What would David Letterman say?

Well two months has passed quite quickly, and Paul and I are getting ready to make the long trip back home to Canada.   It doesn’t seem like we’ve been here as long as we have.  Settling in here was actually pretty good but not always easy. I’m not going to lie, there were some challenges.  Finding a short term furnished place where we could do our own cooking proved to be quite difficult.  It took 4 moves but we finally found a nice house to stay in, within walking distance to work.  We actually got to stay there for about 5 weeks which really helped keep our sanity.  The idea of living out of a suitcase at a hotel for that length of time was not appealing in the least.

Looking back, Paul and I have come up with our “Top 10 List” of things we will miss about Malawi.

10.  Kuche Kuche, the local beer (that is Paul’s pick as you’ve probably figured out)

9.    Malawi gin (both our pick…. not as good as Bombay Sapphire but pretty good and extremely cheap).

8.    Hearing the coo of the dove outside our bedroom window every morning.  That was our gentle reminder it was time to get up.

7.    Lazy Sundays, going for long walks, and all the unusual things we saw along the way, like fruit bats hanging on the wire or monitor lizards suntanning.

6.    Fresh tomatoes and huge avocados….  so good, so plentiful and ridiculously inexpensive

5.    The best chinese food we’ve ever had at Copper Pot Restaurant, and the best Indian food ever at Bombay Palace

4.    Seeing more wildlife than we’ve ever dreamed of seeing , from beautiful giraffes, to lions, to the cutest baby elephant in the world!

3.    The beautiful flowers growing wild, including huge poinsettia trees blooming in April.

2.    Buying fresh unshelled peanuts from the vendors every day after work

1.  But definitely the #1 thing we will miss the most are the people of Malawi.  From the children and their beautiful smiles, to the wonderful locals we’ve met on our journey, and mostly to our new friends we’ve made at FINCOOP

Kuche Kuche, the local beer. Fun to drink, even more fun to say!

Gin and tonics, complete with local limes and lemons

Gorgeous poinsettas grow wild and huge!

Very nasty looking fruit bat

Monitor lizard enjoying the sunshine

Fresh peanuts. So delicious!

Thornicroft giraffe

Beautiful people, very vibrant and full of life

Now for the list of things we won’t miss quite as much.

10.  Not having a bathtub for the entire time we’ve been here.  (that’s my pick)

9.    Living in a country where there are no noise by-laws whatsoever. Your neighbour can use an outdoor PA system at full decibel the entire night, playing music and it’s perfectly legal (as long as he has authority)

8.    Not being able to go for walks at night because it’s not safe

7.    Waking up in the morning and realizing there is no water coming out of the taps

6.    Just starting to make dinner and the power is shut off for the night

5.   Choking on diesel fumes every day walking to and from work, all the while trying not to get run over.

4.   Having to live inside high walled fences, complete with electrified razor-wire

3.  Lack of good fresh meat to buy in the stores, especially beef.

2.  Being woken up every morning at 4:00 a.m. by the blaring loudspeakers coming from the Islamic mosques, reminding people to  get up and pray.

1.  THE DUST… everywhere!

We are hoping that this is not our last visit to Malawi or Africa, but if it is, we consider ourselves extremely lucky to have been given this life changing experience.

To our loyal blog followers, we hope you have enjoyed our stories that we have shared with you.

Tionana…. (until next time)

We have definitely “Lived and Learned in Malawi” and will never forget the country or the people.

How do we say goodbye?

As our departure date is drawing nearer, I am struggling with the fact that we are able to go back home to Canada and all of the comforts that we have there, and we are leaving these people behind, knowing how little they have.  I know that is a wrong way to think because this is their home.  I still can’t help but have pangs of guilt,  and I am scrambling to think of small ways to make things better for our new friends. Everyone is hinting that they want to come back with us.  Even though they say it in a joking manner, we know that they would give anything for the opportunity.

