treats we brought for them. Thankfully we were able to tag along and hitch a ride from some missionaries in town and visit the kids today.

It was my first time in a rural community and at first glance, it was the typical depiction of an African village – something you would see in National Geographic. The 30 children or so were crowded in a small cement room with a thatched roof and no windows. They sat on a tattered, brittle mat on the hard concrete floor and flashed their exuberant faces at the foreigners who came to sing them songs and take their picture. I felt very conflicted visiting because I wasn’t actually doing anything to help the kids and I was simply a spectator, watching them, not with pity, but with a regretfulness at how unfair life can be. 

However, the children gave me hope. There was so much potential and so many bright futures ahead of these kids. I started playing catch with one little girl and when other children crowded around us to get in on the game as well, she instinctively picked up on my hand motions and started organizing the children in a circle and directing them on how to toss the ball so that everyone got a chance to play. She did all that at the ripe old age of 4.

Little girl from Govala

Leader in the making

Children grow up fast here and there were two year olds walking home alone from the orphan care center. Thankfully the village is safe enough where there is little risk of harm besides the fact that they may forget the way home. It’s a little scary though because bikes and cars do traverse the same dusty roads the children use and it would take little more than a smudged rear view mirror to result in a horrific accident. But all in all, the children were happy, healthy (from what I could see externally), and full of energy.

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What really broke my heart today was the dogs. 

I saw two dogs in Govala today and both dogs made me tear up. I came across the first one as I was walking through the market. It was so malnourished that I could count all of its bones and it barely had enough energy to stand. The edges of its ears were torn and bleeding and flies languished upon the open sores. I wanted to run to it and pet it and feed it something hearty but all I could do was stand there and stare as tears filled my eyes. No one seemed to care that a dying dog was in their midst and in that moment, the world seemed so cruel.

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The other dog I saw was underneath a truck. It was also a walking skeleton and it had taken refuge underneath the wheel of a truck yet when the truck needed to leave for another city, it refused to come out from under the wheel. The situation generated a crowd of spectators as the locals found the stubborn dog hilarious as it refused to leave the side of the tire – as if that tire were its mother. For a while I thought people were just watching the truck struggle as it moved back and forth, trying to get a grip on the road and I wasn’t entirely sure what was quite so funny until a man pointed out the dog underneath the truck to me as his eyes crinkled with glee. Rather than laugh, I gasped, as I saw the poor dog struggle under the truck to stay underneath the covering of the body and I watched fearfully as the truck moved back and forth, trying to get the dog out from under it. At times the truck would run over a part of the dog and it would yelp in pain. I looked for something I could use as a noose to catch the dog by the neck and pull it out from under but I couldn’t find anything and the crowd had blocked the way to the truck so that I couldn’t get through. After a few minutes of watching this I had to walk away because I couldn’t bear to see the dog get run over. It made me sad because I knew that this wasn’t a battle I should fight and I felt so helpless knowing that anything I did would be like putting a bandaid on a broken leg. 

Eventually the truck left and I ran back looking for what I thought would be the remains of the dog. I didn’t see them though so I signed to a woman, indicating that I was looking for the dog. She replied in broken English that the dog had gone. Apparently it wasn’t run over and as soon as the truck left, it followed, hobbling along until it no doubt ceased to exist.

After the orphanage visit I ate lunch with Stephanie, three missionaries who worked with the children at the orphan care center, and Pezo, a local Malawian and Reverend of a local church. We ordered a typical meal of rice, goat, and beans each and had an extra plate of seema so that Stephanie and I could try the more typical fare. It was too much food for us and I asked Pezo if I could feed the leftovers to the dog. He seemed confused at my question and said that they would feed the leftovers to the kids. When I repeated my question he assured me that the food would not go to waste and that they would distribute any leftovers to the children. When I protested that the dogs were so skinny, someone else remarked at how the children were also so skinny and often only had one meal a day.

Seema, beans, and goat meat

Seema, beans, and goat meat

The exchange made me feel like I was ten again when I told my mom that I wanted to become a veternarian and she responded telling me that for that many years of schooling I should just become a doctor. When I protested saying that I wanted to be an animal doctor and not a human doctor, I received a very stern lecture on how people were more important than animals and how I needed to reprioritize my feelings.  It’s a speech that I get often, even today, usually from a well meaning adult. 

To me, it’s not I think humans are less important than animals. Rather, it’s because I feel like animals have too few people to speak for them while humans have billions of advocates merely in the fact that we are all of the same species. I’ve always rooted for the underdog and in this case, it literally was an under (the truck) dog. Also, my animals have created such joy and happiness in my life and it’s hard to see harm come across something you care about, even if it’s not your own.

