Footprints

Cooking with Agnes

My sister Agnes

Visiting village kitchens has always been a favorite. I recently had the experience of cooking in a village kitchen where all of the items had been grown on their farm.

Chopped okra and leaves

I have spent many years camping and love “roughing it”. I love cooking over an open flame, roasting hot dogs and marshmallows, cooking foil wrapped baked potatoes, cooking multiple course meals in various dutch ovens, making tin foil dinners, dutch oven pizzas. I love trying new campfire desserts like smores made with chocolate cookies and fruit cobblers.

I love developing survival skills like fire starting without matches, building temporary shelters and growing my own vegetables.

My adventure seeking sometimes hits a jackpot. When I told my Malawi family I was coming for a visit, they asked me to plan to eat with them. I asked if we could take it one step further and asked if I could actually help prepare the meal. I was surprised she said yes, but looked forward to it.

She prepared the chicken and nsima, my job was to prepare and cook the vegetables. My jobs were to prepare okra and sliced cucumbers. It reminded me of being invited to bring food to family parties at home and knowing the assignments are made on what they think you can handle.

Sliced cucumbers. A fairly easy task. What made the experience different was using a very dull knife while cutting the cucumbers on a plate in my lap while sitting on a cinderblock. I thought I was doing y ok until Mum took over after deciding I was talking to long and needed to start on the okra. I didn’t get to see her technique, but she was significantly faster. Malawi cucumbers are my favorite! I actually crave them. The flavor is better than an apple and I seriously think I could eat them every meal.

I was being directed to begin the okra. I was handed the full knife, a small plastic plate and some fresh picked okra. She demonstrated the task and I began. I could see the painful looks on their faces as I struggled to portray that I really am pretty good in a kitchen. After the okra was sliced, I sliced the handful of leaves I had been given. I added soda to the boiling water and then added the greens and let them simmer. While it was simmering over the fire in the center of the room, I was handed a tomato and began slicing it.

The smoke in the room made it difficult to breathe, yet no one except me complained. I honestly don’t know how they were not struggling. They all enjoyed kindly laughing at my inability to handle the smoke. I had to keep leaving the room. I was a bit embarrassed, and extremely humbled, and yet felt all the love.

I know I am the first foreigner to cook in that kitchen. It is my goal to do it every time I visit. Maybe next time, I will get graduate to more difficult tasks.

The meal was amazing…even the okra. The experience was unforgettable. Cooking and eating with this incredible family is one is my best days. I know teaching me was challenging, but they got a lot of laughs out of it. I felt loved and honored to cook with these amazing women.

I made this!

Bro T and my sister

I met a family that lives far from the city. This group is required to stay at one location. On my first visit there I felt that it was very different than what I’ve seen in other villages in Malawi. This is possibly the most poverty stricken location I’ve visited to date. There are approximately 40,000 people who live in this area. The homes that they live in were very primitive to say the least. Basically 4 walls and a door. Many sleep and eat in the same room. One home six family members that were living in three very small rooms. The main room had one kitchen table a small bookshelf for chairs and a box for the food and kitchen items. The other two rooms were used for sleeping. The sleeping rooms had a simple mat on the floor with one blanket. The sleeping rooms had two small boxes of clothing for the whole family.

Don’t know who wrote it, but it’s spot on.

Perspective:

WE ARE NOT IN THE SAME BOAT …
I heard that we are all in the same boat, but it’s not like that. We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat. Your ship could be shipwrecked and mine might not be. Or vice versa.
For some, quarantine is optimal. A moment of reflection, of re-connection, easy in flip flops, with a cocktail or coffee. For others, this is a desperate financial & family crisis.
For some that live alone they’re facing endless loneliness. While for others it is peace, rest & time with their mother, father, sons & daughters.
With the $600 weekly increase in unemployment some are bringing in more money to their households than they were working. Others are working more hours for less money due to pay cuts or loss in sales.
Some families of 4 just received $3400 from the stimulus while other families of 4 saw $0.
Some were concerned about getting a certain candy for Easter while others were concerned if there would be enough bread, milk and eggs for the weekend.
Some want to go back to work because they don’t qualify for unemployment and are running out of money. Others want to kill those who break the quarantine.
Some are home spending 2-3 hours/day helping their child with online schooling while others are spending 2-3 hours/day to educate their children on top of a 10-12 hour workday.
Some have experienced the near death of the virus, some have already lost someone from it and some are not sure if their loved ones are going to make it. Others don’t believe this is a big deal.
Some have faith in God and expect miracles during this 2020. Others say the worst is yet to come.
So, friends, we are not in the same boat. We are going through a time when our perceptions and needs are completely different.
Each of us will emerge, in our own way, from this storm. It is very important to see beyond what is seen at first glance. Not just looking, actually seeing.
We are all on different ships during this storm experiencing a very different journey.
Realize that and be kind, be human and humane.

