One very early morning, a cup of coffee, a bloody Mary and three airports later we arrive in Lilongwe, Malawi, Africa. “Reason for entry to country?” I jot down on the funny yellow piece of paper that we are here to do a bike donation for BikeTown Africa. Of course, this reason does not ‘fly’ so well with the official at Customs. “How many days do you want?” I respond, seven days please and put on my best Sunday smile. Finally after a few minutes of explaining and a joking promise of a bike donation to the official, we are legally allowed into Malawi, with a warm inviting smile.
As we are driving to our hotel in what seems to be a brand new UNICEF double cab ‘bakkie’, I realize that Malawi feels strangely familiar. Not knowing what to expect of this adventure, I felt completely foreign, yet comfortable and a sense of home in the dusty hot air. The landscape reminds me of a non-existent place between Mid-Rand and Pretoria in South Africa. The areas are vast and spread out here. Fresh lilac flowers of the Jacaranda trees in bloom give me a sense of comfort and hope of rain. Many farmers in the rural areas are waiting for the rains to help them feed their families and to generate some income.
The warm heart of Africa, this is what Malawi is referred to, partly because it’s so hot here but mainly because the Malawians are such a genuinely friendly nation, they are real people with real problems but this is no discouragement to them. Your smile is always returned and no matter how frustrating a situation may get, one smile can turn it all around, even if it’s someone else’s. There is a sense of innocence and purity about these finely featured and small in stature people, they have respect for one another and yet most live in total poverty. With the better part of the population under 20 years of age, it makes you wonder and grateful for things you previously took for granted.
But back to our reason for entry, the bike donation and the Baylor Pediatric Hospital. The Baylor Hospital is jaw-droppingly impressive. It looks brand new every day I see it. Clean, professional and with a collection of local art that anyone would envy. It is equipped with its own laboratory and functions completely independently from government. All the medicine, re hydration salts, food supplements etc are given to the patients for free, ‘mahala’, nothing. The Doctors who work there are primarily from the US as the hospital does not want to take local doctors away from an already impoverished/malnourished health care system. It was truly amazing to meet these saint like and highly qualified doctors. It was an honor to see what they are doing for expecting mothers, children and infants alike.
However, what about the rest of the community, as I mentioned, the areas are vast and extremely spread out…? This is where the Tingathe Outreach Program came into being, providing trained Community Health Care workers who visit the families in sadly rural areas, these families do not have wealth or health to travel to the hospital on a regular basis. They also do door to door HIV/AIDS testing and provide the required drugs. This is truly a system which works; it was well thought out, properly prepared and implemented with care. Where do bicycles fit into the equation? The Health Care workers use them to get to their patients, they can reach up to 3 times more people in one day, which means saving lives slowly and prolonging life expectancy.
BikeTown Africa flourishes from giving to a project which truly works. Knowing that it is sustainable, knowing that the bicycles will be put to good use. That is what makes this such a respectable development program. Before the donated Kona Africabikes can be put to work in various areas of Lilongwe, we have to assemble them. 117 bicycles were unboxed, greased appropriately, front wheeled, bolted, retightened, quality control checked and ridden in just 3 days! The elegant yet almost bomb-proof bikes were built with the help of 21 volunteers and the odd lending a hand or passing-the-correct-tool-assistance of passing nurses or hospital admin staff. Many curious faces appeared as the completed bikes started piling up at the end of the hospital parking lot. The knowing that these HCW have so little and yet they give so much is painful yet inspiring. On the last day we traveled along a bumpy, long dusty road to area 24 (everything is divided into areas here, and they don’t necessarily follow consecutively). This is an eye opening experience, accompanied by 2 of the health care workers; we were invited to meet some of their patients. Walking up to the first house you notice that white people are not seen here as we collect a number of curious stares and greetings. There are a few tiny mud-brick houses around, no electricity and water needs to be pumped from the nearest pump which is a few kilometers away. The mother of the house and 5 children tells us how much the Tingathe Program and Baylor has assisted her, she can’t speak any English but Martha, one of the HCW is happy to translate. The bicycles show the community that things are getting done and that there is improvement.
Improvement translates again to hope and with hope you can build a nation that is positive and eager to move forward. All that is left for me to say is “zekomo” which means thank you, thank you to all the health care workers, to Baylor, to Kona and basically to everyone who made this BikeTown Africa event possible. I learned more than I could have imagined and now I know how to assemble a Kona Africabike! Zekomo!