Stories



A Dose of Generosity

A group of students visits one of the world’s poorest countries — and comes away richer.  by Doug McInnis

There are just over 14 million people in Malawi, and 930,000 of them either have AIDS or are infected with the virus that causes it. AIDS has killed so many adults that the country now has a million orphans. As the country’s health problems have grown — they include malaria, respiratory infections, and diarrheal diseases — its economy has sickened as well.When the CIA’s World Factbook ranked the per capita income of 229 nations, only nine fared worse than Malawi.

Living with such burdens might crush most Americans. The people of Malawi bear them with grace, as seven School of Health Sciences and Human Performance (HSHP) students discovered in May when they traveled to the southeastern African nation for two weeks to deliver antibiotics, antifungal treatments, painkillers, and other critical medical supplies. “The people are so happy and smiling, even though they do not have electricity, running water, or in some places beds, floors, or adequate roofs,” observed exercise science major Catherine Hegarty ’10 in a post-trip essay.

While a handful of students can’t solve Malawi’s problems, they may be on the right track; medicine may be the best prescription for Malawi’s biggest crises. “Health problems make it difficult to advance economically,” points out Mary Behan Taylor ’08, the Ithaca College registered nurse and adjunct instructor who organized the trip and accompanied the students, along with staff nurse Erica Kimball Weiss ’06. Yet it works in reverse as well: The listless economy, which leaves many residents with less than $2 a day to live on, also leaves little cash to solve the health crisis. If the country could fix either problem the other would lessen, Taylor says. For that reason, even a little bit of medical aid brings progress.

But Taylor wants Malawi to get more than a little aid. She hopes some of the students will take a long-term interest in the country, as she has, since she first traveled there with a church group several years ago.

And students are. “This trip taught me so much about health care and culture,” says Maggie Burgess ’10, a speech–language pathology and audiology major who visited hospitals and clinics; helped feed and care for orphaned infants at various centers; and helped deliver medicine, sheets, and other supplies to the country’s outlying areas. “Nothing that I have studied or read in the U.S. can compare to the experience I gained in Malawi. This trip made me thankful for all the opportunities available in the United States. It has reinforced for me the need to help other people. I plan on returning to Malawi someday.”

It might seem more efficient to simply mail medicines to Malawi and save the trip costs. But that would fail to involve the students with the country — and the medicines might bounce around in the mail so long they’d go out of date. Taylor’s colleagues in the College’s Hammond Health Center once sent a Christmas package of gifts to Malawi. It arrived in July.

Fortunately, Ithaca’s short-term Malawi study abroad program is a three- to five-year effort, created by Taylor with assistance from Janet Wigglesworth, associate dean of HSHP, and from the Office of International Programs. The one-credit program is expected to introduce dozens of students to the country.

Traveling to Malawi also produced unexpected benefits for Ithaca’s students, who went to change lives but in the process transformed their own. “At the beginning, they were self-indulgent,” Taylor says. “I witnessed a huge change by the end of the trip.” The catalyst for the transformation was the generosity of the people they came to help.

“No matter how little someone had, if you were a guest in their house, they would make sure you were given a meal or tea,” Mike Hopewell ’10, a speech-language pathology and audiology major, observed in his post-trip essay. “In America, it seems it is bred into us to do whatever we can to better our own situation, with little thought about the well being of those around us.”

Sharing food for most Malawians is a particular sacrifice. Lack of income forces much of the populace to live on a single meal a day — often a porridge made from maize or the roots of the cassava plant. Their diets are also often devoid of fruits and vegetables. “If you’re malnourished, it’s impossible to fight off even a simple upper respiratory infection,” Taylor points out.

And yet they persevere. “These people are amazing, living happily with the little that they have,” wrote Hegarty. “It makes me wonder what they would think of how we live, and in a way it makes me feel ashamed for getting upset over not getting what I wanted, or for buying something I really did not need. I have been trying to change my ways [to purchase only] things I truly need, and have even started going through my closet to give away clothing and things that I do not use.”

Malawi helped Hopewell see the bigger picture of his place in the world. “What I must do now,” he wrote, “is take what I have seen, the people I have met, and the hardships I witnessed and have them sculpt the person I am slowly becoming. Of the many things I will take from Malawi, one of the most important will be the joy that its people get from the simple things in life. . . . Malawians value, more than anything, human interaction, family, and friendships — things that seemingly get lost in the hustle and bustle of American life. The people of Malawi and their beautiful country will always live in me.”



