Charity as a Drop in the Bucket: Day 1

06/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Ken Wong Director, Face-to-Face AIDS Project

Day 1: Malawi and the Trouble With Maize

High Above

As usual, I like checking the scenery out the window on my flight from Joburg to Lilongwe. It's an expansive, rolling landscape, punctuated by a few isolated mountain crags and the mighty Zambezi River forming a dramatic boundary between Malawi and Mozambique. It's the rainy season now and below is a sea of lush green -- quite a difference from the dry bush and bare soil that you see eight months out of the year. As we start our descent, I hear people remarking that the rains must have come this year.

"So green and thick -- looks like a good maize harvest this year," says someone up front.

"Another year that Malawi's been lucky again," says another person. "That's good news for its economy."
From where I'm sitting, it certainly does look promising. And that's great, because that means we might have a good harvest for our farm projects for HIV-positive households. I get so excited about these projects because I believe they can expand into much more than just basic food security for the poor and sick. Given time, these projects can strengthen a village's basic health care system while developing a new generation of leaders who'll focus on self-reliance and creative thinking for solutions.
The goal of my Face-to-Face AIDS Project is to tackle HIV/AIDS by leapfrogging over it. In other words, we can increase testing for HIV, encourage better health practices, and reduce HIV discrimination by placing our focus on food security. Talking about HIV becomes akin to talking about a cold -- what people are really interested in is getting a good maize harvest.

As lush and green as the ground below looks, I know not to get my hopes up too high. Nothing is at is seems is a feeling everyone who works here experiences again and again.

This Is Malawi, Not Ohio

As I see the endless maize covering the gently rolling land, I'm reminded of the cornfields of my youth in Ohio. We were taught that the Midwest has the best conditions for corn -- moderate temperatures and steady rains. Knee high by the Fourth of July. And still, even with this fertile Buckeye earth, we were taught that Native Americans needed to place as fertilizer one fish in each seed hole.
You'd have thought we grew up eating corn at every meal. But besides fresh corn at summer cookouts, and the occasional cornbread or corn dog, it was never in the same league as bread or potato, or in our family, rice. In fact, our third grade teachers warned that if we ate too much corn, corn bits would get stuck between our teeth and rot them, just like the teeth of the Indians.

So how did maize become the one and only staple here in Malawi? Here where there's so much working against growing maize? For starters, the soil isn't good, the temperatures can be scorching, and the rains may fall too hard, or not fall at all. Malawi is not similar to Ohio at all.

Malawi, and the Trouble With Maize

For maize to grow, Malawians apply fertilizers and pray that the rains are steady and gentle. Fertilizers can be costly, especially for farmers in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world. And rain is not in anyone's control. I've seen firsthand what happens when the crops fail due to drought or flooding -- soon thereafter, there's famine and an increase in disease and suffering.
A diet of maize with little else to supplement it isn't so healthy either. Maize is high in calories and low in proteins. People on a maize diet can look quite fat and still be malnourished.

Even if Malawi's harvest is good this year, next year might be a drought. And the year after, a flood. Sure, a drought could happen in Ohio too, but the chances of one happening here in Malawi feels like it's about 100 times more likely. So it's nice and all that we support these great community maize gardens -- but is this good? As a charity, are we building a stronger community, or just propping them up for greater problems when maize harvests fail and people have no food?
This and other questions of the nature of charity have been banging about in my head for awhile now. But for the time being, I think only of maize, and that's because I'm surrounded by it as the plane descends on to the one runway of Kamuzu International Airport. I wonder what did other civilizations do to ensure that their maize harvests didn't fail? Did they interplant other crops to hold moisture in the soil? Did they try to control rainwater? Was there some trick that they used that might seem crazy to us, but could work here in Malawi?

The plane touches down. A very, very smooth landing! Bravo South African Airways. If my jerky, scribbly notes from previous Malawi journals -- written in a car while traveling to appointments -- are any indication, I'm sure that the rest of my 9 days here will be much bumpier.

Ken Wong is the director of the Face-to-Face AIDS Project, a documentary and charity-focused 501(c)3 nonprofit based in Brooklyn, New York. He can be contacted by email at or by mail at 75 Livingston Street, #30A, Brooklyn, NY 11201.

Please visit for more information on the Face-to-Face AIDS Project, and how you can help us help communities strengthen their food security, basic education, and leadership capacity so they may become self-sustaining and capable of overcoming drought, famine, and disease.