Mission: Malawi

Mission: Malawi

January 31, 2008
Written by Daniel Hazard

Lakeland College brings Malawi students to Wisconsin

Lakeland College in Sheboygan, Wis., a UCC-related liberal arts college, boasts the highest international student body in the state of Wisconsin, at 15 percent, representing students from 30 different countries. At the heart of this statistic, however, lies an even more remarkable story.

The Malawi Teacher Education Initiative was introduced to Lakeland in 1999. The program was developed by Jeff Elzinga, a professor of writing and Lakeland's interim vice president for academic affairs.

In partnership with the U.S. and Malawi governments, Lakeland hosts five students per year for a three-year program of intensive study. At the end of the program, the Malawi students receive a Bachelor's degree in education, then return home to become faculty in Malawi's teacher training colleges.

As teachers of teachers, they are able to introduce new methods and ideas, which are then passed to the children being taught in Malawi's primary and secondary schools.

As of this writing, 30 students have graduated from the Malawi Teacher Education Initiative. Elzinga is pleased with the results of the program, and reports that a few have even gone on for further schooling, either in the United States or by pursuing further education at the University of Malawi.

Upon the students' return to Malawi, Elzinga senses that their greatest challenge lies in presenting new ideas to a system entrenched in old habits.

"These students bring back a lot of fresh ideas and applications, theories, experiences, everything," says Elzinga. "People who have been in positions for many years [in Malawi] may feel a little bit threatened by change."

On top of that, the students have become accustomed to the technology that is readily available in the United States.

"Year round at Lakeland, they've learned to use computers, VCRs, DVDs, TVs, cell phones, and lots of computer software. Then they go back and there are no computers," says Elzinga. "There's maybe no electricity, or no plumbing. It's difficult to implement the things you want to do, particularly introducing all the information that's on the internet."

During their stay at Lakeland, the Malawi students have served as ambassadors for their homeland, going into neighboring public schools to do speaking engagements, job shadowing and observations. The students' presence on campus and in the community has sparked more interest in Malawi among U.S. students.

Malawi found itself in the media spotlight in 2006 when pop icon Madonna and her husband, Guy Ritchie, made headlines regarding their controversial adoption of a young boy named David Banda.

Lakeland is proud to be home of the first student chapter of Raising Malawi, an organization started by Madonna and bestselling author Michael Berg. The organization provides financial support, volunteers and technology (such as solar power, clean drinking water systems and internet service) to help revitalize hundreds of thousands of underprivileged and at-risk children.

Elzinga says local UCC congregations have been supportive of the Malawi Teacher Education Initiative by "adopting" the students. Church members invite the students into their homes for the holidays and raise funds and collect donations to help combat poverty in the country.

"It is a desperately poor country economically," says Elzinga. "Any help that Malawi can get, either from concerned individuals or groups, really does make a difference."

'You don't have to be a celebrity to get something done'

The Tabita Project is a grassroots ministry anchored by two sister congregations in Michigan.

First Congregational UCC of Gibraltar, Mich., and First Congregational UCC of Flat Rock, Mich., have reached out together to the village of Ntchewu, Malawi, and have made a huge difference in helping the Malawians move towards self-sufficiency.

Back in 2004, the Rev. Smart Msinkhu, a Methodist pastor who has grown his ministry in Malawi to include 30 congregations, came to the United States and visited the UCC churches in Flat Rock and Gibraltar. After describing the plight of his people, Cynthia Loop, the music director for both Michigan congregations, felt called to do something.

"I contacted Rev. Smart after he left us," Loop remembers. "I said I didn't see how I could help all that much, but I offered to maybe send a few books, to start a library."

At the time, Msinkhu had 400 students and he was in the process of starting a school in the area. What started as "a few books," says Loop, turned into funds to build toilets, the purchase of Malawi government-required books and learning tools like educational games and flashcards.

Soon, the students' test scores began to rank among the highest in the nation. "The [Malawi] government had an interest in seeing what was going on," says Loop. Shortly thereafter, the school was made an official government subsidized school.
"This area now has a school where they didn't have one before," Loop says.

Energized by that success, Loop and her church family began focusing on the next problem at hand: starvation, a situation made worse by recent droughts.

The inception of the Tabita Project's farm fund is built upon the "pay it forward" concept. Farmers receive funds to get them started with seed and fertilizer, then once they get their crops going, they pay back into the fund so that it can go towards helping another farmer.

"The first year we helped about 50 farmers and their families," Loop says. "After the first year of bumper crops, we successfully beat down the hunger in our area [of Malawi]."

This year the farm fund will expand to fund an "orphan's field," to help Rev. Msinkhu defray the cost of feeding and educating the 40 orphans in his care.

And Loop keeps finding more ways to help Malawi. She and Msinkhu have set up a sewing machine fund, much like the farm fund, to help with the purchase of sewing machines to generate income for families. And her congregations regularly send "joy boxes," containing educational, health and sewing supplies, along with letters written by the children of the church.

"You don't have to be a celebrity to get something done," says Loop. "You can make a difference, even on a smaller scale. It's pretty amazing how God can work through individuals to do wonderful things."

Learn more about the Tabita Project by contacting Cynthia Loop at <cynthia.loop@basf.com>.

Members of an AIDS youth peer group dance in Malawi. Religion News Service photo courtesy of Valenda Campbell/CARE
Peace ambassadors discover joy in Malawian songs, dance

Cynthia Winton-Henry and Phil Porter, both members of First Congregational UCC in Berkeley, Calif., teamed up with their colleague, Masankho Banda, to take 43 travelers from the United States and Australia to visit Masankho's home village of Tukombo, Malawi, as peace ambassadors in the summer of 2007.

Winton-Henry and Porter are co-founders of InterPlay, a system of movement and creative interaction designed to unleash creativity and foster a deeper connectedness between people. InterPlay's headquarters are located in Oakland, Calif.
In their blog, Winton-Henry shares her impressions of her first hours in Malawi:

Tukumbo, Malawi — After an 8-hour trip north, we were greeted at [the] cottage in the dark by women dancing with great exuberance. That alone was worth 70 hours of travel. But just behind the cottage before our vans even arrived were the men singing, dancing and drumming with the spirit that I dream of. Many of us wept with the astounding love given directly to us through song and dance. We had come home to Masankho's village. Many of us felt we really were home.

With a common desire to meet and learn about people and to dance with them, we had three days of dance sessions, learning both men's and women's dances. Our willingness to dance had a profound effect. A guy … said, "I never thought anyone would come here to learn OUR dances." As I danced alongside one woman I began to focus on the song. Moni Moni Moni (Hello Hello Hello). The women sing so full out. Nothing in their voice is restrained. It's wonderful. They are not worried about their singing and dancing. But the best part was looking into her face while she was teaching me. She was so incredibly open.

About Malawi

Malawi is in Southern Africa, nestled between Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia.

The tiny country has a large population. About 12.5 million people live in a country the size of Pennsylvania. This is larger than Botswana (1.8 million), Rwanda (8.8 million) and Zambia (11.5 million).

The average Malawian lives to only 37 years old because of HIV/AIDS, malaria and malnutrition.

Malawi is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. Over 55 percent of the population lives on less than $1 per day.
Source: <usaid.gov

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