What I learnt from spending Christmas in the 4th poorest country in the world

Alex and I decided to spend Christmas this year in Malawi. We wanted to visit Chazuka, Alex’s second home, and it would be my very first trip to the village. I was excited to meet the people I’d only ever seen in photos and hand-deliver the #FestiveSchoolPacks we had been fundraising for. Malawi is the fourth poorest country in the world and I had no idea what it would be like spending Christmas there, but I learnt so many important lessons during our trip.

Lesson #1 – Authentic sharing comes from the heart

Whilst in the village, we spent some time playing games with the children. The sun was raging, so I found shelter beneath a tree and many of the children came to sit with me. One of the girls, aged 7, had a mendasi. A mendasi is the closest thing you might get to a cake in Chazuka, a type of sweet bread, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. A rare treat. I watched as the young girl broke her mendasi into several tiny pieces. One piece for herself, one for each of her friends, one for me, and even one for Lucy, the village dog. Her generosity seemed so authentic. She saw her mendasi as an opportunity to make everyone happy and so she did. It was such a heart-warming moment.

Lesson #2 – Perspective from gratitude creates a more meaningful life

Life in Malawi is tough, particularly in December when the crops are running low. People lack basic human rights and the intense poverty makes life less about living and more about survival. The Malawian people who I met had very little, but for what they did have, they were grateful. I felt a warmth among the people, a sense of togetherness and strong social connections. These are things I believe we can lose sight of in the developed world and we should look to countries such as Malawi for a reminder of what’s important. Malawi lived up to her reputation as The Warm Heart of Africa and I was humbled by the spirit of her people.

Lesson #3 – The road to resilience involves carrying a bucket of water on your head

We spent most of Christmas day in the car driving to Mount Mulanje for our 3 day incredible (if brutal) hike. You have plenty of time to lose yourself in thought during a 7 hour car ride and I wondered what I might be missing out on at home: turkey, pigs in blankets and the prosecco flowing freely. These images in my mind fell against the backdrop of the reality of what I saw from the car window: women beginning their hour round trips to collect water from the wells –  Christmas day being no exception. Imagine being at home and rather than turning on the tap for a glass of water, you set off on a 20 minute walk to the nearest well, queue for 10 minutes and then make the 30 minute journey back with a heavy bucket of water on your head. 

Lesson #4 – If you want to feel Christmassy, you have to go to the supermarket. 

In rural Malawi you could completely forget that it was Christmas. In a land where soap is considered a luxurious item you can understand why Christmas might not be such a glittery affair. However, if you do want to feel Christmassy, get to the supermarket. To do this you’ll have to drive for 3 hours but when you get there you will be greeted by Santa, surrounded by Christmas trees, and the Top 4 Greatest Xmas Hits will be blasting through the speakers on loop for the entire festive period – New Year’s Day included. How any Malawian supermarket employee has their sanity still in tact after the festive season remains an admirable mystery. 

Lesson #5 – Holidays on the continent are complicated

On New Year’s Eve, we spent our last moments of 2019 reflecting on our experiences in Malawi with Sindy and Dali, South-African born but bred in Malawi. Dali’s words left a profound footprint in my mind… 

“Holidays on the continent are complicated. Amidst the beauty and tranquility of many of our African countries (Malawi included), many of us from here inevitably fall prey to an overwhelming feeling that the status-quo on the continent need not be the case. The more you inform yourself as to how the current environment came to exist, the more you’re able to appreciate the strength of the people, despite the conditions under which so many are accepting. The more one is able to peel away at the seemingly simple and romanticised layer of its existence, the more acute a picture begins to develop of the importance of your contribution to developing this sacred space. As we celebrate during this time, spare a thought to your role. 

Nothing worthwhile is easy…”

Final Thoughts

Our trip gave me a lot to think about and now I am fuelled with the belly-aching fire to grow The Chazuka Project in 2020. We don’t have to accept living in a world where there is such extreme poverty. It will be a challenging year for us to achieve our ambitious goals and we need your support. We need volunteers. We need donors. We need fundraisers. We need you to mobilise your networks. 

We’re on a mission to make the world a brighter, happier place for young people in Chazuka. And I hope you’ll join us on that journey. 

Contact me to join our Chazuka family.

sara@thechazukaproject.org | @_sarayasmin (twitter)

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