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A Student’s Perspective: Field Study Trip to Africa

On May 6, 2012, nine students from Aquinas College traveled with Professor Swinthia Mboko to Malawi, South Africa as part of a field study for the class Social Entrepreneurship in Developing Countries. The class met several times throughout the spring to prepare for the two week field study, yet, for many of the students, nothing could prepare them for what they would discover in the Warm Heart of Africa.

The eight students traveling abroad included: Tara Jones, Cassie Shrock, Katy Birgbauer, Brittany Bissel, Lisa Zimmerman, Lisa Hinkel, Rachel Lanczak, Jennifer Kalchik, and myself, Danielle Alexander.

Our departure for Africa could not have been a better indicator for how us girls would work as a group. We arrived at the airport in Grand Rapids to find that our flight to Chicago had been cancelled due to tornado activity in Chicago. It was devastating news, but as a group we were determined to make it to Malawi and roll with whatever punches came at us. We had been prepped by Aquinas alumni, professors, and guest speakers during our classes that we should expect the unexpected and be ready to deal with it, and that’s just what we did. It was decided that we would drive to Chicago and try to make our connecting flight – a feat that was only made possible by the unstoppable Joelle Baldwin (Aquinas’ Study Abroad Coordinator) and a team of awesome parents and friends.

After what seemed like months of flying, layovers, and scrambling to find connecting flights we finally made it to Lilongwe, Malawi where it was nice to be greeted by one of Aquinas’ own: Clement Chiwaya, an Aquinas alum who is now Head Whip of Malawi’s Parliament. Clement took us to visit the gorgeous Malawian Parliament building where he works, and I was struck then by what would startle me the most about Malawi’s landscape: the contrast of extremely rich next to exceedingly poor. In front of the Parliament building (picture the White House) were vagrants, homeless, orphans, and other people in varying degrees of poverty roasting fish and shucking corn in the dirt road.

We arrived to our first destination of Nkhoma, Malawi and found that the poverty in this third-world country was much greater than we could have predicted and what had been indicated to us by our visit to the Parliament building. In Nkhoma we visited two schools: Ebenezer Private School and Nkhoma Full Primary, a public school. At Ebenezer we found neat and colorful classrooms full of smiling faces, with a 20:1 student/teacher ratio. At the public school we found classrooms without doors or desks, pencils or books, students with ripped plastic bags for backpacks, scalps writhing with ringworm, and a devastating 75:1 student/teacher ratio. The ratio of students to soccer balls: 2,500 to 1. During our classes prior to the trip we had discussed bringing gifts to make friends within the villages that might not speak English or be weary of Westerner’s. It had been decided that we would carry 20 soccer balls, and needless to say, many of them found a happy home at Nkhoma Full Primary.

In Nkhoma, we viewed many other projects and evaluated their sustainability as social entrepreneurship ventures. Among these projects was a Center for the Disabled and Handicap, run by the Presbyterian Church where we found disabled and handicapped persons working together to knit, sew, tin-smith, weave mats, and create art as a way of generating income – all with no electricity. It was here that I first experienced and learned to love the resourcefulness and determination of the Malawian people. I watched as a man who was crippled by polio created sandals out of scraps from an old tire; a deaf child colored on the lawn with broken bits of crayon; and a man who was both mute and deaf created stunning artwork on the back of burlap flour sacks.

Other memorable highlights of the trip included:
- Visiting Zeze Village where we watched the daring and fearless Professor Swinthia Mboko make a brick out of mud with the village men.
- Meeting with members of the US Embassy to discuss the current state of welfare within Malawi.
- Being greeted with song and dance at Chifumbe Village, a small settlement where orphans, abandoned women, and the crippled have banded together on the outskirts of Lilongwe.
- Eating a traditional dinner of nsema, rice, beans, potatoes, vegetables, and Coca Cola at the house of our tour guides in Nkhoma.
- Visiting Kigonwe Cultural Center where we learned about the Chichewa, Ngoni, and Yao tribes of Malawi.
- Experiencing what it was like to live without electricity and with ants, spiders, and lizards at St. Andrew’s Resort.
- Shopping in the street market in Mangochi after waiting for three hours at the bank to exchange our money.
- Meeting the Bishop at the Diocese of Mangochi as representatives of a Catholic school.
- Holding newborn babies at Mangochi Public Hospital.
- Meeting the lovely ladies of St. Monica’s School, dancing with them to American music (“Say My Name” by Drake and Rihanna), and hearing their stories of triumph and aspiration. Later we would grant a few of these beautiful girls full ride scholarships to school with the help of the Dominican Sisters.
- Going on a wildlife safari in Liwonde National Park where we saw impalas, waterbuck, warthogs, baboons, birds, and black elephants…the latter of which almost stampeded our bus.
- Fell in love with the children at Alleluya Orphan Care Center, where we delivered the proceeds of our clothing drives from the 2011-2012 school year at Aquinas.
- Conducted observations for Malawi Connection, a nonprofit organization that has funded clean water boreholes, learning centers, and community based organizations in Mangochi.

Even now, I am at a loss to say how we fit in all in. At the end of two weeks we were not at all ready to leave our adventures, but we were eager to get home and share them with our families. The trip had been marked also by our inability to Facebook, Tweet, email, or even call our loved ones – something that we hadn’t prepared for. Our disconnect from the people we cared about as well as the luxuries of first-world society (air-conditioning, clean bathrooms, vegetarian food) had taught us a valuable lesson: in America we have so much to be grateful for.

Overall, the trip was a great success, and all involved look forward to seeing the program continue in the future.