Generosity is its own reward. The chance to help others is precious, almost selfish.
Just ask local woodworker Josh Finn. Purpose has always been important to him. And he loves to travel. But he’s no “if it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium” tourist. When he travels, he finds a place and stays long enough to learn its culture and make a contribution. So he listened when his sister and brother-in-law told him how badly the underdeveloped East African nation of Malawi needed him. They had spent a year there and had bought a bed. But before they could get it home, it fell apart. Clearly this country needed a skilled carpenter to teach his craft.
They introduced Josh to Anna Msowoya Keys in 2018. Keys had left Malawi decades earlier and settled in Nyack, but she went home to the city of Mzuzu in 2003 to attend the funeral of a sister who had died of AIDS. Keys was surprised to see several young children at the cemetery, since they were not permitted there when she was growing up. Someone explained the children were homeless AIDS orphans, hoping someone would give them food. Heartbroken, she started Maloto, a feeding program and later, a school “to help educate the community’s most vulnerable children.”
She founded the Mzuzu International Academy in 2010 to educate young people who could compete on a global stage, Malawi’s future leaders. By 2018, she was graduating some 200 students a year but realized she needed vocational training for students who would not go on to college. She asked Josh to come teach a course in woodworking. He hesitated to leave his successful High Falls business but he thought he could spare three weeks. So began a commitment Josh now says will last a lifetime.
On this first trip, he had a lot to learn. Although Malawi is a beautiful country, with a temperate climate and friendly, upbeat people, he had to get used to the darkness that falls at 6 p.m. when there’s often no electricity. While getting used to local food and customs, Josh helped a local carpenter set up the program and draw up a curriculum.
The following year, Josh brought his wife Louisa along for a safari and spent six weeks away. During that visit, he worked with ten aspiring woodworkers. Unfortunately, in March 2020, the pandemic hit and Josh could not return. By then, the Finns were providing scholarships to two Academy students.
This summer, after a hiatus of three years, Josh went back to Mzuzu. He and his 25-year old son August made the grueling 48-hour trip with four suitcases of carpentry tools, filled to the 50-pound limit. He’d raised almost $6000 to pay for a table saw, an air compressor, Jigsaw, drill and more — quality tools not available in Malawi. Seven of his 2019 students had scattered to other opportunities but three were there to welcome him back. They got right to work.
In the month he was there, he and the students made cabinets for classrooms, a prototype desk they could manufacture for the school and beehives for local farmers, a source of income for them and the feeding center, which is still supplying hot meals to 300 children three times a week. In the carpentry shop, Josh taught students to use the new tools and suggested ways to make their woodworking more efficient, if possible. As for August, he’s a talented soccer player. He coached phys ed students and, on his second day in Mzuzu, was invited to play on a professional soccer team.
Josh’s three protégés received their carpentry-joinery degrees this summer, as he watched with pride. He was moved when several people told him how important he was to the school. “It gives energy to the program,” says Keys. What’s more, she explained, to an orphan, seeing that an adult cares enough to travel so far, time and again, means the world. “It gives them hope and the motivation to work harder.”
Keys knows Malawi’s challenges are huge and she can only make a small contribution to resolving them. Josh too says, “You can’t solve all the problems.” But he cherishes sharing his expertise and making some very special friendships. They’ve made his trips to Malawiso meaningful and he’s vowed to return every two years. His advice to the rest of us? “Give ’til it hurts.”