When a group of about a dozen UNC Charlotte students departed Charlotte for Malawi, Africa, earlier this semester, they didn’t leave with lofty visions of “saving” Africa.
Faculty leader Diana Rowan, assistant professor of social work in the College of Health and Human Services, presented students with a more formidable challenge: to learn to provide strengths-oriented social work in a country experiencing widespread poverty and a crippling HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“We know that the Malawians know the best ways to solve Malawi’s problems,” Rowan said.
The eight-day service learning trip to Malawi during spring break served as the culmination of Rowan’s spring semester social work course “NGOs and Social Development in Malawi.” Unlike traditional study abroad programs which primarily focus on cultural immersion, this class would require undergrad and graduate students from a mix of disciplines -social work, public health, exercise science and business administration - to put their knowledge of international social work practices to use in an unfamiliar culture.
During the trip, students provided social services in villages supported by non-government organizations (NGOs), which are nonprofit service groups that operate independently from the government. The group also spent two days in the Ntchisi Village, a very rural location without NGO support.
While in the village, students sorted 700 pounds of donated items gathered in the months before the trip. Rowan gave the group the primary responsibility of collecting material and financial donations, including more than $1,100 in cash contributions. Students invested in agencies where the local leaders would know best how to use the resources effectively.
In the Chembe Village, a large fishing community on the shores of Lake Malawi, Rowan’s group collaborated with Health, Education, Environment and Economic Development (HEEED), a small, locally operated NGO, to hold a BBQ dinner for some village families who had few resources. Through the celebration, which included local music and customs, students established trust with the villagers who invited them into their homes the following day.
The experiences of daily village life surprised some students, including Elyssia Flynn, a student in the Master of Social Work program, who said her time in the families’ homes didn’t match the American stereotypes of poverty-stricken African children waiting for Westerners to come to their rescue.
“The children I interacted with in Malawi were significantly happier than any child I have encountered in the United States,” Flynn said. “They were proud to have visitors and thrilled to have new playmates. They did not expect to be rescued from their lives or receive gifts.”
Students also spent time at the Chisombezi Deaf/Blind Centre, a faith-based NGO that cares for 10 visually and hearing impaired children and young adults; at Catholic University of Malawi, where they conversed with Malawian university students about social work practices; and at the Lighthouse Trust HIV Clinic, a large-scale NGO that provides community-based HIV services with international support.
The group met each night to process their experiences, share challenges and plan for the following day. Several students said they left Malawi with significantly altered impressions of Africa.
"When people think of Africa, they usually think of the really sad infomercials with children walking around in torn and tattered clothes with sad faces,” Frances Broadhurst, an undergraduate student majoring in social work, said. “They see children without technology and without designer clothes and they think 'Oh, poor, sad, Africa. They know nothing about happiness.' However, in Malawi, that was not the case. I have never seen happier children in my life."
Tax-deductible donations can be made to support activities in future social work study abroad courses. Donate to the UNC Charlotte Foundation at www.giving.uncc.edu and specify “Malawi” or email Rowan at firstname.lastname@example.org.