It’s an empty feeling, cut with shame. For the next few days, I simply sit in Kachere and watch life unfold, arrested with inaction. Slowly, like ink being dropped into water, the answers reveal themselves in this humanity that exists in Kachere. This humanity is in a broken cell that has been painted black. This cell is used as a classroom, where some of the remanded are teaching the other inmates to read and write. This humanity stops me in my tracks. It’s a beautiful act of faith and hope. A papaya seed. This is where I find the solution.
A woman named Mada is a student of permaculture – The design of human and agricultural systems based on the sustainable relationships existing in nature. She tells me that Papaya can help kill worms that live in the stomach and Malawi is a perfect place to grow this fruit. Permaculture is a system, which uses the highest potential of the environment for the benefit of the people and other life that forms part of it. You simply need to observe and learn to assist nature to do what it naturally does best. Thereby you make best use of energy rather than attempting to force control over nature and wasting precious resources. You can compost your own waste (in fact the term ‘waste’ becomes obsolete – almost everything becomes a resource); you learn to save your best seeds from your last harvest. You need to use much less water, learn to eat more different foods that are in season and ultimately become independent of unsustainable inputs (like foreign aid). You create an environment, which can sustain itself and inhabitants over time - permanently. In order to make this work a change in thinking is needed, and this can be achieved through education. Mada’s passion for the earth is infectious. The way she talks about gardens is almost like a system of friendship. One plant, helping the other thrive. You attempt to put plants next to one another, in order to help each other reach their full potential. Plants that don’t compete but compliment each other, filling different niches. Other plants, act as protectors of this system of friendship. Holding back pests, attracting the right predators. A community that becomes more than the sum of its parts. She makes gardens and farming sound like the ideal community of friendship that I aspire to have. Even though she speaks quietly, her words act as giant explosions. All we need is within and with the land that surrounds us.
Permaculture begins to act as a metaphor. This idea becomes the foundation for how I Live Here will work in Kachere and beyond. Rather than giving material aid, we will supply Kachere with the tools to sustain themselves in the long run. I would like Kachere to be an environment where the inmates can help one another grow. I would like Kachere to be clean. I ask that it is healthy. I would like full time school to be put in place. I would like to use toilets that compost waste. I would like the Kachere garden to become a classroom of permaculture, in turn providing the kids with nourishment. I would like to re-open each case of every child within Kachere. And then, when the kids leave Kachere, they have the tools that might just make them future leaders. I believe in these kids.
I begin again at a furious pace. Natasha and I visit various NGO’s, - We can’t work in isolation anymore. Local partnership is key so that we can learn from one another. I begin to refer to our NGO visits as our “ambush”. Like a glee club representative, I jump up and down; talk a lot with my hands. I giggle inappropriately when I sound like a high-school cafeteria sermon. I realize I am off-putting with my enthusiasm and am met with a lot of stony faces. I don’t want to take no for an answer when I’m told that this or that NGO is too busy to help, they don’t return calls, or our program is not in their mandate, etc. When the organizations we meet with brush us off, Natasha and I move to the next ones on our list. The best help, by surprise, comes from the Malawian Government, who is willing to do the most and shows the most passion for this project. Not WHO, Not MSF, not UNICEF. We approach the Ministry of Environmental Health and ask for their help in cleaning the prison. We don’t know if it has ever been cleaned. The response is amazing. Within a day, two nurses are in the prison with an industrial sized bucket of chlorine, plastic aprons and masks. The prison is being scrubbed from top to bottom. The bedding is de-loused and washed. A barber comes to Kachere and cuts the hair of the children, in order to get rid of the lice. The children seem happier.
We need full-time school in this prison. One day, I ask the inmates, “Who wants to go to school? “All of the kids put their hands up. I am adamant that these kids have access to the best education possible. I am able to hire a teacher who has just graduated from Chancellor College, the Harvard of Malawi. The Ministry of Education is very co-operative. They give us books and syllabi that will allow the boys to follow the national education program. They can begin to study from standards 1-8. Surprisingly, the officers in the prison ask if they can take these classes. We will build a tent so that the kids can be shaded from the sun when they learn. We make wooden compost toilets based on the Humanure system. One for each cell. There will be no more feces lying in open buckets in airless cells at night. This will cut down on the risk of cholera and other illnesses transmitted from contact of fecal matter. We install hand-washing stations in each cell, along with clean water taps. Madda begins to source local seeds, so that the garden will grow with food that is environment appropriate. The enthusiasm among the officers is palpable. We will have a medicinal garden and teach the officers and the kids how to re-produce this system in their own home. Finally, because our on the ground partner is PASI, Natasha will look after the legal rights of these children. Twice a week, PASI will teach legal rights education so that from now on, these kids will know their rights. I realize this is an ambitious program. A lot will go wrong. The most important element is that I deeply believe in what we are doing and are here for the long run.
Eventually, I Live Here’s initial art and creative writing curriculum will be re-integrated back into the school curriculum. I still believe that art and prose can serve to make the world less lonely.
I Live Here has found its voice through what I have learned in Malawi. We found our voice through mistakes, which I am sure we will continue to make and hopefully learn from. Thank you Natasha, for reminding me to laugh. I now understand that humor is the only way to get through days that can hurt your heart. When we move to create our program in a brothel on the Thai-Burmese border, we will apply all that we learned at Kachere, working within the environment that we are in, rather than implementing a foreign agenda. The I Live Here website will continue to chronicle our work on our website. In tandem, I Live Here will launch an interactive website, in which global users submit their own stories about home, intimacy, loss, love and loneliness. Stories from your brother, sister, neighbor that might have remained hidden from view, much like the past of Kachere. Finally, we have created an Ambassador program, run by Erica Solomon, our Educational Director. It will centre around the I Live Here book anthology and the work of our programs. This is a student-run, yearlong curriculum that provides high school and college students, around the world, with the tools to be agents for change. Our deep hope is to build an I Live Here community of like-minded activists. Finally, we will continue the I Live Here anthology of books.
I Live Here was able to go to Malawi because of the generous support of those that attended our first fundraiser. And we will continue to be mostly volunteer run, headed by the unstoppable Judy Battaglia.
I still believe that stories will change the world. And through this change, we will surely find ourselves less alone.