Why I Gave to Makwelero

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“What’s your dream for the future?”

You can never get through to the Lilongwe post office without stopping to talk to the vendors at the craft market. They greet you like an old friend, grabbing your hand as they bring you over to show their wares. Since every stall sells essentially the same overpriced knick-knacks, the vendors brand themselves with nicknames. This particular morning, I was talking to Black Seeds and Chicken Soup. Waiting for a friend who was on a shopping spree, I decided to ask about their hopes for the future.

Black Seeds stole my answer “I don’t know.” But Chicken Soup stopped to think before he explained: “I just want to have a place to call my own. Somewhere that I can feel comfortable”.

It’s easy to get caught up in the world of international development without stopping to reflect on what development actually means. In the midst of indicators on caloric intake and household expenditure, the definition that I keep returning to is a bit messier: “Helping people live the kind of lives they want to lead”.

With this definition, I’ve set out to find what kind of lives people actually want. Since I arrived in Malawi, I’ve been asking people: “What is your dream?”

Some are like Chicken Soup, they just want a place to call home. Others’ dreams take more specific shapes: a security guard who wants to be a doctor or a college student who dreams of opening his own garage. Many are heartwarming: A coworker told me that he wants to be able to leave his two daughters with more than he had growing up. Whenever he gets some money, he adds a row of bricks to the house he is building them. He’s now eight rows from the top.

But the best answer goes to Patience. I met Patience a few weeks ago when I went with some colleagues to see an elementary school in the city. After graduating university, Patience and a group of friends began volunteering in this school in their spare time. As their program became more official, they turned to my organisation, the National Youth Council of Malawi (NYCOM) for support in structure and systems.

We followed Patience, her friends, and the school Headmistress around the campus, failing miserably in our attempts to remain inconspicuous.The classes were crowded, at least 70 blue and white uniforms filling each room. Kids waved to us from their classrooms, sitting on concrete floors with bright smiles like every World Vision ad you’ve ever seen. Conditions were stark, with the ceilings had holes, chalkboards were worn, and jagged glass jutted up from the window frames; evidence of thieves and vandals.

At the end of our tour, I asked Patience about her work. Like most Malawian students, she found herself unemployed after graduation. Unlike most, she took this as an opportunity to begin volunteering at a school. When she realized how many kids were being pumped through the system without ever mastering basic skills like reading, she started calling her friends, “I call them up and tell them to just come a see what it’s like to teach a kid to read. After that, they always come back.”

Patience and her team have started on the journey of becoming a certified youth organisation, calling themselves Makwelero (Ladders), to describe the relationship between vulnerable children and the volunteers that come alongside them. When I asked Patience about her dream for the future, she answered without skipping a beat:

I want to instill a sense of community service among youth

Where others see unemployment, Patience has found an opportunity to give back to her community. She wants to see youth everywhere involved in their communities. Right now Makwelero is raising money so that the kids that they teach can sit on desks instead of the floor. Patience told me “At the start, I just went with my hands open to everyone I knew”. With NYCOM’s help, Makwelero has just sent a sponsorship proposal in to Malawi’s largest telecom provider.

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The Makwelero team. Patience is in the blue dress.

Much of the time, doing development is confusing, messy, and heartbreaking. But every once in a while you get to stand and cheer as people beat the odds and achieve their dreams. These are the moments that get me up early every morning to walk the dusty road to work.

Last week my friend Tanya set up a page asking her network to support Makwelero’s desk campaign. The opportunity excited me so much that I was the first to give. I got to help make someone’s dream for the future become reality.

This was my first time donating to a cause like this one. I wonder if you would consider making it yours, too. 

Makwelero is changing the world through education, creativity, and community service. Halfway between a group of friends and an NGO, they are campaigning to provide desks for the students that they teach. You can support them here.

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