Employee shares impressions from Malawi trip

  • Fully in the picture after his first trip to Malawi: Martin Hirsch
    Fully in the picture after his first trip to Malawi: Martin Hirsch
  • The ten Roche ambassadors from around the world were selected in a global drawing of top 2013 Children’s Walk fund raisers
    The ten Roche ambassadors from around the world were selected in a global drawing of top 2013 Children’s Walk fund raisers

Martin Hirsch, a Basel-based New Yorker from Group Communications, was selected as a Roche ambassador and shares his impressions from his first trip to Malawi.

Like a lot of people at Roche, I always thought that what we were walking for every June on the International Day of the African Child was to support some orphanages the company sponsors for poor kids in Malawi whose parents died of AIDS.

I learned in October how vague and inaccurate those perceptions were, when I had the unexpected experience of visiting Malawi as one of ten Roche ambassadors from around the world. Our names were selected in a global drawing of top 2013 Children’s Walk fund raisers. Next thing we knew, we were buying mosquito repellant and checking our visas and vaccinations in preparation for a trip none of us will ever forget.

Our Malawi experience began at the tiny airport in Blantyre, where we arrived on time but departed later than expected. Several colleagues had been stopped by customs officers inside and were nowhere in sight.

That drew a trademark comment from our crusty host, Colin Webb, head of an NGO called the European Coalition of Positive People (ECPP), which began working with Roche on children’s projects in Malawi ten years ago when our company was active in HIV/AIDS. “When you come here, just keep your head down and walk straight ahead,” he said. “If they catch a hint of doubt in your eyes, you’re done.”

Colin’s small but feisty business partner, Joan D’Souza, headed back inside on a rescue mission. It seems our colleagues were caught up in some visa complications, but Joan knew how to handle the situation. Thanks to her intervention, our colleagues safely rejoined us and we were ready to go.

Warm heart of Africa

On the van that shuttled us across narrow and sometimes unpaved roads in this infrequently visited part of the continent, we began to appreciate the side of Malawi the travel brochure described as “the warm heart of Africa.” We saw a land rich with raw and natural beauty and passed men and women in fields who paused from their farming to wave and smile at us, thankful we’d come to visit their country.

We passed countless adults and small children walking and quite a few on battered bicycles, since cars are scarce and public transportation is poorly developed. Many, mostly women, carried sometimes huge containers of water or baskets of grain on their heads.

Our first official stop was a technical college, where Roche supports a group of students who are learning basic trades. There, we got the lay of the land—and a sense of the challenges—from Joan D’Souza. She told us we were about to watch a series of puzzle parts coming together and it would all make sense at the end of the three-day tour.

She was right. We met older adolescents first and then saw preschoolers and afterward children of various ages in between, each group having a different need nourished. We witnessed the gritty work of growing a healthy society one small step at a time.

The vague and inaccurate ideas I’d had about the Children’s Walk gave way to a profound sense that Roche is making an enormous contribution to life in Malawi. I’d expected to see orphanages where impoverished kids got 24/7 care handed to them. Instead, I saw training grounds where dedicated teachers and many volunteers instilled self-sufficiency in toddlers—teeny little kids who had to walk as many as five or six kilometers from their primitve village homes to attend class and then walk back at the end of each day.

These centers don’t only feed the children but also teach them to grow vegetables, and then to harvest and cook food for themselves. The centers teach them to read, write and do arithmetic, to build furniture and doors and window frames for houses, to sew and make clothes. They teach them how to fend for themselves.

Roche-supported centers are rare oases where clean water is pumped from bore holes leading to underground streams. They are privileged places where basic sanitation is available and, in the last year or so—thanks to Roche—electricity powers machines that perform tasks like milling that used to be done by hand.

Life skills where death is commonplace

Beyond these fundamentals, support from Roche is also helping older kids learn “life skills and self-awareness”—things like how to cope with the death of loved ones in a part of the world where HIV/AIDS is prevalent and diseases like malaria and diarrhea claim lives every day.

You know how appreciated the things going on behind the locked gates of these centers is when you see the hundreds of less fortunate children on the outside looking in, wishing they could have a chance at the opportunities Roche is helping to provide. Not a chance to receive handouts, but a chance at self-reliance, a job, a productive life.

But that’s only what Roche has been providing so far. The last stop on our tour gave us a glimpse of the future—a 280,000-square-meter site where 500 workers are building a teachers training college that will house more than 500 new teachers by 2017. The massive campus is being built by Unicef and Roche is one of its major supporters, because our company shares the belief that education, along with proper nutrition and health, are the pillars of sustainable society and critical necessities in the underdeveloped world.

That’s what I learned we’re walking for at Roche sites around the world every June. I had to travel more than 7000 kilometers to understand. But now that I do, I’m gonna keep walking.

Tags: Sustainability, Philanthropy, People