Life as a Marianist Volunteer (Read More)

October 12, 2012
Life as a Marianist Volunteer (Read More)

Katherine (Kat) Brumm, a native of Strawberry Point, a small town in northeastern Iowa, was enjoying her second year at Wartburg College in nearby Waverly when her parents arrived on campus one day to deliver sobering news.

“I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma,” says the 27-year-old who is participating in her first year in the Marianist Volunteer Program (MVP) in Karonga, Malawi, a country in southeastern Africa. Battling a life-threatening illness at age 20 taught her a lot, she says. “You realize that life is short and you’re not invincible. I had to ask myself, ‘What have I done that has mattered? Have I done anything for anyone else?’ In that moment, I felt so selfish. I told myself that if I got through this cancer thing, I wanted to do something for others.”

Brumm’s desire to move beyond herself, to contribute her gifts so that others might live a better life, is a call that many young adults across the United States are taking seriously. For thousands of Americans, “Africa has become the place to make a difference,” says a report on volunteerism published last year in USA Today.

For the Marianists, who operate Chami­nade Secondary School in Malawi, as well as a technical training program called MIRACLE (Marianist Institute of Rural Artisans for Christian Life Educa­tion), this wellspring of interest in Africa has helped spawn a cadre of new volunteers who, along with the Marianist brothers, are providing a fresh wave of energy and talent to support these ministries.

For the six U.S. volunteers serving in Malawi — Kat Brumm, Molly Heineman, Matt Meyers, Emily Richardson, Andy Taube and Sarah Wdowiak — life in this remote, impoverished part of the world has been exhilarating and exhausting. They describe jaw-dropping moments of sheer beauty on their travels along the shores of Lake Malawi, just miles from the Marianist operations in Karonga. Then there are the everyday frustrations of sweltering heat, lack of water and electrical outages.

“It’s fun and challenging in ways you can’t anticipate,” says Matt Meyers. “There are a lot of adventures in discovering what it means to be an MVP in Malawi.”

Most say they are handling the adjustments and feel comfortable in their African surroundings. “Sometimes I’m surprised how normal I feel,” says Brumm. “Then there are days when I wake up and think: ‘Holy cow, how did I end up in Africa?’”

The assignments

The MVP program, started in 2004, has three volunteers serving in ministries in St. Louis this year, as well as the six volunteers in Malawi. The international volunteers are committed to two years of service. Richardson and Wdowiak are on their second year; the other four will complete their assignments in August 2010.

Four of the volunteers teach at Cham­inade Secondary School and help with extracurricular activities or administrative duties. Heineman works exclusively for MIRACLE as a social worker, while Taube splits his teaching time between Chami­nade and courses at MIRACLE.

Although the assignments have some structure, “you can’t come here with a fixed notion of your work or life,” cautions Meyers, noting that the assignments are evolving to fit the needs of the volunteers and the needs of the community. Meyers, for example, is working on a community garden with the intention of organizing a crop production program to generate food for the school. Though the garden wasn’t part of his job description, Meyers sees a need for nutritious food for the students and a way to offset the cost of the meals — a win-win project.

Sarah Wdowiak, who has been in Malawi for more than 18 months, says that being a self-starter is one of the most important qualities a person must possess as an MVP. “You can’t wait for someone to hand you something to do. You figure out what is needed and jump in and do it.”

She admits that it takes creativity and courage even when “you may not feel comfortable and don’t know exactly what you are doing,” she says. “We’re always in a learning mode here.”

Cultural sensitivity

Though most Malawians speak English, making the adjustment easier for American volunteers, it’s the cultural traditions and expectations that can throw even a seasoned volunteer off-guard. Gender inequality and poor treatment of women are among the more disturbing realities. Still, the volunteers see a ray of hope.

“I asked my students to write an argument for or against the statement: ‘A woman’s place is in the home,’” says Emily Richardson, who teaches English and science classes, and now helps with the sports program at the high school — a big step for an all-boys’ school that has never had a woman involved in its athletic program.

“Of the 80 students, about 75 said a woman’s place is in the home to clean, cook and provide for her family. I gave them a similar assignment later in the year. I asked them to write about the statement: ‘To educate a woman is to educate a nation.’ About 75 students argued for this idea. It was interesting to see their opinions change.” Richardson believes this shift in attitude has something to do with the presence of women volunteers in the classroom and seeing women on the playing fields with them. Although the full impact of the volunteers is hard to assess, each MVP participant acknowledges that it takes a special blend of patience, openness and flexibility to work well in a culturally diverse setting.

“We need to be respectful of the culture,” says Richardson. “This is not our culture. We are guests here and must be considerate of them.”

Life in community

Living far from home — away from pizza, ice cream and air conditioning — can be challenging. But by far the biggest challenge for the volunteers is learning to live together in an intentional community.

“I expected challenges,” says Andy Taube, noting that he thought the heat or lack of air conditioning might be difficult. “But all the challenges I have encountered are inside me. The biggest one is learning to interact with my community and the students I work with.”

Molly Heineman says the first few months of living in a community, even with friends she knew from college, were difficult, mostly because they spent so much time together. Now she is broadening her support network to include the Marianist brothers and friends from MIRACLE.

“I had a bout of homesickness, and it was great to share these feelings with my community,” says Heineman.

