THE MALAWI CHALLENGE

At left, the owner of a tearoom visited by the MicroLoan team. At right, atop Chilemba peak with Lynne.

Conquering mountains both literal and figurative: efforts to effect positive change become a most rewarding adventure. BY CLAIRE SCAMMEL

After four very busy months of fundraising and a long flight via Ethiopia,  we touched down in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city. I couldn’t wait to get to Mount Mulanje to start the trek.

Our 6-hour bus journey to base camp flew by: waving back at smiling children on the side of the road, learning about Malawian politics from Andrew, our guide, discussing microcredit, and anticipating the challenges Mount Mulanje had in store for us.

We arrived at base camp just as night was falling. Because of a countrywide diesel shortage, there was no fuel for the generator, so we made early use of the matches and head torches in our kit bags. The next morning we were up with the sun at 5:30am, ready to begin the trek.

Mackenzie and Comestar were our guides on the mountain, and a team of 24 porters carried food, luggage and equipment from hut to hut. By the time we arrived at the huts after a long day of trekking, the fire would be lit, water for a much needed cup of tea would be boiling, and Burton, the cook, would be busy preparing dinner.

After we’d eaten, we’d sit around the Mulanje cedar wood campfire, and Comestar would regale us with stories of the spirits that Malawians believe inhabit the mountain, the fragrant smoke from the fire as intoxicating as his tales. The smell of that native cedar will always bring me back to Mount Mulanje.

At Chilemba peak
We reached Chilemba peak (2855 metres) on the second day via a very steep granite face, the excitement of reaching the summit only slightly tempered by the thought of going down what we’d just come up.

Every Malawian we met after the trek seemed amazed at our achievement. The mountain is considered to be very difficult and local people are afraid of it—perhaps because of the rough terrain, perhaps because of the stories of those who have perished there… probably both.

I stuck close to the guides while we were trekking, hoping to learn from them about the mountain and about life in Malawi. Perhaps the most revealing question I asked was what people eat for breakfast in Malawi. Comestar explained, matter of fact as always, that the normal breakfast in Malawi is no breakfast at all. It is normal for a family to only be able to afford one meal a day, usually eaten as lunch.

I was overjoyed to learn that the guides had heard of MicroLoan and knew women who would be interested. I was struck by the fact that their primary concern was what would happen if a woman dies before she has repaid a loan (MicroLoan writes the debt off). I have since learned that this very real concern is rooted in the fact that other (for profit) microcredit operations demand repayment from the deceased’s family. MicroLoan is not for profit and works closely with women it helps to ensure they have the best possible chance of business success.

By the last day of the trek, my emotions were dangerously close to the surface. Moses, head of the team looking after us, nearly had us in tears as he bid us farewell and thanked us wholeheartedly for our “commendable” efforts. Hearing these kind words from a Malawian brought home the significance and value of our fundraising.

Halfway down the mountain, we took a break by a waterfall, and Lynne, our group leader, read us a very fitting Nelson Mandela quote before sending us all off to a quiet spot for personal reflection, asking us to think about what we’re doing and what it meant to us.

The day ended on another emotional note. Lynne had heard that the porters couldn’t afford the notebooks and pens their children needed to do their schoolwork, and so had bought some to give to them. The porters whooped with joy. Their elation at receiving something we take so completely for granted was incredibly moving. Malawi is a country to fall in love with, and like all great loves, it can break and warm your heart almost simultaneously.

The best tea
The next morning we traveled to Salima for our visit to the MicroLoan branch there. After a Q&A with the head of the branch, we broke up into small groups and went out to visit two groups of women who had received their loans just one month before.

MicroLoan aims to reach women in very rural communities, as these tend to be poorest and the least likely to be able to access financial services. The two groups we visited were examples of this aim being achieved. Luciana, the loan officer who accompanied us, told us how she had already seen improvements in the health and quality of life of these women.

Both groups greeted us with a song they had written. Luciana translated the Chichewa lyrics: they were singing about how happy they are to have loans and the resulting positive changes in their lives.

We ended our trip with a visit to a tearoom run by one of the women. Sitting on a wooden bench at the bar, we ordered 4 cups of tea and 2 freshly baked scones to share.

Hot water was poured through a large strainer full of fat tea leaves into brightly coloured plastic cups. The scones, a sweet, white bread, were served on matching plates. Through the steam from my cup, I saw the owner beaming at us. It was the best cup of tea I’ve ever had. CS

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