Image by Peter Whitman via the Narragansett Times
SOUTH KINGSTOWN (NARRAGANSETT TIMES) – Two and a half years ago, Peter Whitman received a Facebook message that would change his life forever. What began as a simple conversation has led Peter and his wife Diane to build meaningful relationships with people half a world away.
In the fall of 2016, Peter received a Facebook message from Daniel Masanduko asking if he was a farmer in South Africa. Both men were part of the Facebook group, “Farming God’s Way Malawi,” which shares photos and advice about a reduced tillage farming method Peter had become interested in.
Peter had liked a photo of Daniel’s crops a few days before receiving a friend request.
He explained to Daniel that although he is a farmer, he lives far away from South Africa. Peter and Diane operate the Mission Farm here in Wakefield and strongly believe in sustainable agriculture. Neither of them knew anything about Malawi at the time.
“Honestly, I couldn’t have found Malawi on a map if you asked me to, before all this,” Peter said. “I had no idea it existed.”
The two men became fast friends through daily messaging about farming and shared stories about their personal lives. Daniel, he learned, in addition to being a farmer, was also his village’s pastor.
Through his own personal research, Peter learned more about the challenges and struggles of people living in Malawi. Despite coming from one of the poorest parts of one of the poorest countries in Africa, Daniel never asked for anything other than his friendship.
This pushed Peter and Diane to search for ways they could help Daniel and the people of Gogo Village. Initially, they had only hoped to drill a well, but their efforts only grew from there.
Africa, known as the begging basket of the world because of the amount of aid given to countries struggling with famine and malnutrition, has some of the most nutrient-rich soil on the planet. Peter became interested in fundamental farming methods that, although they are more labor intensive, do not leave fields as vulnerable to erosion as tilling does.
Recently, parts of Southeastern Africa have been devastated by a cyclone, which has washed away roads, houses and many crops, leaving many unsure of where their next meal will be coming from.
The people of Gogo Village, Peter said, have been lucky to not have lost any of their crops, but 30 homes have been destroyed.
Apart from more recent challenges, Malawi has also been hit particularly hard by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. An estimated 15 to 20 percent of children in Malawi are orphans, and many rely on the care of their aging grandparents.
Orphaned or not, Peter said every child is in the same boat when it comes to struggling with malnutrition.
“Even if they have parents, that doesn’t mean they’re going to get fed,” Whitman said. “Malnutrition is widespread.”
While trying to help the village gain access to clean drinking water and have a well drilled, Peter quickly ran into a number of roadblocks along the way and continued to receive bad news from organizations that help drill wells.
“Basically, every village in Africa needs a well,” Whitman said. “They can’t just go everywhere.”
Rather than just giving up, however, Whitman’s efforts only expanded from there.
Through working with support from a small, non-profit organization, Forgotten Voices, as well Annie Chikhwaza, known as a “Mother of Malawi” for her work with orphans in Africa through her non-governmental organization, Kondanani Children’s Village, the Whitmans were able to help build a new church and begin a feeding center in Gogo Village. Although the Whitmans had been the ones leading the efforts, once their parish, the First Baptist Church of Narragansett, heard about what they were attempting to do they pledged to pay for half of the new church.
“We believe that everyone should have access to clean water, nutrition, basic health care and education,” he said. “Those are the four areas we think every human should have access to.”
At times, accomplishing this was a struggle, Peter said, and he was doubtful the project could move forward. He attributes his faith in seeing him through.
“We really believe that God pulled us all together,” Peter Whitman said. “It’s mathematically impossible that God didn’t make this connection, in my mind. Things don’t happen by coincidence.”
Eventually, in March 2018, Peter and Diane made the trip to Malawi to see the well and the feeding center’s completion. Daniel and the rest of the community welcomed them with open arms.
“The people were so friendly and so welcoming,” Diane said. “Malawi’s nickname is the warm heart of Africa.”
She had been particularly excited to meet with and connect with the children, but many of them “crumpled into tears” when they saw Diane and Peter. Given how remote the village was, and lack of easily accessible roadways, many of the children had never seen a white person before, she said.