Some people have questioned my line of work and asked why, if I love animals so much, why I don’t simply work for a wildlife organization or the Humane Society and work with animals. And the answer to that is because I believe in long term win-win solutions. I believe that I can significantly positively impact a population (human and animal) by implementing sustainable economic practices and raising the standard of living for all. Once people are not starving and have excess food to spare, animals will stop starving. That is the far reaching type of impact I aim to reach with every project that I work on – starting with Bamboo Lota, the Nonhuman Rights Project, Girls 20 Summit, and hopefully many more.

For the time being, I’m doing what I can and trying to learn new skills as quickly as possible so I can turn all of this into a reality. I also take my small wins as they come as long term plans take much patience and planning. 

After lunch I snuck a piece of seema and goat meat that had fallen on the floor and peeled off from the rest of the group to try and find the first dog. Once I found it, I dropped the food at its head, trying to attract as little attention as possible. The dog appeared to be blind and deaf as it’s ears hardly twitched when I called to it. I finally nudged the food with my shoe until it was right underneath its nose. It was heartbreaking to see the dog lie there, with no strength to even put the food in its mouth. Thankfully, after a few minutes, it realized that the food was there and slowly started to eat. I teared up as I watched it eat, sorry that I hadn’t grabbed more food, but more sorry that I couldn’t do more to help that one dog and all the other dogs that were undoubtedly in the same situation. It was a sobering view of the reality of living in Africa – one I had been shielded from experiencing firsthand until today. And as painful as today was, I’m thankful for the experience because it further hardens my resolve to truly make a difference. It sounds so idealistic and childish when I say it out loud but I do feel like there are a lot of people and animals counting on me (and people like me) to make a difference and I refuse to let them down.

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Circling Back to 2010

May 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

Stephanie and I had an eventful day today working on our project in the EI offices and planning out every step of the kiln testing process. Around midday we walked over an hour to get to town and had a meal of Periperi fried chicken and chips at Tasty Bites, a local eatery. Periperi is a garlic flavoring and the food was just as good as any diner in the States. After lunch we walked around town and took a mental inventory of where we could source certain supplies – I was actually quite excited at the prospect of improvising a grater by hammering holes into a piece of metal but we found graters galore at a local Chinese operated store. 

The journey home was a bit rough as we were walking uphill on dirt roads with enormous trucks covering us in their exhaust as they passed us by. We did pass a random patch of forest filled with monkeys which completely made my day. Unfortunately, I was not able to capture any pictures this trip as flaunting a DSLR while walking along the dusty roads is an open invitation to get robbed. 

Anyway, I actually started writing so I could share a blog post that Stephanie wrote back in 2010 at the culmination of the last trip to Malawi. It’s very well written and gives a great overview of Malawi and our observations from three years ago. I haven’t had any exposure to the rural villages yet so I’m excited to start going out into the field more these next few days. 

Without further ado, here’s Stephanie circa December 2010:

It is, truly, about the circle of life.

In the beginning, Kyson and I were struck by stark similarities between our project expectations and the humble realities of Malawi. Our project focuses on cutting back on deforestation, but we didn’t expect to see charcoal to be so engrained in everybody’s lives. We sure didn’t expect charcoal traders pushing bicycles toppling with maize bags full of charcoal to be the first thing we see; neither did we expect to be again and again engulfed in smoke from burning trees and forests on the streets by storefronts, by our house in the mountains.

Through our talks with district commissioners, a professor and head of the Department of Forestry, bamboo enthusiasts, charcoal producers, traders and consumers, anti-charcoal law enforcers, farmers, USAID/Emmanuel International employees, small business owners, church congregations, consultants, chiefs of villages, agroforestry groups, and, most importantly, communities, Bamboo Lota has received an overwhelming welcome in Malawi. We are everlastingly thankful for Helen and Paul of Emmanuel International, who has not only let us stay in their home, but allowed us access to their most important resources—to be able to see village projects and to have EI’s credibility of promoting good work behind us.

Our journey to Malawi has brought new insights and further desire to instigate change. You have seen through my camera’s lens, my typed words, a significantly small percentage of what is actually going on in this country. There are many, many more pressing needs than I have presented. Food is scarce—oftentimes, our leftovers are collected, cooked again and fed to those who are less fortunate; some children eat an average of two meals a week; and droughts and flooding ruin many agricultural harvests. Daily nutritional necessities are even categorized as six food groups—things cooked with oil being one. Main agricultural exports include tobacco and tea; neither of which are particularly booming. Other agricultural staples are maize and wheat—not any of these productions are sufficient to feed the 14 million people living in Malawi.

