Malawi (Back story)
Feel free to scroll to the section entitled ‘Malawi (The actual trip)’ if you want to bypass the pre-trip waffle.
It’s amazing where life can lead you when you have a passion for something and a great deal of persistence. Four years ago I created an anonymous twitter account. It’s purpose was to make artworks from tweets I read from fellow supporters of my football team, Watford FC. They didn’t have to be factual, far from it. They just had to make me smile, laugh out loud or be of interest to me.
After every game I added a new design to this timeline. It was essentially a social media experiment to see if I could gain 1,000 followers without writing a single word (other than crediting the tweeter and a couple of relevant hashtags). I did this for three seasons and amassed over 120 individual artworks.
What on earth has this got to do with photography you may ask? Good question and fair point, but bear with. I just wanted to give you the option of reading the ‘Directors cut’ as it were.
One particular tweet I worked up was written by Adam Leventhal, TV presenter, book publisher (Tales From) and crucially, a fellow Watford fan. Intrigued by the account he got in touch and wanted to know more about me and my background. After an initial meeting, my company Stone Creative Design began working with him on a few of his upcoming titles.
One project in particular, a book called Rocket Men (which followed the journey of the only four players to play in all four divisions with then Watford manager Graham Taylor in the late 70s, early 80s) was particularly in-depth. Not only did we create the design for the book cover, but at this point, having fallen back in love with photography again (see, told you it was relevant) I was lucky enough to shoot the first meeting of these four men in some 20 years or more, the subsequent book launch evening and accompanying press tour.
The book also honoured Graham Taylor, who had passed away in 2017 by donating £1 of each sale to Kit Aid, the charity he was patron of (Click here to learn more about the incredible work they do).
The money from Rocket Men was to be used to purchase text books for a school in Malawi via another charity called Friends of Mulanje Orphans (FOMO). Adam was invited along with Kit Aid to visit the area to see for themselves the difference both projects were making.
By this point my interest in photography, and particularly documentary was burning fiercely so I decided to look into the possibility of joining them. It was a big decision to make as this wasn’t going to be paid work and the money for the flights, accommodation, jabs and extra bits of equipment would have to be considered. On a personal level it was also something that required thought too. I’d never travelled to this part of the world so I was naturally a little apprehensive, but stepping into the unknown, especially with my camera was the biggest part of the intrigue.
I’d also be away from Helena and our children, which I’d never done for more than a day or two at a time previously. I’ve written about Helena in some of my other blogs but I have to say, I don’t think I’d have done this without her encouragement. Right from day one, she’s been my biggest supporter and inspiration when it comes to picking up the camera and she could see how much this meant to me and what a unique opportunity it presented. Either that or a week of being ‘Paul-free’ was just too good to turn down.
Malawi: The actual trip (And a warm welcome to all you waffle skippers)
Firstly let’s get the journey out of the way (If only it was that easy in practice). The trip confirmed my initial suspicion that I wasn’t cut out for the sleeping part of long haul travel. An overnight 11 hour flight to Johannesburg, a three hour wait to connect, a two hour flight to Malawi, followed by a two hour drive to Mulanje would have been made a little easier with more than about half an hour of sleep. Good start.
Stepping off the plane in Malawi, myself, Adam and the five members of Kit Aid were lead straight across the tarmac and towards what you could be forgiven for thinking was the front garden of someones house (Though perhaps this was sleep deprivation? I’d have to check with the others).
As we walked through a small room (It definitely had a TV and a sofa) and back outdoors again, all traces of fatigue were blown away. In front of us stood approximately 30 children and a few adults who were ecstatic at our arrival. The children sang and danced whilst holding hand made signs welcoming us. It really was the most breathtaking moment and completely unexpected.
After introductions and conversations (largely about football and especially Liverpool FC, a common theme of the trip) we boarded a people carrier whilst the children all clambered in to the back of a pick up truck… Not a school bus, a pick up truck. Whilst I was slightly taken aback at seeing this for the first time, it wasn’t too long into the trip that we were asking if we could travel around in it, and did! Tough on the back but good for the soul.
We finally arrived at Hapawani Lodge via a brief visit to Mulanje Park football ground and just in time to watch England’s World Cup quarter final with Sweden. A beer, a malaria tablet and a very welcome hour or two to relax and get to know everyone a little better before turning in for the night.
Football Bonanza (Part 1)
Each year FOMO organises a football tournament. Fourteen teams from the local area compete in the event which is set in front of the incredibly beautiful Mulanje Mountain, which provides a remarkable backdrop to proceedings. Here we could see first hand the difference Kit Aid had made to this part of Africa. Every team were able to play in football shirts, from Premier League big guns like Liverpool and Manchester United, right down the football pyramid to teams few would have heard of, such as Harpenden Colts, Chesham United or Luton Town (One for Watford fans there). It was notable that, though they looked smart in their football shirts, many played with tied plastic bags in place of boots or nothing on their feet at all.