Paul however, describes the flip side of things.  Yes, they are much poorer than Canadians.  And yes, they struggle to get by and don’t have all the material things we do back home.  But are we any happier than they are?  Probably not.   Malawians in general, all have a very strong faith as their foundation.  Family is very important to them. You don’t see kids whining to their parents that they don’t have a PS3 or an XBox, or they don’t have the latest IPad or a better cell phone.  That is absolutely unheard of, and if one is able to buy even a used computer they are very fortunate indeed.   And although they grow tobacco in Malawi, you see very few people smoke here, probably because they can’t afford it.  You don’t see the young people walking around high on drugs and dropping out of high school, because they can’t afford to do drugs.  So when you put things in that perspective, who is better off?

I suppose it is natural for me to feel bad but deep down I know I can’t help them all.  We have done what we could and that will have to be enough for now.

Market day

Living here over the past 7 weeks, we have discovered many markets spread all over Lilongwe, some small, some large.  Markets are a vital part of life here.  Everyone goes to the market to buy and sell, and there are markets in every district, tucked away on side streets where you wouldn’t even guess they are.  I went behind one building in Area 2, and was instantly surrounded by a maze of small, winding alleys full of stalls selling everything, including beautiful Zambian cotton, which is a very high quality cotton.  Turns out this is the Lilongwe Main Market.  It’s huge.   The longer we’re here, the braver we’ve gotten, and have explored areas that at first we were too nervous to check out.

Lizulu Market is right in the center of Old Town and is separated into two sections by the river.  A  very rickety bridge was built by the locals using spare planks (not nailed down)  as a way of getting quickly between the two areas.  One side of the bridge is where you have all of your vegetables and fruits.  Our first few attempts at getting our produce here was not very pleasant. You may remember that we were ready to give up shopping for our produce here because we would be swarmed the second we walked in. Happily, our persistence has paid off, and we now have a good system of buying our fruits and vegetables in “relative” peace.  I think part of it has to do with the fact that they recognize us now and realize we aren’t fresh targets. We’ve caught on to the fact that they try to charge us the “Mzungu” price, and now we go in knowing the price we should be paying.  Now we get treated fairly and can wander around without being bugged too much.

Taking your life into your hands if you cross this bridge. We realized after we were half way across that the boards weren’t nailed down.

One stack of 5 tomatoes costs about 100 kwacha or less depending where you buy them. That is roughly 40 cents.

The other side is the most amazing maze of  hundreds of clothing stalls.  You can buy shoes, clothes, towels, bedding, and tons more.  Most everything for sale is used, and most likely has come from North America or other countries as donations.  Used clothing is a thriving business here, and many people’s only livelihood.  We actually got lost in the maze as we walked further in, and a nice guy showed us our way out.  Whew!

Another market in the Old Town is the Curio market.  It is right across the street from where we are working.  Here you can find all the local crafters selling carvings from wood, soapstone,  handmade bags, drums, and beautiful carved bowls made out of teak or mahogany.  Pretty much any kind of souvenir you’d want is there.

Beautiful handcarved bowls

Charles, one of the members belonging to FINCOOP, has a stall there, and he asked us to visit him and see what he made. It was a good way to visit the market, because once you are escorted by a local, nobody else bothers you to buy their things. It turns out he was taught by his grandfather in the town of Mangochi, which is where we had bought our other wooden carvings.  He does beautiful work, carving soapstone and serpentine stone.

Charles proudly displaying all of his carvings made from Serpentine Stone

This piece was quite beautiful.

Area 3 Market is our “short-cut” every day as we walk to and from work.  It is a much smaller market, but thriving as well.  They even have a car wash of sorts here.   Usually there is a fire or two going, with sweet potatoes or corn roasting. They have a few restaurants for the locals and there are 4 barber shop stalls.

