Gabrielle Romano had always wanted to go on an international mission trip, so when her brother and sister-in-law were heading to Africa to educate women about HIV and AIDS, she asked if she could go along.
“When I left Malawi after that first trip (in 2007), I said this is what I want to do for as long as I can,” Gabrielle said.
She’s now planning her fifth trip to Malawi for sometime next year. Gabrielle, 26, had to pass up trips last year and this year due to some lingering health issues.
But she’s going back. Gabrielle’s passion is helping the women of Mgwayi, a village of a few hundred, through literacy, improved sanitation and financial self-sufficiency. She’s taught HIV prevention, done hard physical labor alongside them, helped them start businesses.
Through her trips with Summit Church in Orlando and the Children of the Nations organization, Gabrielle and other volunteers have forged relationships that have blossomed despite cultural differences and the realities of poverty in a remote African village.
On her 2010 trip, Gabrielle lived for 2 1/2 months in an orphanage with 39 children, some of whom were HIV-positive.
Additional perspective: A woman in the village was 8 months pregnant and had two other children, ages 5 and 3. She welcomed Gabrielle into her home (a small hut) but was embarrassed because there was nowhere to sit — and the only food was a sack of corn. The woman’s husband had abandoned the family, which is not uncommon there, Gabrielle said.
Despite such harsh conditions, the women there share a beautiful sense of support that is evident in the simplest pleasures — singing, dancing, even the joy of a rare treat of soda and a piece of bread at a gathering known as “the widows’ group.”
“They know how to party,” Gabrielle said. “Those women know how to dance. The culture there is filled with community and joy, even though they’re living in mud huts.”
Gabrielle raises money to pay for travel and project supplies (such as individual chalkboards for literacy classes) by hosting “Africa Night” fundraisers. She also receives donations from customers at the Freedom of Espresso coffee shop where she works and has the support of the owners.
Gabrielle has a blog, iamorphaned.com, that updates the progress — and setbacks — of projects in Malawi. Each post is signed, “Gabe. Always for Africa.”
She’s also set up a website, kamalatu.org, where people can follow and support her efforts. Kamalatu is a Chichewa word meaning “working hard together for good.”
It is often frustrating work — a micro-financing project that had the village women raising pigs as a source of income was scuttled because of a swine flu epidemic. A year or more’s work, including building a pig shelter brick by homemade brick, went for naught.
Then there’s the frustration for Gabrielle of returning home and adjusting to the comforts of America — the bountiful excess of our megastores, the technology and material things that isolate us from one another. But instead of being negative or cynical, she tries to channel the positive elements of our culture to help the women of Malawi.
“I am so thankful for what I have,” Gabrielle said. “I’ve had amazing opportunities.”
That includes becoming a certified Emergency Medical Technician, and earning certificates in Maternal & Infant Health, and Diarrheal Disease — skills she can certainly use in Malawi. She’s read books on finance so she can help the village women start businesses, although she’d rather enlist local experts in economics, education and public health to go to Malawi with her.
“Many people here have no idea how bad things are, and how blessed we are,” Gabrielle said. “The majority of people here are insulated and comfortable.”
That’s a cultural barrier in America that must be overcome — the notion that if people in remote, poor places have been existing a certain way for generations, who are we to intervene? Why, someone once asked Gabrielle, should we do anything about African babies and children dying of dehydration from diarrhea when that’s been happening there forever?
Gabrielle’s answer: Children shouldn’t have to die if all it takes to save them is educating parents about basics such as hand-washing.
There’s the physical poverty of countries like Malawi, Gabrielle said, and then there’s the “soul poverty” plaguing insulated, isolated developed countries.
“The more opportunities I have to share stories of Malawi,” she said, “it will help open people’s eyes.”