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Volume 45, No. 2
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Back to Malawi

It took Mike Hill ’64 nearly 40 years to get back to the land he fell in love with in 1965.

Story by Christine Berardo ’64 / Photos by Robert Markowitz

Mike Hill ’64 broke the news to his two kids over Thanksgiving. They were grown—he’d raised them as a single parent after the divorce—and he wanted to tell them face to face. “It didn’t come as a surprise,” says Zilah, Hill’s daughter. “Africa was always in our house.” The stories, the slide shows, the African art. Even as she and her brother Chad were driving to their dad’s home in rural New Mexico for the holiday, Chad turned to her and muttered, “Why doesn’t he just get to Africa and get it over with?”

Three months later, in February 2005, Hill sold his car, gave away his dog, put his stuff in storage, said “goodbye” and moved back to Malawi. “Hold on to your dreams, you know? Forty years later….”

THE COVER PHOTO on the October 1965 Pomona Today shows a young Mike Hill giving a tuberculosis vaccine injection to a little girl in Malawi. Pomona then ranked fourth among all U.S. colleges and universities in percentage of students joining the Peace Corps. Hill’s class of ’64 had barely arrived on campus when a youthful president and his glamorous wife moved into the White House, bringing in gusts of energy and optimism. Let’s send an army of young volunteers—a Peace Corps— around the world as a force for good.

Washington dubbed them “the Kiddie Korps.” “We were really young and idealistic and inexperienced,” Hill admits. “You just traded that off for huge energy. And creativity.” He was assigned to the tuberculosis unit and issued a motorbike to ride out to rural villages and give TB shots and collect data. They proved that sick people could be cared for in villages instead of distant hospitals—paving the way for today’s home-based care for AIDS victims.

Hill had left Malawi in 1966 planning to come right back after grad school. Instead he was drafted and sent to Germany— lucky, considering most draftees his age were shipped to Vietnam. But two years in the Peace Corps, two years in the Army, two years in grad school, and Hill was feeling old. A stipend took him to Wisconsin where he got married, had a family—“ What did Zorba say? ‘The full catastrophe,’” he laughs. “I had all these obligations, so there went coming back to Africa.”

Thirty-five years passed. Hill’s work in clinical and community social work took him into communities of Chippewa in Northern Wisconsin, low-income Latinos in Tucson, urbanites in Southern California and Native Americans in rural New Mexico. And still he couldn’t get the people of Malawi out of his head.

HIV-AIDS arrived in Africa. In the mid-’90s, Hill and ex-Peace Corps friends raised money and helped found Malawi Children’s Village, one community’s answer to the needs of orphans and vulnerable children. It grew and flourished, but Hill could see it wasn’t enough. The epidemic was slicing through towns and villages, cutting down fathers, mothers, teachers, nurses, police, doctors, leaving behind the very young and very old to cope with a staggering number of orphans. “We just felt there had to be a lot more, the need was so great.”

So Hill and four others came up with a plan. They’d go “to the heart of the problem—to the villages, to the people, to the children.” They’d harness the country’s greatest resource—the strength and resilience of its people, and the old village traditions of mutual care and responsibility. They got a little money, enough to get started. What they needed was a person on the ground in Malawi. Hill jumped at the chance.

“WHAT’S ORPHAN Support Africa?” a spokesman asked from the circle of people sitting before him. Hill grinned sheepishly and pointed to Austin, his new Malawian assistant. “Him and me.”

The villagers looked dubiously at one another, then back at the bearded, white-haired, white-skinned mzungu who’d come to see what they were doing. They started meeting two years ago under a mango tree, they told him, seven HIV-positive people stigmatized and shunned by their neighbors. One day they found the mango tree cut down. “They suspected us of political activity,” explained their leader, Jones Pilo. They named their group “DAO” for the people they wanted to serve: the disabled, the aged and orphans. They showed Hill the garden they’d planted and the fishpond they’d dug by hand. In two years, no one had come to help, not even to visit. Until today.

