‘Kusewera’ Malawi, Africa

I remember when Karen Osborn embarked on her first journey to the Mtendere village in Malawi in 2008, and I remember how incredibly moved she was when she returned. She is a good friend of mine of ten years and she fell head over heels in love with these children. She was determined to see them again, to make a long term commitment but only if she could go with her own team.  She believed she could provide the kids with a lot more and has impressively put in hours upon hours of her free time to successfully create Kusewera, and the mission that gave me the opportunity to fall in love with these children as well.

It’s been about 5 years since she first asked me to join her and I just never really felt like it was the trip for me. She was very persuasive, nevertheless, but my travels over the summer always seemed to take me elsewhere. If you read my first blog about my 2 month trip that started on June 12th, you would be privy to how this all came about. After a visit in her office, Karen suggested I look into a flight from Malawi and extending my trip in Europe to make this experience finally happen. There was a part of me that genuinely felt like maybe now was the right time, and when I could no longer find a frequent flyer flight from Europe to LAX and one from Malawi instead, I knew that it was.

Fast forward to Lilongwe airport, July 27th, twenty of us after a solid 30 hour travel journey, exhausted, hungry, dying for a sprightly clean up, and enthusiastically waiting for at least 40 fully-stuffed donation suitcases glowing with neon pink tape. Stacked high on top of each other it was a sight to see them all safely make it through almost unscathed and with only a small handful of items missing. Karen cleverly made signs for each suitcase stating: PLEASE DO NOT STEAL ITEMS FROM THIS BAG. ALL ITEMS ARE FOR CHILDREN IN AN ORPHANAGE IN AFRICA, and it seems to have done the trick for the most part. We made fast work of filling up our minibus and making our way to the Mtendere village!

Being able to stay in the living quarters inside the orphanage was a privilege that didn’t take long for Karen to earn. We were literally a stone’s throw away from anyone of the 165 children living here, kids who all lost either one or both of their parents, siblings, and family members to HIV/AIDS, Malaria outbreaks and the country’s 2004 famine. We drove through the Mtendere gates, beautifully painted by Jordan, one of the kids at Mtendere, and were instantly graced with bright smiling faces bustling with eager energy. They were yelling out names of volunteers they already knew, bounced around spreading love literally giving away hugs and tiny, little hands found their way into yours from every which way and wouldn’t let go. Not having any expectations, I was completely overwhelmed, in a very good way.  A bell was rung and we made our way to the main hall for our celebratory welcome and found hopeful, anticipatory eyes laid out for us ready to give their performance of a lifetime. I just got goose-bumps thinking about how to explain the sound of that first song. A small hall in the middle of a red clay field surrounded by about 16 homes that house 9-12 kids each, filled with picnic tables, and 165 shiny faces singing with total and utter abandon! It’s singing, I felt, like I’d never heard before. It echoed through the hall, through your skin, your ears, and tugged a hold of your heart so strong you knew this moment would be embedded into your mind and heart forever. They went on to perform numerous songs and dances and they had us completely mesmerized. They were singing and dancing from a place much deeper than we possibly know and when all was done, the hall let loose and we were bombarded with love! Every which way you turned you received a hug or a ‘Malawian’ handshake or a thank you or a little hand squeeze or a ‘will you be my friend’ look and little chunks of love that held on so tight you’d think they were your very own. We made our way out of the hall and to our ‘home’ and it was like we had all been hit by something very powerful. This is what Karen was talking about.  I get it now.

Our group consisted of varied ages between 14-64 years old and talents ranging in sports, arts, crafts, among other specialties. We had an open schedule planned to teach dance, photography, painting, music, basketball, volleyball, football, soccer, yoga, English, as well as a couple of girls and boys nights to help them set up career goals, create good hygiene habits, discuss the ‘birds and the bees’, etc. We were an interesting combination of people thrown together in a tight, fairly minimal living situation with six beds to a room, 3 bathrooms, no hot water or electricity at times, and a need for rationing of food and water that wasn’t for everyone. Some having never set foot in a third world country, some incapable of unplugging if even for a day, reality show ‘stars’, a scattering of beliefs, and all with a different journey as to how they came about Kusewera and Malawi in the first place. What mattered and what brought us all together was working with the kids, and that’s when magic happened! As much as we thought we were there to teach them, in the end it was the kids that probably taught us more, about living simply, happiness, color blindness, and unconditional love.

