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Food writer and cook, Donal Skehan, reflects on the hope and suffering he encountered on his trip to Malawi with Concern last month. And he gives a glimpse into the role that your Concern Christmas Gifts are playing there.
In early November, Sofie and I boarded a plane for Malawi with the Concern team. We’ve been fortunate enough to travel a lot, but this trip turned out to be quite different to any other. We experienced the many shades of Malawi: joyful songs and dances of welcome, thriving agriculture and education projects, as well as deep suffering as a result of hunger and malnutrition.
Our first experience of Malawi was a rousing song of welcome by a group of “lead mothers” in a small, rural village. From the moment we arrived, they took us in and transported us right into the heart of the community. Even the chief of the village was there, and we felt honoured to be welcomed in that way. It brought a swell of emotion – we knew that this was a big deal.
Speaking with the “lead mothers” gave a real sense of what Concern is doing in terms of nutrition and hygiene. Concern supports these mothers to learn and pass on knowledge about how to make their families’ diets as nutritious and healthy as possible. For example, they told us about the importance of not over-boiling sweet potatoes in order to contain all of the nutrients. You don’t think about these things as much when you’re cooking at home – you take them for granted.
When you’re trying to feed your children on very little, nutrients become very precious. The 'lead mothers' think carefully about many nutrients they can get into their children with every single meal."
We also learned about the importance of the ‘tippy tap’ which allow villagers to properly wash their hands and ensure that germs aren’t transferred by hand. Most of the kids in the nursery were very proud to line up and show us how to use the tippy tap, however others were a little wary of us. I’m not sure they see people like us walking through the village very often so they were a little scared!
When the children looked into Sofie’s eyes and saw that they were blue, some turned away quite quickly!"
Our experience in another, far more remote village was tinged with more sadness. This village was right on a hilltop at the end of the bumpiest road we have ever been on. Once again, the entire village came out to welcome us with dancing and singing but once that stopped, you could feel the mood changing. It became almost somber.
We noticed as soon as we arrived, the tone was different. This was a village in serious need."
When I asked one of the village mothers, Lilian, how she was, the first thing she said was she was hungry. That just instantly hit me. This was a hunger that we have never known – she wasn’t hungry because she hadn’t had her dinner yet, it was because she had literally nothing to eat.
The village was in total despair. No matter how much work they had done to grow their crops, no matter how much training, they still couldn’t harvest enough crops to feed the village.
Things had changed so much in this village. There used to be a consistent weather pattern with rain in the rainy season and a decent harvest. Now, rain barely falls because of drought and when it does fall, it is erratic and flushes seeds away. It is very difficult for them, and it was difficult to hear their story.
Our visit to this village impacted us the most. It brought home the reality of climate change and how it is very, very real for people in Malawi.
Christopher, one of the oldest village members – who is only 50 – spoke to us passionately about how much work they do but that it never translates into enough crops. Before we left, he brought me up to his house to show me a patch of pumpkin plants. It was a very small patch but his point was that despite the drought and not having enough to eat, he was still trying as hard as he could.
He was showing me that he still had that fight in him and the human instinct to survive. They won’t give up, giving up is not an option in those situations."
Both Sofie and I came away understanding how serious the issues at play in Malawi are. It makes us passionate about wanting to help, even in the smallest way. And we saw that there are tangible actions we can take to make a difference. We met a family that had received goats, pigeons, seeds and a tippy tap through Concern Christmas Gifts. They explained to us how the tippy tap helps kill germs so they don’t get sick and how they can use the goats for milk and eventually sell them on.
Speaking to the family gave us a real sense of how the Concern Gifts that the Irish public buy every year really work and benefit the people of Malawi."
We also met Joyce who had received veterinary training as a gift from Concern. Joyce gave me a “live demo” of a goat vaccination. I tried to help by holding down one of the goats but I’m not sure how helpful I was – one or two goats may have gotten away on my watch! I saw how valuable Joyce’s skills are to the community – she protects all of their animals, particularly against the outbreak of disease which could be catastrophic.
Concern doesn’t just hand over food and leave, the team supports communities to sustainably grow their own food and give them the skills to become independent."
We came away from Malawi with very mixed emotions – it was wonderful to feel the warm welcome of the communities there and see how many are thriving with support from Concern and the Irish public. However, leaving Christopher’s village, we were deeply saddened by the despair and suffering we saw. My responsibility from this trip is to tell Christopher’s story and spread the message to people in Ireland that your Concern Gifts this Christmas really are making a difference.
You can buy a goat, seeds or one of the many Concern Christmas Gifts benefitting the communities that Donal met in Malawi.