by John Perkins, ’11 Anthropology major
During the month of January, I participated in a 30-day volunteer program in Malawi through a non-governmental organization called World Camp. Malawi is a land-locked country in Southern Africa with a population of about 12 million. It has experienced some of the highest rates of extreme poverty in the world, with the average income hovering around US$ 176. Yet Malawi is a relatively stable country, with a functioning democratically elected government. The high levels of extreme poverty and the stable political body provide a welcoming atmosphere for humanitarian groups such as World Camp.
Since its inception in 2000, World Camp has focused on HIV/AIDS and environmental education for secondary school students ages 10-18. We lived in a surprisingly upscale house in the capital city of Lilongwe, and over the course of the month, taught at 6 rural schools. At each school, we followed a three-day curriculum that included everything from parachute games to class condom demonstrations. What I found unique and appealing about this program was the foundational idea that we are educating these students and nothing more. We weren’t giving out clothing or other items; we were trying to give these students the knowledge to affect change in their own communities. Oftentimes, humanitarian aid takes on the notion of bringing a “better” way of doing things, or focuses on “modernizing” a periphery area. This program, however, sought to provide a basis of knowledge regarding the HIV/AIDS epidemic and deforestation, thus giving the students the power to make informed decisions about sex and natural resource management.
Throughout my research to find a volunteer program in Southern Africa, I was looking for a program that was work-intensive. The World Camp program achieved that goal, but at the expense of missing the opportunity to fully engage in the community and culture. We had a one-night homestay in the village near one of the schools, and that was our one glimpse into the lives of the students we were teaching. Besides trips to the local markets and orphanages, we didn’t have time to explore the city much or talk to people.
Although I may have wanted a more engaged cultural basis, the opportunity to teach so many students in a variety of settings enabled me to get an idea of how Malawian culture differs from my own. That month fostered a profound respect for the Malawian emphasis on family and community that I think the United States has lost in some ways. The students also taught me a thing or two about some of simple joys of the imagination, music, and dance that my own culture has maybe lost on its endless pursuit of progress.
As with many adventures to lands so different from our own, part of the experience is how it changes us, challenges us, and questions who we are. The amazing opportunity I was given to teach students for a month has done just that. Not everything was great, and there was a lot of hurt in the lives of many of the students and people I met, but the World Camp program offered a unique experience that I truly believe has affected change and given those students I taught the knowledge and power to stop the HIV/AIDS epidemic and deforestation.