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Happy Holidays!!!

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I thought I’d sneak in one more blog update before our wedding, exactly one week from today! We’ve had an unusually busy month, with trips to Malawi and Cape Town followed by our holiday party at Karabo Asara Orphan Center!

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(Reuben!!! Hard to believe how much he’s grown….)

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(Loved being back at the lake)

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(Early morning lake scenes)

First, I had an opportunity to return to the Warm Heart of Africa to attend USAID’s Global Health State-of-the-Art (SOTA) Technical Meeting! I made the most of my weeklong conference and spent the weekends on both ends exploring Malawi.

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(Beautiful…)

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(Mina)

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(Washing dishes)

Mina, one of my dear friends who has lived in Malawi for over fourteen years conducting cutting edge HIV/AIDS research, was my ‘tour guide’. She picked me up from the airport and headed straight to my favorite destination on Lake Malawi, Cape MacLear!

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Cape MacLear also happens to be where I met Reuben, a ten-year-old boy (at the time) who had beautiful eyes that simply sparkled and a smile that melted my heart! I couldn’t help but notice him. He was one of many children that played up and down the beach who hailed from the village, Chembe, located along its shores.

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Reuben quickly became my favorite kid! He had a surprising knack for photography, which only strengthened my bond with him! I always looked forward to letting him use my camera to see what artistically inspired him, and I was always impressed by his results.

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(Otter Point)

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After almost three years of return visits, Reuben asked if I could sponsor him to attend school. I said that I would need to talk it over with his parents before I could give him an answer. That night, I was led to the heart of the village to meet with Reuben’s family!

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(Gecko Lounge)

That moment changed me. Reuben’s dad, a local fisherman, had nine children. He confided in me how painful it was to see that Reuben was bright and gifted, yet he couldn’t afford to send him to school…I was more than happy to help…and to change the life of one little boy!

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(Reuben’s Family)

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(Reuben’s Family)

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(Reuben’s Mom and Dad)

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(Family members)

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(Meeting Reuben’s Family eight years ago)

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(Amy & Reuben long ago)

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(Amy and Reuben today)

For the next four years, I sponsored Reuben to attend boarding school in Zomba, far away from the lake, situated in the hills of the Shire Highlands! What a transformation! Unfortunately, I lost touch with Reuben over the years and always wondered how he was doing!

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And then, one day, I received a friend request on Facebook from him! Wow, what a difference a few years make! Reuben, who spoke little to no English when we first met (his older brother, Havent, always served as our translator), was now proficient with computers and fully conversant in English! So when I returned to Malawi, I made it a point to reunite with Reuben and his family!

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(Hash House Harriers)

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(Kristien and Stuart)

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(Mina and Stacia)

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(Joseph and Zooey)

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(Oliver!!!)

I can’t begin to tell you how proud I am of Reuben, who has morphed from an innocent child to a handsome young adult – who is now eighteen years old!

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(Darren in Senga Bay)

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(Conference participants at the lake)

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(Amy and Pamela)

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(Safari Beach Bar)

Once again, I was led into the heart of the village to reunite with Reuben’s family, who formally thanked me while we sat together under a tree in the shade! I was literally beaming with pride and overwhelmed by the love I felt for this remarkable family. I just wish I had more to give to the many people in need…

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What struck me the most during my return visit to Malawi was its poverty! After our opulent lifestyle in South Africa, I had forgotten what it’s like to be in one of the poorest countries in the world. According to the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report for 2009, about 74 per cent of the population still lives below the income poverty line of US$1.25 a day and 90 per cent below the US$2 a day threshold. And those statistics are from several years ago…Malawi’s economic situation appears to be even worse today!

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That being said, I realize just how much I miss my time in Malawi. The lifestyle and the work itself are infinitely more rewarding!

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During my short stay in Lilongwe, I tried to get right back into some of my old routines! I met up with all the old Hash House Harriers on a Monday night. And on this particular run, we happened to start at the Chameleon, one of my favorite local hangouts serendipitously located right down the street from where I was staying for the conference.

