The 30th March 2017 didn’t really start out all that great for me. I had eaten something the night before that had made me sick and I had consequently spent half the night awake regretting my poor choice. But there was no real opportunity to feel sorry for myself, I took a couple of quick pills and kept my Hydralyte supply close, as I jumped on the mini bus hoping I could make the two-hour trip without having to ask the bus driver to pull over. At this point it would be fair to say that the day showed absolutely no signs that it would be one of the most remarkable, life altering days of my life.
I was about to spend my third day with The Hunger Project in Malawi as part of the Human Kind Project’s Leadership Immersion program. Myself and thirteen other amazing (and probably slightly crazy) humans had signed up for this trip. We had each raised at least $15,000 and had travelled over 11,000 kilometres from Australia to witness and learn from the work of The Hunger Project in Malawi.
If you haven’t heard of The Hunger Project, it is an organisation that supports communities around the world (including Africa, India, South America) to end their own hunger. In Malawi, The Hunger Project works with and supports communities to take them from extreme hunger and poverty to fully self-reliant in just eight to twelve years. Think about that for a second, picture what extreme hunger and poverty looks like, where lives literally come to a premature end because of a lack of food and water and where there is basically no opportunity to break this cycle that’s been in place for generations. Now imagine a fully self-reliant community, where people have not only enough to eat but where they consume a balanced nutritious diet, where there is access to clean water, where adequate healthcare is available, where women are empowered, where people can access microfinance loans and where all children can receive an education. All that in just eight to twelve years.
I literally witnessed the difference between extreme hunger and poverty and a self-reliant community with my own eyes within the first two days of arriving in Malawi. On the first day with The Hunger Project we visited Ligowe, a community who had recently been approved as self-reliant. The pride of the people in this community was overwhelming and the joy was palpable. We met families who had broken their own generational poverty, we spoke with women who thanks to a microfinance loan, had built businesses and new homes for their families, we were shown how their food bank system works, we listened as the women told us how they are now seen and treated as equals with men and we listened in awe as the leaders in their community spoke about how they want to take their community to the next level and help other communities. I didn’t feel one ounce of pity for anyone I met this day, I felt nothing but pure joy; it was like I had been part of one big celebration of life.
If day one was a celebration, day two was the wakeup call, as we spent the day at Majete 4, a community who had only just started the process with The Hunger Project a few months before we arrived. While there was still plenty of pride amongst the people in this community, there was an overwhelming feeling of frustration and a good dose of mistrust. As we listened to The Hunger Project’s Malawi Country Director facilitate a community meeting with around 300 people, we learnt that these beautiful people knew the answers to their own problems. They didn’t want food drops, they just wanted to be shown how get the best yield out of their crops. They didn’t want “rich men” to make decisions for them in faraway cities, they wanted to be involved in solving their own problems that are complicated with no quick fixes. We saw how a well-intentioned NGO had installed several bore water pumps, yet heard about how people were still dying of dysentery because of a lack of hygiene education and practice. We met hard-working parents (who just like us here in Australia) want nothing more than to provide for their children, yet there were their children right there next to us, showing physical signs of malnutrition, despite their parent’s best efforts otherwise. That day broke my heart in many ways. I remember travelling back on the bus and being thankful that they had begun their journey with the Hunger Project and that they were only eight to twelve years away from achieving what I had witnessed the day before in Ligowe, yet I couldn’t help but mourn for preventable casualties and hardships these people would have to experience in the meantime.
And so that brings me to 30th March 2017, day three in Malawi with The Hunger Project. After those first two days, in hindsight I should not have been blind sighted by the fact that something life changing was about to happen. Our mini bus was headed off to Nchalo, a community with just over 35,000 people. This community was only two years away from self-reliance and we had been told that the only thing that was preventing them from getting there was a lack of funding. Just like we had been in Ligowe and Mejete 4, we were greeted in Nchalo with open arms and lots of singing and dancing. We visited their Bank, where we all contributed to opening up a bank account that would go on to help over a dozen families get access to a Microfinance loan. After wrapping up at the bank, we headed over to the Health clinic.
And it was right there, while sitting in this hot and stuffy health clinic, that provides healthcare to over 35,000 people that was no bigger than a small home in Australia, where everything changed for me. In under fifteen minutes we learnt from one of the Nurses that when Nchalo built their epicentre several years earlier, they did not build a Maternity ward. Now this is no longer an issue for any new epicentres built in Malawi with the Hunger Project as they now all include a Maternity ward, but unfortunately this presents a huge issue for Nchalo and it is one of several factors preventing them from reaching self-reliance.
