WEDNESDAY, 16 MARCH 2011

Chimwemwe Umbrella

Howdy folks,
As my time here in Nkhata Bay draws to a close, I realise that I have not kept up with the blogging like I intended, so apologies for that but 'the best laid plans of mice and men' etc etc.

Actually I was due to leave Nkhata Bay on Monday of this week and catch a ferry to the Likomo and Chizimulu islands on the lake near the Mozambican side, but I am involved in a project which has not been completed so have had to stay a few more days to see it through
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So I thought I'd better write and tell you about some of the work I've been doing here and the projects that I have been funding with the generous donations you lovely people donated for my marathon.

Chimwemwe Umbrella is the new(ish) name of the charity that used to be called Africa Unplugged Malawi, which was set up and run by Chris Ashton about 5 years ago. I met up with Chris before I left the UK to make arrangements for my volunteer work and he had told me a little bit about the set up out here. I think I said in my last blog that I gave all my donations to Africa Unplugged UK before I left and they have since transferred half that money to me to spend on projects on the ground while I have been here, with the other half kept by them to finance the ongoing costs of the charity.

Chimwemwe translates from the local language as 'Happy', which is also the name of the 'managing director' here - Mr Happy Ngwira. Happy worked with Chris while he was still in Malawi and has been running things on the ground here since Chris left. Chimwemwe Umbrella is a very small, 'grass roots', Community Based Organisation (CBO) who's self-given remit is to 'promote joy and happiness' amongst local communities. He is assisted by Gresham who is a good guy, hard-working and friendly, he speaks good english and is the person I have worked most closely with during my time here.

The core of their operations is a shelter school for orphans and disadvantaged primary school children, which aims to give the kids an extra education in the afternoons when they have finished school, and might otherwise be expected to help out around the house or just wander the streets aimlessly with nothing better to do, and they also try to provide the kids with a decent meal, something they may not always be guaranteed to get at home. Although many of the children are orphans, most of them still belong to a family unit of some description as it is part of the culture here to look after your own and to provide what you can for them - even if you may have virtually nothing yourself to start with, you would never let another family member go hungry or homeless, so the kids are looked after by aunts, uncles, brothers or sisters.

The shelter structure is very basic - essentially a timber frame of sawn logs and tree trunks with waist level bamboo screening which serve as walls and loose thatch roof, and is located behind the main street next to the offices. Africa Unplugged UK pay the rent for the office and land that the shelter has been built on.

The kids are taught by 2 teachers - Tryness and Mrs Mwasangwale, who also prepare the food for them when there are funds available. I have spent some time teaching the kids in maths and English, and while it has been a good experience it has highlighted the fact that I am not a teacher, and I was sometimes at a loss as to what I should be teaching, seeing as I never saw a syllabus or even a lesson plan. Still, the kids are a joy to teach and many are unbearably cute. Some of my donation has gone directly to this shelter school for basic teaching materials (blackboard rubbers, chalk, pens for the kids) and I donated money to provide food for the kids for a month.

I also donated money, along with a dutch couple who volunteered with us for a couple of weeks, to build a similar shelter school in a nearby village called Siliva, which is where Happy and his family lives. I was lucky enough to give a helping hand in actually building this shelter as well, and saw first hand what you can get done with limited tools, a bit of local knowledge and some elbow grease. We had the 'Grand Opening' of the Siliva shelter a few weeks ago and there were many children in attendance who did some plays and dances for us before their lessons started.

Chimwemwe Umbrella has loose associations with a widows group and a disabled group, as well as a local youth group. However, the work that the CBO does with these groups is very limited due to budget constraints amongst other things, and it seems to me that only when there are volunteers working with the CBO do these groups get any noticeable benefits. Because the widows and disabled groups are both in a situation where they do not have any 'bread-winners' I decided to donate money to both groups to start 'income generating activities' (IGAs). With the widows we have started a baking project where they bake cakes and cookies to sell to tourists in the lodges, and 'mendazies' (a sort of donut based snack is the best way I can describe it) to the locals. So far after making a small loss initially they seem to be doing OK and will hopefully be making profits in the near future (I just found out today that the last 2 weeks have been profitable for them so hooray!). My involvement with the project has been limited to providing the funds and meeting once a week to check on progress, and to try to teach some basic record keeping and business skills.
Which is the extent of my involvement with the disabled group as well. Initially they tried to sell rice using the basic concept of buying at a cheap price and selling at a higher price, but this didn't work out, mainly due to a lack of research, because they couldn't buy the rice as cheaply as they thought, nor could they sell for as much as they thought, so after a week of many people working many hours they had just about broken even. So we changed the product and I did a bit of research this time so they are now buying paraffin in nearby Mzuzu city and selling for a profit here in Nkhata Bay and so far it seems to be doing OK, if they could sell a little bit faster then they would be doing great, but from little acorns mighty oaks do grow so I'll keep my fingers crossed for them because I think if they can keep it up then it has the potential to make a real positive difference to their lives.

