I often get asked “Why Malawi?” My short answer is “Why not Malawi?” But that usually doesn’t satisfy the inquiring minds. Trying to explain something that has been in my heart for as long as I can remember is not an easy task, especially when some of it you don’t understand yourself. So as I have been challenged to do over the past year– to reflect on milestones in my life, I thought I would share my thoughts on “Why Malawi?”– The long answer.
My first experience with anything international was when I received my first pen pal in elementary school– I think it was first or second grade. One of my teachers went to Australia and came back with stuffed Koala Bears, kiwis and PEN PALS. How exciting was that? I snail mailed (yes, that is all we had) my pen pal, Victoria in Sydney, Australia, for more than 20 years. I almost met her on my trip to Australia in 2000, but that is a whole different story.
So my pen pal experience sparked my interest in the world. I started my international traveling experiences in high school and as soon as I got out of college (the first time), I worked 12-hour shifts so that I could travel the world… which I did. I have to say in my younger days it didn’t matter where I went, just as long as I was seeing something different and experiencing something new. Of all the places that I traveled, I never had the opportunity to go to Africa…but it seemed to constantly be on my mind…for some reason. And then….
Fast forward to 2008– talk about milestones—
I had gotten married two years prior and funny thing; my mother-in-law had a similar heart for Africa. She was planning her first trip to Africa with two individuals– a friend and a physician. Their mission– visit an orphanage in Malawi to see how to help. As the trip was being planned, the doctor had to back out. That is where I come in. I was asked to go and spend close to three weeks exploring opportunities for medical teams, fund raising, etc. It was perfect. This was my opportunity to try to understand why I felt the way I did about Africa.
Leading up to the trip…five weeks prior to leaving, my father had a massive stroke at the age of 64 and was found to have melanoma that had metastasized to his brain (causing the stroke). Being an oncology nurse practitioner, I knew that this meant my time with him was limited, no matter how you look at it. I traveled back and forth from Alabama to Florida and had to make decisions that one hopes never to have to make during their lifetime. It was during a difficult conversation that I had with my father that he told me to go ahead and go to Africa because it is something that I have always wanted to do. He assured me that he would be fine and that I could “do more in Africa than here.” I went to Africa as planned…and three days later I got one of the most difficult phone calls my husband probably will ever have to make.
When I found out that my father had passed away I was in a common area at the orphanage playing with the children. I remember it well. I took the phone call, left, walked for what seemed like miles (not really) and went back to the guest house to be alone. It was during this time that I felt such a connection with Africa that I will never forget. I felt a peace over me. I knew I was where I needed to be.
What kept going through my mind was that I knew my dad and enjoyed (although he might tell you different during my rebellious teenage years) 35 years with him; whereas, the children that I am surrounded by at this moment may have never known their parents, or at the most only for a very short time. For the next hours and the following three days, as I waited to get a flight out of Malawi, I found comfort in a place that I have now grown to love. So many things happened during that time that confirmed why I was there at such a time as this.
Fast forward…my desire to go back to Africa and “finish what I started” never left me. I did go back– to Cape Town, South Africa, in 2011; Zambia in 2012; and then finally back to the ”heart of Africa,” Malawi in 2013. How things have played out as I have reflected back on them does not give me a sense of surprise, but one of AMAZEMENT. If we follow our heart, be patient and do what we are supposed to do, amazing things will happen.
And amazing this happened in 2012. Four years after my first trip to Malawi, I was invited to a discussion at UAB with an international leader that just so happened to be from Malawi’s Kamuzu College of Nursing AND she also just so happened to be visiting with the individuals (100X Development) that help run the orphanage that I stayed at in 2008. What are the chances, right? In 2013, I had the chance to go back to Malawi yet again and explore how I could use my gifts and talents there. In 2014, I received my Fulbright Senior Specialist Award allowing me to spend six weeks in Malawi helping to build oncology nursing curriculum; now in January 2015, I am returning to continue this work. In August 2015 I am taking my first team to Malawi. Seven years after my first trip, I am able to see it through. I know my dad would be pleased.