This past September, I had the privilege of joining a CRS (Catholic Relief Services) delegation of 7 persons from around the country to Malawi, Africa for ten days. Upon returning, the first question I would hear from family, friends and acquaintances went something like, “So how was Africa?” Miriam Hidalgo from our Diocesan Office of Religious Education and Evangelization was also a member of the delegation, and I think we both agree that this is a difficult question to answer. The experience was profound and transformative, yes, but I guess what struck me the most about the trip was the work that CRS is doing, and the commitment that CRS has made to all aspects of integral human development, in countries around the world such as Malawi.
Due to flight delays, we missed the first day of our scheduled activities, because by the time we landed in Ethiopia, we had missed the daily connecting flight to Malawi. We didn’t mind spending the night in Addas Ababa however, because it was New Year’s Eve in Ethiopia, and there was lots of celebrating going on! (The Ethiopian calendar is not the same as ours....a difference of 8 years). The next day we travelled to Malawi, where we were greeted by the CRS Country Representative, and the regional Director of the countries of South Africa, and they spent the entire trip with us, as were travelled through the cities and villages of the country where CRS has projects that are having very positive impacts on struggling communities. The next day, we began our community visits, and before entering the various villages, we would be with CADECOM staff (Catholic Development Commission in Malawi) which works in partnership with CRS throughout the country.
At each village, where we met with community leaders and their chiefs (who were almost always women) we were welcomed by women in colorful wraps who would sing and dance for us as we arrived. In every community, villagers would be chosen to address our delegation, explain the projects that CRS is funding, and ask that we return home, and express their sincere gratitude to those who contribute to CRS, and make these projects possible. Thanks to CRS, and you, whose donations make these projects possible, we saw: shallow wells in different stages of construction, that will be used in the dry season for agricultural production; a school with 1085 students and 11 teachers where CRS is supervising the construction of outdoor latrines and hand washing stations for the students, and the same program in the nearby village to benefit their families; a clinic for newborns and nursing mothers, coordinated by the Sacramentine Sisters, and a nutrition program, using plants and products grown right in the village, also by the Sacramentine Sisters; (“meatballs,” made from pumpkin seeds, figs and tomatoes were absolutely delicious, and pumpkin leaves sautéed over a fire with a little oil - yummy!); a shelter project where we viewed “improved” home construction using local materials; a village where the women have, for the last five years, successfully implemented a micro-finance and lending project.
I was very touched by an invitation I received in a village where we visited an early childhood development center. Here, in two classrooms, each the size of my bedroom at home, there were 40 pre-school age and 45 kindergartners learning words and phrases in English for our benefit. In that village, because I was the oldest member of our delegation and a woman, I was invited to sit at a place of honor next to the chief, also a woman and elder, during a presentation by the community.
The experience was about the “giftedness” of the host communities that we visited, and the “neediness” of the members of the delegation. We went to “listen,” and not to “work,” and realized that our “work” began as soon as we arrived back home. It was about the Catholic Social Teaching principle of Solidarity, the mutual participation and transformation, as we experienced the universality of the Catholic Church. It was relationship based; and we asked questions about the experiences/injustices and our part in these injustices. CRS delegations don’t go into a country to “DO.” We work with the community that” DOES.” CRS employs members of the various local areas to work on the projects, rather than bringing in folks from countries such as ours. We learn how important our funding is, because funders are the ones who make all of these projects possible.