Trip to Malawi an eye opening experience for Paige Hutchinson
July 6, 2018 3:04 pm
Paige Hutchinson, originally from Rocanville, visited Malawi recently on a trip to distribute mosquito nets and provide education on malaria prevention. Paige is an anthropology student at the University of Lethbridge and held a local fundraiser in Rocanville to help pay for mosquito nets. She sat down with World-Spectator editor Kevin Weedmark to discuss her trip.
How did you get to go to Malawi? How did this all come about?
It was a course, Global Health and Arts Field Study for Change, and we went to Malawi, but before we could go there we had to fundraise. There was lots of fundraising. There was the Mad Hatter Tea that I did in Rocanville and there was also lots of fundraising that took place back in Lethbridge, because it was through the University of Lethbridge. We raised money for treated mosquito nets that go to families with children under five or women that are pregnant, because they are the most vulnerable groups to Malaria.
How big of a problem is Malaria in Malawi?
It is like the common cold there. I don’t think going into it that I realized how big a problem it is. We went to a group and we asked if they could put their hands up if they had malaria and they all just laughed and said all of us. They’ve all had malaria and they get it every year. Every year they get malaria which is vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, chills, and it’s even deadly. If you're pregnant you’re already anemic, so malaria affects your liver and then your red blood cells. While we were there, there was a death of a child in one of the villages from Malaria. It’s a common issue that they all know a lot about.
We worked with the standard seven students because it’s actually in their curriculum to learn about malaria. Their school system is like the British school system, so it is standard one to eight. It would be about the same as grade seven. The only thing that’s different with their classes is it’s all different ages just because of all different circumstances in their life. We would have some students that were 10 years old and some that were 18
What was a typical day like on this trip?
An average day in Malawi we would drive out in our bus. There were 15 of us girls. Each day we went to a different school to work with the students and the community and they would go wild when we arrived.
They would be cheering and dancing and running along the bus for miles. They would greet us and they would all grab sticks, flowers and leaves and anything they had just to welcome us.
Some made posters with what they had and were just so welcoming, and they were all singing songs and they spoke Chichewa for the most part, but they also know a bit of English and it is in their curriculum. They would sing us songs in English and in Chichewa, and it was very welcoming.
To not cause mayhem we were supposed to wait on the bus while our professors talked to the headmaster and then after that we would get off the bus. We would dance and sing with them a bit and then we would all line up and we would be with the standard seven students and they would all be sitting in their desks in a big classroom. There would be 80 kids in one classroom and that was just an average class number for them. So they’re all packed in these little desks all wearing their uniforms. Each school was a different color and most of the kids’ uniforms were hardly clothes, they were rags or hand-me-downs that have been passed down from generation to generation and stitched up and fixed, but they all wore their uniforms.
We would stand at the front and introduce ourselves and it was always a big joke because our leader, Aaron, would ask the children in Chichewa should they introduce themselves in Chichewa or English, and they would all say English and then he would say no, no, no let’s challenge them and have them introduce themselves in Chichewa. So we would have to get up there an we would each say (Chichewa phrase), which means “I am Paige, I am a researcher of culture,” because there is not a direct translation for anthropology.
We would have to do that and if any of us messed up or pronounced it wrong the kids would burst out laughing. It is so funny to hear us speak Chichewa because we really can’t pronounce some of the words in the same way because we really don’t have the same words and sounds, so that was really interesting. Then we would be split up into groups. There were seven groups, so we would each take 10 kids or so depending on the number of kids in the class, and then with them we would create a drama or piece that we were going to perform for the community, because this was a big thing to have us come, and these schools were so honoured. They would constantly say ‘we will not take this for granted—this is a good opportunity.’ They would be so respectful towards us. They were just so kind and welcoming to us.
Then we would work with that group of kids, and it was really hard obviously because there is a language barrier, but it was really interesting to find new ways to communicate. We were using our bodies, sounds and actions. We were really lucky—the teachers all spoke English so they would help us translate to the students. That was a huge help.
Their teachers were amazing to us and amazing help, so we were able to put a skit together.
What was the skit about?
The first two weeks we did Malaria prevention so each group had a different topic.
Mine was activism and leadership. We would have to ask the kids how could we show that, how can we act out how to be an activist to help prevent Malaria?
So we would go in and act out pretending that we were writing letters to the chiefs and that we were handing out mosquito nets and that we were teaching young kids about Malaria.
It was so comical for these kids to act things out, because when you live in poverty and have so little, you still have drama and can act things out. You can imagine anything. These kids can imagine sitting in a bar drinking beer—all the beer in the world—or talking on a cell phone or wearing fancy clothes. They can imagine all these things, so that was really amazing to see these kids light up.