The other market I went to with Douglas is the Kawale market which is in Kawale 1 district.  One of the FINCOOP branches is tucked away in this market, which is actually a good strategy because most of the vendors have accounts with this branch.  Here you will find crates and crates of chickens waiting to be bought for the evening’s dinner.  It was amazing.  For about 1000 kwacha, you hand pick your chicken for your supper, grab it by the legs, and off you go with it, still alive and flappin’.

Chicken and Nsima for dinner. Sounds pretty good

I bought a piece of sugarcane, which is called Mzimbe in Chichewa.  It only cost me 20 kwacha and  I got a nice fresh piece thanks to Douglas showing me which was the best piece to buy.  You rip off the outer casing with your teeth, and then bite it, suck the sweetness and then spit it out.  I would have thought it would be bad for your teeth, but it’s actually quite the opposite.  The fibres act as a natural toothbrush, and also helps whiten your teeth.  You see Africans with a stick of sugarcane in their hands all the time.  It’s an inexpensive treat for them.

Bundle of fresh cut sugar cane

Every market has it’s own certain vibe and areas that they specialize in.  To come to Malawi and miss out on the market experience, would definitely be missing out on a part of African culture.  It is part of who the people are, and a big part of the tapestry that makes Malawi what it is.

Area 2

Just past the bridge in town, is Area 2.  We had never ventured over the bridge because we were afraid of what would be on the other side.  We had heard it was a rougher area and there had been some violence in recent months over there.   But we decided to brave it and venture forth, so over the bridge we went.

Area 2 is what one would call the working man’s part of town.  Locals come here to buy most of their everyday things, there are vendors on every inch of the sidewalks, selling staples such as single razors, socks, plastic bowls, scouring pads, single packets of laundry soap, enough to do only one load.  Many people can only afford to buy on a day to day basis, and would never buy an entire box of laundry soap.

The first thing you notice as you walk across the bridge is all of the people are on the banks of the river doing their laundry.  Right next to the river is the “clothing market”.  As you look across at this huge market, all you see are the makeshift roofs protecting their stalls made out of old black garbage bags, or pieces of cardboard.

The clothing market

It is indeed a very poor area of the city.  The first day we went there,  we passed a man with no feet and one arm.  Paul gave him some money even though he wasn’t begging.  As we walked across the bridge, there was a small child sitting right on the sidewalk all by himself crying.  No mother was in sight and he was only inches from the busy traffic.  People were just walking past him as if he were invisible.  I wanted to turn around and pick him up, but then what would I do?   When we returned he wasn’t there, so I’m assuming his mother or someone came and got him.    There seems to be more of a military presence here, with groups of soldiers walking up and down the streets.  Not once though did we feel unsafe at all, and actually had a few nice conversations along the way.  When the locals want to get my attention they yell out “sista” or “mama”.   They also call me “madame” a lot, especially when they are wanting some kwacha.

One of the saddest sights we saw was a woman crawling on the sidewalk on all fours, using her feet and her hands, kind of like a wheelbarrow.  On each hand she had a rubber thong to protect her palms from getting cut up from the asphalt.   We wanted to give her some money but there was no way to do so, with her hands being used to propel her.  It was heartbreaking.

Now that we feel comfortable crossing over the bridge, we make it a daily part of our lunchtime routine.   It is just one more view of life here, and part of how we are living and learning in Malawi.

Pass the relish please

Last night, we were at another fabulous dinner party hosted by our good friend Valerie.  We were just finishing up our dessert when I asked a very innocent question about what people on the streets were cooking on little skewers, over a small charcoal stove.  They all very casually answered, ” Mice of course”.

I had heard that some people in Malawi ate mice, but I assumed it was only for poor people who had no other option for getting protein in their diet.  Not true.  In fact, mice kabobs, or any kind of grilled mice are considered a delicacy and reserved for when you have a special occasion or as an appetizer when you have dinner guests over.  Of course, mice have to be in season, which apparently they are right now.  When the maize is finished being harvested, the farmers go into the fields to clear away all of the remaining corn stalks and the mice get chased out of the fields.  This is when mice are at their most abundant.  You can either catch them yourself or go to one of the many markets and buy them there.

