I admit that my job at National Geographic is a lot of fun.

One minute I am blowing up snowdrifts, the next I am dusting away the secrets of Mesoamerican doomsday prophecies, rapping in Japanese, or cuddling wolves. Every day is different and unexpected—as travel should be.

But travel is not always fun. Sometimes it is difficult and frustrating and sometimes it brings us face to face with the most heartbreaking scenes in the world. Even so, I’ve found the most rewarding travel comes from entering new territory and stepping away from home comforts. Dropping yourself into another person’s reality is how travel makes us better and more empathetic people.

I traveled to Malawi to see a country I had always wanted to see, and yet it is also one of the poorest countries in the world, where a majority of the country’s 16 million people struggle with poverty and disease. Human suffering is not a tourist attraction, but observing the challenges of others helps refocus the lens by which we view the world and our own lives.

For the past few days I have been visiting villages in Malawi that participate in Save The Children’s HEART program. HEART (Healing and Education through the Arts) serves the most dire communities in the world, where young children are most vulnerable to the trauma of extreme poverty and war. In addition to traditional aid (food and medicine), HEART supports early childhood education through dancing, singing, and painting. Most children take these activities for granted, but in a country like Malawi, even fingerpainting is a luxury.

There are countless aid programs throughout the world, most of them praiseworthy, but what  drew me specifically to HEART is that the program is entirely community-based, meaning the villages are trained by Save The Children to run these programs for themselves. In a land with not enough food, villagers donate their own food to feed their own children. The local teachers are all volunteers from the community, trained to teach the children through the arts. Some supplies are provided but most are not: children make their own paint, they carry their own playground equipment to school and teachers create their own learning materials.

This post and those to come are not endorsements for Save The Children–many wonderful organizations are doing important work in Malawi and throughout the less-developed world–yet my interest in this specific project is what brought me into the “Warm Heart of Africa“.

Over the next few days I will be blogging about what I have experienced in Malawi. Truly, it has been eye-opening, life-changing and at times, tearful. But it has also been joyful, hopeful and like so much of my work . . . even fun.

If I have learned anything in Malawi, it is that children with nothing hopeful in their lives will still find reason to hope and to have fun.

Comments

  1. Marianne Schwab
    http://www.best-travel-deals-tips.com
    April 5, 2012, 1:23 pm

    Andrew, you bring up such an important issue in travel. Travel really opens our eyes to so much – the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. The poverty I’ve seen in other countries and places not only makes me appreciate how much I have in the U.S. , but shows me where I can also make a difference when I visit places like you have in Malawi. I sponsor a child in the Philippines through Children International and have sponsored kids through them since the mid-eighties. You can make a difference one child at a time.

  2. Rebecca
    April 5, 2012, 6:08 pm

    Thank you for this. Your pictures and words from Malawi have helped me process my experiences in Haiti just a couple weeks ago. I was there to do rebuilding work and it was an incredible experience, lifechanging in the truest sense. But I came home shaken and stunned by what I experienced – not only the depth of the poverty, but also the height of the spirit. Following your similar trip has helped to keep that experience alive. Funny to see your kids react to your iPhone the same way the Haitian kids did to mine. Just delightful.

    Funnily, you were also in Tulum a couple days after I was! People are gonna start to talk… :)

  3. Natina Harris
    Durham, NC
    April 5, 2012, 8:34 pm

    You are an amazing and talented photographer/videographer! Whether it is the environment, animals or people, you capture stunning natural beauty in all!! Keep up the fantastic work!!

  4. Roxanne
    April 6, 2012, 1:04 am

    You say “children with nothing hopeful in their lives will still find reason to hope and to have fun” and it’s so true. I volunteer for http://www.reach4sight.co.za which takes eyecare to the underprivileged of rural and remote communities and I always come home blown away by the capacity for joy and laughter where there is no real cause for it. It’s a life lesson that’s humbling. It’s also why I love my job as a travel writer, because meeting people is at the heart of what makes every travel experience unique. Going to follow you on Twitter to hear more about Malawi…

  5. Painting with Love – Digital Nomad
    April 10, 2012, 9:17 am

    [...] has been attending Save the Children’s HEART program for almost a year, coming to this learning center in rural Malawi to play, dance, sing and to paint [...]

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    [...] Returning to Cape Town marks the end of my five-week journey from Cape to Cape (Cape Horn to the Cape of Good Hope). In that time, I have traveled from Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands, then on to the snowy mountains of South Georgia and across the South Atlantic to the rare and remote Tristan Da Cunha island group where I met up with old friends and reached one of the most inaccessible places on earth. I finally made it to Cape Town, on the other side of the ocean, then hopped up to Africa’s warm heart: Malawi. [...]

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