In lots of these schools they're not really encouraged to share their ideas because there are so many of them. It was more a ‘I’m going to teach you and you’re going to regurgitate it’ kind of thing. So having them be able to create something of their own, it was really inspiring to see that. They were so excited too, and a little reluctant, because they have never been asked their opinions.
When you’re asking them ‘what do you think? What should we do for this drama? How should we show this?’ they are a little reluctant because they have never been asked to create something of their own.
It was so comical, we were pretending to be bikes, we’re sitting on people pretending they’re chairs.
There were times we pretended to be oxen, so they would have their horns and be making the sounds, and the community just thinks it’s hilarious and the kids are loving it.
It was entertaining and also educational because people in the villages have a lot of myths about Malaria. They think you can get it from wearing no shoes in the bathroom, from contact, from kissing people and stuff like that. Whereas you can only get it from an anopheles mosquito, so it was really cool to debunk some of those myths and to share what these kids had to say about Malaria.
That was cool because it was not like we were just targeting the grade seven students, it was the whole community.
They would all come because they wanted to see us and what we were doing and they were educating their community. We were there to help facilitate, but these kids were ultimately educating their whole village on it. It was very empowering for them. We brought the mosquito nets and we handed those out to the students when we were done.
How did the fundraising go for those mosquito nets?
I don’t know how we received that much, but we received $22,000, so that bought us 5,000 mosquito nets. They come in these big bales, these huge square blocks, and we got five of them. That is the most that a group has ever taken before. It was amazing, because we were the smallest group going into it and fundraising is always hard. It’s tough to ask people for money, so that was a bit slow in the beginning until second semester when it really took off we were like ‘oh shoot, we’re going to Malawi we have to raise this money.’
How did your local fundraising go here?
Really good. We raised $2,500 and then also other donations from family members and people who couldn’t make it, so it was about $3,000 just from Rocanville and Moosomin.
It was a good little chunk added to it, which I’m so thankful for. It wouldn’t have been possible to hand out those nets without Moosomin, Rocanville and Lethbridge and the Calgary area, so it was really cool to see the impact that our small towns can have in a place like Malawi that is thousands of miles away from here, and some people didn’t even know about. When you say Malawi some people don’t even know where it is. The fundraising went very well.
Paint me a picture of these villages you were going into?
There is definitely two sides to it. The cities are very developed, there are lots of people, cars, paved streets, beautiful flowers and bushes and everything. And then you drive a little bit out and you get to the villages, and these people work with what they have. Most of them live in brick huts with straw roofs. Some are lucky enough they have tin roofs that are kept down by large rocks. Some of them are able to have plastic over their house to keep out the rain, because they get lots of rain there because it is a bit more tropical. Outside of the city it was mostly dirt roads. You would see women carrying everything on their heads. It’s not a stereotype—it’s true. How strong they are is amazing.
They would bring us a five gallon pail of water, and that is what we could shower with for the day, and we would be struggling with it, and they would just lift it up and put it on their heads. They would carry large bundles of sticks for their fire for that day miles down the road back to their hut.
They didn’t have very much, but what they did have was all very well taken care of. They would sweep the dirt outside to make it look nice. There are lots of banana trees and palm trees, lots of green—it was really, really beautiful.
The kids didn’t have much to play with so they would make soccer balls out of plastic and rope and yarn and that would be their soccer ball.
They would also find old tires and wheels and that is what they would play with, and sometimes with a wheel and stick, and you would see boys with ox and carts driving down the road.
The women would carry their babies everywhere. The women with two, twins, would carry one on the front and one on the back.
There is a lot of litter and pollution there. There is not really a garbage system. They burn a lot of things so the smell is very potent—burning plastic—and there are lots of fires because there is lots of deforestation going on. That was really sad to see because there are such beautiful communities.
All you see on the roads are people walking because that’s their mode of transportation. Lots of them had bikes as well, so there would be bikes and people—so many people. That’s the hard thing—we raised all this money and there are so many nets but there is never enough. When you’re in communities like that, you could take all of the clothes you could take, or all the nets, and you couldn’t possibly have enough—someone would have to go without.
That’s hard to see, but it was nice to know that with the drama and with the education part of it—you can’t take that away. A mosquito net won’t last forever, but once you’ve done that education or had that experience with the kids, you can’t take that education away from them.
How much of a difference does a net make? For lots of these families is it their first net?
