Transformation Through Love
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Malawi
2005

My one-on-one mission to help people started by asking around during my tour of Africa about the most immediate, important needs in the areas I visited. Some spoke about the constant need for safe drinking water which meant there was also a need to drill for water wells. But, the first place where I became immersed in people asking for help was a community on the shores of Lake Malawi, on Nkhata Bay which I later discovered is the sixth poorest country in the world.

In taking inventory of everything they needed, I quickly became overwhelmed and it brought me to my knees. Maybe because my own life had taken on a thread of catastrophic proportions, I felt particularly compelled to find a solution to what seemed like chaos in the villages I visited. So many doubts raced in my mind though. What could one, very flawed woman full of good ideas (but no clue where to start) really accomplish?

My one-on-one mission to help people started by asking around during my tour of Africa about the most immediate, important needs in the areas I visited. Some spoke about the constant need for safe drinking water which meant there was also a need to drill for water wells. But, the first place where I became immersed in people asking for help was a community on the shores of Lake Malawi, on Nkhata Bay which I later discovered is the sixth poorest country in the world. 

In taking inventory of everything they needed, I quickly became overwhelmed and it brought me to my knees. Maybe because my own life had taken on a thread of catastrophic proportions, I felt particularly compelled to find a solution to what seemed like chaos in the villages I visited. So many doubts raced in my mind though. What could one very flawed woman full of good ideas (but no clue where to start) really accomplish? 

Not long after I’d returned to Italy, one of the people in the Malawi community whom I’d met contacted me by email. “Can you help buy us new mattresses for the hospital, send some mosquito nets, and also send some food?” 

Of course I said yes. Something about being our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper was on my mind at the time. It was the request for food that really sealed the deal. But I’d never helped anyone remotely in this way before. And since I didn’t know how, I ended up winging my donation. First I took some money out of my account, asked friends for the rest, and then I posted a Facebook Ad to help in the implementation of getting the supplies to the hospitals. 

During this transformational period, I learned a lot of stuff about myself, not only the ups and downs of resilience, but that it takes courage every morning to try new stuff and to say, “Even if I suck at this, I will be okay.” All skills that came in handy when I had to figure out how to place a Facebook Ad. 

I did a little research and found a Facebook Group called Nice Up North, which was a page devoted to volunteering in Malawi. So I emailed the administrator of the Nice Up North Facebook Group to receive permission to become a member of their community. When they accepted me, they posted my ads asking for help with my humanitarian projects. My first Facebook Ad was for the Malawi mattress, netting and food project. In the ad, I asked if there were any volunteers working close to the Malawi community who might be able to buy the mattresses and netting and drop them off.

When volunteers working in the communities gave me a thumbs up, I asked them to send me their resumes. After looking them over, I discovered that all of them had been stationed down there already and had been working with the communities in humanitarian efforts for some time. After I verified the volunteers’ credentials, I discovered a way to send them money through Western Union. This worked perfectly because the volunteers picked up my donation money easily and then bought and delivered all the mattresses, netting and food that the community in Malawi needed. 

I did this kind of fundraising and delivery of humanitarian supplies two times with two different rounds of volunteers who I found on Facebook. A married couple working at The Peace Corps received my first donations. And that’s how my philanthropy began. I ended up not creating a foundation, even though that was my original idea. 

This kind of philanthropy and fundraising not only helps me and other people with the same desire to make a positive impact on the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged, but I’ve also been able to explore my love of freedom and travel. Naturally, I’ve met and talked to people I’d otherwise never encounter. And somehow through the process I’ve become a storyteller. I had no idea that I would ever write one book, let alone a series. This is one example of how the nonlinear nature of my philanthropy (and my life!) has always held a special fascination for me. 

Oftentimes, I’ve set out on journeys that have taken me to unplanned and even unknown destinations. I guess life is a lot like that, too. But, this journey of helping the poor and disadvantaged didn’t turn out how I thought it might in the beginning. Sure, there have been lots of obstacles and challenges. But the people that I’ve met around the world, my teachers, have shown me how to handle whatever life throws my way.

