one peace corps volunteer's journey into the warm heart of africa

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

MY STORY: Community-Driven Banking for Women's Economic Empowerment

Hi all - this is a short story I submitted to Empower This is a story from my time as a volunteer in Malawi on what women's economic empowerment looks like to me. Enjoy!

Even today, over half of Malawians are considered “unbanked”, meaning that they don’t have access to proper financial services. Despite this, there has been a steady rise in the use of informal banking systems such as the Village Savings & Loan (VSL) model. This is where people form groups and lend money to each other to start small enterprises. So while the poorer and more remote populations are isolated from financial institutions, Malawians are employing their own methods of saving and investing their money. These community-driven banking groups provide important small-scale economic opportunities, especially for women.

As a Peace Corps volunteer in the central region of Malawi, I had the amazing opportunity to work with a women’s VSL group that had been saving and lending to each other for over four years. As a foreigner working in the country, I had been taught that Malawian women are generally uneducated, illiterate, and unable to start a business because of gender inequality. While this may be true in many cases, I found this group to be the most entrepreneurial, hardworking, and intelligent women that I could have imagined.

Without a doubt the Kakunga Women’s Group has taught me more than I could have ever given to them. I have learned that economic empowerment for these women mean being able to provide school fees for their children, to afford hospital visits and life-saving medicine, to start a business and ensure food security for their family, and to gain decision making power within their home over how money is spent. But even more, I have learned that a small group of women who bank together can overcome the challenges of poverty, gender inequality, and lack of access to financial services. To me, the Kakunga Women’s Group are the epitome of women’s economic empowerment.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

my nana told me to update this and so, i did, finally...

I know it's been a long time since I've written on this thing and it's finally boredom that has caused me to update it. Your welcome Nana.

It's hard to believe that I left Malawi four months ago. Like most life-changing events in our lives, it feels like it all just happened yesterday and yet it seems like forever ago. I miss it, a lot, more than I can express sometimes. I tend to romanticize my experience by thinking of my wonderful friends and family there and all the good times that I had. But when I think honestly on those two years I know that I encountered many challenges and frustrations and I was often homesick or just plain sick from some weird parasite or infection. But all of it together turned out to be the best two years of my life to date. I feel so blessed and humbled to have had the opportunity to do something I probably would have thought impossible before I went. I really don't know how I made it through in one piece, but I did and for that I know I have no one to thank but the Lord for His provision

A short little update on my past projects...I talk regularly with Aaron, my friend who runs the Kamera Health Clinic. The clinic is running very well and now the community wants to make the most of the nice building so they are going to use it for a community daycare and for the local youth club. The chiefs at Kamera were not satisfied with only having the clinic and are now building a house for Aaron so that he can live in the village rent-free. A very kind donor chipped in money to help pay for a builder and the community is fundraising the rest of the costs. The other projects, like the pigs at the HIV/AIDS Support Group and all of the medicinal gardens we built are also going well. But in the end only time will tell if the projects will be sustained or not...

As for me, I thoroughly enjoyed my time post-Malawi at home with my family. I spent my summer watching my beautiful niece Adelaide, beekeeping and bottling honey with my dad, spending time with my other awesome niece and nephew, and indulging in everything I missed out on for the last two years.

My summer was great, but now I've moved on to the next phase in my "journey" which is grad school. I moved out to Colorado last week and I'll be starting at the University of Denver next month. I'll be studying International Development with the aim to go back to Africa or work with a nonprofit here that operates within the Sub Saharan. But who really knows, my future is wide open and I like it that way.

I just got a job working in DU's athletic department and have some other income generating ventures up my sleeve. On top of that I've been riding my bike everywhere, playing pickup volleyball, polishing up my snowboard, and enjoying the scenery of Colorado. It's a fun time right now and I'm trying to live as stress-free as possible until school starts.

Well, that's been my life the last four months. I'm not sure how much I'll update this blog while I'm in school as I'd love to think I'll have a lot of free time but sadly I don't think that will be true. But I'm confident to say that this isn't the end of my blogging days and I hope to be writing about other adventures sometime in the future. Thanks to all for your continued support and readership!

I leave you with a picture of my recent trip to Castlewood Canyon State Park. Colorado is great!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

hittin the road...

April 10 has finally come, the day where I am no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer but a RETURNED PCV and it's also the day that I fly home. I am feeling many emotions right now, but on the whole I am happy and sad and ready to go home. That mostly sums it up.

If you've been reading the news lately you might have seen what's been going on here in country. Basically, President Bingu died of cardiac arrest on Friday and now the Vice President, Joyce Banda, has taken over as president. And not wanting to go on a rant against Bingu, I will just say that I'm finally feeling hopeful about the future of Malawi. It's also been encouraging to see the peaceful transition of power and I hope that things continue to stay this way. Overall, it feels as if this country is about to take some big steps in the right direction.