I am pretty sure that we won’t be brave enough to try one of these “kabobs” but everyone says they are delicious, head and all.

Another delicacy that is in season right now is grasshoppers.  There is an entire chapter dedicated to Insects in the Malawi Cookbook.

The section on insects begins by saying: “It is not generally known in the Western world that insects are a very good and cheap source of protein.  Taxonomically, these insects are not far removed from shrimps which are considered a great delicacy in the West.”

Here is one delicious recipe for cooking grasshoppers.


Remove wings and horned part of legs.  Boil in water for 5 minutes, then dry in sun.  Winnow off any remaining wings, and fry in a pan with a little salt. May also be fried with a little fat.  Serve as a relish.  If frying with fat, a little chopped onion, chopped tomato and/or groundnut flour may be added to the pan.

If anyone wants to add a little excitement to their next dinner party,  here are a few more tried and true recipes.

Large termites of the genus Macrotermes
(Inswa or Mbulika (flying ants)).
Method 1: Heat a pan and fry the ants dry.  Remove them, dry them in sun, winnow to remove wings, and check carefully to remove any stones.  Heat a pan with or without a little fat, add the flying ants and a little salt and fry until done.  Serve with nsima or as an appetizer.  Method 2: Wash the flying ants in water and allow to drain for a short while.  Add salt and fry them without oil, stirring constantly until wings are burned.  Remove from heat and keep them in a warm place for about 5 minutes, until completely dry.  They may be fried again in oil if desired.  Var.: If oil is used, add a little chopped onion and chopped tomatoes to the pan.  Groundnut flour may also be added.
Black flying ants
(Carebara vidua)(Mafulufute).
Fry with a little salt, but no fat.  Serve hot or cold as a relish.

Sand cricket
(Brachytrupes membranaceus)(Nkhululu).
After digging crickets from their burrows, remove wings (if any), the stomach and intestines (very important) and wash them.  Heat a frying pan and fry the crickets with a little salt, and a little fat if desired.  If fat is used, chopped onions may also be added.  Allow crickets to dry and serve as a relish.
Shield bug
(Sphaerocoris sp.)(Nsensenya).
Wash them, and fry with a little salt until brown.  Serve as a relish.
Lake fly
(Chaoborus edulis)(Chaoborus edulis)(
(We quote the entire entry for this interesting insect).  These occur only on the Lake and swarm once a month at the time of the new moon.  They form huge clouds over the lake which are visible from many miles away.  Lake fly are extremely nutritious, being high in protein and calcium and containing six times as much iron as ox liver.

1 cake dried lake fly    Break the cake of lake fly into
1 tomato chopped       pieces and boil in a little salted
1 onion chopped         water until soft. Add the tomato, salt, onion, oil and ground-
1 cup groundnuts,       nuts.  Cook gently for a few
fried and pounded       minutes and serve with nsima
a little oil                         or rice.

Green caterpillars
(Mofa, Mphalabungu.  Kawichi, Mbwabwa, Katondo).
These caterpillars appear about March and feed on grass.  They are common in the Central Region.  Remove the stomach and intestines, then wash the caterpillars.  Boil for 5 minutes in water, then dry in sun.  Heat a frying pan, fry the caterpillars with a little oil and salt.  Serve as a relish.  Variation: add 1 chopped tomato, 1 chopped onion and a little groundnut flour to the pan.  The authors note that after sun drying the caterpillars may be stored for up to three months.
(Genera Platypleura, Pyona, Orapa, Loba, Monomotapa)(Nyenje)
These are large cicadas and most conspicuous during the early rainy season.  Remove the wings and fry with a little oil and salt. Serve as a relish.