During the tournament I was able to walk round and shoot everything going on around the periphery. There were probably around 200 children and young adults watching the games, playing and enjoying the day. I was often accompanied by a few intrigued children and it was nice to get my first taste of one to one communication with them. They all seemed keen to have their photo taken and even more so to see the results on the back of the camera. I also spoke to and photographed some of the older groups too, either by approaching them myself or being asked by them to take their picture. This was interesting as I usually find it hard to approach people I don't know, but the more I shoot the more I'm finding the camera gives me confidence and the want to communicate more which is a big deal to me.
Nyasa Big Bullets
Just a few minutes drive away, back at Mulanje Park football ground, Nyasa Big Bullets – A team considered to be the biggest in Malawi in terms of support, titles and finances were playing an important semi final. Myself and a couple of the others jumped at the chance to get a taste of what an important match in Malawi would be like. It was a great decision as, like most of the trip it was a completely unique and unforgettable experience.
First though we had to navigate our way past streams of people outside the ground, from those selling souvenirs and food to more awkwardly, supporters who for whatever reason had been denied entry to the stadium, and were still trying everything they could to get through.
Inside the stadium, the mountain once again dominated the landscape, but this time it was accompanied by a cocophony of noise, colour and intensity from one side of the ground where the vast majority of supporters congregated. Once again we were given full access to walk the entire perimeter. This was on a different level to anything I’d witnessed inside a UK football stadium. It was incredibly intense, colourful and very, very loud. Many supporters pushed their way to take centre stage whenever I pulled the camera to my eye whilst others were even more insistent. It was raw and even slightly edgy and intimidating in places but the adrenaline was pumping and I loved it.
Football Bonanza (Part 2)
We returned to the tournament in time to see the winning team presented with the FOMO trophy. During the final a player had broken their leg in two places, and whilst traumatic, according to those that didn’t join us at the Big Bullets game, around 50 children immediately ran on to the pitch, strapped his leg up with branch and vine, and carried him all the way to the nearest hospital. Incredible.
After the tournament and a brief kick around with a few of the smaller children using a home made ball (made from elastic bands, plastic bags and condoms we were told) we were taken to Keith and Mary’s house (the founders of FOMO) and were treated to a wonderful home cooked meal. It would very easy to write a whole piece on these two incredible people, and I'd like to at some point. However being that this is already the longest blog piece I’ve ever written and we’re still on day one, I’ll direct you to a short two minute video I created whilst there (click here), it’s just a taste but helps to lay the foundations of the origins of FOMO. This again was all shot on the Fuji X-T2 (I’ve a section on gear at the end for those interested).
We then returned back to our lodge, and while most people went to bed, I stayed up looking over the images, backing everything up etc. If I’m being completely honest I was absolutely buzzing from the day and was far too wired to sleep any time soon.
Morning: FOMO Independent Secondary School
Here we got to see where the funds from Rocket Men were spent. We set off early so we could be there for the 7.30am school assembly. Shortly after, Adam did a short lecture with one of the classes and we conducted more interviews that would form the basis of two excellent reports he made for Sky Sports on Kit Aid and the Rocket Men books, (Click to watch).
Afternoon: Tambala Centre
This was our first visit to one of the 14 centres FOMO have funded (We travelled in style in the back of the pick up!). Personally speaking it was here that it hit home the scale of the what FOMO do. I was struck between being completely in awe of what they had built and the gratitude of the children that received their care but also the reality of how difficult and harsh life seemed here.
Just as when we first arrived in Malawi we were greeted with songs, smiles and happiness from the children and were then taken inside the centre for ceremonial songs and dancing. We introduced ourselves to them, then in a scene that was the very definition of organised chaos, we delved into large boxes and placed appropriately sized clothing over the heads of some 200 children. Having never done this before, I was hit with feelings of guilt and almost embarrassment. Whichever garment was next out of the box, was what they got. No fuss, no trying on or complacency on their part about size or colour, just a smile or nod of gratitude that their new possession was newer and in better condition than what they currently stood in. This will most certainly be the only new item of clothing they will own until the next visit in maybe 3 months time. The whole process took a good hour or so and after clambering back into the pick up, we were once again taken to Keith and Mary’s for another wonderful evening meal.
Day 4 Morning: Kuwamba
An early start once again as we visited Kuwamba, a pre-school for 2-5 year olds. Completely free of inhibition and bursting with excitement at our arrival, we watched a class in which they recited capital cities, days of the week and numbers in English, before heading outside to play games together. When I think back to the trip, more than anywhere else I come back to this place.
Picking these little ones up, spinning them round and generally doing the sort of thing I did with my children at that age (and still do) was such fun, but I felt guilty that it was for such a short time and that they were cruelly denied this kind of interaction and affection from their own parents. It was heartbreaking frankly.
Before we left Kuwamba, we took a short walk to the FOMO textile centre and then a tea plantation at the foot of the mountain, which was a breathtaking site.
Sadly it was then time to say our goodbyes to these beautiful little children. I think we all left there with heavy hearts that morning and the mini bus was notably quieter on the way back to the lodge.
