Saturday, July 9, 2011

A New Kind of Volunteering

            Kachumbe village is a place where goats and chickens are a plenty, where Malawian hospitality is defined, and where the culture is dictated by living off the land.  Two weeks ago, I once again ventured forth into the rural Malawian countryside to Kachumbe village and lived the life that every DukeEngage student hopes to experience; this was the stuff dreams are made of.  I arrived on a Monday morning, already slightly familiar with my surroundings, to a barren white house in which the only furniture to be found was a single bed frame.  However, within minutes neighbors had hoisted over a table, chairs, and an assortment of other ornaments, so that by the time my transport had departed, the bespeckled white walls of my abode were already gaining a life of their own.  This served as my informal welcome to Kachumbe; welcome home Chris.  Thankfully, John, my trusty companion from Pensulo, was once again at my side to act as my translator and house mate for the week, which made settling into my new surroundings a very easy transition.
            My first task in Kachumbe was to learn how to thatch a roof.  While many families have roofs made from metal, others resort to grass thatched roofs that often need maintenance because of leaking.  While I must admit my first thatching lesson left me feeling woefully inadequate, my second thatching project on Thursday was a different story; I think I might have picked up a new trade.  Throughout the week, I also tried my hand at a number of other local activities, such as brick making, a very muddy task where my difference in skin tone seemed to draw the most attention.  While I tried to focus diligently on making the perfect brick, my attention was continually disrupted by the locals gathering in the street to watch the white man work.  Apparently, my presence brought good luck and many blessings to the brick makers of Kachumbe, or so the locals claimed.
            In the mornings, when I was not spending my time atop local roofs or molding bricks, my hours were devoted to the children of Kachumbe.  In 2008, Joshua constructed a feeding center in Kachumbe that now serves as a pre-school to help local orphans and vulnerable children.  Every morning, children gather here to attend school and receive nutritious porridge which supplements any food they might or might not be receiving at home. My job was to assist the caretakers at the feeding center by helping to teach the children and keep them entertained.  Every morning, we would play simon says to learn parts of the body and then indulge in many rounds of duck, duck, goose until attention spans wained.  At one point, I also tried to teach capture the flag, but I think this might have been too advanced.     Fortunately, regardless of the activity I chose, my mere presence always captivated the children's attention and they would constantly clammer to touch me and be at my side, as if keeping a close proximity would bless them with many magical powers.  However, what I realized by the week's end was that the children of Kachumbe were already blessed to live in a community where everyone regarded their neighbor as their family.  No gift I could have bestowed upon these people would have ever rivaled the gift of their glowing spirit or their palpable sense of community.   
            In contrast to my many wonderful experiences, I struggled with the idea that all my work in Kachumbe made very little difference since every activity in which I engaged would have likely been completed regardless of my presence.  How could this be classified as meaningful volunteer work? My own inquisitiveness caused me to explore the nature of my work to a deeper extent and what I discovered proved remarkably enlightening.  In today's world, volunteering implies a definitive act of civic engagement that has both a beginning and an end.  However, our concept of what it means to help our fellow man has evolved over the centuries and was not always so abbreviated.  Fortunately, in Kachumbe there exists a long history of volunteerism through community self help and people here still consider it part of their everyday life to help their neighbor.  Therefore, in many respects, my time in Kachumbe took me into the past and allowed me to experience a pre-colonial sense of volunteerism through which I came to appreciate my work in a different light. Instead of seeing myself as a solitary volunteer, I learned how to gain satisfaction from being part of a community of volunteers where my individual effort did little to initiate total transformation.
            The end of my time in Kachumbe came quickly and I was lucky to experience a proper Malawian send-off complete with all the local women singing and dancing as they wished me a safe journey back to Blantyre.  However, my stay in Kachumbe was almost unintentionally extended since Joshua was unsure if they had enough fuel to come and pick me up.  I tell you this so you can get a sense of how an indefinite fuel shortage can cripple a country and send all plans into disarray.  Since I arrived in Malawi, both diesel and petrol have been scarce, making it very hard for Joshua to carry out its day to day operations. However, with adversity comes opportunity and I have thus taken much of my time here to embrace how resourceful Malawians are as a citizenry.  As I continue to post, I hope you can continue to get a glimpse of this resourcefulness that, as Americans, we must learn to possess. 

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