The Invisible Gift

Shelly, our CRM Program Director, recently traveled to Malawi with an eagerness to give back. But she returned bearing a gift she didn't expect.

By Elysia Cook

It was the first trip for many to Africa, including myself.

Along the paved road to Zomba, where we stayed for six days, was an expansive landscape of dirt roads, mountains, fields with random piles of burning shrubs and rocks, and brick homes. The homes were topped with tin roofs (the most expensive, I learned), palm frond roofs, or no roofs at all.

Our hotel was up a steep grade sitting high atop a mountainside overlooking the villages below. I don’t think I was the only one who felt fortunate for the comforts of hot running water, electricity and a toilet! Most local homes, I learned, do not have running water; rather, there are one or two bore holes (manually operated wells that pump water from the ground) that the community shares.

The hosts of our trip work for the Malawi Children Organization and several Community Based Organizations (CBO’s) that distribute Vitamin Angels’ prenatals. In addition, they provide health care counseling, village level care group structures and monitoring/evaluation of the effectiveness of localized health advocacy and education. During our days in the field they took us to multiple communities who benefit from this care. Although we were welcomed formally at all of them by mothers and children, the greetings varied greatly village to village. But our mission—to reach the unreachable, who would otherwise be invisible—stayed the same.

Our first visit of the trip was to the Namikango Clinic, where they birth an average of 100 babies a month! Many doctors and nurses were on staff in the next room tending to three mothers who gave birth just the day before. We received the honor of visiting with these mothers, who watched their sleeping children with adoration. Little ones who awoke to breastfeed were immediately attended to, as the act is not considered private or taboo in these areas. It was a beautiful and instinctual response to witness. (continued below)

One of the many mothers I had the privilege of meeting was Eliza (pictured, below left), who was 18 years old and eight months pregnant with her first child when I met her. She openly shared her thoughts with me, and I learned that she had dropped out of school in anticipation of her delivery. However, she plans to resume her education after her child’s first birthday, at which time her sister will help take care of the baby.

But Eliza's hopes for the future go beyond her own education. Her greatest wish, she told us, is that her child will also have the opportunity to go to school and help provide for the family in the future. (continued below)

For the time being, though, Eliza is enjoying the present as a mother-to-be. ‘How do you feel about giving birth?’ we asked her. She replied that she was happy, and didn’t have any fears or worries about giving birth.

It was at this point, about halfway into our conversation, that I felt that there was a deeper connection between Eliza and I—I felt as if she and I were already family. So I got up and sat closely next to her; she leaned into me. At that moment, I felt a bond…an invisible gift.

Even after I returned from my trip, I couldn’t stop thinking about Eliza and the other mothers and children I met. The impact and depth of emotion from trip crept up on me very slowly, and it wasn’t until two days after being home that I was brought to joyful tears. As I pondered the moment shared with Eliza and the many other memories created that week, I found peace and assurance in the realization that I am a part of such a large family! With that newfound knowledge, my recent anxiousness about starting a family of my own has faded. Spending the week with the women and children in Malawi filled my heart with this invisible gift of love, and reminded me of what everyone wishes for: the intangible, sometimes inexplicable connections that shape our lives.