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.”