The Itsy Bitsy Spider

This week I had made arrangements to go back to the orphanage in Kawale to help teach the children with their English skills.  Douglas dropped me off at 8:30 and my day began.  Even though the children had met me already once, they were still very shy.   There were 62 children, one teacher, one overcrowded room and no school supplies to speak of.   They have a  Unicef school curriculum  that is their only resource book.  There is one laminated poster with the ABC’s and another with pictures of wildlife animals.  There is one easel chalkboard, a few crayons, a handful of pencils, some scrap paper and that’s about it.

The children sit on plastic chairs, of which there aren’t enough to go around, and don’t have any desks or a writing area to practice their writing.   Since being here, we’ve adjusted to working with whatever we have, so in lieu of desks,  we moved all the kids outside to hold class on bamboo mats under a large shade tree.  Not perfect, but it worked.   I reached back in my memory to the days when my boys were little, and taught them some new nursery rhymes, like The Itsy Bitsy Spider, which made them giggle.   Being silly with them was a good icebreaker.  Laughter is a universal language, no matter where you are.

Enjoying singing songs together

The teacher, another volunteer and I broke into three large groups of kids.  I soon had one little one nestled happily on my lap while my group took turns practicing their ABC’s on the scrap paper we had.  They loved the one on one attention which is not something one teacher can give 62 children.

So eager to learn

The morning flew by and soon their lunch was ready.  There had been a huge pot of beans simmering all morning on an open fire and a batch of rice and spinach to go along with it.

Two volunteers cooked beans, rice and spinach for lunch

Getting washed up for lunch

Once lunch was announced, the kids formed two lines at the wash basin (one line of boys and one line of girls).  They have been taught to wash their hands before they eat and after going to the bathroom.  I was happy to see that basic hygiene was being instilled in them.  After washing their hands, they all went to their spots on the mats again, and waited quietly for their lunch.  For some this was their first meal of the day.  I helped the ladies distribute each plate of food and nobody started eating until they said a prayer.

Finally, lunch time

You could hear a pin drop when they finally got to eat.  There was no horsing around as you would see with little ones in a Canadian pre-school.  They ate slowly and didn’t drop even a bean.  One child didn’t quite finish his and passed it to a little girl who gratefully took it.

Enjoying every bite

Spending time here actually sitting with the kids and working with the volunteers gave me a better insight into this orphanage.  Their resources are scarce but they do what they can.   At the very minimum the kids have a place to go during the day, they are off the streets and cared for, they are learning the basics of English, and they get one proper meal every day.  Is it perfect?  Definitely not.  But to quote my brothers favourite saying, “It is what it is”.

Just call me Moses

Meet Moses

On the weekend, our friends Val and Sue picked us up to take us to see a baby elephant.  No more details were given, so we were not really understanding where we were going, but knew this was a special opportunity for us.   We arrived at Jenny’s place, who is a good friend of Vals.  She lives in the country on a very large acreage, on the outskirts of Lilongwe.

We were definitely surprised when Jenny came out to greet us and walking right beside her was Moses, this small 9 week old baby elephant. He was only 1 week old when he was rescued and Jenny has been caring for him ever since.   He is no more than 2 1/2 feet tall and probably the cutest animal I have ever seen in my life.  Although the story of how Moses came to live with Jenny is a very sad one, at least there is a happy ending to be told.

Moses with his new “mom” Jenny

Rangers at Vwaza wildlife reserve in Northern Malawi noticed a baby elephant on his own in the South Rukuru River.  He was very weak and could not get out of the river.  They rescued him and named him Moses, as he was found in the bulrushes.  It is thought that his mother was killed, because a mother elephant will never abandon her baby.  When a mother elephant dies, the baby will try to revive her and will panic when it’s unable to.  The baby will then start to cry and grieve for its mother.  Elephants shed tears and grieve just like humans do.  The baby will then run around frantically in a panic looking for comfort and protection from anybody who will help it.  Baby elephants on their own are unable to protect themselves, making them totally vulnerable.  If it’s not attacked by predators, it will die of starvation, or they will pine to death if they don’t have companionship.