Well, I don't have much else to say and I've got a plane to catch in a few hours. But I'll leave you all with a video of my neighbor kids singing a goodbye song that they made up for me. It's hard for me not to watch this video and think fondly of my time here. Man, life is good isn't it?

Thanks once again for everyone reading this and helping me to feel like my efforts to document my journey these past two years was not in vain. I hope you've enjoyed it as I certainly have enjoyed sharing my experiences, the good and even the very bad. See you all in America!

Monday, April 2, 2012

packed up and ready to ship out

For the last six months I was obsessively counting down the days until I go back to good ol' America. Then in the past two weeks I tried as hard as possible to not think about the precious little time I had left in my village. Time just slips by doesn't it? Well anyway I am all moved out of Kakunga village and to be honest I'm having a hard time right now just thinking about the fact I won't be going back there again, at least not in the same capacity. My home, my dear friends, my Amayi, my cats and dog, projects, everything. But we go into the Peace Corps knowing it's a two year deal then we move on and let the community pick up from where we left them, which was hopefully better off than when we started. The whole purpose of development is that we should be putting ourselves out of a job, we go in there and do our work and then let them figure the rest out. It's still tough though as we invest so much of our time, energy, and our heart into our job.

Anyway, I'm currently in Lilongwe trying frantically to finish all the mounds of paperwork, do interviews, and get all my medical issues resolved. I'll be flying outta here next Tuesday and I'll reach Philly the next day. So while you are all waiting in desperate anticipation for my return home, why don't you distract yourself with some more pictures of my last couple of months?..

Putse fly larvae I pulled out of my leg. My face doesn't even begin to express my disgust...

Yep, that thing was making his home inside my body for at least a week (unknowingly I swear)

One last bike ride

Jimmy and Daniel in front of their demo medicinal garden, something I think I'm most proud of to be involved with during my service. Watch out for them, they'll be selling their products in America veryyy soon

Wake up to make coffee and I find 6 puppies stuffed into my mud stove

Day before leaving Kakunga and I see this over my neighbor's house. Nice reminder that life's beautiful in spite of my heavy heart...

Daniel proudly showing my mom his assortment of medicinal products

Amayi and the other neighbors showing me up on the dancefloor...

Fellow PCVs Christi and Alysia teaching the support group about permaculture

Some of the women listening to Alysia talk about composting, intercropping, guilds, natural pesticides, etc.

Mom and I in front of the Kamera Clinic during the opening ceremony. What a special day.

Norman Carr Cottage on Monkey Bay. An awesome way to end an even better week with my mom...

I can't wait to see you all very very soooooooon! Much love from Malawi...

Saturday, February 18, 2012

the final countdown (in pictures)

Well I am back again with another post, which could quite realistically be one of my very last. I'm not feeling too sentimental about it, at least not for now. But anyway, here's my update on the last couple of months. Instead of writing way too much to explain everything like I normally do, I decided to take a different approach and use pictures instead. They are in a very random order, but nevertheless I hope you enjoy...

Kapiri Medicals - first place winners of the 2nd Kapiri Women's Football Cup (sponsored by my soon-to-be-married friend Steph Ohlson, thank you Steph!)

Christmas '11 at Likoma Island (jealous?)

Tithandizani HIV/AIDS Support Group in front of their newly built pig house

Kamera Under Five Health Clinic...Finally finished!

the piggies

Chizumulu Island on Christmas Eve

making a eucalyptus tincture

the beginnings of a homemade beesuit as modeled by one of the teachers

 with my bud Nelson, a cute 5 yr old with a disorder that severely stunts his growth

my dog - I asked my little sister to name him and she affectionately gave him the name "LionTiger"

groundnuts grown for cooking oil production with the women's group

what I see while waiting for a minibus to Lilongwe in the early am

natural medicinal products for sale..

one of the nursery school kids with her donated toy 

part I of a beekeeping training at a primary school

my backyard in the middle of the rainy season...this means I am on constant snake watch

with the local nursery school kids and presenting them with toys, books, posters, and maize porridge thanks to a very special donor (again, thanks Steph!)

Thanks again for reading my post. Hope all of you from back home are ready for this tanned, slightly malnourished, even more slightly cynical, but very happy girl!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

technology part II

I’m not sure if it’s ironic or not that my last post was about how great having an internet phone was since it was stolen way back in October. I mourned a little bit for my beloved Blackberry and was angry at the people who hang around the Lilongwe bus depot since this was the second (but first successful) time that people tried to steal from me. So now I am back to checking email and stuff maybe once a week and I am okay with that since I can spend more of my time not being distracted by Facebook and Gmail and enjoying my surroundings while I still can.