When we visited this family they invited us in and introduced themselves. They told us a little bit about their history (filled with tragedies and resilience beyond your imagination and told us about their dreams. They also shared with us their hardships. They explained that there is no work in this area. They are shunned if they leave the property and are often in danger. They are currently living off of the equivalent of three dollars a month per person. This income needs to cover all basic necessities like food, medicine education, transportation, and clothing. I would’ve expected this family to be sad and broken but they were quite the opposite. This home was filled with love and compassion and gratitude. They constantly spoke about their blessings. This family has also taken in a Malawian teen who did not have a place to live. I experienced extremely intense emotions while visiting them. The first emotions was pure love and kindness and instant family. The second is inspiration of their exemplary resilience and humility. This was the first time I recognized I really have such little impact changing these lives. As we traveled to visit this community I had stopped and purchased a 50 pound bag of rice and a 50 pound bag of beans that I had planned to give to another family. I asked this family what I could do to help and they first replied “just pray for us we have what we need and God will deliver us”. This put a lump in my throat and I felt barely able to communicate. I gave them the rice and the beans and told them I would be returning with something more and would we prefer that they at least tell me what would be helpful so that I don’t waste the trip. My eyes are filled with tears as I write the simple requests that she made. She asked for food, some basic cereal for children, maize flour, salt cooking oil, sugar, toilet paper, Laundry soap, body soap and diapers. She showed me the cloth diapers that she has for their young baby and explained that during the raining season which we are currently in there is so much water the clean diapers never dry. It broke my heart to think that this five-month-old beautiful baby was constantly wearing wet diapers. I assured them that I would return with all of these items in quantities enough for nine families. I also left some baby blankets I had in the car but I had planned to give it to another family but this family seemed to need them so much more. When I left this house I felt like I had just met my sister. My heart aches to see her still. We returned in two days with the items they had requested and threw in a few extras like peanut butter, juice, soya pieces and bread just to make it feel like we did something a little extra. When we loaded this into the car you could feel how heavy it waited down the car. This is a large SUV. I left enough money so that the sweet children could be enrolled in school for the next semester. These families with what little they have dream of having a farm to help them be self sustainable and to provide a little extra to share with others. The amount of food that we delivered seemed like so much when we looked at it in the back of the car but when we got it out and sorted it into the 9 families I felt like we were leaving very little, I know this family is being left in this area with no access to the outside. They have no way to go to the city to get supplies. They have no way to purchase or sell any of their own items. I can’t imagine what that feels like as a mother trying to take care of her family. I am not sure how I would respond in a similar situation. I am so extremely blessed and I feel such guilt for having what I have just because I live here instead of there. I must do more. I just hope that it happens soon enough to help them struggle a little less. I have been working with these families to help them set up a business plan they can implement and allow them to work for a better future.

I felt like we were on track and then COVID-19 took over our lives. This virus has shut down this location and is preventing them from leaving the area to even access food. I have sent money to my Malawian partner and will continue to send money until I know they can get these businesses up and prospering. I can’t wait to see that I am no longer needed, other than to be just part of the family. I have started funding their business ventures when they present their plans and path to success. I want them to be able to find their own success and to be in the background and watch them begin to thrive. I want more than anything for them to succeed so whatever it takes to help them achieve it. Long-term goal is to help these families move to a new location. This will take a long process, a very expensive process which will need help from more than just me. But I will not stop until I see all nine of these families in a new location.

What did I learn from all of this? I find it difficult to even put into words. My gratitude for what I have has intensified 10000%. I recognize I cannot fix the situation, but my goal is to coach and guide and cheer them on. I will continue coaching them to build sustainable, smart, successful small businesses that can help them until they can thrive on their own. My ultimate dream would be to have them live next-door. This has been the most impactful experience I’ve had in Malawi so far. So much to do, and I feel their time is running out. I look forward to sharing their successes, their learnings and their dreams for the future.

Pure joy

Seeing ourselves

On one of my first trips to Malawi, I learned that these kids LOVE seeing themselves. We often have our phones out with the cameras in selfie mode so that the kids can see themselves. As soon as the camera is on them, they light up with excitement! They squeal and laugh. It has made me think about how I should be filled with that kind of joy when I see my reflection.