Yes, most likely. A mosquito net in Malawi would be about 2,000 kwacha. Some of them live on only 50 kwacha a day, so to have a net is a pretty big deal, and also it’s their one chance to not get malaria, so when they would see those nets it almost became a scramble. We would call off their names—the women in the community who were pregnant or had children—and they would come and grab the net, but when we got down to the bottom of the pile and there were only 10 left, they would scramble and be on their knees begging for one. For lots of the girls it was so frustrating. They would say ‘we’re trying to do this good thing—why are people being like this?’ But we have to look at it like that’s their one chance for survival, and if they can get a net or if they can somehow ask you for one or beg for one, they are going to take that chance. That was really hard to see. You can do as much fundraising as you want and you still won't be able to help everybody, and it was hard when we realized that.
That was the thing with Malawi, and even with going into trips like this, you have to question everything, like what are people’s motives, why are they experiencing this, or why does this happen in their context. You can’t take a Canadian context and apply it to Malawi. You have to look at it from their perspective and their life.
How much of an impact do you think the education component had on the kids?
I think it made a big impact. Those kids are in standard eight next year and they have to write a national exam, and in this exam they are questioned about malaria and the parts of the mosquito and how is it caused and who are the vulnerable groups and how can you help. So they get quizzed on these things, and so it is really awesome to know that what we are teaching them is applicable and applies to their life and also their studies, and hopefully it can give them a chance at more opportunities
A lot of them do fail because they have to write the exam in English, which is so unfair to them because they don’t speak English. So lots of them will fail the exam. I think at least this way it will help them to at least know one part of the exam or help them do better.
After this trip I truly think that is the answer to everything, educating people and helping them create a life for themselves.
We can go in there and build schools and build hospitals and we can go in there and be aid relief or nurses or teachers, but it’s not going to help them in the long run because it doesn't help their people.
We have to enable them to be able to provide these services and to educate themselves.
The system is kind of unfair to them. English is their official language but only a quarter of them speak English, and when they take these exams they have to take them in English—it would be like us taking our exams in French when we’ve only learned a bit of French in school.
Lots of these kids are missing out on so much because they don't understand what they are learning.
What did you learn on this trip and from the people of Malawi?
I learned that even when you’re in desperate situations and have very little, that strength and resilience will always persevere. These people have so little compared to what I have, but they have so much more than I have because they have each other and community, and some of the different things in their culture they are allowed to do like dancing and singing and the freedom, that is something that I won’t experience in Canada. That was an amazing experience, being able to be totally free, where time is irrelevant. They’re much more carefree because they live day by day. They are always living in the present, whereas we’re constantly looking to the next paycheque or to something in the future.
They are thinking what meal can I put on the table next or what is happening this afternoon, are my kids going to get to school or what job do I have to do now. They are constantly living in the present, where we are always looking for the next thing and the next better thing, so it’s a very carefree lifestyle for most of them. I don't want to generalize because I think that is something that always happens in places like this—everyone generalizes that Africa as one big country when it’s multiple countries, so that is definitely something I’ve learned from this trip is to not generalize, to question everything, and that resilience and strength will always persevere with people.
Are you a different person as a result of this trip? Has it affected you in any way?
Everything that I thought going into it, how I imagined it to be, was all wrong. Everything that I stood for before going into this has all been shaken, but for the better.
Coming back to Canada I’m thinking ‘wow, this is amazing. These potholes we complain about are nothing, our education system is phenomenal and our teachers are great.’ It makes you appreciate everything you have.
I think everyone should experience something like this because it is eye opening, and even if I just went in there just to learn about the people and hear their stories, I still would have got a lot out of it because I experienced a culture and saw poverty that I’ve never seen before. Before going on this trip I knew poverty existed, but never really saw it.
All these people are living that life everyday. It’s not just a World Vision ad on TV, it’s these real kids with real needs, and sickness, and also happiness. Those kids were just so happy and so excited to see us, and if they do have rags on for clothes it’s the least of their problems. If they are getting clean water and access to health care and are loved, then they have what they need.
To see that and really be immersed in it helped me understand. I saw the rich people, the poor people, the hardworking people, and the amazing happy people, and sometimes the not-so-good people, so it’s just like any other society.
What images and experiences are going to stay with you from the trip? What will you tell your grandchildren about the trip 60 years from now?
The music and the dancing—those are some of the things that are going to stick with me.
The other stuff is important as well, but I think the welcome we got is going to stay with me. The sounds are still in my head, and their voices. Imagine walking into a group of people—when we would gather there is no gymnasium, no chairs, just thousands of people all singing or dancing—and they would just welcome us so sincerely.
I think that is what I remember—the singing and the dancing and the resounding voices of the church or of the community or of the kids welcoming us and running by the bus.
