It’s unquestionable that traveling 10,194 miles away to Malawi, Africa on a documentary expedition is bound to be the experience of a lifetime. When we embark on these sorts of journeys it feels as if there should be one defining moment, one instance, in which our lives are changed forever. But if I’ve learned anything about traveling and new experiences, it’s that it is often the little moments in time that cultivate the newness and transformation we long for. I was fortunate enough to experience dozens of these moments throughout my five days spent in Malawi and at the Smile Malawi orphanage. While they all left their mark, some made a bigger impact than others.
The moment an iPhone ding became foreign
Our first few hours in Malawi, we took a van into the capital city, Lilongwe, to grab food before our final flight to Blantyre. As I sat a little uncomfortably warm with camera gear constraining my every limb, I gazed out the window at this new world. Long dirt roads scattered with barefoot, uniformed children walking home from school, an overturned semi-truck surrounded by massive stacks of hay, and women balancing gallons of presumably fresh water on their heads on a several mile long home bound trek. And then it came, the piercing ping of an iPhone and I was immediately snapped out of the stories unfolding in front of me. I was transported back to the reliability of our technology and reminded of the vast difference between the worlds I was experiencing. It was strange how alien a noise I was so used to had become, but it was a perfect reminder to temporarily leave that lifestyle behind and delve into the new world before me.
The moment we became the most popular kids in school
It was our second day shooting and we were visiting the Machemba Primary School to film an average day for one of our subjects, Ulemu. As we approached the school, we were bombarded by hundreds of kids, which we soon found out was only a small portion of the 2,000 children that populate the school. We spent the next few hours squeezed between overcrowded desks as we filmed their “life skills” lesson for the day. As word got out of our presence, more and more eyes began fixating on our cameras and giggling erupted at every image the kids saw of themselves. I could only laugh as every way I turned, I was greeted with a dozen more eager, smiling faces. When we finally left, as if out of a movie, what seemed like half of the school chased our car down, one running nothing short of two miles down an uneven dirt road. Never had I been so impressed and amazed by the spirit of a group of kids before.
The moment(s) we realized we had a new PA on our crew
From day one, our cameras, tripods, and unsurprisingly, the drone, mesmerized the kids at the orphanage. What we failed to realize right away was how smart and observant these kids are. Each day our four-person crew grew by a few new kids who insisted on helping carry some of our equipment. By the third day in, they were setting up lavalieres for interviews uninstructed and wrangling cables before we even had the chance to explain how. At one point during an interview, I caught one of the children behind me instructing the subject on how to properly address questions. Though it caused me to laugh, I was excited that they were feeling more confident in these fairly new, foreign experiences. The most rewarding part of this was that for as much knowledge we could share about filmmaking with them, they were teaching us so much more every day.
The moment I realized the full effect of this trip
After only four days spent surrounded by the Smile Malawi children and countless others, I couldn’t believe how close I felt to them as I sat in the living room on the last night. Our host, Elspeth, said the kids were going to do a singing performance for us, so naturally I was excited but couldn’t have ever expected what I would experience. It’s hard to put into words but I sat there listening to the most angelic, harmonized voices I’ve ever heard in my life. Not only did they sing beautifully while stacked in rows, with the littlest ones in front and the oldest in back, but the way they matched their singing with synchronized stepping and dancing was unreal. I sat there in awe, nearly in tears, finally understanding and feeling the home that the kids had described to us all week. These 39 brothers and sisters were a family and for just our short amount of time there, we were fortunate enough to be a part of it.
So, there are a few of the dozens of nearly unexplainable moments I experienced during our trip to Malawi. Let me not fail to mention our last day spent on a safari at the Liwonde National Park. A river cruise gazing at wandering elephants and lurking hippos and a bonfire under a flawless star-studded sky also contributed their fair share of adventure and memories.
Needless to say, there truly wasn’t a moment I didn’t value on this journey. It’s an incredibly large understatement to say I’m grateful for this opportunity Dodge provided me. If you had talked to me six months ago, I would have had a pretty hefty amount of doubt and hesitation about traveling to Africa but as with most things, the good significantly outweighs the bad. This trip afforded me the opportunity not only to improve as a documentary filmmaker working in a third world country, but I embraced an entirely new culture and fostered relationships that will last me a lifetime.
Since this trip, I’ve redirected my plan going into senior year and couldn’t be more excited to embark on this sort of journey again. I would strongly encourage anyone and everyone, even students not studying at Dodge, to take part in these sorts of programs! The mentorship provided by our professors and the real life experience gained is incomparable to anything else. In my opinion, there’s truly no better time than now!