“Talk about stranger danger,” she said. “Not only are you someone they don’t know, you are the wrong color.”
During the few weeks they spent in Gogo Village, Peter and Diane took time to meet with people in their homes and discuss what they thought they needed most to improve their lives.
“We’ve really wanted them to talk amongst themselves and express their needs,” Diane said. “We want to do what’s best for them and not impose our thoughts, ideas, ideology, any of that – on them. We want to ask what they need so we can help them help themselves.”
“They’re coming up with the ideas,” Peter said. “They’re intelligent people. They’re smart people, without an education. The learning center, the nursery school, was their idea.”
Since the children would already be there on weekday mornings to eat at the feeding center, which serves 130 children for only $500 per month, members of the community worked out a way that they could provide the children with educational instruction as well.
Peter had been in favor of offering the free meal seven days a week, but members of the community advised against it because they felt it took too much away from familial bonds.
“We take their advice,” Peter said. “They know their culture better than we do. But we would like to potentially add a second meal.”
Preschool will make a huge impact on their lives, Peter said, because there are so few opportunities to learn and practice their reading and writing skills outside of a primary school classroom. Many families are not able to send their children to secondary school, despite three months of education only costing $1. Many families are also unable to afford the entrance exam fee into secondary school.
Despite a number of challenges people face, Peter said there a lot of things to be celebrated.
“There’s really a lot of things we envy about them,” Peter said. “The simplicity of their lives, how connected they are to themselves and their neighbors, how strong their faith is. They are much more grounded than we are in so many ways.”
Their time in Gogo Village has not only made them more appreciative of everything they have and their lives here in the United States, but it has also made them more aware the wasteful culture of America. Recent research suggests that Americans waste 150,000 tons of food each day – roughly one pound per person.
“These kids who come to the feeding center, that’s probably the only meal they’ll get that day,” Peter said. “People were going two or three days between meals.”
“We had a really hard time when we came home just reconciling what we saw and witnessed and lived for two weeks,” Diane added. “What we see here, the waste, everything from clothing food, we live in a disposable society. It’s really hard to grapple with when you’ve experienced what they’ve lived with and what they’ve lived without.”
While some people may think of their lives as miserable, Peter said for the people of Malawi, this is just their lives. They give thanks every day for everything they do have.
“It’s been a very difficult adjustment for me,” he said. “We complain about everything. We complain about waiting too long in the line at a grocery store, and we have a store where you can buy anything you want in the world if you have the money in your pocket to get it. And we complain about everything.”
“It’s a struggle for me to listen to people complain now because most of us don’t even have a clue,” Peter continued. “And it’s nobody’s fault we don’t have a clue, it’s our reality.”
Back home, members of the community have rallied around Peter and Diane’s efforts by helping to make dresses and t-shirts for children in Gogo Village. Once a month, a group of women gather together in the basement of the First Baptist Church of Narragansett with sewing machines and hot irons to go to work.
When Peter and Diane first went to Malawi, they brought over more than 70 pieces of clothing, with most items fitting a bit large on the small, malnourished children. The volunteers who gather each week have kept this in mind as they sew together dresses from pillowcases and iron on animal stitch patches to t-shirts.
The sense of community that’s grown between Peter and Diane and the people of Gogo Village has also extended to their entire church. They are often in each other’s prayers, Peter said.
“They’ve really become our family,” he added. “We talk to them all the time. They confide in us about stuff. We share good things and bad things going on in our lives and struggles. It’s a very strong bond.”
Peter and Diane are currently working to form a non-governmental organization, with the hope of being able to extend a helping hand to other villages outside of Gogo.
“It’s wonderful to have the personal connection with them and to build relationships, even with the church as a whole,” Diane said. “They hear so much about the stories, and they see the picture and they hear the music, and I think it’s created a sense of community. Even though they’re thousands of miles away, we really do feel for them.”
Peter and Diane hope to return to Malawi next spring, where children have already been growing stronger and more nourished thanks to the feeding center.