One of my most memorable teachers has been the Malawian people. They, like many people in other African countries, just laugh in the face of misfortune. They treat hardship, setbacks, and tragedies like they’re no big deal. They’re definitely not shocked, surprised, or defined by the kinds of curveballs that have taken my breath away. They expect tragedy and misfortune, just as much as they expect miracles, understanding that both make up a life. 

Tomorrow’s a new day, they will say and mean it. Of course, on one level, every one of us knows this. But putting this idea into practice can be daunting. In Malawi they helped me to understand, in ways I never had before, about the beautiful concept of detachment. Eventually, I’ve learned to personally give up the old inclinations I had to hold on tightly to my expectations of how life would or wouldn’t turn out. This involves an almost daily process of releasing. Because the Africans I met practice a consistent process of letting go, they have maintained a beautiful inner glow. But they also release this joy in many ways, as seen in the constant radiant smiles of the Malawi people. 

I think this glow and ease with uncertain and difficult circumstances stems from the interconnectedness Africans feel with one another and even strangers, like me. Besides being really funny, Malawians have a familial sensibility, not one that focuses on our separateness and differences. They laugh and then they’re like, Oh, whatever. They were not only friendly and very helpful to me but showed me compassion unlike I’ve ever experienced before. 

I had a deep need to transform the darkness that had befallen me by dedicating this series to Blaise, as well as the sanctuary Rifugio Isola del Sole in Sicily. It is my light-hearted way of smiling at fate as the Malawians taught me. Saying Oh, whatever, has kept me alive as I keep him alive through the betterment of the lives of the voiceless people and animals that otherwise would never have had a chance to thrive. 

After helping out the hospitals in Malawi, I kept going. I think I gained a lot of confidence when I found I could help people over Facebook. Naturally, after a bit of success, I became more and more convinced that where there is a will, there is a way. I began to gain confidence in my own judgement and beliefs. Confidence helped me to embark on risky undertakings that included committing resources without really knowing the outcome. This meant that I had to trust complete strangers to do the work that they said they would do. 

I also became confident that every problem had a solution and I could always find the right one. Once I realized that I always DO find a solution, and that the right person as well as the right circumstance always present themselves, I began to start believing and trusting in myself more and more. This gave me the confidence and abilities I needed to begin to embark upon bigger and bigger projects. 

Over the months, I’d kept in touch with my guide, David, who lived in Nairobi, Kenya. Even though I had visited Kenya, I didn’t really know much about the country. So David filled me in on our various phone calls. He told me that Nairobi is a very ethnically diverse city and that Kenya’s 42 ethnic groups or tribes all reside there. The major ethnic groups include the Luo, Luhya, Kamba, and Kikuyu. 

From time to time David would tell me about how poor Nairobi is and that the city had the biggest slums in Africa with something like a million people. He suggested that if I had an interest in helping the world and fundraising, Nairobi had a lot of need. It might be a good place to continue my mission. When I went back to Kenya for a visit, he said, “Would you like me to take you to this orphanage down the road, just to see what you think? They could really use your help.” 

I said yes, and the rest is history. We took our fateful hour-and-a-half drive out of Nairobi that day to Merciful Redeemer Children’s Home located off the Nairobi-Namanga Highway, on the way to Ngurunga Quarry. 

I met Mama John, the Director of Merciful Redeemer Children’s Home that day and she would change my life. The true embodiment of what it means to have courage, she also possessed something that was rarer still––an indescribable quality of joy and peace. 

Along with all the risks and danger she faced there was an ease about it all and even laughter. If you had the blessing of ever meeting her, she wasn’t someone stressed out and sulking because of all of life’s crushing pressures––like, feeding, clothing, and housing 130 children. 

She’d be the first one to tell you she didn’t have all the answers. But that’s where she liked to live the best, in the thrilling abyss of surrender where God could hold her the tightest in total and utter dependence on Him. She didn’t know how God would provide, but she expected miracles from Him anyway. To me, hers was at once the most terrifying existence imaginable, and yet the most exciting. Mama John put her faith in God, the one who had always been faithful to her. She gave all her worries to Him, with a glad and joyful heart. I’ve never met anyone like her and don’t believe I ever will again.