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Each day of the week, I did my best to meet up with old friends in Malawi, whether by phone or in-person! But I need to give a special shout out to my good friend, Oliver, who started out as a program developer at Baobab Health Trust who is now Chief of Party! I’m so incredibly proud…

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(Collecting water)

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(Hard work in the village)

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When I worked with CDC in Malawi, I managed this organization and fought hard to get the funding they needed to grow. The project itself was dear to my heart – electronic data systems to manage patients on antiretroviral therapy! And now, seven years later, they are thriving. Not a single ex-pat remains in the organization, as it’s completely managed and run by Malawians. Talk about long term sustainability…what an amazing success story! KUDOS to the entire Baobab Health Team!

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Speaking of electronic data systems, I presented at the SOTA on another project that is dear to my heart, MomConnect. This is a collaborative effort led by the South African National Department of Health that is part of the nation’s overall effort to reduce maternal and child mortality and improve the health of mothers and children. And it’s the first mHealth (mobile phone) initiative that’s been scaled nationally. I’m truly proud to be a part of history in the making!

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(Handing out food)

Darren flew to Lilongwe and arrived just in time to hear me present at the conference (not the best time slot – 3pm on the Friday), but we drove directly to Senga Bay immediately afterwards.

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I loved sharing a small slice of Malawi with Darren, even if it was just for two days! We stayed at Safari Beach Lodge and spent our days exploring the coastline, walking through the villages, and hanging out at Livingstonia Hotel.

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(Greyton, Western Cape)

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I love the rugged nature of Malawi, especially since we’re getting pretty soft and pampered here in South Africa!

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(Stunning views for the wedding)

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And on the heels of our trip to Malawi, we flew to Cape Town for a wedding. Talk about a juxtaposition. Cape Town is truly the opposite of roughing it in Malawi.

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(Merry Christmas from Maria)

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(Lots of dancing)

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(Lots of fun)

Our friends, Stacie and Jahne, got married in the hills of Greyton, a few hours outside of Cape Town. Set in the Overberg region, with the Sonderend mountains as a backdrop, I can honestly say that it was one of the most gorgeous settings I’ve ever seen for a wedding! They set the bar pretty high, as it’s impossible to compete with the scenery in Western Cape!

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(Making PAP is hard work)

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(Darren with the hose)

I’m so thrilled that we were able to share their joy on their big day! But truth be told, it also made me panic, as I feel so unprepared for our own wedding. Meanwhile, it will happen regardless of the wedding readiness factor ☺

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(Maria’s Daughters)

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(Darren cooking)

Back in Pretoria, we switched gears to focus on Karabo Asara Orphan Center’s holiday event! We successfully managed to raise money to purchase school uniforms for 25 children, to buy gifts (not to mention, individually wrapped and labeled) for 103 kids, to provide stipends for the Caregivers, and we brought enough food to feed an army (with enough meat leftover to stock their fridge for the month)!

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(Handing out 103 wrapped gifts)

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In the true spirit of giving, this was a collective effort by many! I wish I could thank everyone individually…but I sincerely want to thank those who donated to the GoFundMe site, to friends who dropped off gifts, and to those who donated their time and energy at the event! And I especially want to thank Darren, who braai’d for 150 people in the hot sun for endless hours. You are so appreciated.

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(Happy Kids)

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Now I’m focusing my energy on preparing for our wedding! I’m officially on leave, so can dedicate time to all the odds and ends that need to be finalized. I simply can’t wait for friends and family to arrive. The wedding itself is going to be awesome!
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Many people have asked if we have registered anywhere. We don’t need anything, but if you’d like to make a small contribution to our Mauritius honeymoon fund, we would be grateful.

https://www.wanderable.com/hm/AmyDarrenHoneymoon

Enjoy the holidays…and wishing everyone a Happy Healthy New Year!

Sending much love to all,
Amy