Under the Malawian mango tree

Spent the last couple of weeks under many different mango trees, having many many many community meetings. Ouch, we’re pretty exhausted over here right now, but it’s all good! Big Beyond Malawi has definitely taken a great leap forward and we’re really excited having formed new partnerships with two lovely yet genuinely underprivileged communities on the borders of Liwonde National Park. One of them has a female chief actually which is generally unheard of here : ) She’s quite a character. And an upshot on top of our excellent new partnerships and mango tree meeting rooms, is there’s a lot of opportunities on the horizon with mangos! 

These villages have been neglected from the sporadic flow of development projects over the years, yet with their easy river access they’re understood to be core to a good chunk of illegal hunting in the national park, and they’re also seriously suffering from elephants, warthogs and baboons wandering from the park in search of their juicy mangos, maize and other tasty food they rely so heavily on. Many elders aren’t educated and don’t send their kids to school as a result, enterprises are minimal and that dependent mindset common in Malawi is fairly ingrained all round. Yet although formally educated individuals are far and few between here, an eagerness from many to begin finding solutions that tackle their real issues is loud and clear.

The Big Beyond team have been super busy leading long discussions with chiefs and their communities around the positive and negative implications of living by the park these days, the imbalances they find, and figuring out their true goals for better livelihoods. We don’t want to tell them what they should be doing it’s our rule, we can give ideas and share experiences absolutely, but ultimately it’s up to them to lead any changes. That’s how we work anyway.

Both communities, a little difference between them in their levels of development, are neatly aligned to where we think we can contribute in terms of human resource so we’re looking at education, collaboration and enterprise projects as key short term priorities. They’re excited about bringing their minds together with our international volunteers across education, enterprise, environment and health projects to challenge the issues for their people and the park. The familiar repetition of Big Beyond’s ‘beyond handouts’ and ‘equal effort partnership’ ethos has been high on the agenda for us as with any new community-BB partnership and our model has been welcomed with open arms. So off to work we go…

We do love the people living there! Lots of charismatic individuals. There’s been many giggles amongst the hard work. Such a great community vibe and their home in the bush is a really beautiful place to hang out in, especially when the perfectly big round sun sets through the trees creating a dusty orangey red scene filled with people with buckets on their heads, kids running about, many hellos and friendly greetings, bicycles carrying people to and from the market and fishermen dotted about in their dug out canoes on the river. It’s definitely a hidden gem of Liwonde. We can’t wait to take our volunteers there soon.

We’re also about to take on another house bang in one of the villages which is invaluable for successfully becoming part of the communities we work and to learn about each other. It’s a bit posh for where it is, but we like to reward our volunteers with a nice home to relax in after a hard days work ; ) That’s fair enough. It’s not quite finished by the landlord yet so we’ll be working hard on that over the next few weeks. A good find!

So a couple of new projects on the horizon…

Umodzi “together”… setting the foundations for a self-sustaining CBO

One of the big big problems identified around here is lack of collaboration. There aren’t really any strong CBOs (community based organisations) established yet and they can be such useful channels for local people to join together to make strides towards helping themselves rather than expecting and waiting for external support. It doesn’t tend to come. Not everywhere. And, individuals here haven’t had the confidence and capacity to make substantial steps towards the big opportunities beyond today, alone. The general conclusion is that we’re going to help establish a CBO, predominantly based around enterprise to enable it to be self-sustaining, vital, but a platform to lead into other community development projects such as education, health, irrigation and the human-animal conflict issue. The key is that is must be owned and managed by a local team, as a business model not as a committee (if you’ve spent time here you’ll get that one!), we’re happy to help steer its development and build their capacity over time, but they must lead it and take it forward into the future.

We’ve called it Umodzi which means ‘together‘ or ‘unite’. The strategy is being fine-tuned at the moment but it’s looking very interesting.

A couple of starting points, on top of organisational and financial matters of course, and a few other things, are mango and chilli (hopefully elephant resistant) distribution, value-add enterprises and a time-banking scheme. Seeds will never be given out for nothing, individuals will probably buy them off Umodzi with credits earned from different community volunteer work tasks they contribute. It’s an experimental model called time-banking they’re up for testing out as part of the whole thing – I’ve seen a similar model work in a low income valley in Wales (UK) but with definite room for improvement. Could work really well here. We’ll see though! We like trying new things. Could open up lot of opportunities.

Anyway more to come on all of that and our four business guru and marketing volunteers due to arrive on the team soon are timing their stay with us perfectly to support the development of the associated enterprise projects and research around it. Big Beyond love questions from the community like “we have so many mangos that they drop to the floor and just go rotten, what can we do with them?”. Probably lots!!

More enterprising volunteers are invited to apply… answers@bigbeyond.org

We’re also very excited to welcome our three new volunteers to the team next week that will be tackling some crucial education issues for the kids and launching a brand new project across these two communities. They’ll be designing and implementing a pilot ‘holiday camp’ hand-in-hand with local volunteers and incorporating engaging and practical education activities, arts & crafts, sports and fun things to keep the kids learning and occupied during the school breaks. The community are really concerned at the moment that many children are being sent off fishing (illegally) by some parents as they have nothing else to do, they don’t see the point of school and it’s having serious implications. The goal of this project is not only to benefit the kids involved and set the foundations for a replicable programme, but to promote the value of education to other kids and parents around through a finale community event. We’re hoping the volunteers will present awards for the best performers and take the winners for an excursion into Liwonde National Park – their neighbouring out of bounds wilderness park they never get to see the inside of. Looking forward to hear about all the action soon.

Root causes of LNP poaching desperately need tackling NOW 

On the sad side of things the news from here is that poaching in Liwonde National Park is seriously rife at the moment and getting worse and worse. Some of the very limited Zebra, beautiful Sable and other animals caught in snares are taken away for sale so frequently now, I’ve heard about it so much during my short stay here. The park-community relations are seriously weak at the moment so we all need to work together to turn that around as fast as possible. The root causes and community solutions take time, can’t be that idealistic, but step by step hopefully we’ll see some improvements. Whilst our work here is a lot about improving the livelihoods of communities in poverty, it’s also about saving some of the world’s last remaining wildlife. Very interlinked. When you see it first hand, you know the threat’s true, and time is of the essence.

Sarah – Big Beyond Malawi Manager 

Flat tyre and big show apparently!?

Rames – Big Beyond Malawi Volunteer Coordinator 

Big Beyond Malawi House – now our ‘town’ house! Village one on the way – confirmed today : )

So I’m leaving the team to it next week and back in the wonderful Ethiopia to meet some of those decision-making government guys in Addis where I can hopefully update the blog with extremely positive news on programme launch dates!? Exciting. Please no more boring paper trail ; ) Till then…