I blink like I need to be told where I am. I am in a room full of song.
The children of Mtendere Village orphanage live behind and benefit from a factory that produces a soy and maize porridge mix that helps fend off malnutrition. It's called VitaMeal, and it's partly why I'm here; it's part of what NuSkin is doing to help here: building this factory and funding this project with the help of its consumers' donations. I am told these kids have no family or neighbors left to care for them. The full meaning of having no one in the world hits me hard. It's one thing to read about this reality or watch it on TV; it is quite another to be here and look into a four-year-old girl's eyes and realize that she has no one. The powerful sound of the orphans singing in their schoolhouse, welcoming us to their village, yanks tears from my eyes. Where does their joy come from?
I meet a man here named Napoleon Dzombe. When you mention his name anywhere in Malawi, as I come to find out, you will have friends wherever you go. He works tirelessly to build hospitals, orphanages, factories — infrastructure to help his fellow Malawians — and he partners with companies like NuSkin to direct aid dollars to places and programs most in need. His kindness is unfathomable and far-reaching.
Next we head to Bwaila Hospital in Lilongwe. About 40 women per day walk from their villages to give birth here. If a woman has another young child, he comes with her, strapped to her back in a cloth sling. This way, laden with children, women walk through the hospital's gates. They wait in a communal room with not enough beds if they are starting to feel labor pains. Many sit on the floor. The room carries a silence that is the heaviest I've ever felt.
As part of NuSkin's Big Give program, we distribute mosquito nets to the new moms; they will need them for their homes to try and prevent their babies from dying of malaria. We don't see a doctor the whole time we're here. There are no anxious fathers doing any hand-wringing outside. It feels superfluous to be giving them handmade burping towels, as if that is a necessity for these women at all.
Our last stop today is a school that has a special program for blind children. Their singing is sweetly piercing and distinct. There is a tone, one that I've heard nowhere else, a high-pitched, guttural voice, as if one's tonsils were too close. If nectar had a sound, this might be it.
Back in my room at the hotel I change out of my long skirt — de rigueur field-wear — that is covered in red dust. We can wear jeans to the Kumbali Lodge tonight (where Madonna stays — she requests all white bedding, please, I hear) where we eat a traditional dinner of nsima (maize porridge) with various relishes like stewed pumpkin leaves, broccoli rabe, and beans, along with some beef. For most people in Malawi, a meal is just nsima. And often just once a day.
We listen to traditional music and gather to watch traditional dances, and I feel a contagious joy welling in me. To say life is hard here is like saying it is light in the daytime and dark at night. So, that aside, just live. There are dances about an engagement, impending drought, chisamba (a ritual for the first-born child) — a group dancing in unison, exuberant expression, vibrant movements, intense body odor. Life! Life! Life!