Malawi's kids

t's hard to believe that I'm already registering for autumn trade events ... here it is not even summer yet, officially. But it's time to get signed up for ASTA Seville and World Travel Market, in London. The two events are back-to-back this year, which means it will be a long trip.

As I wandered around WTM last year, I came upon a new exhibitor: the African nation of Malawi.

The country is inching its way into tourism, slowly but surely. A neighbor of Tanzania and traversed by the Great Rift Valley, Malawi is trying very hard to build a competitive tourism infrastructure.

The country was visited by British explorer David Livingstone in 1859, and there's a town in the northern part of the country called Livingstonia. In the 1950s, what is now Malawi was part of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. It gained independence in 1964.

I have a personal connection to Malawi. For about the last eight years, my husband and I have been Save the Children sponsors there.

Our first sponsored child, a young boy, wrote us letters around the holidays, sent pictures he had drawn and twice mailed us a picture of himself -- with the help of a field worker.

In the last picture we received, he had grown tall. Several months ago, a letter from the field worker informed us that our sponsored child's family was moving to another area, and we would be assigned another youngster.

A few weeks later, a letter from our new sponsored child turned up in the mail, translated by the field worker, and stapled to the letter were pencil drawings of a house, a ball, a tree and a truck. So now we have a youngster in our lives again.

He said he is in grade five and likes math and football. He has a brother and likes to eat fish. His parents are farmers who grow maize, beans and groundnuts.

Our young fellow said that Save the Children installed toilets in his school and provides first-aid kits, medicines and notebooks for him and his schoolmates.

He asked us to write him back.

This isn't a pitch for Save the Children, although I do believe it's an important organization. Aside from helping the community in ways that affect its children, we've found that sponsoring a youngster makes us feel that in a small way we might be doing some good for a kid who doesn't enjoy the privileges that we grew up with and that, largely, we took for granted.

Someday, Malawi might be as well known for its upscale safaris as Kenya or Tanzania are today. I hope so. And I hope that the youngsters we've sponsored will someday reap the benefits of tourism.

Who knows ... maybe one of our sponsored kids will grow up to be a naturalist tour guide, or a safari operator -- or a tourism minister.

Donna Tunney is executive editor of Travel Weekly, Travel Weekly Crossroads and Travel Management Daily.

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