In the Heart of Africa
Traveling to Malawi, Africa is no picnic. A twelve-hour flight to Germany, then another twelve hours to South Africa. If that isn't enough air time for you, there's another three-hour flight north, finally reaching your destination, known as the heart of Africa.
My Grandfather, George (known to me and my sisters as Papa-D), does this arduous trek three times a year. He has done various mission trips for decades, usually going to Brazil. But in 2005, Papa-D became aware of a desperate need for fresh water, and Project Wellness began. To date, his non-profit organization has drilled 44 wells (with more on the way!), and has fed countless children, providing for multiple orphanages at a time. I have made this trip on three separate occasions, each with its own specific challenges and memories.
Going to Malawi for the first time at the age of sixteen was a real eye-opener. The bumpy roads, shoeless passerby's, naked children, crippled beggars, mud-huts and lousy instruments - all seemed to be quite like I had expected. I certainly enjoyed my stay and took in the experience. But in the third-world, much of life is imbued with suffering.
One of the most painful memories of my life to date was walking through the hospital in the town of Ntcheo. It was an open room, full of the ill and dying (and I'm sure the already dead). No proper walkways, no curtains for privacy - In a haze, I walked through the maze of people, a feeling that only embodied suffering can afflict on the heart. Sick people crammed together, some on beds, some on mattresses, and many on the cold floor. After visiting a few of the patients with my family, seeing the struggle and the sorrow, I was overwhelmed with grief, and I had to leave - holding back tears as I went outside to catch my breath. My mom came shortly after to check on me. But I was fine. It was the locals who desperately needed support and empathy.
My dad was a nurse, and every time he went on one of these trips his focus was on the hospital. Everyday we would pick up vegetables from the market to bring to the sick. He also made sure to pack multi-vitamins and various medications - everyday doing rounds at this same hospital that I could hardly spend ten minutes in.
On my second trip to Malawi, my dad devised a plan for just the two of us to do something unique together. Early one morning, we woke up before the rest and set off with our driver and translator, Julius, to the market. My dad was quite the haggler but wanted to share his spoils - we bought big sacks of corn from various vendors, but he wasn't willing to be made a fool - many times walking away from vendors who would ask for far too much. But my dad refused to do business with those who looked to take advantage of others. When the crowd saw what we were doing things got a little overwhelming. We became surrounded by vendors hoping to sell large amounts of corn to these rich, white men, who seemed to be buying far too much. He and Julius kept the mob at bay, while I loaded the van, and we made it out with a few hundred pounds of corn and some anxious laughter.
We travelled down the road a way, where my dad got Julius to pull over. The two of us grabbed a couple of sacks each and started walking into the thicket. after about 5-10 minutes, we found ourselves in a small village made of mud and straw. Naked children and topless women anxiously backed away, so we stopped. After a moment, a large older-man emerged - the chief of the community. It seemed I was just as anxious and curious as the women and children, as the two men looked at one another. With no words exchanged, and at my father's lead, I put down the sacks of corn from off my shoulders, backed off and walked back with him to the vehicle. Arriving back to the family, my father received a fair amount of grief over our impromptu expedition. Everyone was surprisingly upset! I guess it was warranted - leaving without telling them and coming back far later than we had hoped. But I remember seeing the look of content on my father’s face, experiencing our own little taste of Africa, an adventure for just the two of us, father and son.
My third trip to Malawi was just myself and Papa-D. The agenda was to oversee the drilling of two new wells, as well as check in on the orphanages under Project Wellness' care.
Each of the two wells brought with it a significant experience for me. The first being a well drilled in honor of my recently deceased father. He had such a heart for the people in the village of Ntcheo, and it feels good knowing that not only did he touch the lives of so many people there while he was alive, but also that the well drilled in his name continues to provide fresh water for those who desperately need it now. The little rock found in the picture below was from my mom. After my dad's passing, she found solace in collecting heart-shaped rocks and making crafts out of them. After taking this picture, I took the rock and hid it in the rafters of the orphanage that my dad's well sits just outside of. I hope the next time I visit, I will see it right there where I left it.
The second well was to be dug far off the beaten path. This long and arduous trek, accompanied by a driver who continued to claim we were almost there, would certainly wear on the best of us, and for my grandpa it sure did! It took roughly two-hours of rough terrain to reach the little village in need. My grandfather's body must have been aching. When we arrived, Papa-D was visibly upset about the long journey and the pain he was suppressing. It seemed the perfect opportunity for a young man like me to take the lead.
After meeting the village leaders and being shown around, I was led down the hill to their watering hole. It looked more like a puddle. I remember feeling ill just imagining what it would taste like to drink. The woman who brought me there told me of how often people would get sick from the water. A child of Five had died the week before we arrived, she said it was because of the water. Everyone was so excited for what we brought to them, something we often take for granted, clean water! Expressing their appreciation toward us, I was designated an honorary chief - Chief Khumba, because we provided in their desperate need. I was even offered a bride! Which I declined as politely as I possibly could.
Recently, my Grandfather was recognized and honored with an award in our hometown of Maple Ridge. Our local Member of Parliament, Dan Ruimy, took notice of the work he has been doing, giving him an honourable mention in parliament, as well as arranging a personal meet and greet with the Prime Minister.
George Klassen is a huge inspiration. In his 80's he continues his dedicated efforts to help those in need in Africa. He has a trip planned for this April, preparing to drill two more wells, bringing the total amount to 46! On top of caring for the hundreds of orphans and building school's in Malawi, he is a kind-hearted man with a dedicated and sacrificial attitude. You just can't stop this guy! And I'm proud to call him Papa-D.
For more information on project Wellness, or to make a donation visit the website at: https://www.projectwellness.ca/