Saturday, March 30, 2013

Maji Zuwa & Me

My mama sent a text this week saying “People want blogs! Love you!” so I figured I may as well write to meet demand J I apologize for basically being the worst blogger ever these past two years. Soon I’ll be home and you guys will wish I’d just shut up about Malawi so figure I’d best take advantage while everyone is still interested, haha.

So I wrote a pretty brief post about Maji Zuwa in the past- but now I want to write the whole story Maji Zuwa has had a huge impact on my service and is a place I’ll be in touch with for the rest of my life. And you should all hear why.

Back in July 2011, I went to Maji Zuwa [Water & Sun Resort] for the first time with my former sitemate Meg and my BFF Jay. I knew nothing about the place, except that it was kind of new. In the lakeshore area where I live, there a lot of picturesque lodges- many of which have crabby, curmudgeon old expat owners-not to judge. I mean if you want to be a crabby old lodge owner, great- but I’m not going to be very inclined to visit your place. On this day for the first time, I met Matt Maroon- the American, very young owner (December 2012 turned 29). He hung out us for the day as we enjoyed some Carlsberg and the menu specialty, chapati tacos. We learned from reading the back of the menu that Matt (in addition to being the owner of Maji Zuwa) is a professor at nearby Univeristy of Livingstonia, and founder of the non-profit Determined to Develop, which sponsors dozens of kids’ school fees. We were all suitably impressed. We got Matt’s phone number, and he quickly became our friend and Maji Zuwa became great getaway from our lives in the village.

Over the coming months, over many shared meals and beers with Matt, we learned a lot more about him. He came to Malawi in 2006 as a (non-Peace Corps) volunteer, teaching at a school in Karonga. He was so moved by his experience here, making many friends and Malawian family members along the way, he wanted to stay. Over the coming years, living between Malawi and getting his Master’s in Anthropology in the USA, he found investors to build Maji Zuwa. Maji Zuwa is more than a lodge. Besides being tied to Matt’s non-profit, which does sustainable community development projects in the area, a dozen or so orphaned boys live here with Matt. Some of these boys literally helped build Maji Zuwa from the ground up. And all of them now help to continue to improve Maji Zuwa’s continuing construction projects, while also attending the local secondary school. Matt had experience working with underprivileged youth in the USA and that, along with his warm and friendly personality have provided a safe, wonderful environment for these boys to grow and succeed. The boys and Matt are like family to me- and I’ve shared many “family dinners” with them; every Saturday night is ‘family dinner’, where all the boys and all the Maji Zuwa guests eat meat and rice together (a real treat of a meal!).

I’ve had so many great memories with my Maji Zuwa family. After a particularly trying Friday in the village, I texted Matt about my woes and he invited to treat me and Jay at Maji Zuwa (covering my food and lodging costs) to talk it all over. Me, Jay, and Ross spent Cheesemas ’11 here at Maji Zuwa. I had my amazing 25th birthday/4th of July party here- where more than 40 other Peace Corps volunteers attended! And Matt had bought fireworks in the capital. It was a very memorable birthday. In 2012, I spent, Halloween, Thanksgiving weekend, Christmas and New Years Eve here at Maji Zuwa with my family and friends. I’ll never forget those holiday!

Maji Zuwa also attracts “voluntourism” in that it hosts visitors and gives them opportunity to experience Malawian culture and help with one of Determined to Develop’s projects. Matt also helps hosts long-term volunteers at the local secondary school where the boys attend- volunteers who serve as teachers for at least one term. Some of these volunteers have become lifelong friends to me! In addition, every summer Matt hosts college students from his alma mater University of Dayton thru the ETHOS program- a program that sends undergraduate engineering students to destinations around the world to complete a summer project. Those students who get to come to Malawi and Maji Zuwa definitely realize how lucky they are! (and last year they got to attend my amazing birthday party J ). So many out of country visitors have been just as moved by their Maji Zuwa experience as I have, being here for two years.

When I first came to Maji Zuwa- there was no electricity, one ‘summer hut’ (a covered, sandy area to sit and enjoy drinks and food) and the main open air bar. Workers would have to go to the local trading center to get us cold drinks! Now, there are two cement floored summer huts, electricity and huge TV in the bar, multiple refrigerators and freezers, and a stove/oven (back in the day everything was just cooked over fire). The bridges to the chalets are being rebuilt, dorm lodging is being built and most importantly- a spacious house is being built for Matt and the resident boys (they currently have been living in the office area of the main/bar building, they are killing for space!). It’s been amazing to see all these wonderful changes over the past two years- providing tons of work for local community members to benefit from. I can’t believe all that has changed, I love this place more and more as time passes.

As you might guess, Matt is a pretty special person and no blog post could ever do justice to his story or the Maji Zuwa story. Luckily for you, you will be able to learn about the whole thing in a documentary about him that is currently being made. As I wrote previously, Director Ben Blair has been on the ground in Malawi since November, recording the story for a not for profit documentary. Ben will be here until August, where he will then return to USA to put together the whole thing for your viewing pleasure. You can learn more about the documentary here, and I hope when it is released everyone I know will be able to see it, so they might experience a little bit of what I have (and you just might see an interview with yours truly!).

To wrap up, I want to tell a story. Back in July of 2011, I helped run the Gender and Development Camp in Mzuzu- I believe I wrote a big long post about it back in the day. One of our first icebreaker games was a name learning game- everyone stood in a circle. The first person says their name and does a motion (such as a spin or something) and the second person, says the first person’s name, does their motion, says their name, and does a motion. This continues around the circle until everyone is saying a lot of names and doing a lot of motions! It was the boy’s next to me turn, where he introduced himself as Frackson and did his motion- a good old fashion hip thrust. I was floored by this moment of quiet hilarity that I delayed in beginning my turn. Frackson, along with the rest of our campers, had an enjoyable week of learning and fun that I will never forget.

Flash forward/back to my first visit to Maji Zuwa. As I’m sitting at the table with just Meg and Jay, who approaches us but Frackson, from camp! As it turned out, Frackson is one of the boys who lives at Maji Zuwa with Matt. So I got to see Frackson grow, succeed in school, and become part of my family. I remember back when there was no electricity, Matt shared a story with me about Frackson. Frackson had been looking grumpy for a few days, so Matt asked what was wrong. Initially, Frackson resisted telling Matt. But a few days later Matt was like, you must tell me! And Frackson’s response was, “I’m not reading enough!”. At the time there was only light bulb (powered by solar power). So Matt permitted Frackson to use the light bulb for an extra hour each night. I love this story- a child so earnest to learn and getting the opportunity to. Frackson was first in his class in secondary school and held the honorable title of Head Boy! It has been great to see.

Just in January, Matt announced at family dinner that Frackson would be moving to Livingstonia to attend University of Livingstonia. I was so so thrilled to hear this! I asked Matt who would be paying for Frackson’s education and he said “me”, meaning, out of Matt’s own pocket. I told him that I wanted to help with Frackson’s education- having gotten to know him over the last two years, I know he is very deserving of the opportunity and will be a great success. I am hoping that my family and friends out there reading this will help me over the years to put Frackson thru university. This is an opportunity to really change someone’s life, and by extension, help him to develop his country. When I come home I will have more information on how you can help, but please feel free to contact me about it. I consider Frackson to be a family member, and thereby, he is now your family member too!!

I sit here writing this post from the newest summer hut at Maji Zuwa, on a beautiful lakeshore morning. I am so happy to finally share this tale with you, that have been such an important part of my time in Malawi and my life. I hope my family here in Malawi can count on your support in the future.