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Verde Valley School in Namalo Village

For many in our group, this is the first experience of living without electricity and running water, of using pit latrines and sleeping without beds on cold, hard floors.

June 2015, by Caroline Diehl

“The beauty in simplicity and human connection surrounds me all the time.  Namalo is a sanctuary alienated from the materialism and consumerism that dominates today’s world…  I saw so much hope and potential in their eyes… they rejuvenated me, my heart, my hope for life.  I found myself in them, in their history, in their families… amidst tough and fragile children who run barefoot through rocks and pick up fire. I will not forget.” (Noa Lee,  aged 16)
“People in Namalo made me think of the innocence and goodness in people.  They let us into their lives without hesitation; children ran to us without a second thought.  Their purity cannot be found anywhere else…  these people are the hidden gold.  Their positivity and humour are contagious and absolutely beautiful.” (Cindy Ji, aged 17)

I wake up again to the sounds of dawn and the world awakening around me – chickens squawking, people talking in the distant hillsides, the swooshes of so many brooms sweeping the dirt around the homes until all is orderly and pristine and swept clean for a fresh start to this day.  I feel the aches in my body from another night sleeping on a cement floor, but as soon as I stand, they vanish and are irrelevant.  

I LOVE this place and this moment of feeling the world come alive.  Peaceful and content in the simplicity of this beautiful place, run by strong and incredibly loving women.  Their spirit pervades everything.  

This is a place dominated by the smiles and dancing of hundreds of children and women who welcome and embrace us as if we’ve always been a part of their world.

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For many in our group, this is the first experience of living without electricity and running water, of using pit latrines and sleeping without beds on cold, hard floors.  We learn to fetch water from the distant wells and carry it up the hillside on our heads many times throughout the day.  The luxury and importance of water seeps into consciousness.  The well is a gathering spot.  

Food preparations take hours – collecting firewood, killing and plucking the feathers from chickens, dicing the delicious pumpkin leaves and tomatoes, and making nsima.   

The amais teach us skills of self-sufficiency and a connection with the natural world that many of us never learned.

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Laundry is done by hand – or by many hands as the children giggle and show the “azungos” how to get the clothes clean – under the warm sun amidst a large maize field.   Many little fires are set as the sun sinks low to warm the children whose clothes are sparse and feet are bare.  The fires become gathering spaces for more laughter, song and dance.  The pace of life slows, but the opportunities for connection and laughter and sharing grow.  One’s hands are constantly held by another’s.  The daily chores of life and survival fill the hours – but those hours feel  somehow more full and meaningful in this community of Namalo.

Our task was to build an addition, a storage room, for the birthing clinic.  That work is less important than the gift we are receiving being a part of this place – but like all things here, it also quickly becomes a community event.  We form an assembly line passing bricks to the site from where the truck had to deposit them as the road was too steep and impassible.  Soon there are over 40 children in our line, also passing bricks.  

Many are only 3-4 years old and some of the older ones who might be 9 or 10 are carrying infants in chitenjes on their backs and working right alongside us. 

 Tiny kids are lifting bricks that weigh half what they do, but don’t give it a second thought.  Huge smiles.  There is singing and laughter.  

We are all one – any job is just something we do while we connect with each other and share our humanity.  This is a place of joy – simple, but profoundly powerful with so many lessons for us.

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A birth in Namalo

At 11:20pm, Traditional Birth Attendant, Maggie (daughter of the Chief), calls me and two students, Hanna and Lucy, into the birthing room.  Having witnessed a birth last year in Namalo, I was so thrilled to be invited again.  The mother is on the floor and the light from one candle and a small flashlight lit the room.  Maggie handed me the gloves with a huge, knowing smile and in a combination of broken English and Chichewa, it became clear that she wanted me to deliver this baby under her watchful eye.  I was so honored and blown away by this gesture of trust, intuitive understanding and connection.  She was choosing to make a dream of mine come true, even though I had never fully communicated this to her. Yet, she knew – I could see it.   It was only seconds before the head started to crown. 

The baby was face down and after several pushes, the nose was visible.  Mama was in pain, but not screaming – just moaning softly and breathing hard.  It was no easy task to get the head out, but we kept reassuring her that she was almost there.  Several times, she looked right into my eyes and I told her with my thoughts  how beautiful and powerful and amazing she was and that I knew she could do this.  

Amai Maggie was a steady, loving presence standing over us – calm, no fuss and just letting nature unfold.  Everything felt perfect and the way it ought to be – no bright lights and IVs or beeping monitors and fear.  

Just women together in the candlelight doing what our bodies were designed to do – bringing and creating life and nurturing.

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We were honoring a miracle.  Within a minute, the first shoulder popped out and several pushes later, I was holding the most perfect, beautiful  little girl in my gloved hands.  I was awestruck, squatting on the floor with my hands being the first to touch this new and perfect life and welcome it into the world.  

I wanted to cry – pure joy, awe, wonder, and gratitude!  I was in Malawi with 5 powerful, amazing women in this room and now there were 6 of us.  I cannot explain the feeling, but it’s something that will never leave me.  This had been a dream of mine, one I thought would never manifest, and here it was  – real and in Namalo, a place that tugs at my heart because of all the love that exists here.

I continued to hold the newborn girl as Maggie tied off and cut the umbilical cord.   As she cut the cord with scissors that had probably cut the cords of hundreds of newborns, I thought of the clean birthing kits we had brought for the clinic.  After tonight, we’d give them to her and she’d have sterile razor blades, gauze, string, and gloves for the next  150 births.  

It would have been possible for us each to have gloves on right now  –  the scarcity of supplies gone.  Somehow though, perhaps the timing was perfect because it felt especially monumental that she gave me the one pair of gloves she had for this birth. 

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We swaddled the baby in a chitenje and Lucy and Hanna took over her care.  Her cries became louder and stronger which was good- she was breathing deeply and her lungs were clear.  Our focus returned to the mama.  Maggie took my hands and showed me gently how to massage the mother’s belly to induce further contractions to pass the afterbirth.   Through my eyes and thoughts, I  shared my love and admiration for this woman as her eyes met mine again.  She passed the placenta intact and Maggie and I headed outside, down the leafy trail to bury the afterbirth… her in her bare feet, walking a path she had walked thousands of nights before this one.  

Her work was done – another healthy life in our world.   The mother stood up upon our return and got dressed as if nothing monumental had just happened.  We carried her baby to her in the next room and the two lay together on the bed.  Maggie and the girls went to bed and I stayed up with the new mother.  She was hungry and thirsty, so I got her water and gave her two protein bars that were in my backpack.  These Chocolate mint Clif bars made her grin hugely when she tasted their sweetness and we giggled giving each other the thumbs up.

I asked to take a photo of her with her little girl and when she saw my phone, I realized that she wanted to make a call and let her.  It felt amazing to be able to allow her to call her family and let them know that a new life had entered their family safely. 

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I felt so blessed and euphoric in that room with her.  We “talked” in my broken Chichewa and her broken English for a while before falling asleep.  Nine hours later, this mother would have walked 15 miles to her home, but we were headed that way and drove her.  Before she left, she asked me to name her baby, but that was an honor I told her that I did not want to take.  She had already given me such a gift by allowing me to witness and deliver her second born child (her first daughter was born at age 16). 

 I assured her that I’d never forget her or her baby.  I’m amazed by the strength and nobility of Malawian women.  After giving birth a few hours before, they walk back into their lives and are probably collecting wood and cooking and caring for their families immediately.  Resilience, strength and joy pervade all that they are and I am forever inspired.  This birth will never leave me – it was as birth can and should be – so natural, so perfect and so right!

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