Hygiene kits

Hygiene kits – Keeping girls in school

School girls in Malawi often start missing school when they start menstruating because they lack basic hygiene supplies. Missing one week of school each month usually causes the girls to fall behind, and they eventually stop going. Dropping out of school at this early age continues the cycle of poverty.

Before I left for Malawi, I shared a story about how hard it was for parents in villages to provide basic essentials to the girls in their families. A sweet friend here quickly jumped into action and made a big donation.

We visited a village in Northern Malawi where a friend in Malawi was donating hygiene kits he had gathered. It seemed like the perfect place to share the donation I had brought with me. The girls were very grateful for the hygiene kits, but exploded with energy, singing and dancing when they saw what I had brought. Tears filled my eyes seeing how happy they were. Sometimes the simplest gifts bring the greatest joy. Thank you Tracie❤️❤️❤️!

Hand washing demo

I love visiting villages. I mean I really LOVE visiting villages!

Hand washing demonstration

The last egg

There is a reason they refer to Malawi as the Warm Heart of Africa. Malawians are some of the most genuine, friendly, welcoming, generous people I have ever met. From the first day of my first visit it became a second home for me.

I visited a single mom in a village in northern Malawi. She is a farmer and takes care of her 5 children and her mother. Malawian culture is to make every visit to a home memorable and inviting. This was the first time I had been invited into a families home. I felt awkward about just showing up, so we filled the car with food and supplies to take with us. In this remote village, very little English is spoken. I am always thankful to have a Malawian friend with me to translate and explain etiquette along the way.

During this visit I experienced a truly life changing moment. The Malawian way when guests arrive is to feed them. While I was visiting and touring the farm, a meal was being prepared for me. We were visiting during the end of the rainy season, which means food supplies are extremely limited. It is a time when most village children go days without food. The meal that was prepared was nsima, (a Malawi staple), pumpkin leaves and an egg. There were 5 adults and 3 children, and yes, only one egg. I was told I had to eat the egg. It would be extremely offensive to the family and the village if I refused to eat it. It was one of the most difficult and incredibly life altering moments for me. In response to my refusal, and requests for the children to eat the egg, the backstory was explained to me by my friend.

This family was aware I was coming. They new they would need to feed me. They wanted to make sure I had the best of what they had. At this difficult time of year, they didn’t have any more chickens and sent the children to ask the villagers if they had a chicken or an egg to donate to their family to feed a visitor. One family had 1 chicken and 1 egg left. They chose to donate the egg. The last egg from the last chicken in the whole village.

Imagine for a moment having 3 very young children sitting on the concrete floor of their 2 room house, hungry, and watching the last egg be served to the visitor. I didn’t know what the right choice was. It has haunted me ever since. I might not ever know what I should have done. But the memory will never leave me.

Have you ever wrestled with determining the better ‘right’ choice?

Football

I was introduced to a football team in Malawi a few years ago. It brought back precious memories of watching my children play American soccer when they were younger. T even spent a couple of years reffing teams younger than him. I loved sitting in my chair at the grassy field basking in the sun. The games were filled with energy and emotions when calls were deemed unfair, winning, and sometimes losing. I loved it all. The brand new, matching uniforms, brand new shoes and shin guards, team photos, orange slices and gatorade. Sweet memories!

When in Malawi, I was invited to watch a local youth team play I was very excited. All of the memories came flooding back! It was hard to wait for the game day. The team we were going to be watching was put together by my friend, Aaron. It was his way of trying to keep young boys active and out of trouble. He created multiple teams to accommodate boys in different age groups. He dreams of creating even more. The only thing holding him back, is funding. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for young athletes to participate in sports in Malawi. With the lack of job opportunities for youth, many end up making poor choices. He wanted to give them the opportunity to stay focused, build relationships, and enjoy the game.

Game day finally arrived. Aaron kept reminding me that this was going to be different, not what I was used to. Even with his words of caution I was not prepared. He was right it was not what I was used to. The field or pitch, was red clay dirt, was not close to being level and had rocks on the playing field. There were no freshly painted white lines, no nets in the goals, and the ball looked like it was at least 20 years old. The shirts were similar in color, mismatched shorts, random socks, no shin guards and they shared the shoes which they call boots. When a player would sub out, he would remove his shoes and sometimes shirt so another player could wear them and participate. A referee was there, but very few calls were made. Sportsmanship was natural. The energy was high. The sidelines were packed with spectators, mostly from the neighborhood and youth of similar ages. The boys played hard and cheered each other on.

