After Esther’s inspirational and thought-provoking assembly last week, I met with her to find out more about her visit to an orphanage in Malawi. Last July she and a team travelled 4000 miles from England to the Home of Hope, a Christian orphanage set up by Reverend Chipeta. This experience shows us much more than the amazing courage and perseverance of Esther and the team, but also is an illustration of a completely different culture to ours – something which can often be forgotten when living in Western society.
Esther, what motivated you initially to decide to travel to Malawi?
I heard about it 2 years before the actual trip. I’m a philosopher so I think that that part of me I wanted to go because intrigued to find out what it would be like to be human but live in a different part of the world.
Tell me about the everyday routine of life in the orphanage
In Malawi, people tend to stay awake from 6 till 6 as that is when the sun is up. So we had to wake up 5:30! The leader would bang on door, we’d get up and dressed and quickly spray ourselves with insect repellent, then head down to school hall. One of my favourite memories is walking across the grassy scrub land and seeing the sun rising and voices gradually getting louder and louder of children singing waiting for service to being. As it was a Christian orphanage there were bible reading, prayers and then a sermon. For breakfast there was ensema porridge which is basically maize with water. Unfortunately it doesn’t taste of much nor does it contain much nutrition. After we had eaten we would play with the children or do some craft with them. Lunch was ensema again with kidney beans or fish, after which we were taken round homes, the farm or the school and were introduced to the local community. The evening was an opportunity to come together as team from Britain, and eat something vaguely British – scrabbled egg with ensema. Then it was bed at 8, ready for another 5:30 start!
So had you ever been to Africa or done anything similar?
No, I had never actually been outside of Europe let alone any kind of developing country, or even a country that is in the process of developing like China.
How has it changed your attitude to life? How has it impacted your life, even on a day-to-day basis?
Well, it definitely changed me a lot! When you first come back as you are so busy talking for hours and hours to your parents and everything that happened so it was hard at first to click into what had actually changed. But it has most definitely changed my outlook on life. Now I am able to step back when I am stressed with school work and stuff and think ‘you know, does this really matter?’ After spending so much time in a culture where these types of problems are not at all present, I am able to recognise things as actually surface problems, related to our society rather than things that will change the rest of my life. I also feel a connection with people on other side of the world, and humanity as a whole. All the time I think of the different characters I met and how they will remember me. This has changed the way I see the world.
We’ve recently marked International Women’s Day, what impact did this trip have on your understanding of gender equality?
It is a hugely important issue and as the culture is very different in many ways – it is solidly patriarchal, leaders are definitely the men while the women are not really being mentioned just going round doing housework and looking after children. We didn’t even know their names. Even in a Christian setting, it was a very hierarchical and speaking to girls my own age was difficult as I knew that their experience of life going forward will be totally different. I think it is easy to forget in an all girls school how privileged we are at having a voice. I think that there is nothing I can’t do compared to what a boy can do; I can go to university, pick any job I want to and carry on doing that. But actually for girls in Malawi this is not the case. They may be able to get a job nursing or teaching but they will never be able to go the university and just say ‘I want to be an engineer or physicist’. It is easy to forget the broadness and freedom we have.
What skills did you develop?
I think most importantly – sensitivity. Being able to adapt to what is appropriate in their culture was sometime essential in my time there. In Malawi, you can’t say ‘I’m really sorry, I have to go’ in the middle of a conversation as it is seen as extremely rude, whereas in England this is socially acceptable. In Malawi you don’t worry about time. So being able to recognise different cultures and reading people better was something I developed during my time there.
Also courage and to know to keep going was something I had to use. I was so homesick on the first night and this wasn’t something I had felt before. This wasn’t helped by the power cut on first night, when I had everything out on my bed – no mosquito net up or insect repellent on. We were also planning on soup for tea, but because the kettle wouldn’t work we had to have only biscuits. I think if someone had offered me the chance to go home there and then I would have. I just had to tell myself ‘no you’ve got to stay and carry on’. I don’t normally give up on things so I knew that I would have to enjoy what I was doing.
What impression did you get of the Malawian culture and did that change? How is it different or similar to our own?
In my mind, what I expected and the actual trip were completely different so when I think about it it’s almost like two completely different events. I think I expected, in a weird, romantic way, that I would go off to Africa and help all these children. But really I hadn’t thought about it much, I was busy with school work and it always seemed so far away, but then I was suddenly going. For the trip itself I hadn’t anticipated what it would feel like to be in a different culture. I had seen pictures and heard things, so I knew they would struggle with food but when you are in front of the actual people it is a very different, emotional experience. When I came back home, I had this feeling of homelessness. I guess after I had come out of Britain and Western society to somewhere so different, I could see what I didn’t like – always being on time, always something to do next.
What would you say to anyone considering doing something similar?
- Be prepared for where you’re going, when I went I was prepared with the things I had, but not physically in that I was so tired after school
- Make sure you have loads of time afterwards to recover
- Don’t under estimate how emotionally difficult it will be. Don’t see it as a holiday or tourism, but an opportunity to go meet people who are like you and share with them your experience of life
What was the main thing you took from your experience?
So many things! Little memories always creep into my head every now and then. But I think it was a combination of the philosophical thread – going and experiencing what it means of what it means to be human and live life – and a more day-to-day point of view – memories of complete freedom and playing with the children. I remember one guy who used to dance but while he was doing a handstand, others would just shoot up trees; they could climb them so fast! Also, on the first day they held an opening ceremony for the building which our team had helped sponsor. There was a little girl on that first day and I remember how she looked at me, hand in mine, head resting on my arm, and staring at me. Its memories like that which I know I won’t forget.
After the interview with Esther, I felt so inspired that I decided to do a bit of research around the culture. Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries, ranking 160th out of 182 countries on the Human Development Index. Progress towards reaching the Millennium Development Goal of eradicating extreme poverty has been limited. According to the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report for 2009, about 74 per cent of the population still lives below the income poverty line of US$1.25 a day and 90 per cent below the US$2 a day threshold. But work like Home of Hope helps to stop the poverty cycle, helping orphans get a second chance at life. If you want to learn more about Esther’s amazing trip, this video offers more insight into what the orphanage was like.