Saturday, June 14, 2014

Like Disneyland but better…

You know life is good when this is next to your tent
Anyone who has been to Disneyland remembers two things; the “magic” and the crowds. The “magic” consists of beautiful recreations of reality. Nobody can bend the fabric of what is real and what is false quite the Disney staff. The crowds are self-explanatory. You find yourself surrounded by people from all over the world who’s sweaty, smelly children keep running around and screaming for countless hours. You may find yourself pushed to your limit but, somehow, the “magic” brings you back down. Very few people leave Disneyland unhappy.

Africa- obviously- is not Disneyland. Africa is a continent western culture associates with poverty, hunger, and AIDS. Although these things are persistent problems, we tend to focus too much on the negatives- like the lines and heat at Disneyland- instead of the “magic”. Africa is not a continent of problems that need to be solved but of deeply rooted cultures and beautiful people. It sounds cliché but there really is something magical here.

The last two weeks, we have had the opportunity to start teaching the nutrition and food preservation classes to the families at SAFI and to children at Primary (Elementary) Schools. We experience first hand what life in Malawi is really like. Yes, there are problems with malnutrition but the families and children we teach are so excited to learn from us and apply what is being taught. Yes, families face some financial struggles but who doesn’t? People here are happy. Children play, adults work, occasionally people get sick, often people are healthy. Girls giggle and play when boys they like walk and life continues as normal. Most of the time, it is a blast.

But sometimes we have to deal with miscommunications, bad weather, plans falling through, and problems with our projects. It is like being stuck in lines at Disneyland. It’s frustrating and feels like the circle of Hell reserved for people who didn’t rewind videos before returning them to Blockbuster. Despite that, when things turn around, the love I feel for Malawi comes to the surface and the “magic” is back.

Not the elephants that tried to charge us... but still huge
The last few days we took a long weekend to experience “Wild Africa”. We went to Liwonde and Lake Malawi National Parks. We got to see hundreds of hippos, waterbucks, kudu, elephants, impala, and other animals. We went on a river cruise and Land Rover game drive. The river cruise felt a lot like the Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise and the game drive felt exactly like the Indiana Jones ride, but with one major difference; it was real. The elephant that tried to charge us was real. The hippos peeking their head out of the water were real. The boat and Land Rover were real. Most importantly, the people were real. Everything about it was magical. There was no need for animatronics. Nothing was bolted down to floor. Nothing was artificial. Although I enjoy Disneyland, I experienced the real thing. No amount of twisted metal and audiotapes can even be compared to living it firsthand.

At Lake Malawi, along with snorkeling, tubing, and playing around, we walked along the beach to spend time with the natives and the other tourists. To be honest, I was also trying to find a place to watch the World Cup (interesting fact: I was at Disneyland when the last World Cup started and in the Missionary Training Center when it finished

), but we also wanted to make some new friends. We found a group of people sitting around a fire playing drums. We happily joined them. Quickly, a group of about 15 people sat around and we got to enjoy each other’s company. The World Cup quickly became less important as we talked and played around the fire. We quickly formed a web of association with people from all around the world, all with different desires and problems. The time we spent there around that fire felt almost as magical as the safari.

I guess this is a roundabout way for me to say that if you aren’t living your life- both the good parts and the lines at Disneyland- you are really missing out. Not everyone can drop everything and spend a summer in Africa, but everyone can put down the phone, computer, iPad, etc. and experience what is real. Cherish your friends and family, experience nature, talk to a stranger (obvious dark alleys are not the best places to do this), and don’t let the fake things dominate your life. If your relationships are fake, make new relationships. If your entertainment is fake, try something else. Disneyland version of happiness is great, but go find the real thing because it is better. If you can’t feel, smell, touch, see, or taste it, is it really worth your time and energy?

I know my generation hears that a lot, but after this weekend, I’ve decided that I am going to make some changes. It is time to not just live my life 87.9% to the fullest, but the full 100%.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sometimes we have to kayak into the wind…

Before I jump into this post, I want to it clear that although spending my summer here in Malawi is very fun, it is not a glamorous vacation. Yes, there are a lot of things that we do that are very fun and those are the images that most of you will see on Facebook and Instagram, but other than those fleeting moments of relaxation and trying to snatch a quick photo that will get the most possible likes on social media, we spend most of our time trying to keep our heads above water. I often find myself lacking the materials I will need for my projects, lacking the ability to communicate effectively, and, being the only guy on this internship, lacking a good guy friend. Sometimes I notice myself dwelling on the things I lack, and I find myself frustrated and occasionally even angry. It is often easy to shake our fists towards heaven and think to ourselves, “I’ve made a terrible mistake.” Generally, we haven’t made an error of judgment, we just happen to be kayaking into the wind.

This past weekend, us interns had the wonderful experience of going back to Lake Malawi. We planned to take a 2-day kayaking tour of the lake which would include cliff jumping, snorkeling, volleyball, Frisbee, a little bit of hiking, and camping overnight on a beach. The first day of the trip we were full of energy and really very gung-ho about the experience. Having grown up in Minnesota, I found myself the most experienced kayaker in the group (except for our guides of course) with many of the group never having kayaked before. Day One seemed pretty easy for everyone at first but towards the end of the day, most of our group was happy to set up camp. We later found out that in just one day we had travelled 18 kilometers. The next day, we had to kayak back those same 18 Km to but this time; we had a strong head wind.

Anyone who has canoed or kayaked into the wind knows that it is often very difficult. Not only does the wind try and force you backwards, but also you might find yourself slowing turning towards one side or the other. Life’s challenges often come at us in a similar way. We end up not only having to spend our strength to keep moving forward but life’s obstacles can also push us way off course from where we truly want to be headed.

About halfway through Day Two of kayaking, the wind was really taking its toll on our group. The smiles from the previous day were fading. Sunburns and sore muscles stopped being ignored and became painful reminders that we still had a long way to travel. The ideas of “I can’t do this”, “this is too hard”, and “what is the point?” slowly crept into the mind and fogged out all other thoughts. The key is that we continued going. It never got any easier, in fact, there were times when the winds picked up as if to just make us angry, but we all just kept on paddling. By the time we saw the first signs that the trip was almost over, we rejoiced.  When we landed on shore, some of the girls even cried. Having had experienced what it is like to be forced back by the wind before on trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Northern Minnesota, I had full confidence that at some point in time our struggle would end, but for those who have never experienced that feeling before, it was truly an eye opening experience. They had to move forward with just the wavering faith that if they kept paddling, they would make it to shore.

Sometimes life is really easy and nothing seems to hold us back from our pursuits but in other cases, we find ourselves facing the winds of life with very little other than the hope that it will get easier. That little glimmer of hope needs to be cultivated. Even just a little bit of faith can make the most outrageous tasks possible but they require time, patience, and a lot of hard work.

Right now I find myself in a situation where patience is a key skill that I need to develop. Things aren’t perfect but I am working with what I do have to make the best out of my time here in Malawi. I am waiting for my sunburns to heal and the vegetables that I need to arrive but in the mean time, I will embrace the fact that I am learning and growing everyday with each obstacle and difficulty. I can tell myself over and over that things would be different if I was “in charge” but I’m not. Certain situations will just be outside my control and I had better accept that and move on rather than getting frustrated and hung up on the details. I will find ways to contribute and be productive. In life, we should do the same thing. Why wait around waiting for the situation to change when there are things you can do now? So what if you needed to adjust your plans? You just have to keep moving forward, even if it is against the wind.