In September, 2015, I was blessed to attend a Habitat for Humanity International Global Village trip to Malawi, Africa. We spent time in the city of Lilongwe looking at community based solutions affecting housing, like water and sanitation. We also traveled to a more remote village in Salima to work on housing for children orphaned, primarily by AIDS/HIV. Rachel grinning with trowel

In applying for funds to support the trip I had to articulate how the trip would affect my “personal and professional life”. . .  I believed I would gain a deeper understanding of what it really means to be in need of decent housing and the myriad of ways that can be achieved. I believed I would meet people native to Africa and from other affiliates who would broaden and encourage my thinking. I believed I would have the opportunity to share from my work and personal experience things which might be beneficial to others. I believed I would return physically fatigued and emotionally expanded. I intended to make this trip with my mind, hands and heart open to what God desired for my life. Ultimately, I wasn't sure how I would be changed, just that I would. What follows are my thoughts about this incredible experience.

“Indeed, Habitat for Humanity builds houses. But . . . there is a lot more to what happens than house building. It’s making a house a home, a neighborhood a safe and beautiful community, building ‘bridges’ between people of other cultures and classes; it’s learning new skills, finding new ways to serve, acquiring new friends, and much, much more. It is dreams coming true for all involved – dreams that translate in making a stronger society, a better world.” – Millard and Linda Fuller

I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to travel to the other side of the world but it is good to be home! Folks are asking me if my trip to Africa was “amazing”, “good”, “wonderful” – there were occasions where any of those words would be good descriptors. But while I was there, the word that kept coming to mind was “juxtaposition":
• smiling, happy, laughing children chasing a bus full of mostly white Americans who have come to see the desperate poverty in which they live, shouting “Azungus, Azungus!” (white people)
• A huge coca-cola logo painted on a water tower
• An African teen-age boy taking pictures of an ancient tribal dance on a cell phone
• Images of beauty and desolation competed in my mind

As I continue to process what I experienced, the word “overwhelming” is the best I can do. There are 1.4 million vulnerable children in Malawi, having lost one or both parents. They are cared for by family members or others in their village who take them in. Girls as young as four and five care for infant siblings a week at a time when other family members are away working. In spite of the hardships, as soon as one of our folks took out a camera or phone, the children rushed in with “Chambula” (take my picture). They never tired of seeing themselves on the screens.Rachel holding hands with Maureen and other child

Is this why I went to Africa – to witness a solidarity within the village communities where, literally, the village raises the orphaned and vulnerable children?

Maureen’s was the first Habitat home we visited. It is her home, as ownership is vested in the youngest child. She stood close to her grandmother while the local staff shared their situation and the translator gave us access to their story. I was standing in the front of our group and smiled at Maureen. She looked down, sheepishly. As the conversation continued I smiled at her each time she looked in my direction. That smile was really all I had to give this child who had lost her parents. I was grateful that she now has a solid structure with a roof in which to live, a grandmother who cares for her and a village full of folks who will help raise her. As we walked from this home to visit another, I felt this light touch on my left hand. It was Maureen, reaching up to take my hand. She held on until we reached the threshold of the next Habitat house and went in and one of the older children told her not to go in.

Rachel and chubby babyIs this why I went to Africa – to learn about a five year old girl who owns her own home – one of the over 16,000 families Habitat Malawi hopes to serve in the next several years?

As we arrived at Tapiwa’s house on the second day of our construction work, a young man handed a velvet-skinned, chubby baby to me. I was immediately the envy of the others in our group as we had all been longing to hold one of the many babies around but had not been invited to do so. He snuggled in, giggled when I tickled him and had a death grip on my hat. I absorbed the hope in this child – who has a young mother who nursed him generously and a father who had a job making the dirt mortar for our project.

Is this is why I went to Africa – to hold babies and pray for hope in this country where four out of five people live in sub-standard housing?

Tapiwa owns the home my group spent two days helping build. She lives with her brother, Mika and her mother. Her father died a year ago. For one so young, she had an aura of sadness that emanated from her. She did not join in the “Chambula” chant or respond to my smiles. As I sat on her old house’s stoop for a water break on the second day, she came and stood in front of me, thumb in her mouth. I opened my arms and she crawled into my lap. We sat like that for some time – I could not bear to ask her to get down. Even though I was helping build her home, I felt like holding her was more important than the few bricks I might add to the wall. Rhea, a woman from our group joined us, as did one of the workers who translated. Rhea asked her about school and why she was not there. Her response was that she could not go to school because she did not have a clean dress to wear. I had no words, only tears escaping down my cheeks.

Rachel looking out door of CBO at children and vanIs this is why I went to Africa -- to get my heart broken . . . I can do that here by simply reading the venom on Facebook in response to a story about a refugee family’s dedication?

The issues related to affordable housing worldwide are so very different, yet the same: housing is but one piece of the equation. Decent housing affects education, health, financial stability, happiness and hope. I often feel overwhelmed by the need in Lexington and the difficulty in finding enough resources to meet the need. But the magnitude and scope of the issues in Africa are beyond overwhelming.
Before I went, I said that I knew I would be changed. I am. I do not really understand how. I certainly do not understand why. I will ponder and to pray and continue to share my thoughts.