This past Saturday a group of us went to a lakeside village 2 hours outside of Lilongwe (the capital city) to assist Project Juembo. This organization was started by a missionary family associated with African Bible Colleges, and is modeled after Operation Christmas Child. Instead of passing out boxes, they pass out backpacks filled with school supplies to orphans in Malawi.
We began our day by meeting at the appointed location on campus to load our bus with 60 backpacks. About a dozen of us formed a line to more efficiently pass the school supplies from the house to our bus. The backpacks were crammed into the last two rows, and the remaining rows were crammed with everyone who had volunteered to help that day. Malawian buses have all sorts of secret hidden seats that plop down to fit extra people (as I mentioned before, the national modo is “there’s always room for one more). My particular seat was in between the driver and front passenger seat, which granted me a spectacular front row view of the hillside drive to the village. The seat also granted me spectacular butt soreness, because I’m pretty sure the cushions included were entirely for show and had no effectual function.
Sitting next to me in the front passenger seat was Amy, a fellow missionary who will be the financial controller for ABC this upcoming year. During the drive we were both struck by the beauty of the landscape coupled with an abundance of poverty that continued all the way to the village. This includes miles and miles of people living in shacks, ladies carrying impressive amounts of cargo on their heads, and raggedly clothed pedestrians walking just a foot or two away from our speeding bus. About 45 minutes into the ride, our trip was startled by an upsetting episode. A mutt bravely wandered in front of our speeding bus, stopped to look directly at us, and was swiftly killed and run over which caused several horrible sounding thuds. Amy yanked the window open to get some air, the driver apologized and assured us there was nothing he could do, and I assured the rest of the bus that we had only hit a dog and not a person (a huge cause of fatalities in Malawi). Fortunately, we had over an hour to settle down before the bus arrived at our destination.
Our bus drove strictly on dirt roads for the last 10 miles of the trip to get to our village. We swarmed off the bus and were greeted by a sea of timid African children. They seemed to understand how to reciprocate a fist bump, but seeing a bus, sunglasses, white people, cameras, et cetera were all an extreme rarity for them. It would probably be equivalent to an alien race landing in DC, walking off their space ship, and then shaking hands with everybody.
Fortunately, the kids warmed up to us quickly and were eager to start playing some games. My friend, Todd, and I played soccer next to the lake as long as we could until the kids outlasted us. After admitting defeat I walked up to another group who were throwing frisbees for the kids to retrieve. I noticed that one frisbee had gotten stuck in a tall bush so I heroically walked over to help. I boldly stretched my hand up into the bush and yanked out the frisbee… along with several thorns that were now injected into my right arm. The kids watched with curiosity as I pulled each thorn out of my arm and flicked them to the ground one by one. I made sure to show no sign of weakness.
Before passing out the backpacks, we were each given a white board and dry-erase marker which were used to say thank you to each individual donor back in the states. I also learned that drawing pictures of familiar animals was of significant interest to the kid villagers, and the more I drew the more they gathered. Watching a red marker make images on a white board was nothing short of magic to them.
Finally, we began passing out the school supplies. All of the orphans congregated in a tiny little hut and waited for their name to be called. Once they heard their name they came out, and we took them by a tree to take their picture. The photo shoot included draping new shoes over their shoulder, putting a brand new shirt on their back, putting one strap of their backpacks over the other vacant shoulder, and holding up a whiteboard that said, “Thank you, [donor’s name].” Most kids had trouble smiling and were so fearful that they might screw something up that they avoided showing any emotion. A few kids could not hide their excitement and they sported reserved smiles during the whole process. Their new backpacks were easily the nicest gifts they had ever received in their entire lives. It’s the equivalent of someone in the U.S. receiving a treasure chest. They started the day with no shoes, and holes in their shirts. Furthermore, they live under the suppressive reality that they are orphans who have been abandoned very early on in their lives. But every year Project Juembo shows up and lets these kids know that they are cared for and loved. And Project Juembo is one component to a larger ministry: the orphanage. There are a handful of men who spend their lives living in these remotes villages, running the schools, and teaching these kids about God. After every kid received his new school supplies, I had the pleasure of watching them all dance, sing worship songs, and listen to Bible stories in Chichewa, their native language.
After acquiring an impressive sunburn, we begrudgingly got back on the bus and left the kids behind. But each and every one of them is still out there living a harsher life than I can imagine. And they belong to just one of thousands of villages in Malawi. I strongly urge everyone reading this blog to not overlook opportunities to support the needy. I can personally attest that I was present for one of the best days that the orphans of Selema village ever had.