The need for a recycling program is duly noted for plastics and compost—but much of what people buy is reused over, and over and over and over, in a way that would put Americans to utter shame. A child once came up to me and asked, “Can I have your plastic?” and smiled delightedly when I handed my bottle to him. Where a bottle would otherwise be tossed, helping create that awful Texas-sized plastic island in the Pacific Ocean, here it is used for Tippy Taps or refilled over again. Plastic is not waste to the impoverished. Even our food at home was wrapped in their bowls by reusable shower caps that were probably tens of years old.

Helaine, Pezo and the Govala community taught us about the importance of education, which has always been the first priority in my life, my family’s, my friends and neighbors. It is through education that poverty can be alleviated, yet the programs in Malawi are so unorganized and unenforced that the future of Malawi is further compromised.  It is not necessary for children to go to school—some children have never stepped in school at ages 9 or 10, because there is no pressure insisting the importance of education in the big picture. There is a shortage of teachers—classes of 4-year-olds in public primary schools have sizes up to 200 students. Just imagine the outrage if this occurred in ANY other country!

I’ve talked about the state of water sanitation in the country for Blog Action Day, and facts about how the predicted spike in population growth combined with declining resources will lead to increased strife. Kyson and I are sure to return back to the States with changed perceptions of waste and consumption. Americans are about 4% of the entire world’s population, but consume about 40% of the earth’s resources. If you can personally decrease your water and carbon footprints, be conscious of what you consume, encourage others to do the same, you can move the Earth.

Electricity is rare, most nights are spent in complete darkness as blackouts are more common than not. Blackouts during the day are much like when there is poop in the kiddie pool where I worked as a lifeguard—you cheer and get to take the day off; how unproductive is that? Inefficiency is frustrating even to patient individuals like Kyson and myself—we are used to America’s pressure to multitask efficiently. Here, one cooks one pot at a time, spends eight hours on a project that could be done in an hour. It is entirely different, but slow is the way of life out here.

As we watched Aunt Mary’s wedding video from the 90s, she pointed out at various moments family members or friends who have passed; what struck me the most was that it seemed like most of her relatives and friends (who were all so young, even children who would have been my age at that time) were gone. Malaria and sexually transmitted diseases plague the lives of many, and many do not even see the ripe age of 20.

All in all, Malawians are tied together through their united faith in God. There are differences between churches, yes, there are Catholics, Muslims, Presbytarians, Baptists, etc. But diversity ends there—the smiling faces clearly dictate that life, to them, is by their standards manageable. Albeit living in tattered rags, unemployed and sitting on dirt streets picking through trash, there is chitter-chatter and laughter to be heard everywhere. No where else in the world have I ever encountered such bright smiles from people biking, the “Muli bwanje”s and “Zikomo”s are abundant, their praises for the little they have humble me to my knees. So there is hope, faith that God provides well for the poor in Heaven. And there is, at least, the reassurance that Malawi is, for now, still the “Warm Heart of Africa.” But what can we do to prevent it from a future heart attack, a failure in existing systems, the complete deterioration of a country?

Kyson, Joanna and I have been working hard to process all of our information regarding Malawian culture to best see where we should lead Bamboo Lota in the near future. There are extreme needs that need to be attacked, and we want to face this head on. Westernization is spinning into Malawi slowly, with an increase of cars and pop culture, yet no aid to jump the price gap. The circle of life is such—deforestation leads to drying rivers, soil erosion, increased pollution, climate change, and the consumption of wood charcoal leads also to respiratory illnesses, decreased participation in schooling for children, thus spiraling Malawians further into the poverty trap, increasing the gap between the rich and the poor.

Bamboo Lota is continuing on this project. If you are in any way moved by what we are doing, please help us spread the word on what you have learned about Malawi from our project. You can add us on Facebook,donate to us, connect us to grant donors or any other compassionate friends.

Thank you for coming along with us for our adventure :) We thoroughly enjoyed talking to all of you about our experience in Malawi, and we welcome any more questions!

Why Zomba

May 5, 2013 § 1 Comment

We’re here! After 40 grueling hours of travel, we spotted Helen’s bright, smiling face as we exited the Blantyre airport and breathed a sigh of relief. We were finally in Malawi.