Shortly after Moses was found, a story reached Jenny that a policeman near the border, stopped two people and offered to sell them ivory, as much as they wanted.  He told them where the ivory came from, which is the same area where Moses had been found alone.  Poaching is on the increase in Africa.  Historically, only male elephants were shot, but females are now as well, therefore increasing the number of elephant orphans.

Various parks and wildlife organizations were contacted but nobody was in a position to care for him, due to lack of facilities and finances.  Jenny, who has raised orphaned animals for years, was contacted and agreed to adopt him.  She had never raised a baby elephant but has been in contact with experts who have, and is doing a marvelous job bringing him back to health.

Moses now lives at her house and between her and her two staff, they take care of him 24 hours a day.  Jenny takes on the evening shift, and actually sleeps with Moses, as he needs constant care.  When Moses first arrived, he was very traumatized, terrified of the mud and water, and had to be touching people all the time.  He had nightmares and woke up trembling with tears rolling down his cheeks.

Going for their daily walk

Moses is now much more confident and goes on long walks with his caregivers.  He walks about 3 1/2 km per day.  He weighs about 100 kg and drinks about 16 litres of milk formula every day.  He has already grown 6 cm in height.  The cost to take care of an elephant is about $12000 per month.  Jenny has taken on a huge commitment and he will stay with her for 4 years, as they are milk dependent until they reach 4 years old.  He will then be reintroduced into the wild.

Waiting at the kitchen door for his milk

Lunch is almost ready!

Jenny has decided to open her own elephant orphanage.  If anyone wants more information on Jenny or Moses, you can look them up on Facebook under “Jumbo Foundation Elephant Orphanage”, which is a registered non-profit organization.  http://www.jumbofoundation.com

I’ve never been hugged by an elephant before



Paul isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do now.

November 13, 2012 – I am very sad to report that Moses died on the weekend.  Here is an excerpt from his adopted mama Jenny which she  wrote on Jumbo Foundation’s website.

“Moses has always been a little fighter who has beaten the odds against him since he was orphaned in Feb at a week old but over this weekend he finally faced a hurdle too big for him to overcome. He developed really bad colic and diarrhea which was particularly acute at night so that he spent most of Friday night on a drip – rallied during the day on Saturday then crashed again Saturday night spending most of the night on drips and so on until last night at midnight when he finally passed away in my arms.”

Moses brought smiles and joy to everyone who met him, and even  those who just heard  about this courageous little fellow.  My heart goes out to everyone who loved him.  RIP Moses

Going once, going twice…. SOLD!

Thursday, May 17th – Today we were lucky enough to go on a private tour of the largest tobacco auction floor in Africa.  Our good friend Val works for a large tobacco company here in Lilongwe and she kindly arranged this for us.   Sue and Fiona joined us as well.  I think anyone that comes to Malawi should try and attend one of these auctions.  It was absolutely fascinating.

The largest tobacco auction floor in Africa

Tobacco is Malawi’s biggest export, and is one of the few ways of getting foreign exchange into the country, as all sales are paid in U.S. dollars.   The tobacco is shipped worldwide in a raw state, to be blended and manufactured into cigarettes as there is no value added processing here.  The tobacco season runs from approximately April to October, and the auction house employs about 4000 people seasonally.

Nice sweet smell to raw tobacco, and this coming from someone who doesn’t smoke

Dried tobacco in its natural form

The first thing we all noticed when we entered the huge building was the sweet smell in the air.  Raw tobacco has a very nice smell to it. We had no idea what to expect, but assumed there would be an auctioneer on a stage yelling out prices as we’re used to in Canada.  It was completely different.

Two varieties of tobacco; Burley Western and Burley Flue Cured

There is a very detailed process to the auction sales.  Once the tobacco is harvested and air dried, the farmers are required to bundle each bale in a certain way, and mark their bales with an I.D. number provided to them.  Sometimes, a farmer might try to hide rocks or other items in the bale to increase the weight, but if they are caught they are fined.

