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Unforgettable Malawi experience

MALAWI is a small country in southeastern Africa. It is a place where one can always find a shy, friendly smile or a cheerful greeting. In an ever-busy city such as Shanghai, it is easy to forget about the little niceties that can pass so freely between complete strangers.

My two weeks in a country rightfully nicknamed "The Warm Heart of Africa" constantly reminded me that sincerity more often than not finds itself in the faces of those who live under impoverished conditions. As my second time on the Habitat for Humanity and Jacaranda trip this June, something felt right about returning to Malawi -- it was like greeting an old friend; hugs and laughter, sights and sounds that chime like bells in ears tired from the sounds of the city bustle.

Our party of 25 or so high school students made an interesting sight as we emerged from the airport, and we more than caught the eye of a few bystanders. Some would say "Muli bwanji," of which we were taught to reply with "Nili bwino," in a friendly exchange of "how are you" and "I'm good" in Chichewa, their native language.

When we finally started work at the Habitat for Humanity building site a day later, everyone was already excited and ready to go. We met the builders, who would guide us in constructing the homes, and the owners, who would be living there once work was completed. We quickly settled into a pace, mixing mortar, laying bricks, and talking with the builders who worked alongside us, who were always very friendly and willing to chat.

Vic was one of the first of the builders that I became acquainted with. He was disarmingly open with his deep, rolling laugh, all the while recollecting events from his past on his years in college. He asked how was life in Shanghai, a place so starkly different from the idyllic landscape in which I was standing that for a second I had absolutely no idea how to convey my thoughts.

"Well … it's really different," I said. "Everything seems to move so quickly. Everyone seems to have somewhere to go with things that need finishing; it all seems like a giant rush. It's tiring."

Vic was quick to ask, "So you like Malawi better?"

I paused, then said: "Life is easier here." It was an honest remark. The amenities that I take for granted in the megalopolis mean little when compared to what truly makes living an experience, and not a trial.

There was something fulfilling and quite satisfying about seeing a home slowly rising from the ground over the course of the five days that we were there. As work continued, we would also get to know many of the local kids who lived in the area, who were always laughing and having fun when they came to play with us. A few daring kids even came and helped us pass bricks, in a way showing their commitment to the community. As work finally ended, half of my clothes were mud-splattered, but inside, I felt cleansed of all the rigors of the academic year. Simply put, it seemed like a wonderful start to the summer vacation. We ended our work with a dedication of the house and entertainment in the form of songs and dances. It was a joyous celebration, though we parted with the sad knowledge that we would not be returning.

That concluded the first week of the trip. We spent our second week at the Jacaranda School for Orphans. The moment we stepped into the school, we could sense the energy and happiness shared by the students and staff, and it infected us as well. Throughout the week, whether it was teaching the kids how to use their new calculators, play volleyball, or enjoying a friendly and ultimately quite one-sided soccer match; there was little time to put down a smile.

Marie and Luc were gracious hosts, and treated us as if we were part of the family. They told us of their difficult journey to bring the school to its heights, and it moved us as to how individuals could really make a huge impact upon their community. We explored the village that many of the students lived in, and what we saw there contrasted with the attitudes that each student showed - one of perseverance in the midst of such adversity with a will to succeed.

Whether it was playing guitar with their choir or organizing a little photo shoot, the Jacaranda kids were more than happy to join in. When I asked a few to model for the camera, they laughed and smiled, striking poses that embodied their candid natures. I have never had an easier time working with people more than willing to express themselves, people who seem past the pretensions that seem to plague modern society. When the Jacaranda choir sang "Children of Africa," the music's meaning went past the simple lyrics and melodies; it represented their heritage and the challenges that they would have to overcome. It was moving to say the least.

Malawi imparted a profound message of hope. Exploring the local culture and building the homes was a humble return to the essence of living. Meeting the students, with their dedication toward whatever they were learning, was an inspiration. What I have been through during those two weeks is nothing less than unforgettable. In those two weeks, this country once again felt like home.

(Benjamin Xiong, below, is a student from Shanghai American School)


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