Straight after touching down in my new hometown Nairobi, I leave for Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world. Landlocked and very densely populated, the people here suffer from extreme poverty, HIV pandemic, lack of fresh water, sanitation and access to primary school education. All these basic things we take for granted.
Malawi is a country where people still believe that AIDS is a result of evil witchcraft and where young children are forced by their parents to drop out of school to generate income for their families.
A country where politicians pocket ten thousands of dollars of foreign aid ring-fenced for micro-financing loans for the poor. As I get to witness, it is also a country where primary schools share 1,800 students among 23 teachers, and all teaching takes place on the floor or even outdoors.
I am here to deliver a leadership course in a rural secondary school with our partners BlessBay Foundation. In addition, I mentor young entrepreneurs who have been setting up small businesses in the past year.
I have one week to plant leadership seeds in these young people and shift their mindsets from a place of hopelessness towards belief for a better future. Challenging?
Yes, but not in the way I expected. The students are quick and eager learners and I am amazed to see the sparkles of hope ignite in their eyes as the training goes on. The impact is immediate.
By the time I wrap up the course, they have already established a Young Leaders Association in the school and a number of community-benefiting projects, such as cleaning up the communal market place or teaching orphans how to read and write, are underway.
Evidently, touching the hearts and minds of the poorest Malawian people turns out to be easier than I anticipated.
The difficulties arise on a much more basic level. For example, halfway through the week our car runs out of fuel and it turns out that all filling stations in the entire district are dry. How is this possible?
Apparently the government controls all oil imports and today the Treasury is short of dollars to pay the providers in the Middle East. Thus, all supply is cut off until tomorrow. We have no choice by buy fuel from the illegal black market is $3 per litre, a 100% mark-up. In a world steered by the effects of supply and demand, there are some truly entrepreneurial ways to make good money!
What else could possibly happen during my week in Malawi?
One evening two armed soldiers stop our car at a roadblock and helplessly we watch them turn my suitcase upside down in the red and dusty sand. Malawi produces the best quality marijuana in the world, and apparently we look like a suspicious trio.
With an expression of disbelief on his face, one of the guys pulls out a pack of Swedish knackebrod from my bag and I find myself explaining Swedish traditions to a Malawian soldier armed with an AK4 and other weaponry tied around his waist.
The last evening I find myself speeding through the rural countryside in our little car with doors that only open from the outside. Surrounded by the penetrating darkness of the African night. It would be generous to describe the road as one lane in each direction. Filled with big holes, wandering people and goats running back and forth, the main road from the border of Mozambique to the capital Lilongwe looks more like a jogging track.
We are searching for a hospital as one of my co-workers has fallen ill and the other one does not have a driving license. My team is quite impressed since they have never seen a woman drive before, but I can’t really focus on compliments.
I am desperately trying to find a gas station willing to sell fuel to us. Staff at the gas station act like they are kings of the jungle and sell to who they fancy, apparently I am not important or charming enough. At 02.00 am we finally reach a clinic for my friend to get treatment. We have one litre left in the tank… Close!
Flexibility and patience is key to success. Persuasion and negotiation skills are vital.
Yet, despite all headwinds, there are plenty of promising moments.
For example when I watch the laughing and joking fishermen emerging back from the crystal blue water in Lake Malawi with their morning catch.
Or when I sit in the candlelight in the local bar built of bamboo, sipping corn-beer from a tetra pak and the villagers around me dance energetically to the tunes of Bob Marley. This joy is incredibly encouraging!
The poorest people live with unexceptional risks, making them extremely vulnerable. A drought or soaring commodity prices can result in unprecedented challenges for a family.
This forms strong bonds of solidarity within the local community. No one is left behind.
I can’t help but thinking that perhaps we have something to learn from the grassroots of Africa. For example, how about to leave or iPhones at home for a day and make time to look at the world around us? Or to sit down with our friends and share stories instead of using Facebook as a mechanism for social interaction.
After all, human beings are social animals and this is something Africans really harness!