It is a long way from Pullman to Lilongwe, Malawi, and our route took us to Seattle, Amsterdam, Johannesburg, and Harare, before ending in Malawi’s capital city on June 14, 2006. Our Washington State University entourage included Rafael Stone from the Board of Regents, Lance LeLoup, associate vice provost for international programs, and Chris Pannkuk, director of international research and development.

Malawi is a relatively small East African nation bordered by Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique. The per-capita income is one of the lowest in the world, and life expectancy has dropped several years in the past decade due to the prevalence of AIDS. Looking at the statistics was a gloomy experience, and I somehow expected that feeling to be reflected by the people I met. But it wasn’t. Everywhere we saw colorful dress, strong and vital people, and smiling and waving children. You get the feeling that children are everywhere. In this seriously overpopulated country, women bear an average of six children and, given the low life expectancy, the population is very young. One of our sources estimated one million orphans in this nation of about 11 million people.

WSU and Total Land Care (TLC), an organization that grew out of our research, make up a kind of research and extension service in Malawi. Dr. Trent Bunderson is a WSU faculty member, and his able colleague, Zwide Jere, is the director of TLC. They are currently advising villagers in dozens of locations around the nation and wanted us to see as much as we could in the little time available.

Our first stop was at a village where we had multiple projects. The one they wanted us to see was the development of mushroom houses where they cultivate valuable oyster mushrooms. About 20 beautiful women, colorfully dressed in their native wear, met us. They approached us as a group and, in beautiful harmony, sang songs of greeting. They were joined by the men and children in one of the most moving serenades I have ever heard. Several young men from TLC and a representative from the ministry of agriculture also met us here. In fact, at all of the locations we were joined by district government representatives as well as what was translated as “traditional authorities”–the village and tribal organizations that still control 80 percent of the land in Malawi. In some places we actually had the tribal chief, often presiding over more than a hundred villages. In other words, our visit was a big deal.

Most of the visits followed a pattern. First, we would be greeted by singing and children who wanted to see us up close. Then we would gather and listen to the people of the village or the tribe tell us about what they were doing. What they were doing! Not what someone was doing for them! As people explained what they were doing and how it was changing their lives, we all experience a powerful sense that something very important was happening here. We visited one project, for example, where the use of treadle pumps to bring water up the hill from the river has made them less dependent on the rains, allowed for an additional crop, and opened up the opportunity for many new products. (Click here for a related story from WSM.) Trent Bunderson estimated that their annual production had doubled. A village leader told us they had started with 75 families on this project and now had over 500. Then this leader asked us for more help to move to the next level of technology.

One of our most impressive visits was to a rice field in one of Malawi’s poorest regions. No one had shoes, and the children were in tattered clothing. But there was such excitement and hope! They told us about how they had learned that after they harvest the rice, there is enough moisture in the soil to raise a crop of beans, something they had never done before. And, as a bonus, the beans fix nitrogen in the soil so the next rice crop is even greater.

Over the next few days we heard many stories about transformation. In one of the most simple but dramatic, we were taken inside one of the small houses and shown a little brick-and-clay stove that can be easily made from local materials. The woman told us with great passion how this had improved her life. The key is that she can now cook for 10 days with the wood it would have taken to cook for only one day on an open fire. The biggest impact of this may be on the children, who can now go to school, rather than spend their days collecting firewood.

Our last visit was to an area where several villages are working to reforest the hillsides. We were met by hundreds of people singing and making us welcome. We saw some of the forest and heard all the speeches from the leaders about how this was important to their future. As we looked at this assemblage of proud people who are changing their lives through education about new technologies, we were all deeply touched.

WSU, Malawi, and the world are looking to the Trent Bundersons and Zwide Jeres for a new vision of sustainability in the face of starvation, overpopulation, and disease. This trip changed the way I see a lot of things, and some things that I once thought intractable now appear approachable.