Guest Blog: One Volunteer’s Story on Working at Mtendere Children’s Village- Erin Clemens

When I was in the 4th grade, my family took a trip to Togo, West Africa to visit some of our friends who were doing mission work there. During our stay we visited both village and international schools. Not long after the trip, I started telling myself I was going to be a teacher and I would move to a country in Africa. Fast forward many years and now I am employed as a teacher in south Nashville. I work at a school with a majority population of refugees and immigrants, and I love it! I get to spend my year teaching, loving, and empowering students from all over the world and then get to spend a few weeks out of my summer in Africa teaching, loving, and empowering students in Malawi while learning alongside their amazing teachers. It’s the best of both worlds.

What are 3 major things you have learnt from travelling abroad to work alongside another ministry?

Any time I am working with another ministry, I am learning new things. I have now been to Mtendere three times and each time the Lord has taught me more about these three things: joy, love, and community. These three are always revealed to me during time spent with the house mothers. A few memories in particular stick out to me where I learned more about joy, love and community. Hannah and I went to visit Mama Alice one day this summer. Mama Alice has a living room full of couches like all the other moms, but she has one special chair. This one chair appears to be very comfortable with a beautiful lace covering over it. Mama Alice watched Hannah walk toward the chair, sit down, and fall straight through to the ground. The entire room erupted in laughter. In fact, we were all laughing so hard we started crying. It turns out, Mama Alice has chosen not to fix that chair because she likes to see who will fall victim to it. She knows it will make everyone in the room laugh and it is the simplest and most hilarious way to bring joy to everyone who visits her. I learn so much about how to love better by spending time with Mama Ruth and her kids. This year, our team conducted home visits in typical education fashion and asked all the mamas what their hopes and dreams were for their kids. Sweet Mama Ruth explained how she hopes for her children to be good people. She told us about how she loves them well by praying for them. Each day they wake up and as a house pray over their days, and you can tell this group of children is especially close because of the way they know each other through the power of prayer. Prayer is such a simple thing for us to do and such a profound way to love each other. Finally, I have learned about the richness of living in community because of Mama Eunice. During my visit in 2017 Hannah and I went to visit Mama Eunice one night after dinner. Of course, she had another full meal for us and insisted we eat. Before we knew it the entire living room was full of people joining us for dinner. Mama Eunice explained to us later that most of the people in the room were not invited for dinner. Instead, they stumbled into a house full of people enjoying each other’s company and wanted to be part of it. We spent the night talking about books, families, goals, music, and everything under the moon. It was a great reminder of what we are created for. Nobody was checking their watches to see what time it was or thinking where they had to be next. Everyone was intentionally focused on the people in the room and nothing else. Often times when I am in America I find myself missing this time. It holds such sweet memories in my mind and serves as a concrete reminder that God intended for us to live in community so that we can share each other’s joy, burdens, love, and so much more. That is the amazing gift that Malawi and specifically Mtendere has given me. I have received joy, love, and community on a much deeper level and I am eternally blessed by that.

Have some of your perspective about education changed as you have worked with children in the education system here in the United States and in Malawi?

Absolutely they have and thank goodness for that! In August, I will begin my 3rd year of teaching and while I still have so much to learn I now have a more realistic perspective of education. Prior to beginning my career, I had an idea of teaching thinking that it would be a lot of sunshine and rainbow moments with tons of cute arts and crafts (thanks Pinterest). However, teaching is hard work-both in the United States and in Malawi. This year, our team started and ended our time working with the Mtendere teachers in a round table discussion. We chatted about our triumphs and celebrations as teachers and also our obstacles and struggles. The funny thing is, our answers were very similar even though we are teaching on different continents. We all struggle with having enough resources for our students and we all celebrate when a student finally understands a concept. However, the question each member at our table was able to answer quickest and with the most ease was, “tell about a student who has impacted your life.” Each one of us has a student that has made a lasting impact on our lives and our career. Many of the stories discussed were of amazing children who we will all remember for the rest of our lives. Therefore, I have come to realize that it doesn’t matter about the cute arts and crafts and it doesn’t matter about having intricate classroom décor, instead what matters is these children. I used to think I might have a great impact on every student who walked in my door. Instead, it is myself that has been impacted by these children (both in America and Malawi) and my life is much richer because of that.

What have you learnt about being part of a team?

I have learned that in the end, people matter most. This year, we talked a lot about how often times we get more caught up in making plans to complete things for our personal agendas and we forget about loving people. Working in a team forces you to be in community, it encourages you to be vulnerable, and it teaches you to love people who are different from you. I have learned that if we put aside our plans and focus on the people on our team and love them the outcome is far greater than any plan we could have created. Upon returning from Malawi, I was reading Everybody, Always by Bob Goff. In the book he says, “quit waiting for a plan; just go love everybody.” I love this quote especially in regards to being part of a team. Stop planning and start loving the people in front of you. 

What have you enjoyed the most about being a leader? What has been the most challenging part?

As a leader, it is really amazing to see everyone’s gifts and talents coming together for the greater good. I love being able to select members to join the team knowing what talents they can contribute and then to see it come into fruition on the trip. It is always a glimpse into the creativity of God and how he intricately and uniquely created each and every person. Another bonus to being the leader is being able to share about the wonder that is Mtendere all year with the team only to watch them instantaneously fall in love with the place that feels like home to me. The most challenging part, however, is the fact that by nature I am not a leader. I would much rather be a follower so I feel as if I lack many qualities of a leader and I am still learning how to navigate that as I co-lead this trip. However, I have now stepped into three leadership roles in different areas of my life so maybe God is trying to teach me something.

As an educator, what do you think are some of the most effective ways we can continue to advocate for vulnerable children’s education?

In regards to speaking to adults about advocating for vulnerable children’s education I think the greatest thing we can do is raise awareness-awareness for the great things that can become of a person when they are provided with a chance at education. When actually working with vulnerable children I believe the best thing you can do is empower them. Speak to them in a way that affirms in them the amazing things they can contribute to society. Do not speak to them in pity or sympathy because of their circumstances. That is crippling and the message can often be received as we believe they are not capable to amounting too much. Instead, we as educators and human beings need to lift them up in a way that makes them overlook their circumstances and believe in their future. Children in vulnerable circumstances are resilient and hard working. I have been privileged to know and work alongside many amazing adults who were once vulnerable children. They got where they are today because someone affirmed character traits they possess and empowered them to overcome their circumstances. We need to be better about believing in our youth and speaking up for them and speaking into their amazing possibilities.

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