In Malawi, as a way to address high mortality rates during childbirth, you can be fined if you attempt to have a baby in your own home, so women are encouraged (and in a way forced due to not being able to afford the fine) to admit themselves at a hospital when giving birth. In Nchalo, with no Epicentre Maternity ward, that means catching a public bus over 20 miles away. With no pre-natal care available in Nchalo, women often misjudge their due date and or the timing of their labour and any potential complications go undiagnosed, which often puts both the mother and the baby at further risk. Oh and if you make the 20-mile public bus trip and you need a C-section, the cost is over half the annual minimum wage, meaning many women who need a C-section cannot actually afford to have one, again putting vulnerable lives at risk.
I immediately started to feel sick listening to this (and this time it wasn’t about what I had eaten the night before). As many women would relate to, as a mother, I had complications when giving birth to two of my three children, the most high risk of these, was my first child, Will. I was diagnosed with placenta Previa early on in my pregnancy, which was confirmed again at 35-weeks, a C-section was scheduled for 38 weeks but unfortunately I went into early labour at 36 weeks and with excessive bleeding, an emergency C-section was performed within 90 minutes of me calling the hospital and I required a blood transfusion. If I lived in Nchalo, both myself and my son would have been dead within hours and my other two children would have never been born. We refer to Australia as the lucky country but damn, I’ve never felt it so acutely as I did in that moment.
While the nurse could not site exact statistics, when we started asking more questions, she told us there are approximately 350 women from Nchalo who go into labour each month. Of those 350, approximately 5% to 10% would involve either the death of the mother, the child or both. That’s 18 to 36 lives at risk every month from this one community. Imagine how scared you would be falling pregnant, knowing you have a 5% to 10% chance of you and or your baby dying? With a Nchalo maternity ward, pre-natal checks and closer access to the hospital, the Nurse told us they believe they can reduce any deaths to less than 10 per month. A minimum of 8 lives saved each month, which means almost 100 lives saved in a year. That’s countless older siblings who don’t have to live without their mothers.
It was at that moment, in that stinking hot, tiny health clinic that I realised I didn’t have a choice anymore, I knew that doing nothing was no longer an option. These beautiful people are our extended family who don’t need our pity, they need our partnership, so that they can end their own hunger and poverty, so they can build a friggin’ maternity ward and save a minimum of 100 women and children from dying every year.
Now I’m not 100% sure exactly what inspired my fellow Malawi-Trippers but several hours later, the incredible group of humans I was travelling with committed to sponsoring the people of Nchalo to achieve self-reliance in the next two years. That means that together, 14 of us have committed to raising over $700,000. None of us know for sure how we’re going to do it but if we learnt anything from the the Hunger Project, it’s that with the right mindset, a clear vision, unwavering commitment and taking action, failure is not an option.
And so the 30th March 2017, a day that started out with me regretting what I ate for dinner the night before, turned out to be one of the most remarkable days of my life. I no longer feel like I can’t make a difference. I no longer fear that I’m too insignificant to change anyone else’s life outside of my own and my children’s. I no longer think people on the other side of the world are anything less than our extended family that need our support.
And yes I don’t exactly know how I am going to pull off this fundraising commitment but every time it gets hard, every time I think I can’t do it, I’m going to think about a woman on a bus. A woman from Nchalo who right now is in labour enduring a 20 mile trip on a dirty open air substandard mode of public transport. A woman who is scared and is most likely praying that her and her baby are not going to be one of the 5% to 10% who will die. A woman who knows that if her and her baby survive this labour, that perhaps if she falls pregnant again, she’ll be lucky enough to get the timing right with the opening of the Nchalo Maternity ward, so that she never has to go through what she’s currently enduring ever again.
In 2020, myself and my fellow Malawi-trippers will return to Nchalo to celebrate the community achieving their self-reliance. I don’t think I will ever look forward to something so much as I’m looking forward to that day. I want nothing more than to take my eldest son, Will, with me. My son who if we lived in Nchalo would not have lived past his first day, a son I would have never seen grow up to be the incredible human being that he is. And I will look around at the young women and young children and do my best to appreciate that I played a role, albeit a small one, but that I played a role nonetheless in these people’s lives being happy, healthy and safe. After all, isn’t that all we want for the people that we love?
And so here’s where I will ask for your support in helping me and my fellow Malawi Trippers support the people of Nchalo. 100% of your donation to Human Kind Project on this link will go directly to the Hunger Project’s support of Nchalo. The Hunger Project operate with less than 20% overheads, so 80% of your donation is going directly to the people of Nchalo. All donations are 100% tax deductable. You can make your donation https://hub.benojo.com/campaigns/598011736be6791700e729ea Thank you for your support in advance ☺
If you want to know more about Human Kind Project, the Hunger Project, our Leadership Immersion trip to Malawi or this fundraising initiative specifically for Nchalo, please do not hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org