I might always look out of place, but feel like I am home. In spite of all of the differences, my love for the game is the same.

I am humbled by the experience. Grateful for friends who filled my suitcase with equipment to take to the team the next season. Inspired to do more. My goal is to take team supplies on each trip.

The Warm Heart of Africa

Love at first sight

The Warm Heart of Africa

My first trip to Malawi was by assignment. I was asked to design and lead an employee service trip to Malawi. I have spent many years at the company building engagement by developing leaders, employees and by executing employee events. This assignment was different from what I had done in the past, but I was excited. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

I booked a flight to visit Malawi to gain context. The flight from the US was 24 hours in air…plus layover times. I hoped the trip would be worth it.

When we arrived at the airport, I was so surprised that it was so small. It looked like we had landed at a storage unit. I could see a group of Malawians sitting in chairs on a balcony to watch the planes land. I later learned that this is a common Sunday afternoon activity. I loved the heat and humidity!

We headed for the campus about 90 minutes form the airport. The roads are extremely narrow in Malawi and in poor condition. Goats and people are always at risk of being hit as they walk alongside the road. I felt like I was on an emotional roller coaster.

Driving along this road was my first real experience with seeing poverty, real poverty. While driving, I noticed a young boy, maybe 4 years old, taking an empty water bottle and filling it with water from a ditch along the edge of the road. He took a drink and my heart sank.

The next 30 minutes in the car I was trying to figure out how I could get out of this project. I told my boss he brought the wrong person. I wasn’t cut out for this, I didn’t think my heart could handle it. He asked me to meet our contacts at the campus and if I felt the same after meeting them, we would leave and I wouldn’t have to finish the project.

When we drove up to the campus, a crowd of women and children came running towards us. They were singing and welcoming us. They were the best greeters I have ever seen. I climbed out of the car and they continued to sing and dance. I felt instantly connected. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. I felt like I had just returned home after a long trip. The only thing missing was my family.

I turned to my boss and said, “Send for my family, I don’t think I can leave this place.” I felt deeply connected… It was a very unique experience, but one I will never forget.

And that was it, I was hooked.

Women’s Day

Participating in a program to empower village women is one of my favorite experiences. The team has been training the farmer families on improving their skills and their crop yields have increased significantly. Now that they have more than enough to feed their families they have started a next step program – empowering the women to start their own businesses.

Malawian village receptions never get old. Being greeted by a group of women to welcome guests by singing and dancing.

We gathered under some large trees and heard messages from the local chief. He shared his appreciation for us visiting and for the team who has been coaching them. He shared how much the teachings have improved the lives of the people in the village. He also shared that other nearby villages are seeking advice from them. He also spoke to the village women encouraging them to share their “truth” with us during our discussion. He then said all of the men had been directed to stay away from the area so that the women would feel more comfortable about sharing with us.

The words they shared included many trials and also a desire to do more. They shared that some of the challenges were abuse from their husbands. Some of their husbands were drinking alcohol and spending time away from the family. Others were trying to limit what their wives could earn and taking all of the money from their harvests and not leaving any of it for the women (who do most of the work). This creates problems because although they have their crops and gardens, they do not have money to by soap or other necessities for the family. Some of them shared that their husbands feared that if the women became empowered that the women would go find new husbands.

The organization had already met with them prior to our visit with instructions for their first assignment…form groups of 10-12 women and decide what type of business they would want to start. One group chose selling farm vegetables, another was selling eggs, another was selling chickens. Each group of women would work together, and as they earned money, they would add to their business until the point that they could be successful enough to use some of the money for the things that they would each need.

After sharing their challenges, they shared their business ideas and their initial strategies. The team will follow up again with them next month to see how they are all doing

After seeing their gardens, hearing their stories, we were dancing with the women. They love to watch this American girl struggle with learning to do it properly, and then get so excited when I finally get it right. I love the strength of these Malawian women. They are inspiring. They are resilient. They are strong. They are grateful. They are filled with hope and unwavering faith in God.

THIS is my happy place!!! Seeing their hard work continue to improve their lives, health, education and families by following the teachings of this incredible team. These families are still eating well, when in many parts, they are going through very tough times. The things they have been taught are making a difference. Malawi needs more of this!!! Once your heart has been in Malawi, it never really goes home.❤️❤️❤️❤️

I have so much to learn.

The Journey

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

African Proverb