What Am I Doing Here? (Literally)

After a lovely month back in the US, which included a family reunion for Christmas in Hawaii, quality time in the frozen tundra of Minnesota, and a week in Chapel Hill to see college friends, a recurring question I received while I was home was, “So…..what do you actually do?” I realized that even though I send out a (somewhat) monthly newsletter, a lot of my friends and extended family still didn’t really know at all what life was like for me here in Malawi. While it’s impossible to share every detail of my life here, I’ve put together a short blog of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) that I hope gives a little more information as to my work across the pond.

Q: What are you doing?

A: I am working with HOPE International, a Christian micro-finance organization in Malawi. Depending on the financial metric used, Malawi is about the 8th poorest country in the entire world. I have seen far too many NGOs and other non-profits throw aid at a country like Malawi when I’ve learned that the predominant need for this country is development. HOPE International has this mentality engrained in its model as we seek to assess ways in which “helping can hurt” and strip people of their dignity. We instead ask them to look at the assets they already have in their life, how they can steward them well, and receive a sustainable hand up from poverty, not a hand out.

In Malawi, through partnerships with the local church, we set up savings groups that act as banks to the materially poor around the country. An enormous issue in poor countries is the lack of a safe place to save money and the lack of access to loans with a reasonable interest rate in order to make larger purchases to improve businesses, purchase assets like livestock or a bicycle, or buy more land for farming. HOPE neither puts their own money into the savings groups nor takes any money out to show group members that they can accomplish much more through the communal power of saving than they may think. Our savings group members then offer loans to each other from the collective savings based on an interest rate decided by the group.

Q: Where is Malawi?

A: I am working in Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi, and although it has a population of about one million people, it has a very suburban feel to it. Malawi has a total population of about 16.5 million people and is well known for Lake Malawi, the 3rd largest lake in Africa and the 9th largest lake in the world. Nicknamed the “Warm Heart of Africa,” Malawians are known for their friendliness and “warm” personalities. Below is a map for the many people who asked me where Malawi is located. While preparing to leave last year, a girl told me I was going to have such a great time because Hawaii is “sooo wonderful!” (thinking I said Maui). Not many surfers here, dear.

Malawi looks tiny on this map, but it's about a 14-hour drive from the northernmost point to the south!

Malawi looks tiny on this map, but it’s about a 14-hour drive from the northernmost point to the southern tip!

Q: What does your daily life look like?

A: My title here is SCA Programs Fellow, which basically means do-whatever-gets-thrown-at-you. I’m kidding, I really enjoy my job, but my work certainly varies a lot day-to-day. I need to point out that most assignments take much longer here, mostly because the idea of customer service is non-existent, especially at the bank, and also because of the slow pace on which everyone operates. While in the US, two visits to the bank to deposit a check, withdraw money, check your balance, etc. might take a total of 20 minutes, but a bank visit here can take up to 2 hours. Although the lines can be quite long and slow, the only consolation is that they show Premier League soccer highlights on the TVs. The other day I got to watch the hour-long highlight show twice! Unfortunately I made it to the front of the line after the second viewing, so I couldn’t watch it a third time. I’m considering putting “catching up on emails, sending text messages, and reading my Kindle while standing in a massive line” on my resume. 🙂

HOPE International has only been in Malawi for a little over a year and a half, so a lot of my responsibilities would be typical of any start-up company (submitting paperwork for a Post Office box and a landline, purchasing a whiteboard and bulletin board and hanging them in the office, organizing our file cabinet in preparation for our first audit, etc.). I also do small amounts of financial reporting to manage our local cash as well as some other special projects, like ordering audio Bibles for our operation in the largely unreached and predominantly Muslim population in the southern part of the country (which is really exciting!). I do enjoy that no two days are exactly alike here and through attempting to have an open and humble approach to my work, God has taught me a lot about servanthood and truly putting the needs of others before myself.

Q: How can I get more involved with this incredible company? (Okay, maybe this isn’t a frequently asked question.)

A: You can check out HOPE’s website -> http://www.hopeinternational.org OR, HOPE has a number of GREAT internships/fellowships available for all you soon-to-be post-grads or even you fellow Class of 2014ers out there.

If you want to be on my email newsletter distribution list, please let me know! I’m always available to Skype as well and it really helps me feel connected to home.

While this wasn’t a very deep blog with personal insights, I hope it gave a better picture of what I’m doing here. I’m hoping to post more reflections about my time in Malawi soon.

To those of you that read this entire blog, my email, AND newsletter, you get a gold star and 100 Malawian Kwacha (about 21 cents).

Thanks for reading!