While I was out traveling Europe with Simon, each class was allocated a lead instructor, and thus needed a couple of helpers. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to move around because it allowed for me to participate in teaching more than one subject: dance, photography, painting, muay thai, volleyball, and music. The kids were disciplined, focused, listened and took notes extremely well, which made for very quick improvements. One of my favorite class experiences was photography and I ended up with a group of 4 insatiable girls: Eneles, Nelita, Mdwaziti and Hannah. We met up and I told them to meet me in the garden of which they immediately took off skipping and singing. I don’t know if there’s anything they do without singing. Two Ipods were donated for the children to take pictures and would be theirs to keep after we left. After a little group lesson, I put my purse, jacket and good Nikon camera down on the ground to take a moment to stress subject matter, action shots and ‘no heads’ cut off and as I turned around to grab my camera to demonstrate I found Hannah with my jacket tied around her waist, my purse hanging off her shoulder, my camera slung over her neck, lens cap off and working all the buttons standing in a very serious, copied version of, I guess, our ‘photographers’ stance. Jennifer Parsons walked over to check on me since I kind of got wrapped up in their awesomeness and we were absolutely beside ourselves. We quickly realized that I had another point and shoot and she had her really, really nice Canon that she wasn’t afraid to hand over and decided to hand them all a camera so they could shoot away. It was priceless, as you will see in the pictures! They just got it! They would take pictures, come back and show us and we would guide them to make the next shot better and then they would seriously come back with a better shot! They ran around capturing everything and by the end of the class had house moms posing in trees, changing angles and positions, getting close ups, capturing group shots with all heads and limbs inside, action shots with action, and passing on their knowledge to other kids who weren’t able to join because they had to stay at home and do chores. It was very impressive, especially since it was their first time holding a camera or an ipod in that capacity and it was an incredible experience for us to see their confidence and talent grow in such a short amount of time. What a treat, especially for us to get to sort through all the pictures they took later that evening! Thanks to Pete and a donated portable photo printer, we were able to print up some of their best captures and post them in the main hall on our final day for them to see. It was brilliant!

On the second morning a group of us taught the older boys Muay Thai. It was a spontaneous addition to the schedule and I jumped at the opportunity to participate. Karen thought it would be great for them to see a strong, fit woman capable of performing this art form, showing strength and incorporating some boxing from a female.  As with every other class so far though, they were super hungry to learn and that only made for total enjoyable teaching! By the end of class we had them paired up and sparring, but they weren’t quite grasping the art of it.  I went around and sparred with as many as I could to get them to understand the game of the sport. I showed them how to find the opening and got them when they didn’t block it. They got such a kick out of it, I felt like I could teach forever. A couple of the leaders thought the kids were tired and wanted to end the class. I was bummed, but when I went to grab my stuff I found myself surrounded by boys. They bombarded me with questions: “Why do I know how to do this?” “Why would a woman know how to fight?” “Why am I so fit, for a woman?” “What do I do back home that I know how to do this?” “Is this part of my job?” I explained and then asked them if they were tired from class and I got a simultaneous no! I asked them if they wanted to learn more and I got a simultaneous yes! We walked down to the basketball court and continued training for another hour or so adding in 100 push-ups, a 20 min. core workout and some plyo-metrics. They loved it and asked me if I was willing to teach again, maybe a morning workout? So we set up a 6:30 run with a workout after. Since no one ran around with a watch, I was skeptical they would actually show up on time, but I walked outside the next 4 mornings and found them patiently waiting for me, on time and ready! I was a proud mom!! We ran for a good 45-60 min. and then trained for another 30-45. They ran in broken crocs, socks, ripped up loafers, sandals, old sneakers without laces and holes, etc. One morning a group of girls walked by during some of the tae kwon do training and instantly the boys stopped and looked away. I didn’t know what was going on, but found out afterwards that women shouldn’t see a man ‘fight’. It’s a good thing I guess, because I tried to gather a couple of the women to join us and though I had a couple of them say yes, they didn’t show. Really unfortunate because it would have been good fun to mix it up. Again I was blown away by their interest and eagerness to learn and on the last morning when we had to run at 4:30 am and were limited on the workout time they requested the second course if nothing else. What’s the second course, I don’t know what that is? “Six pack!! Six pack!! Alice! Tanana!”