Once delivered to the auction house, the farmer’s information is entered in a computerized system. Each bale is opened and inspected by a tobacco specialist who grades it. This helps the buyers know the quality and details of each bale.

One of the international buyers inspecting the bale of tobacco he has just bid on. He has the right to reject it afterwards.

There are about 5  international buyers that walk up and down the rows of tobacco with the auctioneer.  Each bale is auctioned off in mere seconds, and they quickly go up and down each row, until completion.  There is a new auction every week day during the season.  The farmers are allowed to attend the auction on the day their bales are up for sale.  If they don’t agree with the price or the rating their bale was given, they are able to dispute it.  Once the auction is complete, the farmers wait to collect their U.S. dollars which are paid the same day as the auction.

An average bale of tobacco weighs about 100 kilograms and they sell roughly for $300 U.S per bale.  A small tobacco farm might have a total of 10 bales for the entire season, which would fetch him about $3000 U.S.  This has to last him the entire year, unless he has other crops to sell. The price of tobacco is higher this year as the government reduced the farmer’s quota.

The auction floor is massive. These bales are ones that were auctioned today, as well as the bales getting ready to be auctioned tomorrow.

These are the results of today’s auction. Two types of tobacco were auctioned today, Burley Western and Burley Flue Cured

After the farmers are paid, they do what anyone who is paid once per year does – they pay off some debts, buy items they have been deferring, like a new tin roof for their house and save for fertilizer and seed for next years crop.

For those of us in the rest of the world who criticize the tobacco industry, Malawians point out that tobacco helps many farmers survive, and brings in needed foreign exchange. And the tobacco industry campaigns heavily against the use of child labour in Malawi . There are discussions to increase the exchange to include other agricultural commodities so Malawians can diversify beyond tobacco.

FINCOOP – Where we volunteer

Salima branch

We thought we would talk a bit about how we came to be in Malawi in the first place.   We  were sent here by CCA (Canadian Cooperative Association) to volunteer with Malawi’s largest Saving and Credit Cooperative Organization (SACCO) called FINCOOP. FINCOOP is short for Financial Cooperative and has  branches in Lilongwe and throughout Malawi. It is the same as a credit union in Canada.  FINCOOP was placed under management by the regulator early in 2012 and we were selected to try and help them regain their footing.  Paul is working on their  recovery plan and I am helping with administration, branch controls and securing private information.

Aaron, one of the Loans officers

When we first arrived, there was a wonderful welcome from everyone.   Paul had an outline of what he thought he would try and do,  but it quickly became apparent that what was needed was actual hands-on implementation.  We are working with a very dedicated group at the main branch in Lilongwe, all working very diligently to turn things around.  Our fellow co-workers include the interim General Manager, Kingsley, a Finance and Administration Manager , Blessings,  an Accountant, Gomez, an Operations Manager, McMillan, 1 Information Technology person, Andrew, three Credit Recovery Officers,  two Member Service Representatives, and a driver, Douglas who transfers files between branches, That’s it – a  small group, but they all work well together.  Over half of their staff had to be let go in January in order to reduce their fixed costs.

A FINCOOP member being served at the Kawale branch

Chisomo, the only teller at the Kawale branch.

Madalo is one of the two tellers at the main branch

Mandala is the main branch and is in Lilongwe, where we are working.

Our day-to-day activities are similar to when we worked for a Canadian credit union – except the work days are longer and resources are scarce. We get to work around 8:00 AM and most of the staff are already there as they work 7:30 to 5:00 PM. The offices are quite open so you can hear conversations which gets kind of interesting when they are trying to collect a loan!. There is lots of laughter. Most staff bring their lunch and eat wherever they can find space. They don’t have a lunch room and their kitchen is pretty small.

