Linking with Microloan Foundation USA (MLF) this trip brought a group of students to Malawi to learn more about micro-finance and the effects small loans can offer women living in poverty. Students learnt how microfinance works “on-the-ground,” and had the opportunity to collaborate with MLF on a variety of projects.

Day to Day Itinerary: Global Development in Action. Southern Malawi.  

  • Day 1: Blantyre (Arrival day)
  • Day 2: Mulanje Mountain (Environmental Workshops)
  • Day 3: Mulanje Mountain (Environmental Workshops)
  • Day 4: Mulanje Mountain (Hiking expedition)
  • Day 5: Thyolo Tea Estates (Fair Trade Production)
  • Day 6: Nchalo Sugar Plantations (Sustainable Agriculture production)
  • Day 7: Majete Wildlife Reserve (Wildlife Conservation)
  • Day 8: Zomba (Community Workshops)
  • Day 9: Zomba (Homestay)
  • Day 10: Blantyre (Final day)
  • Day 11: Tour Ends

TRAVELLERS DIARY

Envoys Group-  Linked with Microloan Foundation USA. Trip to Malawi to watch micro-finance in action. 2014.

Microloan Foundation- November 11, 2014. Written by group participant Annie Lee.

I spent two weeks this past summer in Malawi, a country in southeast Africa, with a crew of ten students, two faculty from an educational organization called Envoys, a local Malawian translator and the executive director from a microfinance organization called MicroLoan Foundation USA. 

The purpose of this trip for me was not an attempt to eradicate hunger and poverty in Malawi. Instead, it was a way to get new perspective on my view towards this Southeast African country, and also an opportunity to watch microfinance in-action.

I first went to the country Malawi with a blinded and stereotyped vision of how an African country may look like. Imagining only dirt roads, bare-foot pedestrians, hungry children and straw-made houses, I was shocked to see paved roads, men wearing suits and ties, English-speaking children and buildings with glass windows in Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. It only took me a few minutes to realize that these luxuries were affiliated to the government of Malawi, though. In fact, most of the rural villages I visited indeed matched some of my earlier stereotypes of Malawi.

At the villages, I was able to connect directly with the women the Microloan Foundation assisted, and was surprised by the warm hospitality the women showed to us. They welcomed us with dances and songs, and even though I started with very basic knowledge on microfinance, I was able to get a better understanding of the topic after talking with the women directly.

There were numerous MLF supported women groups throughout the country, each consisting of 12-20 women in various ages. Each women were given microloans that would help them start their own businesses, and they also received special trainings on how to manage bookkeeping and cash flow. The women then opened an account at a bank and started her own business- usually selling food such as fruit, vegetables, rice and tea. Even though the women were given individual loans, the group was held responsible for each other’s repayment, requiring trust and collaboration between the women in these groups. Once a woman successfully repaid her microloan, that money went to help another woman, and the cycle continued.

I had never thought about the importance of sustainability when doing community service, and learning about microfinance and its long-lasting effect just amazed me. After visiting numerous women groups, the Microloan Foundation asked us to help build a bridge in a village in Mulanje, Malawi. At first, I was slightly worried — we were a group of ten high school students with no experience whatsoever in building bridges. However, this experience became the epitome of why I believe microfinance is more effective than short-term aid.

We arrived at the village early in the morning with tools in our hands. Luckily, there was a large broken tree limb that we were able to use for the platform of the bridge. Although this project started off with only our crew members, the project site immediately became crowded- full of men, women and children living in the village.

When we started measuring and sawing the tree limb, we were suddenly stopped by the group of men living in these villages. They told us we were doing it wrong — I wasn’t surprised because we were so inexperienced; but I was surprised when they asked for our tools and began working themselves. Once they started working, they didn’t stop. In fact, the men would not let us even close to the project. Instead, we spent the time talking with the locals and playing with the children. I got to become friends with kids named Grateful, Hope and Happiness. I learned that in Malawi, many kids are named after words that describe how their mothers felt after giving birth!

After a long couple of hours, the bridge was finished, but I felt useless and skeptical about whether we were actually helping the village. During a discussion later on that evening, I began to understand that building a bridge for the village was, in fact, not a very effective nor a long-term lasting help. Although we may have felt good, thinking that we made an impact on the village, the bridge in reality could collapse anytime, and this problem would arise again and again. Also, if we, foreigners, continue helping by coming into villages all the time, the community will become too dependent and will not be sustainable alone.

I came to realize that this was the difference between just helping and helping through microfinance. Microfinance was a resource that would allow the villagers to rebuild the bridge on their own. All they needed was motivation, and that day, we were the incentives that led the men to step up and fix the bridge.

With this experience and perspective in mind, whenever I now consider doing community service, I always think about sustainability and its long-lasting effects. Little changes are bound to occur with theses subtle but significant qualities in mind. So the next time you think about helping to make a change in a community, think about the long-term effects of your actions. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” – Maimonides

Press Links: http://www.nonsibijournal.com/2014/11/microloan-foundation/


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