The Warm HEART of Africa

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.