Their very tiny kitchen at the main branch

Near quitting time, you can hear people packing up and socializing. We have adopted casual Fridays (jean day) but most of the staff practice casual Saturdays as they work until noon on Saturday. Several of the staff then attend university Saturday afternoon and Sundays as they try and upgrade their qualifications. Paul has attended a MUSCCO Board meeting which started with a prayer. He also led an all staff meeting the other day which also started and ended with a prayer. Most of the staff attend church on Sundays.  I have gone to the Kawale branch with Douglas several times and have gotten to know the staff of two quite well.  They are all so welcoming and are open to any ideas we might have.

Lack of resources has taught us how to do more with less. Simple  things that we take for granted in Canada like scissors and bankers boxes to store files are not  available. Other things like a consistent source of power, laptop computers that work properly  and secure internet are challenges that have taught us to be more patient.  Even printers and fax machines are luxuries here.

In the time we’ve been working with the group at the Mandala Branch, we have developed quite a few friendships.  At first, they were very shy around us, but now they joke with us and stop into our office every day to chat and see what we’re up to.

Douglas cleaning the company truck

Douglas, the driver for FINCOOP has probably become closest to us.  Every morning we stop and chat with him as he washes the FINCOOP truck that he is so proud of.  Then he’ll come in to our office and see how our night went, and after work, he comes in again to say goodbye.  Of all the staff, Gomez and McMillan are taking full advantage of Paul’s expertise and are soaking up his knowledge like sponges.  Now that we have less than 3 weeks left here, the panic is starting to set in with them.   They still want to learn so much from him.  Paul is finding the work very rewarding and really enjoys collaborating with the team. It make it all worthwhile when the team appreciates and uses new management tools that they have developed together.

Paul and Gomez going over some spreadsheets that they have developed. Gomez is so excited to have these new tools that she can continue to use after we leave.

Paul and McMillan going over financial reports

It is very common for the staff to call me Madame and Paul Sir, and they even call us Boss.  We joke with them and tell them they are the actual bosses.

Even though it will be nice to return to Canada and see our friends and families, and have an actual bath and sleep in our own bed, we are really going to have a hard time to say goodbye to everyone that we’ve worked with so closely for the past weeks.  For as much as we may have taught them, they have taught us so much more about the human spirit and being content and actually grateful for all that they have.

The orphans of Kawale II district

I had the privilege to visit the Chikondi Orphanage in the district of Kawale II, one of many orphanages in Malawi.  This orphanage takes care of about 65 children from ages 1 through 6, and provides breakfasts, lunches, and sometimes even dinners, as well as early childhood education, in preparation to the start of school.  At nighttime, they stay with members of their extended families, such as a grandparent, or aunt.

The orphanage was established in 2004 after seeing  orphans and other vulnerable children in the Kawale 2 area  being abused and discriminated.

Warm welcome

When we arrived, all the children were standing in the front of the school cheering and waving in anticipation of our visit.  It was really beautiful to see how happy they were to have us visit them.  Most of the children were around 4-6 years old.  A few were even younger than that.  They have a teacher named Zione who teaches them basic English, reading and writing.  They proudly showed us the songs they know, and their ABC’s. The entire class also said their morning prayers.  It was so sweet to watch them bowing their heads and praying.   Their caretaker is Margaret, and you can see how the children cling to both the teacher and Margaret, as they are the few stable adults they have in their lives.

You could still sense sadness in their eyes, which was difficult to see, but considering what their lives would be like without this orphanage,  I’m sure they are pretty happy to have someone to take care of them and love them.

Saying their morning prayers

Such a sad little one

The official drummer

We spent about an hour with them, and it was really hard to leave.  One little guy wouldn’t stop crying, and even the caretaker wasn’t sure why he was crying.  I did my best to make him smile by taking his picture, but nothing really seemed to help. I am hoping to be able to go back in the little time we have left in Malawi and volunteer to help them with their English skills.

Such a wonderful group of children

You can’t help but be touched by the unfairness of what life has dealt them, and you wonder what their future will hold, but at least they will be given a chance in this world, to be fed and taken care of, and have a chance to get an education.  It’s a sliver of light in an otherwise dark world for these lonely little ones.