The most helpful Chichewa words I should have learned upon arrival in Lilongwe, Malawi, were Ndasochera (I am lost) and Ndingakafike bwanji ku Kumbali Lodge? (How do I get to Kumbali Lodge?)
Instead, being the polite Canadian, the first Chichewa words I learned were Zikomo Kwambiri (Thank you very much).
This did me little good as I walked back from Kusamala Farm to Kumbali Lodge. The five-minute journey by car that had seemed so simple in daylight was proving not so simple on foot at dusk. It was my first full day in Africa and I was lost.
I could barely see the red dirt road in front of me, curving first in one direction and then another. Finally, a glow of lights in the distance morphed into a cluster of huts, including a tiny roadside shack, its mud-brick walls topped with a thatch roof. Within the faint, fire-scented light stood an elderly man, his face lined like leather and his welcoming smile marked by a lack of teeth.
"Kumbali Lodge?" I asked, throwing my hands up in the air in what I hoped was the international gesture for "I'm lost, please help."
Confusion (mine) and perseverance (his) ensued, as he resorted to sign language when he realized I couldn't understand him. When I finally repeated his gestures back to him accurately, he rewarded me with a huge smile and vigorous nod. (And I did get to use my one Chichewa phrase as I thanked him.)
Then he waved me off, refusing my gesture to pay him with a shake of his head. His generosity made me wonder how someone travelling in a developing country could make a meaningful contribution to the local people, who I found so welcoming.
I found one answer in Pack For a Purpose, an organization that pairs travellers with destinations that need supplies. All it takes is extra room in your luggage and a willingness to pack what's needed.
Based in Raleigh, N.C., Pack For a Purpose was founded by Rebecca and Scott Rothney after their trip to Africa. On a subsequent visit, they delivered 64 kilograms of supplies to a school near their Botswana destination.
By finding out what schools and orphanages in the developing world need, Pack For a Purpose enables travellers to connect more closely with the cultures and people they meet on trips. Today, the organization is active in 47 countries and its members have transported 18,000 kilograms of supplies worldwide.
For my 16-day trip to Malawi, I organized a hockey bag with 46 kilograms of goods for Nathomba School, Children in the Wilderness and HELP Malawi. The items included pencils, notebooks, jewelry-making supplies and soccer balls, among many other things.
I was able to drop off the supplies in person to Nathomba School, where it was lovely to see the children who would be using what I'd brought.
The supplies would be divided between the three charities, based on their specific needs. For example, the jewelry-making supplies went to an after-school program that teaches the children of Nathomba School skills so they can sell the finished jewelry at markets or stores.
It did surprise me, however, to see on one of my trips near the lodge that I could have bought some of the supplies locally. So I'd recommend researching this before you leave home. You can ask Pack for a Purpose, your lodgings, the tour company or the charities involved what's available at your destination, and only pack items not available there. By shopping at your destination's bazaars and markets, you support the local currency and economy and you get an authentic experience with local people and customs.
In a country such as Malawi, where people walk several kilometres, often in bare feet, to get to school or the markets, contributing this way can help you feel less like a tourist and more like someone who cares.
Being lost and having to depend on the kindness of strangers to reach my destination parallels, in a way, how the people of Malawi and other developing nations must depend on the generosity of strangers to make their everyday lives a little easier. Pack For a Purpose is just one small but important way a traveller can make a difference.
-- Postmedia News