I’m sure a lot of people are wondering where the team is staying and why we chose Zomba, instead of another region in Malawi, to work on the project. Like many business origin stories, it all came down to knowing the right connections.

Back in 2009 when we were in our class at Berkeley and finalizing the business plan, we reached out to a plethora of organizations that were on the ground in Malawi. We wanted to learn about their programs, the challenges they were facing, and what they thought of our idea. One of the first organizations to reciprocate interest and lend its support was Emmanuel International (EI).

I arranged a Skype call (this was pre Google Hangouts, mind you) with a man named Alan in their main office in Canada. He asked me to send him a copy of our proposal and forwarded it to their contacts in Malawi which led to the fortutitous meeting between Bamboo Lota and Helen and Paul. Helen and Paul are missionaries and have lived in Malawi for the last 25 years, working on projects ranging from agriculture training, food assitance, clean water, and more. And while religion is what drives them, their day to day work is very much centered around bettering the standard of living and sustainability for the communities around them. And back in 2009 when we mentioned that we wanted to make a trip out to Malawi to conduct a feasibility study, they not only offered to host Stephanie and Kyson, but also opened up the network of contacts they had developed over the last 20+ years. They arranged meetings with everyone from the charcoal producers in the villages to government officials to forestry experts at the University of Malawi which is located right here in Zomba.

I’ve exchanged so many emails with Helen over the years and I was so excited to finally meet her in person. Helen and Paul are hosting the Bamboo Lota team once again and allowing us to use their infrastructure as well (yay for Internet access!) in a region where these services are not always readily available. This time around we plan to spend some time giving back and lending our technical skills as needed in addition to the other project tasks we hope to complete during this trip.

Questions about Malawi

May 3, 2013 § 1 Comment

It wasn’t until I started packing for this trip that I realized how little I knew about Malawi. Through working on Bamboo Lota I’ve come to learn things like: the state of their economy, the country’s main exports, GDP, deforestation rate, etc. but I knew very little about the kinds of things we take for granted in America. Things like: will I be taking hot or cold showers, do I need an umbrella, can I buy shampoo there? And although the Internet is filled with information about living in Africa, there isn’t very much about Zomba, Malawi, specifically.

Clothing was surprisingly an issue. I’m a pretty conservative dresser in my opinion so I didn’t think anything I had would be considered too risque for Malawi. However, it turns out that jeans and tight fitting pants are quite the anomaly in Malawi and long skirts and dresses are more the norm. I have never in my life casually worn a skirt or dress that goes to my feet so I had to go out and buy a few. I didn’t really think clothing would be an expense for this trip but I spent a fair amount of money making sure I had appropriate outfits.

It’s funny how quickly fashion trends change though (this is inevitably where the men stop reading, haha). I was just talking with a friend about how in high school, low slung jeans and crop tops were so cool in our teens whereas in your twenties and thirties, you try your best to cover all that up (high waisted jeans, jeggings, and long shirts ftw).

Beyond clothing I had trouble packing toiletries. Because of TSA regulations I couldn’t fit enough shampoo and conditioner for the 2+ weeks I am traveling. I ended up just bringing one little bottle of shampoo and hoping that I would be able to buy some in Zomba (there is supposed to be a store in town). And while I thought it was surprising that Zomba did have a convenience store I guess it should be more surprising that you wouldn’t be able to find one in today’s day and age.

To many people, Africa is still a black box shrouded in mystery, including myself. And Malawi is like the needle in the stack of hay in the black box (no joke – no one in my social circle can locate Malawi on a map). I’m excited to finally travel first hand and learn about the culture and see how much it has developed over the years. A lot can change in three years so I’m sure that there will be many new developments from the last Bamboo Lota trip when Stephanie and Kyson conducted the feasibility study.

Africa

May 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

It has almost been a year since I went to London. It was an amazing trip but sadly, it looks like I didn’t keep up with the blog while I was there.

Now, I’m moving on to Africa. In a few short minutes I will be leaving for the airport and begin an excruciatingly long journey to my final destination: Zomba, Malawi. There aren’t any direct flights to Zomba so my route will be SFO -> Amsterdam -> Jo’burg (South Africa) -> Blantyre (Malawi) and then a one hour car ride to Zomba. Stephanie, Kyson, and I are headed there to continue our work on Bamboo Lota. You can see our Indiegogo campaign for what we plan to do while we’re there.

I’m looking forward to learning more about Africa and soaking in the culture. I’ll definitely be checking in and updating everyone on how I’m doing.

Love,
Joanna

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