7 Comments

Go get 'em guys... good one on you!

I think international "service" and learning projects can be powerful and valuable in many ways, and, thus, while I offer some critically reflective comments here, I applaud this project and offer my comments with respect. I do hope faculty on this trip problematized student statements and understandings such as: ?The people are so happy and smiling, even though they do not have electricity, running water, or in some places beds, floors, or adequate roofs.? I hope, for example, that students learned about some of the structural forces and arrangements that contribute to the kind of poverty many in Malawi experience. In addition, I know there are locations and populations in critical need in the U.S. that are "foreign" to many IC students, so I also hope faculty, students, church groups, and others will pursue projects, experiences, learning, and understanding that will allow them to work collaboratively with these populations to address their needs and circumstances. My sister does medical missionary work in rural Mexico every year, but she never thinks to do the same kind of work in low income and mostly African American areas of St. Louis only 45 minutes away. Or, more truthfully, she is more comfortable "helping" the ?rural poor? in Mexico than she is working with low income African Americans in St. Louis.

Sadly, the title of this article and much of its focus reflect and reinforce a "charity" model rather than one of collaborating for social change...

I led the first trip to Malawi in 2009 and the program is evolving!
I believe in collaborating for social change as well. My friend, Grace Chiumia, worked as the nurse in charge of the Eckwendeni Hospital's malaria program for years and became frustrated because of the lack of funds for bed nets, nurses' wages, and medications needed for the vulnerable. She realized that development in her country meant working with the government. She won a seat in Parliament and aspires to become Minister of Health. The students that met her during our visit to Africa witnessed the power of working together for social change. The lessons that we learned during this short term study abroad was heart opening and beyond words....
Charity means love. Is that such a bad model?
I will be living in Malawi the next 3 months and believe that the next short term study abroad to Malawi will be more powerful and valuable to our students.

John, I agree with you 100%. I think people are more comfortable confronting social injustice and poverty abroad because we don't like to admit it exists in a nation as wealthy and powerful as ours. It is more powerful to help out people in a nation that, across the board, is impoverished. It is easier to confront than the American reality, which is that despite being among the elite nations in the world, some of our populations live in conditions that mirror those in the third world.

I absolutely applaud this project. There is nothing wrong with doing service work abroad, especially when there is no "safety net" for the impoverished like we have here. I will being doing service work in Central Europe this summer, so I know the feeling of pride that comes with volunteering abroad. I also volunteer with disenfranchised populations within the United States and let me assure you that poverty and health catastrophes are alive and well here as well as abroad. I think that's something a lot of people forget.

Let me preface my comment by saying that I was one of the students on the trip which might bias my opinion. My intent is in no way to "defend" the trip, because only the nine of us who went can truly understand what we experienced in Malawi.

I agree that poverty in America can sadly be overlooked, and international service can be overly glorified. It is slightly offensive though that you seem to think that the fact we went on this trip means we are unaware of the problems of this country or unwilling to serve in our own country. Now I haven't done an extraordinary amount of volunteer work, but in my 22 years I've helped out in food pantries, served meals at soup kitchens, and volunteered through Habitat for Humanity. Those experiences gave me a great perspective when seeing a completely different type of poverty in Malawi. I understand your interest in the education of the students in the "structural forces and arrangements that contribute to the kind of poverty many experience in Malawi", but lets not forget the trip consisted of seven students from the school of Health Sciences and was led by two nurses. Not that I don't think our group couldn't wrap their heads around those "structural forces", but in our short time in Malawi our education/professions have hard wired us to care about the people right in front of us, and not to worry about big picture ideas. I feel such deep excavation of the reasons behind poverty would make a better class back here at Ithaca College.

The fact that people are ignorant to the poverty in America simply cannot be blamed on international trips like these. As Mary stated earlier, we were the first group from Ithaca College to go Malawi and the trips will continue to become more effective in their service and educational for the students that have to privilege of going to the wonderful country of Malawi on the next trip.

Maybe the title could be different. Read it and read it again, until you have your aha moment. Thanks

In response to: "Charity means love. Is that such a bad model?"

Yes, actually, "charity" IS a seriously problematic model. For fuller explanation and discussion of this, read an article by Joseph Kahne & Joel Westheimer, 1996, "In the Service of What? The Politics of Service Learning". Phi Delta Kappan, 77: 593-599.