DAO is one of 20 Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) Hill visited in his first months back. All over Malawi, CBOs were springing up in response to the HIV-AIDS crisis. Today, they number in the thousands. It’s typical, Hill observes, of Malawian attitude. “They either survive together or they don’t survive. It’s ‘we have to stick together, take care of each other; no one else is coming to help.’” DAO impressed him. They had leadership, initiative, participation, and a desire to be self-sufficient. He picked them for one of Orphan Support Africa’s first small grants.

Hill returned in 2005 with only a small grant and no guarantees. He worked with CBOs by day and wrote funding proposals by night, plugging his laptop into a tiny generator whenever the electricity failed. The money ran low; his paycheck went to hire a fundraiser. Hill worked on without pay. A bad harvest. The long November-to-April hunger season. Modest grants to carefully chosen groups like DAO were showing positive results. But by June 2006, it looked like he might have to close up shop and come home.

“There’s no story about me without them,” Hill said. “They work hard just to stay alive, but they are not oppressed.” Malawians live on an average of a dollar a day, yet don’t see themselves as poor. They draw happiness from interaction. “There’s always been laughter, there’s always been dance, and there’s always been singing. It’s a great defense against what would be depression in the U.S.” He hung on.

OCTOBER BROUGHT stunning news: Hill’s Hail Mary proposal to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation came through. With the $2.1 million multi-year grant, Hill suddenly was busy hiring staff, opening a second office in the far north, buying equipment and vehicles, and weighing which groups to fund— whittling from 38 to 14 to a final eight. The elimination process was agonizing. “There is as much extreme poverty, high HIV/AIDS prevalence rates, as many chronically ill, and everywhere the number of orphans continues to increase.”

A floor-to-ceiling chart covers one wall of Orphan Support Africa’s office. Eight Gates grants top the list of 30 projects in various stages of development and funding, including one in Tanzania. Half-way down are four titled “Pomona ’64," modest seed grants funded by Hill’s classmates.

Hill is explaining to Chilungamo’s chief, village headman, and assembled volunteers that a seed grant is to help groups like theirs that show promise. They want to plant gardens, train volunteer teachers for child care centers, provide a daily meal for children. The chief wants a paraffin pump to generate income. There’s no money now for the paraffin pump, Hill replies; start with the garden, show what you can do. The chief understands, speaking the magic words: transparency, sustainability, accountability.

Over at DAO, 110 volunteers in 21 villages now serve a population of 10,500. “We can support ourselves,” boasts their strapping leader Jones Pilo. Hill finds it hard to believe this man bursting with vitality was once written off as ‘already dead,’ his life over. With improved diet and antiretroviral drugs, he and others like him are healthier and stronger today. Their goal is to serve all the nearby villages in the same way Orphan Support Africa served them. They are training youth to take their place when they are gone. “In 10 years, we will take OSA’s place!” he teases, with trademark Malawi humor. Hill fires back: “You’ve got it exactly right.”

Hill does get discouraged by time-consuming obstacles—getting a non-resident permit, doing money transfers, forms required for this or that. As to the misery and starvation and suffering: “That’s Malawi. It’s the eighth poorest nation on earth. It’s just the way it is and I have to accept it on those terms. Despite that, the people are hopeful and continue to work to make things better.” He watches them face great challenges and obstacles, every day, with grace and humor. They don’t complain.

“Seeing a couple walk 10 kilometers carrying firewood or water or food on their heads to help someone who’s sick. They get there and sweep the dirt floor, wash the clothes, cook food, bathe children, stack wood—whatever they can do to help.” Then, he adds, they walk 10 kilometers back home to take care of their own family’s needs. “That keeps me going. How can I get upset about inconvenience when I see that?”

Mike’s daughter, son and grandchildren are waiting. Zilah worries: He doesn’t eat right. “Food is for a whole different purpose there. We eat for pleasure; they eat to survive.” She wonders when this journey will end—what Gay Talese called this “blissful reunion with youth.”

Mike still has problems to solve. Finding money—Gates funding runs out December 2009. Finding his own replacement. “Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever be able to retire,” he says. Will he have guilt about leaving Malawi? “No guilt,” laughs Mike. He’s paid his dues. “The only guilt is about not spending time with grandchildren.”

Online only: Mike Hill’s classmates from ’64 meet him in Malawi. More information is also available at www.orphansupportafrica.org.

©Copyright 2008
by Pomona College
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