Rebecca Jacobson
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Where the Orphans Practice Meditation and Learn Kung Fu

November 30, 2009 @ 2:36 AM | Permalink

The man wears a wide, bark-strip hat, a long gray robe, and simple pair of sandals. He clutches a mango in one hand and crouches among a group of boys. They chat and laugh together. The man? A practicing Buddhist. The boys? Malawian orphans. Their shared language? Chinese.

China is the world’s biggest investor in Malawi, with its most obvious influence seen in massive building projects and controversial uranium mining. With this venture pattern, a place like Amitofo Care Centre seems beyond anomalous. The focus here is neither construction nor mineral extraction. No, this is a place where the chief responsibility is “to transmit the Dharma in Africa and continue the Buddha’s spiritual life,” according to the posted list of work ethics.

My friends and I stumbled down a dusty, rutted road to find Amitofo, an orphanage established by a Taiwanese Buddhist in 2005. The sprawling, manicured complex plays home to more than 200 Malawian orphans and qualifies as one of the most curious places I’ve ever visited. On our stroll through the grounds, we greeted women preparing colossal quantities of bitter greens and nsima, the traditional Malawian maize porridge. We removed our shoes and entered the temple, with its imposing gold statues of Buddha and its soft mats for the children’s regular meditation practice. We cheered on a group of boys as they showed off their kung fu moves, sliding into the splits and scissoring their hands in front of them. We passed a cluster of girls who flashed us a “V” with their fingers, that stereotype of Asian tourists. We scanned a wall of drawings, where sketches of big-eared elephants abutted anime-style superheroes. We met local and foreign staff, all of whom brought their hands to the prayer position and bowed their heads to greet us.


This orphanage was Amitofo’s first, but the organization has since built care centers in Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Swaziland. There is a primary school on site, and another instructor works with the older orphans. Teachers follow the Malawian government’s curricular regulations — with the addition of Buddhist philosophy and Chinese language classes, of course. In their free time, the children can learn both traditional Chinese and traditional Malawian dances. When neighboring orphanages organize soccer or netball games, the Amitofo children join in. Many of the orphans have traveled abroad — 30 are currently in Malaysia to present kung fu and dance exhibitions.

Our guide, a secretary named Elven, offers us more tea after we complete our informal tour of the compound. I continue reading the list of ethics and rules. Smile and speak softly. Offer hope to others. Treat people with politeness. No killing (not even mosquitoes!). No gossip. No gambling. No intoxicants. No meat, fish, onion, garlic, or leek.

A ban on meat and fish, sure. But onions, garlic, leek? “Ah,” chuckles Elven. “These foods will expand, how you say, the desire. You understand?”

I tell him I do. But along with the rest of my surroundings, I’m still puzzling things out.


P.S. Lovely readers, Landlocked is going on hiatus for a few weeks. I’m taking off for epic travels on Saturday and won’t be posting while I’m away, but expect crazy stories when I return. Bribing border officers in Mozambique? Dodging police roadblocks in Zimbabwe? Taking tipply wine tours in South Africa? Gorging myself on German pastries in Namibia? Bungee jumping at Victoria Falls? (Just kidding, Mom!) See you in 2010.


Posted on 12/17/2009 by

Diana Cepsyte

Diana Cepsyte

Landlocked (Rebecca), just read your article, and it sounds wonderfully neat. I want to visit so many places in my life, before I'm thirty, and where you're going, well, those are some of the places I want to see, quite, qutie so. I think I'll bungee jump one day, though, wait, probably skydive first, after gradaution in May :), hihi. Anyways, it sounds like you're having an adventure, and it's a one heck of a great, great ride! Enjoy yourself and be safe ;). D.

Posted on 12/19/2009 by

Alaina Rose

Alaina Rose

Wow, this sounds amazing! I SO wish I could go there and experience that and even be a part of that little school! Enjoy your travels!

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Rebecca: I love the ending and I LOVE the second picture with the bright blue guy and the sepia tobacco. Angela

Angela Allen on Trafficking in Tobacco 2009-09-29

Thanks Angela! The second photo is my favorite as well.

Rebecca Jacobson on Trafficking in Tobacco 2009-09-30

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