Other things I have made donations for: I paid for the youth groups to travel and have an away game of football and netball (something that they had been wanting for many months but which the cost of petrol here has prevented them from doing), a radio tape player for the kids at the blind school and a bit of money for food for the kids there, newspaper subscriptions for the information centre run out of the office, school syllabus for the shelter school and various office and administration costs, as well as donations to both shelter schools for basic equipment (books and pens for the kids, chalk and blackboard rubbers etc for the teachers).

On top of this I have been designated as the person responsible for collecting donations from AUP UK and making sure they are spent on what they have been allocated for. This has included buying blankets and mosquito nets for the blind school hostel, as well as funds for the Nkhata Bay shelter school to have a day trip to Mzuzu. This was a really good day and a proper 'Malawian' experience - the OK for the funding came through on a Wednesday and, instead of waiting a week to get things properly organised, the teachers insisted that we have the trip that very friday, which basically left us one day to organise everything - transport, places to visit, food and drinks for the kids, who was going and who was staying etc etc. Amazingly we got everything but the transport well organised but we could only arrange for one small minibus taxi (about the size of a ford Transit with seats for a total of 15 people) to take the whole group (35 kids plus 5 adults). I was very skeptical about being able to fit everyone in, but where there's a will there's a way so we got everyone in, plus the driver and his mate, and drove the hour's journey with the kids singing songs the whole way there and back. We visited the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation and were given a tour of the facilities and the kids were allowed to read a news item and then shown in the edit suite how they would look on TV, and Happy and Tryness were interviewed for a radio programme that went out the following week. In the afternoon we visited a well funded school for orphans where the kids performed dramas, songs, poems and bible verses that they had been rehearsing for 2 weeks, and then they played with the other kids for a couple of hours. It was a pleasure to watch all the kids getting on with each other and playing together and I'm pretty sure all the kids had a great time and thoroughly enjoyed the trip. Then we all piled back into the minibus for the trip home, after which I needed about an hour of walking around to get rid of the cramps and pins and needles in my legs.

I have also been involved in a couple of other projects 'on the side'. One was at the request of Chris who asked me to work with Jomoh, a guy he knew when he was here in Nkhata Bay, on a garden project for another group of widows in a village called Bwelero, about a half hour walk from the town at the top of one of the longest, steepest hills in the world. Chris provided the funds for the tools and seeds, Jomoh provides the expertise as he has run other garden projects in the past, and I have just been acting as a link between the two to make sure things go to plan. Jomoh is a great guy, young and enthusiastic and keen to help those who need it.

The other project I was working on was trying to complete the building of a school that was started over a year ago by a Danish guy called Izak. I was approached by a local guy to see if I could help and contacted Izak by email to see what the situation was. Basically he had been providing funds for the project which it seems were just being collected, embezzeled, and not spent on the school project (a common occurence in this aid game), so he wanted an 'azungu' on the ground to supervise. I agreed to this but after vastly overpriced cost estimates Izak decided he couldn't trust the people and would not fund the project. So instead he's funded a guy who is building a house for volunteers to stay in, initially to get a water supply to the building site, and I asked him for money to build a new shelter at the existing site in Nkhata Bay, since the current shelter is in a state of disrepair and the landlord asked them to move it so he can extend the buildings he has on the site. We were going to just build another timber structure but the landlord assured us that with 60 000 kwacha he could build a brick structure which would be more permanent. I stupidly believed him and work started 2 weeks ago, and the basic structure has been built but still needs a roof, drainage, plastering and flooring. I don't think the landlord has been dishonest with me since receipts have been provided for everything so far, it's just a typical lack of planning, costing and foresight. Anyway, he's asked for another 40 000 kwacha to finish the building (just under 200 quid) which I have reluctantly provided from my dwindling travelling funds, otherwise the building will never be finished. So I've stayed an extra week to try and get it finished, but yesterday the landlord was called away to the funeral of his wife's sister (funerals are very common here, always last for a few days and everything stops for them, meaning no work gets done). So it looks likely that I will have to leave the money and trust the guys to finish the project in my absence and just keep my fingers crossed that they do. I've already sacrificed another week of my plans and if I stay any longer I will never get to see anything of Tanzania so while I am reluctant to leave the project as it is I must also allow for the things I want to do and the plans I have made.

Incidentally, the Danish guy Izak has set up his own fundraising charity called United People's Project Indiviually Initiated and aims to make all donations completely transparent by filming all projects and transactions and receipts and then posting to his website at www.uppii.org
It's actually a really good idea and I would urge people who are interested in donating to development projects to have a look at the website and support it if you can.

Also I believe the Africa Unplugged website has been recently updated so you can visit them at www.africaunplugged.org.uk for more info should you wish.

That's all from me for now, I'll try and write another blog about life in general here in Nkhata Bay before I leave the country, but I'll say Ciao for now.
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