An Answer

For the past eight years, we’ve been working to build a different kind of organisation. One without big money, buildings and bureaucracy, One run on the energy of the volunteering spirit and one with faith in the ability of the poorest to have a solution to their own problems. It’s wonderful, now, to be able say that IT WORKS.

When we first went to Malawi at Easter 2005, we got a glimpse of what the water crisis really meant. We looked with great sadness, amazement and dismay, at broken pumps, pumps not fit for purpose, expensive pumps, beautiful pumps and then women and girls carrying filthy water, long distances on their heads. I suppose we scratched our heads and wondered where all the millions of aid was going, when this most crucial of steps in the development process seemed to have no solution.

We figured that solving this problem must be so difficult, since no one appeared to have cracked it. We had two options, go home, forget about and pray that some expert would solve it, or do something about it. Being stubborn and obstinate the second option looked like the way to go!!

I emailed hundreds of organizations (and there are thousands) who said give us your money, we do pumps, but since I had seen their puny, short lived solutions, I figured that back to the drawing board may be the way to go.

We knew that access to clean water changes things, but we had no idea just how much. The rewards now, after our eight year of struggles, are immeasurable. All we have done is voluntary, were we, M+J, pay all the organizations running expenses and are full time Malawi! We decided, from the start, to follow a path less travelled, the scenic, volunteering route, where people regularly advised us to leave it to the experts with the support of small donors and even a few bigger ones. We are so grateful to those people who have invested their money in a system less tried and tested, living with the poorest, listening to their stories, dreams and plans and always there to support with advice and training. Their country, their lives, their future, our inspiration, has been most rewarding: a wonderful period of common discovery, among equals.

 

So what have we learned…?

 

We were very happy arriving in Malawi with a most amazing and unique pumps. We installed them with and for the people. They dug wells, made bricks and did all the work, while we brought the pumps. BUT we soon found that they wanted to work with us on other issues. The accepted clean water as the beginning of a whole new life, but now that they knew us, they knew that we could work together and do more. They had, in fact, got dreams and plans, mainly short-term. Their plans included preschools, farming adult education, business. In locations, where they had not become disenfranchised by Aid and bureaucrats they were prepared to think, plan and dream dreams. Very soon it looked like pumps were forgotten and life could begin in earnest, and now, since the women can maintain their pumps with ease, the lives of village women and girls will never be the same. If you want to measure the cost of changing a life, just imagine that it costs just €1 to give a person clean water, in Northern Malawi, where we work.

 

Of course it’s a team effort, but our team is very small yet. We need more advocates, ambassadors and vocal volunteers, not principally for money but to change the way people look at development. Our message is simple, at a human scale and inexpensive. We don’ worry too much about numbers and statistics, we consider each individual as the most valuable We work with, and believe in Malawian people, mainly women, moving them to empower themselves. We don’t look at poverty or depravation; we look at situations and solutions. We look at connectivity, which is now so easy nowadays. We need to be neighbours and good friends, and then the tiniest of help can work wonders, but it has to be a bottom-up approach. Micro solutions really work.

 

We realize that partnership is important. Away from Malawi we are in awe of all the people in schools, churches, offices and homes who show they care and work tirelessly for the cause. We’re humbled by it all.

 

We never planned for growth and expansion, but it has come through the efforts of others, particularly in Malawi, where we have installed, repaired and replaced over 2000 pumps, thus bringing clean, safe drinking water to over a quarter of a million of the poorest  

We hadn’t planned farming, training, research, seed and seedling production, but its all there to be seen and run by bright, intelligent and hard working Malawians, many of whom have little formal education but who are so eager to learn.

We never thought of preschools, yet we have 22, run by the most willing Malawian rural women, who care for the little ones under trees, in cowsheds, schools and deserted buildings. We work on training and they get on with it. Buildings will come later.

We never dreamed of Adult Education but our women have dreams. Dreams of beginning at Standard One and learning to read with their children, technicolour dreams of going to Secondary schools and even more do-able plans to be able to feed, educate and support their families. If I could write, there a hundreds of individual stories of bravery and courage persistence and prayers.

And we had no idea how fast anything would happen. In reality a few hundred people with clean water was what we wished for back in 2005. So if someone mentioned an education project impacting 16 schools and over 25,000 primary school students, I might have inquired about their state of mind, and a birthing centre in the bush, and a pump factory and Malawian employees who run the show on their own, and sending girls to Secondary school, and building and supporting primary schools and libraries. And I’m breathless

But this is where Wells for Zoë, You and us and them, the Universe has certainly colluded!

 

Today…

We have maybe 100 regular donors

Most donate less than €100

Our biggest supporter(s) is a Our Lady’s School, Terenure, Dublin 16, where everyone appears to be involved, and where the feeling of goodwill is electric.