At night after dinner they would always gather in the main hall and with their boundless energy sing and dance through the night. Africa actually has a winter believe it or not and it was just as cold inside as it was outside. One night I found myself keeping 2 boys warm with one sitting on my lap – Fatsani. He had a very long face that always seemed disinterested until he opened up his mouth to sing. The light that bounced off his face, wow! Anyway, he chose not to dance much this night, but sing instead. All I remember is a little body with a little belly and a voice that vibrated straight through mine. The 2 of them sang at the top of their lungs song after song after song, as did all the others. That’s what made that sound so incredible. I walked back home and fell asleep to that magical vibration.

Then there was music class, and a moment with the women I will never forget! A group of women thirteen and older, that only recently became comfortable, through Kusewera’s help, to be confident with their power and unbelievable talent.  Delonte chose to give the women the freedom to teach us something in the beginning of class. His little helpers, Jordan, Siobhan and myself, were a bit uncomfortable with this because our time with them was so short that we were insistent on making the most of teaching them something new. I’d spent the past few days diligently watching them do this dance/game circle and really wanted to jump in but couldn’t figure it out. I asked one of the girls earlier that day if she could teach me, and little did I know it would be in our afternoon class. But, first up, was the Sanga, or that’s what it sounded like, I have no idea if that’s the correct spelling.  It’s sort of like a belly dancing roll but not. They pulled us in, surrounded us, grabbed each one of us and wrapped their ‘Chitenje’ above our waists. Then they watched us in serious silence while we struggled to get the ‘Sanga’ move right. It was awkwardly intimidating and almost felt like if we didn’t get it right we would sadly be letting them down. They said no hip or butt action, but when I turned one of them sideways to get a better view, I noticed that they were moving hips and butts. I copied what I saw and the serious turned to a loud uproar followed by lots of hugs and giant smiles. It was a magical bonding moment.  I got to experience that again with the women in the village across the way. A village where one of our cooks lived. One of the women gestured for me to join, I threw down my jacket and purse, since I had some moves of my own now to contribute and tried to copy and one-up everything she did. It was like a dance off! Ha! Once again, loud uproar and joyous respect followed by many solid hugs. It was truly a treat and having such a connection to dance already made this moment for me that much more spectacular and unforgettable!

One of our drivers was Knocks. He had a family of 6, three of his own and 3 from his brother who passed away. At 42, he is the only one of his 6 siblings who is still living.  When he told me how grateful he was for Karen and Michelle and Kusewera he told me if it wasn’t for them, he wouldn’t be sitting there right now, in those clothes with this job able to support his family. He said, he was poor, very, very poor. Michelle and Karen were able to get donations from Delta Kits and have set him up with a windshield fixing business in hopes that he can have a sustainable business on his own. Some of the Kusewera volunteer guys got to help him work out more details. He couldn’t stop telling me how grateful he was. In fact, I can’t remember how many people came up to me telling me how grateful they were for Karen and Kusewera and all that she had done for them. It brought tears to my eyes and definitely made me take some time to think about ALL that we take for granted.

We finished our trip with a one day outing in Zambia with 3 safari opportunities. One in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one more very early the second day before driving back. I committed to all three and six of the kids who had sponsors in our group joined us for the first two. We stayed at a nice lodge with hot water, that had elephants and giraffes making their way through on occasion and a pool, that after watching Nick and Abby play with the kids, decided I had to join. I sort of joined when everyone was nearly on their way out, but I found Hannah still sitting on the edge, still torn with whether or not she liked water and swimming and all that was new. I coaxed her back in and made a faithful new friend. She handed her trust over to me as I got her to relinquish the near death grip she had on my shoulders and got her to float, and kick, and hold only my fingertips. Then she came back in, her heart no longer beating a mile and minute, and she slowly patted down my hair with water. It was lovely as were the wild animals, and the insane sunrises and sunsets, the salads we were so longing for, and the special guard that guided me around at night to spot more wild things.

There are so many moments I will never forget about this experience and will probably continue to add to my blog as I start to miss them. You are never supposed to tell these children that you will be back because they will never forget that you made that promise to them. I told them I would do my best and I told them I would do my best to get the older boys some real running shoes. My goal is to go back next year after completing a TESL course, tutor them in English and get a co-ed boot camp happening with a possible ‘running project’! I’m writing this to hold myself accountable. These kids let me in to their heart and it’s my responsibility now to keep them there. Thank you Karen and Michelle and all the amazing people that donated to make this Kusewera trip possible and allow for one beautiful life changing experience!!

Photo credits for Photography Workshop Gallery: 95% the girls, 5% Jennifer and myself.

More Galleries to come by the end of the week! Stay tuned…




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