Seventeen years later: Working from home may now be a winner for many people but when you are half a world away from your passion it just gets harder. We haven’t seen our people since December 2019, with worries about Covid and regulations and airports and lockdowns.
On the rare occasion that I get to chat to anyone these days about Malawi and how the project has expanded, no one can believe that everything is run and expanding exponentially by Malawians without a white person in sight.
But this has been our way since we employed our first driver, Harisen, who is still the main man, but not to get carried away, the majority of our 82 permanent employees are women, most of whom hadn’t completed primary school before we took them on.
Of course we sent them to night school but mostly they learned from each other, learning English as a first hurdle.
The Factory staff just learn from others, the office staff become quickly skilled on spreadsheets and everything on the Cloud and of course our Organic fruit tree propagation green-house nurseries have very special, self -taught, women mainly.
Water: We now have three teams travelling to areas up to 400km from our base in Mzuzu.
One team oversee the villagers to dig and build the wells, the next fit the pumps and most important the final team do maintenance of pumps installed since 2006, with Mphatso, in the office, making phone calls, checking and updating phone numbers, confirming GPS locations and detains of new people.
Girl Child Project: To get to Secondary school, you must first get the necessary results, then there are fees. In a poor family, boys are chosen first and girls are left, so we pay fees for about 300 girls. For those living within about 30km we hold classes each Saturday and during holiday breaks. We collect them, feed them, we have 7 excellent teachers and a qualified counsellor and direct access to the Victim Support unit of the police!!
At the moment we support 22 girls in Third level, Nursing, Teaching, Law, Journalism…… For the girls who don’t do well academically we have just set up a new project which may be termed dressmaking or sewing or… where girls are now surprising us with what they can do with four old, refurbished, hand operated, singer sewing machines - School uniforms, face masks and most recently, reusable sanitary pads. The next addition will be in the areas of typing, forestry and horticulture.
Preschools: From our early days we saw the benefit of preschools. Little ones don’t start schooling until they are six, so way back in 2007 we set up our first preschool, which was amazing and still is, A hard lesson sent us in a new direction where we now support maybe 130 little preschools in the most inaccessible places up to 200km from base. Two amazing women run the project. They to a trading post (like a market place) with one of our jeeps then they hire motor bike taxis, load on all their bits and pieces including food, staying in a B and B’s?? Then they either set up a new “preschool” in a shed or whatever building is available and train local women how to teach the letters and figures and songs and some English, taking all their bits and pieces of equipment from the local environment. What a joy to see them in action! One of the team is Margaret who came to us as a volunteer 15 years ago. She had 8 children and no English, but she has learned well getting to almost finish Secondary!! Miriam came to us slightly earlier and has gone to Secondary and just completed Training as a Primary Teacher.
We are just about to expand this project by getting another jeep. All preschools will have a garden where our expanded team will show the local women how to grow their main food, maize without expensive fertilizer or pesticide. We are also supplying local maize seed instead of the expensive and inappropriate Monsanto and other GM varieties.
Then showing them how to build simple brick stoves which are safe around kids and reduce firewood use by 70%.
The new dot here is that we are collecting sunflower seeds to enable them to have cooking oil from growing sunflowers (The cost of cooking oil has gone up by 500% this year so far).
Finally we are negotiating with community leaders that each preschool should have some land suitable for forestry. We will provide seeds and potting tubes and these local women will have paid jobs, for the first time. But still much to do on this, so we keep joining dots.
Forestry or more correctly, in our case, reforestation, where we are growing about 30 varieties of indigenous trees. We have researched their suitability for each particular area where we sow. The original trees have been cut down and have disappeared over the years leaving land in a useless state with soil erosion and all that entails.
Last season’s planting is just finished with in excess of SIX MILLION trees planted.
This has been a spectacular initiative, firstly doing the appropriate research, then working on legal agreements with community leadership, the traditional Authorities to negotiate the most appropriate land, then working, with experts on measures to correct and prevent soil erosion.
Locating seeds that had almost been forgotten was a starting issue. Then locating, protecting and setting up nurseries (for 6 Million trees?).
Then we were ready to go, but found that expertise in planting trees was absent or very rare. Cutting down trees and making charcoal is what they know.
But undeterred we eventually employed over 1,400 workers, 75% women, few with any secondary education, who never had a wage before, paid and fed them and they learned very quickly. And the proof comes from Drone and Satellite imaging available on our website, where all seedlings can be seen individually.
These women are so amazing that half our nursery managers for the new season are women, which doesn’t surprise me in the least.
We have just drilled 5 new 50 metre deep wells with solar pumps to fill large tanks for irrigation considering that some of our seedlings, in our nurseries, failed last year from lack of water which had to be carried long distances. Now we will have automatic water sprinkling at appropriate times, enabling our staff more time to manage and care for last year’s crop.
Now, as I say, there are more dots to be joined. My next thoughts are on small health centres in our Forestry areas. Expansion of our Girl Child project, Solar Cookers and A Seedbank.
The website is www.wellsforzoe.org
John and Mary Coyne