Our investment in buildings in Malawi will soon pay all our wages

We work with 5 Government Ministries at local level, where all are committed to progress without hand-outs

Our water project is expanding in 3 countries, working with partner organizations who share a similar philosophy

We have no paid staff, except our Malawian employees.

Our future will hopefully see more Malawian staff employed and retained if they can fit-in:

More training and up-skilling for our current staff; more involvement in the project by all employees; more setting up and handing over of commercial co-operative women’s farms like the one in Doroba, enabling people to empower themselves.

But who knows?

We have learned a lot in 8 years. Our employees, volunteers, villagers and partners have made seismic and sustainable strides, with our approach of inspiration, education and challenge and they are not for turning back now.

 

On Sunday night two DIT students: Tommy Flavin and Claire Cunningham who volunteered with us at Easter 2012 and are finalizing a documentary, interviewed us for about two hours on video. Their final question was:

Why would anyone want to leave the comfort of Lucan and travel 8000 miles to poverty, hardship and hard work; we thought it over guys and our final answer is: We can’t imagine anything more exciting?

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To the past through the future

Now and again, when I have a minute, I reflect on my life and maybe wonder at how far I have come from my West Roscommon heritage. I mean the astonishing pace of progress, from thatch, candles, tilly lamps, bringing the sod of turf to school, long desks, messy inkwells, dry toilets, calves, my mother’s pigs, lambs and turkeys, making hay and cutting turf. Carrying buckets of water from an open spring well and watching Tom Coll, my grandfather saving cabbage seeds are all particularly beneficial in my life now. This was a post famine Ireland, in Cromwell’s Connacht.

I reflect on what must have been an enormous struggle for my parents to send me to Secondary school, to an almost unique, fee paying, a co-ed, academy, run and owned by one of the most formidable characters I have ever known, the late Mary O’Flanagan, a powerful, one off, lovingly or sometimes not so lovingly called Mary O. There was a real patriot, someone with real vision and years ahead of her time. It must have been even harder to manage University, but such was their hunger for education that, for them, there wasn’t a choice, much like the rural women we work with inMalawi, they saw education as a way of ensuring a better future.

Looking at the people who formed and molded me, I can only whisper about my successes. There was a time when I could attribute these to hard work, lifestyle and good decisions I made and opportunities I took advantage of.

Of course Br Aidan Clohessy, (SJOG, Mzuzu) is right when he attributes all his success to the grace of God: if only I could be so humble.

But he is absolutely correct.

I had no part in the biggest decision in my life; where to be born, which is the most crucial of all, affecting health, wellbeing, opportunities, in fact every potential for success

But what if this wasn’t true?

There was a 50% chance that you would be born into a set of circumstances that would limit your earning to €2.00 a day, and an 80% chance that you would be unable to earn more than €10 a day. If you aren’t in either of these categories, then it was against the odds, and a decision you had no control over at all.

It’s easy to be humble when faced with the simplest of statistics

If you were born in Malawi, your average earning would be around $1.39 a day for a man and 84 cents for a woman.

To put that in perspective, a bottle of water in Malawi costs 30 cents, so after a hard day’s work all you would be able to buy a litre. The alternative maybe to drink dirty water and take the risk of dying.

In Malawi we help, some of the poorest to find a way out of poverty. We do this in the following ways ways:

 

1. Water: We enable people to access clean water, using the simplest of hand pumps which we make in Mzuzu. Clean water changes everything and is the beginning of all potential development. We have made and installed hundreds of pumps and brought clean, safe drinking water to over 125,000 of the world’s poorest

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2. Food: the provision of seed and training in agriculture enables farmers to grow enough food for their family for the rest of their lives. We research and multiply open pollinated seeds (like my grandfather) and give them to farmers to use, save and share, a system many farmers in the world are going back to. Health and Nutrition education is vital in a country so dependant on Maize, alone, as the staple diet. We also produce improved variety citrus, mango, avocado, peaches, apples, guava……

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3. Preschool education: We support rural communities in their efforts to have preschools in their villages. We train local women, help them with equipment, sometimes food, have our travelling principal teacher visit once a week, on his bicycle for support, training and encouragement and assist with transfer to primary schools. We work in many areas where primary school absenteeism is huge. We find that where there is a preschool, children move to primary school, and are more likely to remain.

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4. Adult Education

I think this is the most exciting project we have. As a former educator it makes me weep to see adults learning, to see a grandmother learn to read her, six year old grand daughter’s book then jump up and dance. Then there’s the English and Chichewa, the language of the Country, one word at a time. To see them learning enough maths to do a little business. They are the best students I have ever seen. Of course there’s nutrition, sanitation, hygiene, agriculture, knitting as well as skills like budding and grafting of plants, all in a building used as a preschool in the mornings. But its their school, they have built it with a little help from us. Its their plan, their way, their effort. Starting them off and sliding aside is such a pleasure, as is realising that you will be back regularly with smaller and smaller interventions until a time when they will they will relate that we did this by ourselves.