I was just thinking what did I do to deserve this, and also that I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. Never in Canada would I be in my vehicle driving down the road with thousands of people running beside it cheering and singing and welcoming us in dance and song. I’ll probably never experience that ever again. It was really amazing to experience that. It was so cool it almost made me cry. I would hold it in, because we didn’t want to cry in front of them, but it was so heartwarming to see. That was really, really amazing. They would be honking their horns on their little motorcycles, driving in circles and dancing. That was really amazing to see.
How does this fit in with the anthropology you are studying in university? Have you learned anything that helps make anthropology more real for you?
Just experiencing the culture was really interesting, and noticing the similarities and differences, because that is something that anthro really focuses on, looking at our commonalities—the things we have in common—but also the things that are different but mean the same thing.
In Malawi they would motion with their hands going like this (underhanded) to say ‘come here’ whereas we say ‘come here’ (overhanded). It means the same thing but it’s a different thing, so from an anthropologist’s perspective if I look at that, I’m like ‘wow, how did that come to be, and why do we do this and why do they do that?’ It was really interesting to constantly be exposed to little things like body language that is similar but different. They would shake your hand like this—they would hold your hand or arm and then they would shake your arm and that would be a sign of respect. Also they would kind of do like a bro shake. It was really cool to pick up on those things, and within a week we were shaking like a Malawian and welcoming people as they do. It was really interesting to see and it also made me love my degree so much more, because learning it in the classroom and learning it in the field are very different things.
I’m in my third year already, going into my fourth, and I was trying to find what I love about anthropology again. Going on this trip I felt so knowledgable because all the girls on the trip would be asking me ‘what did you notice today,’ or ‘what kind of perspective can you take on this.’ So it was really awesome being able to use my perspective, and what I’ve learned in the classroom and in the field and notice all those things.
Each day we would keep a journal, so I would be constantly writing things down or jotting things down that I would notice, because it was practical experience, and sometimes it’s hard to find that practical experience in university.
I encourage any student to find some way that they can have that practical experience, because it makes you love your degree and it makes you love education. Seeing that some of these kids won’t further their education, it makes me so grateful for my education. I told them I’m taking four years of university and they’re like ‘whoa, you are a doctor.’ That is just their perspective on school, so it is really humbling to see that and to appreciate the education that we do have, and we have so much opportunity for education.
Having that experience in a slightly different culture, does it make you see Canadian culture any differently?
Everyone speaks of culture shock, but going there it wasn’t just culture shock, it was lifestyle shock, like the shock of poverty and many different sights and smells. After being there for a month it became normal, and then coming back to Canada and landing in Calgary and seeing Canadian money again and being outside and seeing the streets and the skyscrapers, it was almost culture shock coming back to Canada and driving my vehicle again and not seeing people all along the sides of the road. Driving into town from my farm the other day I’m like ‘where are all of the people?’, because in Malawi people are walking all along the side of the road and it’s always busy. So it was a lot different coming back to Canada.
It was culture shock to come back to Canada, which I didn’t think I would experience. Even sitting in a building like this (the newspaper office) and seeing how perfect things are seems strange, because in their buildings, even in the clinics or in the schools, there is still rubbish on the floor or it’s falling apart. Even going from the airport in Blantyre, Malawi to the airport in Paris or coming over to Montreal, it was just night and day, so it was very interesting to experience so many cultures at once flying back. It is a culture shock coming back.
It is very shocking, but the more I tell people about it the better I feel, because I want to share the people of Malawi’s story. It’s hard to share and explain it to people who haven’t seen it for themselves, so I really want to make sure that I paint the picture properly and that I share these people’s story, and not just that they live in poverty, but that they are strong and resilient and that they are doing okay, but they need help, that there are still things that can be done to help.
Sometimes we focus on buying things for ourselves and enjoying our lifestyle, which is important, to enjoy your life and what you have, but it’s important to remember not everyone has what we have here, and a little bit of help can go a long way.
It is really interesting to come back and life is still going on in Canada and people are still driving nice trucks and fancy sports cars, and people in Malawi are still eating their one meal a day and walking to school.
Would you ever go on a trip like this again if you had the opportunity?
Yes, totally. The first week I was there I was like ‘I have to come back here—there is no way I can't come back or do something.’ They did so much for me that I need to help them out even more.
But then near the end of the trip, the more I experienced and the more my eyes were opened to things, the more I realized that there is poverty and there are people who need help in Canada, in the States, in so many different countries around the world.
I would like to experience it in another place, whether it’s in my own back yard in Canada here, or if it’s in Cuba or Haiti or another country that I know poverty exists in.
I would definitely like to do something like this again. I would never turn down an opportunity to do something like this again.