Building houses for the needy in Malawi was a life-changing experience for four Bermudian school pupils.
Kaila Harvey, Alisa Bernardo, Nigel Tucker-Talbot and George Frost were among 22 pupils who travelled to the African country for Bermuda Overseas Missions’ annual humanitarian trip.
For two weeks they immersed themselves in the local community, forged relationships and learnt about a foreign culture while also gaining a new appreciation for what they have at home.
“I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect,” Berkeley Institute pupil Kaila, 17, said. “Once you got out there, it all just hit you and you realised you are really out here to help people and you saw the conditions they were in.
“So for me the experience was different, of course, but I didn’t realise how different until we got back home because I’m still trying to adjust to Bermudian surroundings. Everything feels different.”
Warwick Academy pupil Alisa, 16, added that it was “definitely life-changing” and “really taught me a lot about how we need to appreciate our lives more and understand how privileged I really am”.
The 22 pupils from the Berkeley Institute, CedarBridge Academy, Warwick Academy and Saltus travelled to Magereta in the Mulanje district in Southern Malawi with five adults.
They partnered with Habitat for Humanity to build four homes for families chosen by Habitat and the village council.
“They agreed among themselves which families were the most needy,” BOM president David Thompson explained. “Clearly we could’ve built 400 houses — there was need everywhere.”
Kaila added: “They have no water, no electricity, no plumbing. It’s completely different. They don’t really have basic things; they don’t have chairs and tables.
“A lot of people don’t have blankets — they sleep on the floor. Storing food is difficult, especially when it rained.”
Many of the roofs would leak and according to Mr Thompson, this is a common situation in the village of about 400 residents.
Mr Thompson explained that in most families, the grandmother runs the house with her grandchildren or extended family members.
He added: “The parents are gone, either through disease or through HIV — there are a lot of fatalities.
“The living conditions are very bad. People don’t live to a very long age. It’s pretty grim.”
Kaila, Nigel, 17, and Alisa were all keen to go on the trip after hearing Mr Thompson’s presentation on Malawi.
George, 17, was also immediately interested after hearing about the opportunity from Kaila.
He also had no idea what to expect but said the experience was amazing.
They left Bermuda on July 22 and in Magereta the pupils were split into four groups — one per house. The foundations for the approximately 16ft by 20ft homes had already been laid but they helped build them up.
Alisa said: “It’s all very resourceful. The bricks are made from the mud. And then the same mud is used as the cement.”
Everyone in her group worked hard, and she said: “On our last day, our house was pretty much near to completion and it was really satisfying to see what we had accomplished in such a short time.
“It made us feel really happy that we were able to help a family and they now have safe home to live in.”
George, also a Berkeley Institute pupil, said: “For my group, the grandma couldn’t thank us enough. It was really touching.”
They also visited a local school that has 2,031 students and 34 teachers.
“It was very hard to see,” Alisa said. “There weren’t really any classrooms. The kids are taught outside under the trees.
“In 2015, there was a flood which destroyed most of the buildings that they did have and the tents they used were destroyed. They are suffering a lot.”
But she added: “Despite all their struggles that are really obvious to us, to them, it’s nothing.
“The kids — they walk five miles to school and they want to learn, they are so eager, even though they don’t have the materials. We don’t really appreciate school in the same way.”
She added that it had changed her own outlook on school.
And George added: “I think I’m a lot more open minded now and a lot more grateful. Just seeing how people are out there when they have close to nothing and how we still find time to complain even though we have things they would kill for ... It made me realise that we have nothing much to complain about.”
Nigel, who also attends the Berkeley Institute, added: “The experience teaches you how to be close with your family.
“These people are very family orientated. They are always together, they’ve always got each other’s backs.
“You think they have so little, but they are so happy. They just live life, I think that is something to learn from.”
And Alisa said: “Despite the language barrier, they were always willing to talk with us and bond with us and spend time with us. It was really touching to see how welcoming everybody was.”
Kaila added that it made her realise that “we should just treat people as people and we should look past their circumstances”.
And she said: “There’s a lot of stereotype around Africa and it’s people and they were actually very nice and kind.”
• There will be a presentation about the trip at Christchurch in Warwick on Saturday at 3pm.