Remarks by Erica Magnusson ’11 President’s Associates at Eckerd College Breakfast April 23, 2009
Mwndzuka bwanji. Zina langa noi Erica Magnusson. Ndi ku sangalala ku sangalara kwambiri ta fika. (Good morning. My name is Erica Magnusson. I am happy and excited to be here.)
My journey to Malawi, Africa, was not just a journey of service; it was a journey necessary for the core of my being. Has your heart ever told you to do something, without any reasoning? I can't explain to you my passion for Africa. I just felt I needed to go help. I am from Fremont, New Hampshire—a small, traditional town where everyone knows your name. Needless to say, my family was terrified by the idea of their daughter traveling to a third world country filled with danger, poverty and sadness, so I decided to raise the money for the trip on my own. I wanted the experience of traveling to Malawi to be life-changing and challenging. I wrote hundreds of letters in which I poured my heart out to friends, family, newspapers, churches, businesses and anyone else who would listen. I received my first response within three days—from a complete stranger. In scribbled cursive, he had written that my words had moved him to tears, and he wished me all the best in my life aspirations. He also had enclosed a check for $300. I will forever be grateful for his unhindered spirit of giving, but I also will be thankful for his inspiring in me a new sense of faith in humanity. The envelopes kept coming. They contained pictures, journal entries, letters and even hand-pressed "lucky pennies" to guard me in my travels. However, in late November the envelopes stopped. I was $2,000 away from my dream. The night before I was going to withdraw from the trip due to lack of funds, I received an email that not only informed me that I was a recipient of the Duckworth Annual Scholarship, which provided almost exactly the amount I needed, but it also brought hope to everyone I knew. I had done the impossible. I had raised $5,000 in two months from family, friends, businesses and strangers. I was on my way to Africa and would bring with me the love and support of hundreds of people.
I am organized, controlled and refined. My biggest quirk is that I need to carry deodorant with me at all times. How was I, a naïve girl from New Hampshire, going to survive unpredictable Africa? I put my trust in myself. I will never forget pulling into the orphanage at 10 p.m. to hear the most beautiful singing I had ever heard. It was pitch dark; I couldn't see my hand in front of me, but as we came to a stop and tumbled from the van, I was instantly embraced. I was hugged from all sides, and the children kept repeating, "I love you. I love you." These children had loved us at first sight. They trusted us before even saying hello. Emotions overcame me. I fought back tears and whispered, "I love you too." For the next month at the orphanage, I never questioned anyone. I accepted their words as truth. The people of the village always greeted me with smiles, and despite how broken my Chichewa was, they tried to teach me, and we became great friends.
I had instantly cared about the village as a whole, but Maliki taught me what love is. The first day I met him, he picked me a flower and tucked it in my hair. I didn't know his name, I didn't speak his language, but he had been watching me. He had seen how much I loved those purple flowers that lined the riverbed, and in his open gesture, we became best friends.
Maliki and I started to spend every day together. He is an 11-year-old orphan who aspires to finish school, go to college and become a messenger. He has a love for learning that I had never witnessed in a child before. He wanted to read, write and speak English within seconds of becoming my student. We would spend hours together learning every day. I taught him English, and in turn he taught me not only Chichewa but the definition of love. My favorite thing about Maliki is that he listens so hard that he instantly memorizes everything I teach him. The most impressive piece about this quick memorization is how his eyes sparkle when he later uses the new vocabulary word to surprise me. The sunsets in Malawi are breathtaking. I had snuck away one evening to walk the dirt road next to the orphanage to watch the sunset when I heard tiny footsteps behind me. I turned around to find Maliki. He smiled and then yelled, "Erica, Mountain!" I had taught him the word randomly a week before, but I hadn't realized it had stuck. We stood on that hill and watched the sun set beautifully into the mountains of Malawi. I don't know how, but I always knew what he meant, despite not knowing the language and vice versa. We communicated best without words—through dancing, gesturing, pointing, laughing and relating.
