That time I volunteered to build a school in Malawi, Africa


Northern Star contributor Alma Garcia (fifth from left) stands in 2008 with native Malawian teenagers 2008 in Chitunda, Malawi.

By Alma Garcia

I was 16 when I first felt one with nature. I was standing alone in the middle of the beautiful Malawi countryside under the brilliant glow of the moon and her stars. It was a stunning experience that I’d never thought possible.

Being a kid from Chicago, I’d grown up under the cloudy orange glow of pollution. Standing in Malawi, everything felt perfect and true. I felt like I was where I was meant to be, doing what I was meant to do. It is a feeling I’ve been trying to replicate since that trip to Malawi in the spring of 2008.

I was one of 12 fortunate Chicago Public School student volunteers selected for the trip via the service organization buildOn. Community service was my driving force during high school. By graduation I’d volunteered a cumulative 300 hours with buildOn.

This wonderful organization provides students from low-income urban communities with the opportunity to serve within their city and to support the access of education for children in the world’s developing countries like Malawi.

The trip consisted of spending two weeks in the rural village of Chitunda, during which student volunteers assisted the village with the construction of the foundation for a school. I’ll never forget the smiles and excitement of the kids.

The village previously had a single classroom with no desks or chairs, and only boys could attend class. The importance and impact of our service was immediately evident.We worked very hard during the day to get as much construction done for the school as possible.

The evenings consisted of cultural activities, learning about the community, dining with our host families and stories by the fire. Most of the village only spoke a local dialect of Chichewa, but I was fortunate enough to make friends with local boys who spoke English.

One of my fondest memories of this trip was an evening by the fire when my hut partner, Paw Say Ku, who was a recent Burmese refugee, and I discussed our backgrounds and teenage experience with the boys.

Paw explained how the violence and unrest in Burma led her to the United States. She described leaving her beloved extended family and her culture behind for a big city and a new language.

I provided my own background, having been born in Chicago as a result of my parent’s migration from Mexico due to poverty and lack of opportunity.

The teens translated the information to a crowd of children sitting around us, and soon they began to ask questions.

The children were amazed to learn that not everyone from the United States is an English-speaking white person.

I remember drawing a very basic map of the world on the ground; I went through a brief history of the world and the United States.

We ended the evening by sharing words from our different languages.

Paw shared a few words in Burmese, I contributed a bit of Spanish and the children taught us some Chichewa.

My time in Malawi is one of my fondest high school memories. I learned more about myself in those 14 days than through all four years of high school.

At the foot of Mount Chitunda, I realized how much I truly enjoy serving to improve the conditions of those less fortunate than myself and my passion for both learning and delivering information to curious minds.

If it is something that is possible for you, I strongly encourage you to volunteer your time, skills and resources to help your community in any degree possible.