Travel » Features

Building Houses for HIV Orphans in Malawi: Part 1

by Shane  Werle
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday May 19, 2014

Volunteer Shane Werle has a long history of working with Habitat for Humanity in the U.S. and Haiti. Early this year, he traveled to Malawi in Africa, to build brick homes for some of the country's many children orphaned due to HIV. He returned with a passion for giving back to the community, and a mission to bring more volunteers with him.

EDGE looks at his journey through Africa in a three-part series. In Part 1, he talks about his early work volunteering, and how it brought him to Malawi:

There are two things I am passionate about: Giving back to those less fortunate, and adventure travel and seeing exotic places in the world. The latter passion has been successful. I have been to 42 states and over 25 countries.

I have stamps in expired passports from countries that no longer exist. I have backpacked through Europe and spent a summer in Africa. I also spent a summer in Hawaii working in children's camps. I've climbed mountains, rafted Class IV and V rapids, skydived, eaten exotic foods, stowed away on a train in Eastern Europe, and the list goes on.

The "Giving Back" part is harder for all of us. Our intentions are always good, but we often times get caught up with work and other pressing issues in our lives. Sometimes you just have to make the time to give back, or you'll never do it. The last thing I want to do is look back and wish that I had done something.

I had been familiar with Habitat for Humanity for many years, but after some research, I discovered that they don't just build homes in local communities; they also operate in dozens of countries around the world on almost every continent, and it is almost all volunteer based.

What most impressed me about Habitat is that, unlike other charities, they don't just give handouts. I am a firm believer that empowering people to rise above poverty involves more than just handouts. Habitat requires that the recipient contribute sweat equity to their new home, both in the United States and abroad.

Upon further research, I discovered that Habitat for Humanity does many more things than just give homes to impoverished people. They actively empower women to start their own businesses; they teach financial literacy and responsibility; they teach recipients how to maintain a home; they teach HIV/AIDS education to local populations in affected areas; and most importantly they ensure secure tenure and estate planning.

These last two are very important. In many third world countries, people build homes wherever they can, using whatever they have. The land they build upon most likely belongs to another individual higher up in a caste system, or perhaps the government. In most cases, records and documentation are not kept in developing nations, so the home can be taken away at any time if there is a dispute.

Furthermore, since most families struggle in developing nations just to survive, a widower might be left homeless in the event of the death of her husband. This is why Habitat for Humanity teaches about wills and estate planning, in addition to ensuring secure tenure. Habitat planners ensure that the land they build upon is secured and will stay with the recipient to pass on to future generations.

As is too often the case with many charities, only a few pennies of each dollar donated trickles down to an actual beneficiary. With Habitat for Humanity, a tangible structure is left as evidence of how donations are used. This is in addition to the educational programs mentioned above. So it is because of these reasons that I focused my volunteer efforts with Habitat for Humanity. I love to travel and see new places, and I could leave behind a tangible benefit to impoverished people.

My first trip with Habitat for Humanity was to Haiti with former president Jimmy Carter. Habitat has committed to a large-scale rebuilding effort in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. The site we built on was at the epicenter of the earthquake. Habitat is building a community of 500 homes, complete with markets, just in this area. They are also teaching the locals to form a cooperative as part of improving their business practices. The homes being built all over Haiti are hurricane and earthquake proof. They are about 275 square feet and divided into two rooms. There is a covered front porch, wooden doors, shutter windows and a tin (leak-proof) roof. Kitchens and bathrooms are separate from the living areas. Habitat has also built several clean water wells in the community.

Prior to going to Haiti, I had been to Africa three times, in addition to spending over ten years as a medic in Atlanta, some of it in poor areas. My point is that I have seen much of the bad side of humanity. Not much shocks me. But I was shocked when I got to Haiti.

I have never seen such poverty and desperation. When you volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, you don’t just "go build a house" and come back home with great memories. They engage you and teach you about poverty and housing issues around the world. It’s easy to become addicted to volunteering.

So after my Haiti trip, I got to check two more things off my list: Giving back to the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and seeing a part of the world I would otherwise not visit.
Before I left, I especially enjoyed a friend of mine relating to me the time they visited Haiti. You see, their cruise ship docked there for seven hours while cruising the Caribbean.

My time in Haiti was not spent down at the docks buying trinkets. It involved a week of hard work and seeing the joy as we dedicated one of our homes to a young woman whose husband had been killed in the earthquake. Almost three years after the earthquake, she was still living in a makeshift shelter of a blue, shredded, faded USAID tarp.

I returned to the United States, shared my pictures and stories, and then fell back into the routine of daily life. But I couldn’t get my mind off of going somewhere else. It’s all I thought and talked about. So I started looking at future Habitat builds and finally settled on the small African nation of Malawi. I had only heard about Malawi once or twice because that’s the country from which Madonna adopted her children. But after my initial research, I was moved to do something to make a difference.

You see, Malawi is facing an HIV/AIDS epidemic, even greater there than in other African nations. More than 85 percent of the population lives in rural areas, so it’s not easy to get medical treatment to them, or them to the treatment. The life expectancy is about 50 years. As a result, there are about 1.4 million orphans in Malawi. Many of them become the head of household when they are just teenagers, having to care for their siblings. They or their siblings might also be infected. Furthermore, they often times have to drop out of school to take care of the family, and might even become homeless.

Malawi is on a fast track to economic annihilation. You cannot sustain or grow an economy and provide basic services (healthcare, infrastructure, education) when there is a generational gap, and the upcoming generation is uneducated and possibly infected with a deadly virus and no treatment.

Malawi is landlocked, so even if medical treatment was donated, it has to be shipped through other countries, or flown in. But that is usually cost-prohibitive. If you’re familiar with the way African governments and cultures operate, you know that corruption is rampant. Just getting anything simple done is almost a living nightmare. So to just think that some charity will donate treatment to Malawi and everything will be fine is far from reality.

It’s a complex issue, including, but not limited to, socially, regulatory, culturally and safety-wise. Africans are steeped in years of traditions, cultures and superstitions. They don’t trust white people (Europeans, Americans, etc.) coming to their countries and giving them shots and forcing pills down their throats. The desperation for treatment leads to superstitious beliefs, which leads to actual witchcraft, which leads to failure, which leads to more desperation, which then leads to a repeat of the cycle.

So I felt compelled to do at least something for the people of Malawi. People often times are precluded from getting involved because they think that for all the money and time involved, they really won’t "make a difference." I always say, "One person can’t change the world, but you can change the world for one person." If everyone did something for someone, then this world would be a better place.

To help raise funds for Shane’s next trip, visit


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