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On 17 July, six bright-eyed and bushy-tailed pupils and one teacher from Cross and Passion College in Ballycastle, accompanied by two enthusiastic Concern staff members, Geraldine Carroll and Emma Hassard, embarked on the journey of a lifetime.
On 18 July, six dishevelled and sleep-deprived pupils and one teacher from Cross and Passion, accompanied by two Concern staff members, arrived in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, for the first leg of their indescribable journey.
The week that we spent in Malawi was exhausting, overwhelming, and utterly amazing. It lived up to every expectation we could possibly have had, whilst simultaneously exceeding and dwarfing them.
It was extremely challenging to withhold our emotions as we met people living in such difficult conditions. Yet they thrive, and are the most engaging, positive people that we will probably ever speak to.
On our first day in the field, we visited a number of farmers involved in Concern projects. They all said that, without a shadow of a doubt, the programmes are doing the good that they promised to do.
Wileck, the first Malawian farmer we spoke to, explained how the mulching technique that Concern trained him in was improving his yield. Mulching – not discarding the scraps of maize harvest, but leaving them on the ground – can increase yields like Wileck’s by 50%.
We saw how strong the female figures that we met truly were, taking part in Village Savings and Loans programmes, and taking on roles such as Community Animal Health Officers. When we watched the Village Savings and Loans meeting take place, we were captivated by how efficient the meeting was, and how on board every member was with each detail of the programme. We also saw how the community had adapted it to suit their needs and made the programmes their own.
With one group we met, when a member pledged money, the whole group clapped simultaneously the number of bonds that they had saved. This was their own unique new ritual – certainly not something you would see in the local credit union!
One thing that captivated all of us was the strong emphasis on female empowerment within Concern’s programmes. Our experience of Malawi was shaped by the people we met. We saw how the communities faced the challenges that the programmes may have presented to old traditions and ways of life and made them work in their own unique contexts.
This was particularly obvious in the care group that we visited in Luna, which was led by a male care group promoter called Chipitoro Banda. Chipitoro guided a group of lead mothers, women who are educated in proper breastfeeding techniques and nutrition, so they could pass their knowledge onto others in their village.
The fact that they had a male ‘teacher’ providing post-natal and nutritional information, and who was there on a voluntary basis, was completely unheard of in Malawian culture. Yet, Chipitoro and the lead mothers thought of nothing but the good they were doing.
The Malawi Trip is something that is permanently etched into the hearts and minds of all of us from Cross and Passion College. It is something which will, for the rest of our lives, prove that words can take us to amazing places but once we get there and meet the people and the lives that touched us, all words are lost.
Malawi truly is the Warm Heart of Africa, and it warmed our hearts in a way that will never be forgotten.
Cross and Passion team: Sorcha Hughes, Conleth Burns, Roisín Neill, Luíseach Mathers, Orla Donnelly and Bronnagh Scullion.