The day after we
recorded our interview for The Advocate, Ryan
Reynolds and I flew to Malawi--a land-locked country
in southern Africa. A former British colony, it is now
one of the poorest nations on earth. It's been
especially hard-hit by HIV/AIDS, losing a huge portion
of its 20- to 40-year olds. Young parents, especially.
It's now a nation of children and old people.
Mulanje Orphans (FOMO) runs 10 centers, providing services
to 4,000 orphans. Ryan and I visited to help repair
and repaint the Gulumba Centre and to meet the kids
who are doing remarkably well in remarkably difficult
Photo-op The man in the suit is head of tourism
for Mulanje. Man, I don't envy his job.
Gulumba Center Four rooms. No water, no power.
Feeds 300 orphans a day.
Tough guy I tripped while chasing an orphan.
Seriously. The red dirt roads really do feel like bricks
when you hit them.
Blue plate special The danger of having a white
guy in a shot with a bunch of smiling African orphans is
that it implies he brought them the food. He
didn't--not directly, and not through any
international aid program. The kids are eating because of a
local, self-directed program.
We also visited
medical clinics in hope of establishing a presence for
U.S. Doctors for Africa. Treatable diseases like malaria are
a huge threat, and the lack of medicine and
infrastructure is crippling.
For all its
problems, Malawi is incredibly beautiful, as are its people.
It's like an island nation without an ocean.
I'm glad I wasn't better prepared. If
I'd researched all the information about global
poverty, AIDS, and malaria, I would have gone in
looking for facts and pseudo-facts to validate what
I'd read. My ignorance let me look at things as
they were and feel emotions without trying to
rationalize them away. Through it all, I was incredibly
grateful to have Ryan there.
Sing-along Having a 2-year-old at home was a
big help. This is, "Way up in the sky, the little birds
fly..." It's some of my best work.
Signs Honesty in haircutting
The champions FOMO's A team beat the B team,
3-2. Considering that they're older and much more
experienced, it would have been a humiliating loss. It
all seems so normal, yet remember these are all
orphans. They eat one meal a day. They sleep on the floors
of other people's houses.
The morning agenda Ryan and FOMO founder Mary
Woodworth, planning the day ahead. First stop: the water
department, to see about getting the water working.
tempting to try to equate what's happening in Africa
with the American experience, but it's a
mistake. Our poor people don't forage for roots
in a famine. The African AIDS crisis is of a completely
different scale and time line. After a church service,
the orphans--my orphans--got pamphlets in
Chichewa with a red AIDS ribbon on the front. I was excited
until I realized there were only Bible verses printed
inside. Cultures move at their own speed, and my
frustration can't change that.
a commonality I saw, it was the way the orphans of Malawi
have banded together. Lacking parents and traditional
families, they take care of each other. That's
long been part of the queer experience. For
generations, gays and lesbians were virtual orphans,
disowned by their families. That's changing,
quickly. My hope for Malawi, for Africa, is that this
upcoming generation can be the last of its kind. If this
generation of orphans begets another generation of orphans,
we'll have all failed.
Digital cameras are magic The two official
languages are English and Chichewa, but most young kids
don't really speak much English. Cameras are
And she had a sister Children's clothes in
Malawi are invariably donations from Europe. Matching sets
are surprisingly common, probably because of store
Spackling Sanding the walls released massive
amounts of dust. Fortunately, the walls were coated with
lime, rather than lead-based paint. (At least, this is
what we choose to believe.)
At work The kids were surprisingly good about
staying outside, out of harm's way.