Meandering Through Malawi

Senior Meg Schwartz recounts her three weeks in Malawi for an all-girls STEAM camp.

Meg Schwartz

Just a matter of weeks ago, I had never left the comfort of familiar American soil.  I always assumed my first journey abroad would be a relaxed family vacation or a school mission trip.  This wasn’t the case.  The reality of my experience involved living with 100 strangers, Google, Intel, NASA, the US Department of State, countless cockroaches, 21 mosquito bites and three rabid dogs.  And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Ever since I started working with the Girl Up Campaign of the United Nations Foundation I have been fascinated by their initiative called WiSci STEAM Camp.  Starting in 2015, Girl Up and the US Department of State have partnered to gather 100 girls from around the world to spend two to three weeks each summer to learn about science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics and to work with professionals within STEAM.  Past WiSci camps were hosted in Rwanda in 2015 and Peru in 2016.  

This summer, WiSci returned to the African continent to host girls from Liberia, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and the U.S. at the Malawi University of Science and Technology from July 27 to August 16.

I knew months in advance after receiving my acceptance letter in March that I would be spending the last two weeks, including the first day of school, across the globe with 100 strangers.  However, as the fast paced weeks of summer slipped away and I began my 24-hour journey from Washington, D.C. with the 20 other US WiSci participants, reality still hadn’t sunk in.  

Reality hit hard not long after arriving at MUST.  The combination of not having slept much in the last 24 hours, the sight of two cockroaches looking up at me and twitching their antennas as I opened a bathroom stall for the first time in the hall of my dormitory, being told that there would, in fact, not be wifi access for campers for the next two-and-a-half weeks and being surrounded by over 100 unfamiliar faces with the exception of four made my head spin. Resisting the urge to hide in the corner of my dorm room armed with a cannister of roach spray, I went to dinner and after a hot meal, a good cry and a full night of sleep, my outlook had changed.  I was ready to fully embrace the educational and cultural opportunities WiSci had to offer.

A large portion of camp was spent within cohorts, groups of 10 campers and one counselor.  Cohort three, also called Alpha Taibah (meaning greatest inner beauty) was where I found a home over 9,000 miles away from Kansas City.  

A typical day at WiSci included about eight hours of classes with partners such as Google, Intel, NASA and the American Society for Microbiology, an hour within cohorts, meals and an extra event such as a culture night involving a presentation from one of the countries being represented or a concert or movie.  Fourteen hour days felt like minutes between captivating cultural discussions, partner office hours and classes spent programming or working in a lab.

Twice during camp we took excursions off-campus.  On the first excursion we hiked Mount Mulanje, the tallest mountain in Malawi.  Here we took a two-hour trek to picnic at a waterfall near the peak of the mountain.  The second excursion was a visit to Green Malata Entrepreneurial Village which hosts an orphanage and several small shops.  Here, small shops teach skills such as solar panel construction, pottery and sustainable brick making to the orphans in order to help them start their own businesses after leaving the orphanage.

My passion has never been stronger. ”

Very few camps exist in which girls from vastly different cultural backgrounds are able to study and work together alongside professionals in the top companies within their fields.  What was even more of a learning experience for me was having an hour long class each day within cohorts discussing topics such as gender-based-violence, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and cultural stereotypes.  Within those close-knit, confidential discussions I listened to stories of girls with unique cultural perspectives that had seemed distant as I had only been exposed to similar through reading or Girl Up.

Even after spending countless hours working for girls’ education, safety and health care through Girl Up for the past two years the issues as well as the girls that my efforts were going towards never really seemed real.  I’ve always been aware that girls facing these issues existed and I’ve always been passionate about helping them.  Now that I’ve connected faces, personalities and friends with the girls experiencing these struggles my passion has never been stronger.

Although several of the girls attending WiSci face struggles unknown by many, the genuine joy and graciousness that each camper exuded energized and inspired me. I bonded with campers from all of the countries over a similar love for Selena Gomez or Beyonce and laughed into the late hours of the night with my roommate over the squeals from the hallway as girls dodged a pesky cockroach.