Jo Fa-Ha … The Reluctant Blogger!

Monday, 18 May 2015

This blog is written by Jo Faulkner-Harvey, one of the RIPPLE Africa team in the UK office, following her recent trip to Malawi.

Timonene! Chitonga … the most counterintuitive dialect I have ever tried to master! But I gave it my best shot and had some success, much to the amusement of my Malawian colleagues! Sorry, Arnold!

I have been back from my trip to Malawi for two weeks now, and I’m still finding it tricky to adjust but probably not in the ways you would expect. After weaning myself off the scarily ingrained “desperate need” to hook up to Wi-Fi, download emails, check in on Facebook, send photos via Instagram, write a blog, add photos to Pinterest, I found myself in a place of complete wonderment accompanied by very harsh realities. We’ve all read the statistics … Malawi – one of the poorest countries in the world, extreme poverty, and high rate of deaths due to Malaria, HIV/AIDS, and malnutrition.

Yes, take it from me all that is true, but I was introduced to the most peaceful, generous and welcoming people I have ever met. People who are really up against it on a day-to-day basis (we really don’t have any idea and, do you know what, for the most part that’s OK) but who would give you their last bit of nsima if they thought it would help (hmmm, nsima … an acquired taste!).

Next week I will have been working for RIPPLE Africa for one year, a year that has been truly inspiring – ah, you would say that, I hear you all shout! Well, yes and no. I’m not a starry eyed innocent (ho hum, I remember those days!) – I have been working in the not for profit sector for 15+ years – I’m a hardened fundraiser. I have worked for a variety of organisations, all doing amazing work, but I have never before worked for an organisation like RIPPLE Africa.

RIPPLE is different in so many ways; it has fun (always, even at the most challenging moments and, believe me, we do have them), it’s very enthusiastic, it loves playing table tennis, the team I work with both in the UK, USA and in Malawi are amazing, hardworking, knowledgeable and so loyal but, most of all, it is how effective RIPPLE Africa is at grassroots level in Malawi. We have found the most effective way of encouraging communities to change for the better; to protect their surroundings for future generations. How? Via the people it affects – as the saying goes … Simples!

Throughout my 3½ weeks, never a day went by that I wasn’t blown away by the courage of the local people, adults and children, by the dedication and knowledge of my Malawian colleagues, by the tireless energy and enthusiasm of one of the charity founders, Geoff, and most of all by the huge impact RIPPLE Africa and all our supporters are having on the lives of people who really do look to the Western world for the way forward. Put aside the corrupt Governments, the Cashgate scandals, these are the people who really matter.

OK, back to my story … Having arrived in Lilongwe the obvious thing to do is relax, take in the surroundings, have a little rest maybe? Oh no, not a chance (this is truthfully how it went) – dump bags in hotel, quick freshen up and … off supply shopping! Many plumbing bits, 10 brooms (flat packed!), food and lots of onions later – sleep!

Next day – all packed up with the onions and ready for the 4½ hour journey to Mwaya. Do you know what struck me first? Apart from people everywhere, walking both sides of the road, goats wandering, cows grazing, the odd chicken crossing the road (!) … the lack of trees. The land for miles was almost bare, the hills were brown and severely lacking in forestation. The closer we got to Nkhata Bay District, the more trees started to pop up – actual forests in comparison. This is where our conservation project is based, and the difference was incredible. Greenery everywhere, hills covered in lush vegetation; I had started to witness the impact of RIPPLE Africa.

The first view of the lake was unforgettable; the fishing villages nestled on the shores and people selling fish on the side of the road. We were moving into our Fish Conservation project area.

So there I was after a journey of 23+ hours, exhausted, covered in mossie repellent, tucked up in my mosquito net in a quaint bamboo chalet with my new best friend, Barry! – Barry the Bug. Barry then decided to move in a friend, Gordon the Gecko (film reference, sorry), so it was just the three of us … in the pitch black (no electricity – head torches a must!), wondering how we were going to get along. Well, on the whole, it was a mutually beneficial kind of thing – Barry and Gordon took care of the flies and bugs, and I …well, I let them stay!

There were so many highlights during my visit, too many to mention or to do justice to in such a small blog! There were many sobering moments too.

RIPPLE Africa has a very holistic approach to its projects; every project is an integral part of daily life in the local community, every project impacts on all areas of people’s lives from food production, resource conservation, and education to healthcare. All the pieces of the RIPPLE puzzle fit together to form valuable help and support to the people in the surrounding areas, not only for their here and now (which is crucial) but also for their future and their children’s future.

Like all my colleagues, I am very proud of all our projects. I am proud that people choose to support the work we do because they can see the long term impact our work makes.

This is Collins. Collins is my colleague in Malawi who runs the Disability and Rehabilitation Project. I went out on visits with him on several occasions – once on his motorbike! Not quite the Easy Rider experience I was hoping for! Collins is an extraordinary one man band. Unlike the other projects, there aren’t other members of staff to support him. Why? Funding; pure and simple.

On one of our trips, we went to visit a family living way off the beaten track hence the motorbike. This is Daniel; he is 3 years old and has cerebral palsy. Daniel was recovering from malaria and had been very poorly – if he hadn’t got enough to deal with!

I sat there on a chair that Daniel’s mum brought outside for me, and I watched Collins go to work. I was transfixed as Collins gently and patiently did exercises that stretched Daniel’s limbs, increased his circulation and basically made his little contorted body more comfortable.

Collins visits Daniel and his family every week, ensuring that his parents complete the exercises with the aim of Daniel being able to sit up on his own. This is not impossible – Collins has worked with other severely disabled children who are now at school, playing football, playing outside with their friends, leading independent lives. But it does take time.

I was so moved by Collins kindness and gentleness that I quickly realised I was watching something very special and unique. Collins has around 50 clients on his books at any one time. Due to funding constraints, he has to grade the severity or urgency of each client – something he finds very hard to do as he wants to help everyone, and he knows many of these families personally as he lives in the same community.

This is Mummly. Mummly is nine years old and has Down syndrome. Collins worked with him and his family for 10 months, enabling Mummly to become mobile and independent. Before Collins started to work with him, Mummly sat in a corner staring at the ceiling with no prospect of things changing. Wow! Quite difficult to imagine having met him!

He was a great boy, full of fun, and he gave me a really big hug – which made Collins laugh as I gave him a real Mummy-type hug in return, and you could tell I was a Mummy by my hug according to Collins! Mummly made me feel incredibly home sick for my nearly nine year old, Ollie – you do realise how blessed you are sometimes.

Way, way back at the beginning of this blog, I mentioned that I was finding it tricky to adjust to being back. I hope you can understand why. I could go on for pages and pages as I would really like to share every minute with you but it’s not possible. I hope I have given you a flavour of my incredible visit. I will be going back. And I know it’s my job, but I am very lucky to be able to work with amazing people and to be able to help some amazing people.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. Tawonga ukongwa!

Published in Volunteer Stories