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In each of these endeavors, Wells for Zoe makes sure its impact is of a long term nature, by working closely with self help women’s groups, on their plans, the community take over is more than gradual. Local women who have gained confidence have amazed us and have shown much more ability and drive that you can imagine.

 

We don’t just give hand outs and disappear. We provide people with choices and opportunities, encourage their plans and befriend them.

We don’t just talk about education, we have got together with the District Education Managers support communities to build the schools and stick with them.

We don’t just install wells and pumps, we ensure communities are involved in all decision making, particularly the women, who have the traditional responsibility for providing water. We also teach the women so that they can repair and maintain the pumps by themselves, with the most rudimentary of tools.

We are in this for the the long haul and prepared to take as long as it takes. Our people will only develop at their face. Any guru arriving with a quick fix plan will find that the fix quickly evaporates as soon as the term is up, and their grant is depleted. Of course another Guru will soon arrive with a new quick fix plan as has happened for the past 50 years.

How did I get myself back to where I started, but 10,000 Kilometers away? It’s like back to the past through the future. Now, at this stage of my life, I believe that this is where I am meant to be. There are no coincidences.

I’m glad that someone has a plan, although if I’m in His plan, maybe it’s not much of a plan after all.

 

An oasis in a desert of appalling misery

Just back from three weeks in the Mzuzu area of Northern Malawi, with mixed emotions of delight, sadness, frustration, rage, joy, appreciation of my life and the opportunities it has afforded me, gratitude for the freedom that the hard work of my parents and ourselves has given me, freedom to do and give to others, freedom that an accident of birth has given me and which I am now hell bent on giving back.

In August last I got my first taste of urban poverty in Malawi, well in fact Mary did. I had been asked by three very positive and forceful women from the Mbawemi women’s group to look at their orphan day-care centre and see if we could help. I really had no interest in Orphanages; taking children from their communities, families and land rights… and only a little more in orphan day-care. I felt there were too many people doing it, with so many scams, waste and corruption, while I was trying to adhere to my abiding business philosophy of sticking with what you know. So like every good husband I chickened out and left it to Mary.

She checked the women out, in so far as one can and found an amazing bunch of sisters, who were volunteers; nearly as poor as the people they were helping, driven and desperate. They had begun this project in 2005, their building was awful, their hearts were big, their dreams were in technicolour, they were doing something, and they needed a hand – a helping hand and not a handout. We decided to, give it a go.

In November son number one, Éamonn and myself spent a busy week, doing a land deal, making the purchase, and employing a local builder. Bad mistake with the builder, as he was slow, just as useless as most men in the area and he stole half of our cement, but TIM (this is Malawi), corrupt from the top to the bottom, all Christians, very little Christianity. So we terminated him and his crew.

The blessing in disguise was that we found Peter and his gang, who are as hard working as you could meet. They took over on Dec 29 and the official opening took place on February 10. For the past few weeks we worked against all the odds; the rainy season, an unhelpful, and most times intoxicated chief, an indifferent and obstructive male population, dire poverty, a wet, low lying site, unhelpful neighbours and official bureaucracy who couldn’t care less. In fact very much like Ireland when you are trying to build something.

On the final morning, Mercy, one of the women hugged me and apologised for all the difficulties we had needlessly encountered, I just laughed and explained how I felt very much at home, very much like the planning process in Ireland I explained; You apply for permission on land where building is allowed and all hell breaks loose, obstructionists come out of the woodwork, like termites she asked; very much I answered; they object, tell lies, question your motives, defame your character, spread rumours, cost you money and after about two years the final level of bureaucracy say yes: always yes in my case. So what’s new: we laughed? She said you’re a tough customer, I smiled and let her know that we WILL realise all of our dreams.

In the circlePart of the dream was realised on February 9 with the opening of Áras Kate, a 1700 sq ft wonder. 260 little ones will be cared for and fed here every morning from 7.30 till 11. The one meal of porridge made from maize flour, soya, ground nuts with a little salt and a lot of sugar, will make a serious impact on their lives. Later in the year the sweetener will be honey from our 330 hives in the forest, the maize, soya and groundnuts will come from our land in Lusangazi and the vitamins from dried moringa leaves.

The process is simple really; its just community at it’s best. Of course it’s not a million kids, it’s not a Madonna affair, it’s only each one of 260 beautiful creations, who may now be given a shot at life by the generosity of a doting grandfather six thousand kilometres away.
Next we plan a drop in centre for battered and bruised women, for grannies and carers, a place to meet and laugh a little; a homework club for students, a little enterprise centre, small business loans at zero interest, first or second chance learning for young and older mothers and whatever needs arise.

All this is happening in the middle of the most serious depravation, starvation serious male alcoholism and all the abuse that goes with it.
Did someone mention a UN charter for children; would that person stand up and be counted?
If you think you can help, I assure you that you can.
Lend us your hands.
Thank you all for allowing me a little rant after a 32 hour journey!