Life has been hectic the past few months and I cannot believe that December is already here. Before I give you an update on what I am doing now let me fill you in on what I’ve been up to the last few months…

ANAMED training-
I spent the first week of October in Dedza at an Action for Natural Medicine training. I was able to bring one of my counterparts, Jimmy, as he is the chairperson of the HIV/AIDS support group and already had a medicinal garden that he is in charge of. We spent the week learning about different indigenous and exotic plants and trees and how they can be used for medicine and nutrition. The majority of our time was spent outside identifying the plants, inside the classroom, and the more hands-on part of making teas, ointments, powders, tinctures, etc. The week was by far my favorite training I have ever attended and myself and Jimmy couldn’t wait to get back to Kapiri to start implementing what we have learned. The biggest thing that I took away from the week was that there is definite income generating potential with these plants and trees. My entire service I have wanted to do a lot with these herbal plants but doubted the market availability or demand since most people seem to want to just go to the hospital and buy their medicine there. Now that my mindset has changed I am determined to focus most of my time and energy for the rest of my service on medicinal plants.

Liwonde National Park Annual Waterhole Game Count-
After ANAMED I headed down to Liwonde National Park with about a dozen other PCVs, most of whom are in my group. Our job for the week was to sit in a hide perched above a waterhole in 4 hour shifts and count every single animal that comes to drink. So all day long from the middle of the night to the very hot afternoons we sat quietly at the hides and counted elephants, water buffalo, hippos, antelope, warthogs, zebra, sable, hyenas, and the extremely rare and ever elusive black rhino. Highlights of the week include hearing elephants eating from a tree directly above my tent during the middle of the night but being too scared to get out of my tent and run away. Monkeys and baboons were always hanging around our camp and were constantly trying to steal our food and playing with our tents. During one shift an elephant came so close to our hide that I could have literally reached out and touched him if it were not for the park guard grabbing his gun and telling us to not move.

I then headed way up north to Nyika National Park for Camp RENEW which is a one week camp for kids in secondary school to learn about the environment. It’s so important to teach these kids about how to care for the environment since as their population continues to increase at such a rapid rate, the dependence on their natural resources will only continue to increase as well. Therefore we discussed issues such as deforestation, alternative energy, nutrition, permaculture and sustainable farming, environmental business, environmental activism, and more. Nyika was a very fitting place to have the camp as we were able to take hikes throughout the week and on the game drive through the park we got to see zebra and roan antelope.

50th Anniversary-
Peace Corps worldwide celebrated its 50th birthday this year and in PC Malawi we celebrated by having a celebratory function at the US Ambassador’s house. It was also a celebration for USAID and so we hosted a variety of government officials and people working with NGOs. Peter Mutharika, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the President’s brother, and the possible next president of Malawi came and gave a speech. Overall it was a nice affair, but then again any excuse to dress up and eat nice food is good enough for us.

I took the GRE back in November, I had been studying for it for a while so I’m hoping to do well enough to get into the schools I’m applying for. However, I’ve been feeling lately that maybe I should put off school until ’13 since one of the things that you need before going to school is money and I certainly don’t have that after being a poor volunteer for the past 2 years. But regardless we will see how it goes…

Thanksgiving + Mulanje -
I traveled to Blantyre for Thanksgiving and spent it with a few friends from my group. I ate the best Indian food I have ever had, then we went to Malawi’s only movie theater and saw a movie called Columbiana. It was a dumb movie and we spent way too much of our monthly allowance to see it, but for two hours we got to feel like we were back in America and that certainly made it all worth it!

The next day I went south to Mulanje with my friends Bri and Amy to Bri’s site. She prepared a trip up Mulanje Mountain (Africa’s 2nd tallest mountain) with her wildlife club at the local primary school and so Amy and I helped out with it. For 2 two days we hiked up and back down part of the mountain with 30 kids in 7th and 8th grade. Aside from the rain and my sore legs for a few days afterwards it was a really great trip.

Something I’ve been excited for for months finally happened on the 3rd of December… my amayi and my landlord got married. They’ve been living together for about 5 years and in Malawian culture once a couple starts living together they are seen as being (officially and unofficially) married, but since they both want to join the Presbyterian church here they needed to have an official ceremony with all the proper documents, etc.

My amayi is one of my favorite people here, she is always looking out for me and treats me as her own daughter. If I am sick she takes care of me, when I first got to site and couldn’t make a fire she taught me how, whenever I unknowingly break a cultural faux pau she politely takes me aside and lets me know, and every night I eat with her, my landlord, and some of her grandkids that she takes care of. She likes to tell people that I am her second born child out of the five kids she already has, and most importantly she is the closest thing that I have to a mom here. And for that I was excited about their wedding and wanted to help make it a special day for them.