Day 4 Afternoon: Chole centre
The afternoon was spent at another one of the centres (Chole). Once again we travelled in the back of the pick-up with the boxes of clothes. This time the journey took us off-road for a considerable distance and we were thrown around the vehicle like rag-dolls much of the time!
As we approached the centre, a couple of children spotted us and started running behind the truck. The trickle turned to a flood as we arrived and we were swamped with songs and happy faces. We were lead into the centre and after the familiar introductions and songs we were once again knee deep in boxes of clothes desperately trying to pull correct sized items out for the hundreds of children standing in front of us. This all done as the light of day was quickly fading and during a power cut.
Stepping out into the grounds of the centre after the session was mercifully cooler than inside. It was dusk and we were able to spend quality time with the children. Naturally with me the children were fascinated with the camera, especially when they got to see the image on the back. They always made the same noise when the saw it ‘eeeeeeeeeeeeeee’ and invariably this would be followed by fits of giggles. I wondered how many pictures they’d ever even seen of themselves and though it was great to be able to show them, again the feeling of helplessness was never far away.
Back on the pick up, and bumping our way past the mountain in the cool evening air, I took a look around and a moment to myself. I’d be leaving the following day and having had the most incredible and intense experience, it seemed strange that coming to Malawi was ever a decision I even had to contemplate. This trip would live with me for the rest of my life and I feel so fortunate to have spent it in the company of some unforgettable people. I was completely captivated by this beautiful and fragile country and the children I’d met.
I sat and ate with everyone for the final time (Myself and Adam were the only two returning to the UK the following morning), as ever enjoying the warmth and conversation within our group.
In a brief moment, not unlike a child’s birthday party when the cake is about to come out, the room went unusually quiet for a moment. Looking up I saw some of Keith and Mary’s team coming out of the kitchen singing, clapping and holding what looked like gifts. As they continued to sing, Adam and I opened handmade garments from the textile school we had visited the previous day. I think it was fair to say we were completely blown away by the gesture. We said a few words of thanks and once we had finished, Gillian (Chairman of FOMO UK), Keith and Mary all thanked us for visiting Mulanje.
During the trip I’d found it hard to quantify the level of excitement and enthusiasm wherever we visited, I’d genuinely never seen affection like it. It was only after Mary’s speech that I began to understand. To paraphrase she said that people can send clothes and donations, which are of course greatly needed but to come to Mulanje and shake hands/embrace and hold these children was the most precious and priceless thing they could receive. Love is so important and what they need and were missing the most. I have to admit I was very glad I didn’t have stand up and speak after that!
Day 5: Homeward bound
The next morning it was time to leave Mulanje. The long journey home was as sleepless as the outward one. Even before I came on this trip I wondered what it would feel like to come home. Returning from a country that had so little, to a place where we have so much by comparison.
During the course of the flight, England had been knocked out of the World Cup (Yep, we were on the plane during the biggest game in 28 years… Good timing hey!) but the outpouring of social media devastation the morning we landed seemed hollow and trivial. I’m not daft (discuss), I’m sure I would have reacted in the same manner to England’s exit had it not been for the timing of this trip, however there was a definite renewed perspective on the importance and context of it.
I was pretty exhausted and mentally drained, but importantly somewhere behind all the unprocessed emotion, I was buoyed by what I’d gone there to do in the first place, documenting what I saw through my camera. As I've learned in the last year or two, I shot with my heart and look forward to using my work to promote awareness of FOMO. It’s ultimately what transformed thoughts of helplessness into positivity. I hope I can give them images that are emotive and narrate their good work well enough to generate action somewhere along the line. Time will tell.
So from my front room four years ago, all the way to Malawi, and one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had. More than anything it’s shown me that if you do what you love, with feeling and without agenda, it has the potential to take you a long way. Seven thousand miles in my case : )
PS The gear bit is below this image!
The gear bit
Being that this is a photography blog, here is a bit about what was in my bag. I am a Fuji-holic through and through and I took 2x X-T2s and my lenses of choice were the 23mm f1.4 and the 56mm f1.2. Whilst I toyed with the idea of bringing others to cover all eventualities (I have a 16mm/35mm too) I wanted to travel relatively light and by restricting myself to a single lens on each body forced me into making compositional decisions rather than adding another layer of complexity with focal length considerations.
I also dipped my toe into the video side of the X-T2 and I purchased larger SIM cards, Breakthrough Photography ND filters and a Rode mic pro before travelling. My budget didn’t extend to using a lens with IOS or a gimbal. It was packed in the excellent Peak Design messenger bag and Slide lite straps and the 2nd body was attached via a spider belt clip rather than have one camera on each shoulder.
I downloaded and backed everything up each night from my computer to two separate drives, one of which would come with me on location every day, the other remained at the lodge. I think it’s fine to be a little paranoid when it comes to backing up. To my mind there seems little point in traveling 7,000 miles and not doing everything you can to prepare for some sort of disaster management. As it happens the 23/56 combination worked well in pretty much all situations (the lack of iOS shows in the videos but this wasn’t my primary objective). There were a couple of places where a bit of extra width would have been helpful but generally they covered all bases and the fast apertures really came into their own in some very low lighting situations.