Most volunteers say that loneliness has not been a factor, primarily because they have access to the Internet or the ability to pick up a wireless phone and call home. The technology gives them a sense of normalcy and helps them when they feel isolated. “Last night I used a webcam (a digital camera that enables computer users to see one another via the Internet) for the first time,” says Richardson. “I saw my former college roommate and she gave me a tour of her apartment and took me to a window and showed me snow. It was amazing.”

But when family and friends seem too far away, the volunteers can talk with the Marianist brothers who live next door. “I’m finding the brothers are an extended family for me and I’m turning to them when I need to,” says Heineman.

Marianist Brother Bernard (Beams) Lugutu Ombima, director of the Marianist community, is happy to see a growing bond between the volunteer community and the Marianist brothers. “We are starting to host dinners and plan outings together,” he says, noting that most of the brothers are new to Malawi. In addition to Brother Beams, the Marianists serving in Karonga include Brothers Paul Kageche, Philip Okasai, Hanson Sitali and John Woo.

“We owe a lot to the brothers who have gone before us,” says Brother Beams. “Chaminade is here because of Brother George Dury and others who started the school in the 1960s. There are many who have kept the school and ministries alive.

“Everyone is very happy and encouraged by having the volunteers here to share in this work,” he adds.

Taken by surprise

Malawi is often described as the “warm heart of Africa” because of the warmth and friendliness of the people. It’s not just a slogan, say the Marianist volunteers. “This is a very hospitable culture, very generous. They always welcome you into their homes,” says Meyers.

“I love the people,” says Wdowiak, saying that she has traveled to Tanzania and further north, but that there is something special about Malawians. Their generosity, especially their willingness to share what little they have, has touched her deeply. “I remember visiting a student in his home earlier this year. I thought it would be good for me to bring them something, so I brought butter, sugar and some buns for their family. I left with a bag of rice, 100 bananas, a catfish, 20 oranges and a live chicken. I couldn’t believe how generous they were.

“I’ve been surprised by a lot of things here,” she adds. “I didn’t realize I would like it this much — that it would be this good.”

The gift of confidence

Most MVP participants say their passion for service comes from a curiosity about other cultures and the desire to give something back. “I’ve been blessed in many ways,” says Taube. “I felt the need to give some of what I have been given. As a Christian, it seems like the right thing to do. It’s a call to give and share with others.”

Yet most of the volunteers believe they are getting back far more than they expected. One of the surprising things that both Wdowiak and Richardson have received is the gift of self-confidence.

“Before I came here, I wouldn’t think of traveling by myself, but now it feels natural to me,” says Wdowiak. “I’ve become independent in a good way. I think I’ve grown up a lot.”

Richardson says she is more sure of herself and her abilities in part because she has been given so much responsibility, “far more than I believe I would as a 24-year-old in the U.S.”

Maybe more important, says Richardson, is that this small African nation has found a special place in her heart. “I now have friends all over Malawi, and I know that even in 10 years I will come back to visit.”

Without hesitation she adds: “I love Malawi.”

Nothing Prepared Me for Malawi

On its surface, Malawi has the look and feel of a “postcard perfect” paradise. The beauty of its rugged mountains, lush palm trees and the many sandy beaches that frame Lake Malawi — one of the largest inland lakes in Africa — attract tourists from around the world.

On closer inspection, however, Malawi can best be described as a country in peril. According to World Bank Development statistics, Malawi is now the second poorest country in the world (second only to Sierra Leone). More than two-thirds of the population live on less than 33 cents a day and according to the United Nations, 60 percent of Malawi­ans eat only one meal a day.

Poverty is a breeding ground for disease, and disease is a breeding ground for poverty — a vicious cycle that has health experts throughout Malawi deeply concerned. Since 1992 the average life expectancy has fallen from 51 to 38 years, largely due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic that is still sweeping across southern Africa.

In Karonga district, where the Marianists operate Chaminade Secondary School and a technical training program for AIDS orphans called MIRACLE, the AIDS infection rate continues to climb and the consequences of the disease are hurting many families and children. “We’re losing a whole generation of men and women,” says Marianist Brother Paul Kageche, director of MIRACLE.

Healthcare specialists say that there are more than 12 million orphans as a result of HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, with more than 1 million in Malawi. According to local health authorities, there are 20,000 AIDS orphans in the Karonga district which has a population of about 350,000 people.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in a documentary released last year about AIDS in Malawi, reminds everyone that “… the statistics are not statistics. They are people. The brother of, the sister of, the son of, the daughter of someone. I invite you to put the face of someone you love on those figures,” he says.

For the Marianist community and the volunteers working in Karonga, these statistics have real names, faces and families — people they have come to know and love.

In spite of the tragedies and discouraging news, they remain hopeful about their work and the future of the people of Malawi. Volunteer Sarah Wdowiak admits she didn’t realize what she was getting herself into by coming to Malawi. “I had done some background reading, but nothing prepared me for this,” she says. Nor could she have known that she would fall in love with the people and the place.

Yet living with the unexpected is a way of life for those working for the Marianist ministries in Malawi. “Things rarely happen the way you planned, so you find yourself adjusting almost daily to whatever is required,” says Wdowiak. “But that’s why we are here, to be available to do whatever they ask of us. We’re here to help.”

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