In the few days before the ceremony I enjoyed helping the other women prepare for the reception by gathering firewood, making thobwa (a drink made from corn that they like to drink at special occasions), and cooking the food. But my favorite part was the night before the wedding when all of the women stayed up all night to dance and make bawdy jokes about amayi’s wedding night.

Their church is about 6 miles from their house and since they have very little money their plan was to ride their bikes to the church. Thinking of my amayi in her wedding dress on the back of a bicycle seemed unacceptable so I rented a 3 ton flatbed truck to take them, their family, and some of the neighbors to the church. So the 2 of them sat in front and myself and about 40 other people rode in the back singing the whole way to the church and it was great.

After the ceremony we went back to the village for the celebration. I could go on and on about Malawian weddings since they are completely different than what I am used to. Needless to say I pretty much hate weddings here, they are basically a shameless ploy for everyone to give the couple money. People spend hours just dancing around the bride and groom throwing money at them and I always felt forced to give more money than everyone else since I’m seen as the rich white girl. I normally do everything I can to avoid going to a wedding, but this one was definitely different for me.

My sister bought a goat and so a few of the men slaughtered it and then some of the women made nsima and goat for lunch. It was delicious and afterwards we all danced for a couple hours. After dancing came the time for people to give money to the bride and groom. In total they managed to raise over $100 which for this time of year during the hunger season is quite a feat. Overall the day was great and I think it will be one of my favorite memories of my village.

Most of my activities are winding down as the health clinic has finished being built and the only remaining part of my project with the AIDS support group is to buy their pigs which we will do tomorrow. I am still doing work with the medicinal plants, my volleyball club, beekeeping, the women’s group, and other things but as far as funding goes my work is done. Right now I am focusing on slowly distancing myself from the projects and to try to set up the people that I am working with to continue the projects once I leave. It’s a weird feeling giving up a lot of the responsibility as I like to have everything go only the way that I want it to, but I know that for the sustainability of the projects that it must be done.

What’s Ahead…
Christmas will be spent at Likoma Island, a tiny island on Lake Malawi that is a favorite getaway for a lot of volunteers. It’s pretty remote as the only way to get there is by a boat that comes in and out once a week or by plane. So I’m hoping to spend the week swimming, eating fish, watching a ton of movies, and trying not to miss home too much.

New Year’s will be spent in my village and I’m very excited to buy some fireworks and celebrate with my friends. I wasn’t able to be there for New Year’s last year and since this will be my last one here in Malawi I am hoping to make it extra special. I’m thinking a lot of dancing, eating rice and goat, and maybe even cooking some American food is in order.

In the beginning of January we will have our Close of Service conference at Senga Bay on the lake. Each group has this conference 3 months before they finish their service and for Environment ’10, ours has FINALLY come. Basically we spend 2-3 days talking about how to spend our last 3 months, close out our projects, talk about site replacements for those of us who want another volunteer in our villages, and most importantly we each choose our official dates to come home. It’s the last official time all 18 people in our group get together and it’s something we’ve all been looking forward to for a long time.

Well that’s about it, if you made it to the end of this very long post then I must congratulate you and say thank you for reading all of it! Check out my Facebook soon for pictures of everything I just talked about!

Saturday, September 24, 2011


Wow, so I just realized that I can update my blog from my phone. I live without electricity or running water, my bathroom is a large hole in the ground, and I bathe outside in a small hut while trying to fight off lizards and the occasional scorpion. But yet I can check my email and facebook, browse the web, even do some online shopping (even though it will take months for anything to get to me), and now write on my blog from the comfort of my hammock in a remote village in sub Saharan Africa. Crazy isn't it?

Crazy and yet awesome and not so awesome all at the same time. Up until about a month ago I could easily go two or three weeks without checking my email, sometimes longer. While I was training last year it was 2 months without touching a computer or internet phone. To think of having to do that now seems frightening. I love having access to the outside world, and I'm slowly reverting back to the addicted blackberry user that I am back in the States.

One of the reasons that I love living here is the slow, simple pace of life. I've come to see that living without electricity and running water is a blessing, I spend more time at the bore hole chatting with the women while we all draw water and I'm outside on my bike or working on my garden rather than being glued to a computer. It's great. I've read more books in 19 months than I've read in probably the last 5 years

However the downside of that was always the feeling like I was out of touch with my family, friends, world events, everything. It was definitely one of the causes of my frequent mood swings. I could go from over-the-top happy to sad and miserable at any time. And I think that had to do with not knowing what's going on outside of my village. But now I feel much more happy knowing what's going on in the world and with those that I care about, it helps me to live mine more freely.

I still haven't decided whether I'm better off with or without my blackberry, but for now I'm just trying to enjoy my simple and strange life here as well as trying to stay connected to home...