Maliki's goal while I was there was to learn to read Hop on Pop, by Dr. Seuss. I had spent two weeks teaching him the vocabulary, so he could read it. The first time he successfully finished the book, I was overcome with indescribable pride and happiness. The day before I left Malawi, he took me on my last walk through the village. We played with baby goats, chased chickens, climbed a papaya tree, yelled every vocabulary word we knew in each other's language, and at one point he said goodbye. He stopped in his tracks, looked at me and pointed to the sky as he said, "Erica is going to America; Maliki lives in Malawi." It was the most basic way to sum up our situation, but it spoke volumes. I stood amidst a sea of corn and cried. He laughed at me and said, "Erica is crying." Then he mockingly pretended to whimper. I couldn't help but laugh because just that morning I had taught him the phrases for emotions. That night, he came to get me because Fanny, a young girl at the orphanage, was crying. He told me to hug Fanny, and then he said, "We say goodbye, Erica, but not forever." This little boy had won my heart. Our goodbye was bittersweet, but it wasn't sad. Maliki had touched my soul, and I think we both mutually knew our friendship would withstand time, culture and distance.
In Africa, I was transformed. Every day I experienced something I will forever hold with me: I carried water on my head, showered with a chicken, battled the chim (and its flies), learned Chichewa, overcame my feelings of entrapment while being entangled in my malaria net, danced in the moonlight, caught a fish with my bare hands, played peek-a-boo with a hippo, watched an eagle retrieve a fish, met a local woman who braided my hair as we discussed the works of Shakespeare to the setting sun on the beach, went on a safari, fell in the mud (that we also got stuck in), experienced a death-defying moment in a car, defined beauty through the ugliest carving I have ever seen, hokey pokeyed in the pouring rain, sang with no self-restraint, experienced the true meaning of being dirty, helplessly cried because of feeling like I couldn't do enough for these amazing children, hand-washed my clothes, taught a village about HIV/AIDS, played Frisbee in the African bush on a nameless road as Peter changed our popped tire, learned how to instantly cure hiccups, laughed until I cried and cried until I laughed, successfully taught eight children 15 emotions with hand gestures ("Rashid is angry" will always be my favorite), watched as a family got tested for AIDS and celebrated with them as the results came back negative, made lifetime friends, appreciated every second of every day, and fell in love with Malawi. Malawi has healed my soul and taught me what love is.
When we returned home, Professor Erika Spohrer asked us to write a paper about what service is. For me, Malawi provided the service of deeply impacting my life, but what service did I provide Malawi? On our first morning back in America, I went to my favorite place, Fort De Soto. It was 8 a.m. and I was going running. Running has always been the time when I can clear my head and organize my thoughts about life. This morning, I would run so I could think about what service meant to me. I ran for miles. I thought about everything I just mentioned to you but couldn't figure out what service was to me. I started walking, and in front of me were thousands of sea urchins washed up onshore. An old man and his wife were walking behind me, and I heard him say to her, "You know what this reminds me of?" She said, "No, what?" He responded with, "When I used to give speeches, I often told the story of the starfish washed up on the beach; have you heard it?" My eyes started to tear up. The starfish story is my favorite fable. My entire journey to Malawi was a blessing. I had experienced one miracle after another. Each time I'd felt confused or lost, an answer had come to me, and now, on the beach in Florida at 8 a.m., an old man answered my last question about what I needed to learn:
Once, a man was walking along a beach. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful day. Off in the distance he could see a person going back and forth between the surf's edge and the beach. Back and forth this person went. As the man drew closer, he saw hundreds of starfish stranded on the sand from the tide's flow and ebb.
The man was struck by the apparent futility of the task. There were far too many starfish; surely most would perish. As he approached, the person continued to pick up starfish, one by one, and throw them into the surf.
The man walked up to the person and said, "You must be crazy. There's at least a mile of beach covered with starfish. You can't possibly make a difference." The person looked at the man, then stooped to pick up one more starfish and threw it into the ocean. He turned back to the man and said, "It sure made a difference to that one!"
Service is making a difference to just one. My journey to Malawi was a journey of service—of service to myself, to my community, to Maliki, to the women whom I informed about HIV/AIDS and to the class that I educated. I had been told that Africa has too many problems for a girl from New Hampshire to solve in three weeks. I had been told I couldn't possibly make a difference in a place consumed by tragedy, disease, poverty, hunger and death. We made a difference. Like the man who collected starfish, we collected the love of orphaned children. We lived each day knowing that tomorrow a new disaster could strike, and our work could be washed away. In each hug, smile, daily lesson, we were slowly throwing them back into the ocean of hope, faith, beauty, strength, intellect and love—and "making a difference to that one!"