Why the People of Poverty and Hunger are Not the Problem

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Providing a hand-out just wasn't working.

I wouldn’t know what it means to experience poverty and hunger. I’ve grown up with more than I need in all areas of my life. I thought I had an idea of what poverty and hunger was. Until recently…

I embarked on a leadership immersion trip to Africa with Human Kind Project to witness their amazing work with The Hunger Project in the villages of Malawi. This was no sight-seeing expedition. It was true immersion.

With a group of 14 others, we spent five days visiting villages, meeting with elders and community leaders and being invited into the mud or brick homes of families to hear first-hand about their lives.

I didn’t just look upon the people of Malawi, I connected with them through listening to their stories of past and present, where they hope to be and what they want to achieve. What I discovered within these conversations totally blew my ideas of hunger and poverty apart.

At first, I felt angry with myself for having such a conditioned and ignorant mindset, but on one hand it’s all I knew. What I had known of hunger and poverty was the image of a starving, bloated child.

It’s a helpless and moving image that we all know. It compelled me to put my hand in my pocket in order to provide food and aid, you know, so I could say I was “doing my bit in the world…”

Although food and aid is important, these people need homes, clean water, clothes, schools, hospitals and everything else we take for granted. Communities also need help to shift their mindset and give them the confidence and commitment to unleash their own vision and take control of their lives.

Providing communities with food is just a Band-Aid approach and actually doesn’t help the situation in the long term. A holistic approach to all areas, including the fostering of a mindset shift, is the key.

It’s a process in bringing a person who has only known generation after generation of poverty into a new life of possibility. It’s about creating the self-belief that their community can lift themselves out of poverty and step forward into a successful and sustainable future.

With The Hunger Project, I witnessed that exact mindset shift and the generational change they are making right now. The work they have been doing over the past 20 years in Africa has seen villages become self-reliant and no longer in a state of hunger and poverty.

The Hunger Project’s ‘Epicenter Strategy’ unites 10,000 to 15,000 people from a cluster of villages to create a self-reliant centre where villagers are inspired to meet their own needs for health, education, food security and economic growth.

To really understand their work, we spent days visiting different villages. One had become self-reliant, another was just beginning the journey, and the last had almost achieved self-reliance.

On Day One, I met a woman called Annie in an epicenter called Ligowe. Ligowe had just become self-reliant and was home to 16,481 people spread over 24 villages. With The Hunger Project’s micro-financing program, Annie was able to take a loan for $60, repay it and borrow further loans of similar amounts. Over eight years, she used that to build a brick home, harvest a farm, start a grocery store, educate her six children, and become an inspiration to her family and community. Hearing this story and meeting this woman made me see what was possible here in Malawi.

The next day, we went the epicentre Majete 4, which has 12,687 people spread over 29 villages. They are at the very first stage of the self-reliance process with the Hunger Project.

It takes a minimum of eight years to bring a village out of poverty and hunger, and into self-reliance; the process is done over four stages. Stage one is very confronting. Basically you are starting with a village that only knows poverty. It’s people with a poverty mindset. The groundwork to change this through workshops is crucial.

When we arrived at Majete 4, we were met by hundreds of people and they had dressed for the occasion, putting on the only item of bright and clean clothing they had. Sometimes it was all they had or they would borrow an item of clothing to come along to the meeting.

After they finished greeting us with beautiful songs and dancing, we sat with the community. Among them were the village elders and community leaders, both male and female.

The Hunger Project director in Malawi, Rowlands Kaotcha, addressed the gathering to find out what has been happening for them and their community. Rowlands is a man of great knowledge, wisdom and compassion in supporting the communities he serves. He believes that through innovation, leadership and self-belief, the people of Malawi can end their own hunger and create a sustainable future.

He was born there in a village and the story of his birth is the reason he works so passionately to give back and end poverty and hunger in Malawi. His mother had to walk almost 20km to the nearest hospital whilst in labour. She knew that if she didn’t make it to the hospital, she could lose her child or her own life through complications or even be killed.

In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, 162,000 women die every year from complications from pregnancy, labour and delivery. Millions more women suffer serious and long-term injuries as a result of birth complications. Can you imagine your own mother not being able to safely bring you into this world?

Rowlands had a conversation with the community leaders. They spoke of hunger, poverty and a range of other diverse problems. The thing that really got to me was one man who spoke out about food aid.

He said: “We appreciate the food drops, as we need the food, but we don’t just want food – we want to be educated, we want new farming skills and ways to deal with our situation so we can survive.”

He had shared his frustration, and in that moment I realised again how ignorant my own ideas of hunger and poverty had been.

Providing a hand-out just wasn’t working. People need guidance and community-led strategies to provide education, opportunity and leadership from within their communities.

To learn more and get involved directly with the people of Malawi, visit jamiegonzalez.com

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