Malawi is a landlocked country in southeast Africa that was formerly known as Nyasaland. It is bordered by Zambia to the northwest, Tanzania to the northeast, and Mozambique on the east, south and west. Globally, Malawi is ranked as the third poorest country in the world (but moves between #1 and #4 regularly with an average yearly income of just $342.) It has about 16 million people, 53% of who live under the national poverty line, and 90% of who live on less than $2 per day. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimated that there are 46,000 severely malnourished children.
In Malawi Dan is able to rent a house for $18 / month and has less than $100 in household expenses (excluding project related costs).
Meanwhile Apple Inc. claims a valuation of over $1,000,000,000,000 ($1Trillion) USD. Or in other words – enough money to provide all 350 Million Americans each with their own iPhone X worth $999 USD and still have $650,350,000,000 left over.
The world is a paradox because while those with so much could improve the lives of billions, it often only takes one committed individual to make a big impact with very little. In today’s interview I speak with long-term Ashland resident and business owner Dan Shulters about his mission to Malawi. Dan has committed himself to doing what he can, with what he has, in the service of helping others.
In today’s interview I will talk to Dan about his mission to Malawi and encourage our community to step forward in supporting Dan’s work. We will then follow his story and discover what one of our own is doing in a part of the world far far away to make a difference.
For the record, LocalsGuide does not subscribe to religious or ideological proselytizing. This interview is about supporting an individual in our community who is taking direct humanitarian action. And in my opinion, any direct action is better than no action. Dan is a man of action.
Dan, thanks so much for speaking with us today and wow… Malawi. Where should we start?
Well Shields, I’ve been in Ashland since 1997 but didn’t start my business, Dan’s Shoe Repair, until 2003. Prior to moving here I was a Corvallis police officer and as a single dad I co-parented my four children all of whom graduated from Ashland High School. They’re now all successful members of different communities and I am now the happy grandfather of seven grandchildren. In December of 2014 I was fortunate to meet an exceptional woman named Wendy Elerick who exposed me to Malawi and the rest is history.
What was it that first caught your curiosity? How did you decide that you could go to Malawi and get involved?
Wendy’s story – it is incredible and inspirational. She was basically raised in Africa until age fourteen. The family split their time between Malawi and South Africa. There is much more to the story, but more than I can say here. In 2011 she returned to Malawi for the first time in 40 years and discovered her original village named Chidubah. Many of the people remembered her and several had been praying every day for forty years that the family would return and that they would still be alive to see it. Wendy was given her family’s land back and adopted into the village. When I heard the details of this story I felt this was the place I was meant to be, and after my first visit in October 2015 I knew it was.
I found myself at home and everything suddenly started to make sense, and felt completely comfortable. Suddenly all of my skills that I have been learning all of my life had a purpose. I was completely in my element. However, responsibilities in Ashland were an issue. The first 30-day trip back in 2015 was almost a complete disaster for Dan’s Shoe Repair. I realized that if I was going to be going to Malawi on an ongoing basis, and eventually moving like I hoped, it would call for BIG changes at the shop.
Were you afraid of dropping the responsibilities you had carried here in Ashland? How did you figure everything out?
Yes. I was very concerned. I had tried over the years to bring others into the shop without success. Promising apprentices never seemed to workout quite right in the end. It seemed like no one wanted it as badly as I did. After making two more 30-day trips in 2017, it was made clear something major was going to have to happen. I kept trying to make something happen, and the harder I tried the less progress I made. I felt like I was going backwards even. In December of 2017 I was “adopted” by Alise Willis. Alise left Umpqua Bank and jumped into the mess at Dan’s Shoe Repair. In March/April of 2018 Alise accompanied me to Malawi to visit and assist Wendy with her ministry. After I returned in May the LORD made it clear to me that I needed to let go and just move to Malawi and He would take care of the rest. This didn’t sit well with me, and I felt completely irresponsible and wasn’t sure what to do. Through several different sources it was confirmed to me that this was the right choice… Fine! I made the decision to move to Malawi by September of 2018. I returned to Malawi for another 30-day trip to assist Wendy. I left Alise in charge of the shop, unsure what would happen, and headed to Africa. What happened while I was gone was miraculous. With no effort or attempt on my part, the solution was dropped in my lap. First my residency permit was approved after 8 months and some bumps along the way. Next, Alise’s adopted sister (she adopts everybody) Kela, along with Kela’s husband Adam, while visiting Alise, fell in love with the shop. They wanted to try it out, discovered quickly they were great at it, and wanted to do whatever they could to make it happen. The shop will continue with Alise, Kela and Adam. My responsibilities are taken care of. The shop is theirs, and Africa is mine. Adam is unbelievable and will be a better cobbler than me.
Dan, I love hearing this. As a fellow entrepreneur I completely can identify with the sense of fulfillment this must create for you.
I can’t even fully express the purpose and drive I now have. Malawi is my home. I’ve been calling it my home since my first visit. After years of going back and forth, coming here to earn money so I can make it back to Malawi, it is finally happening. It’s the people there that I love, the morning walks and tea, the red clay we make bricks out of to build schools and homes and churches, the drums and dancing on Sunday mornings, and the sounds of goats that mean there’s another 20kg bag of porridge to feed the hungry kids breakfast five times a week. I’ve been homesick for the last three years for a home I finally get to move to. I have a purpose there. There I make a difference.
Oh boy, I’ll say it’s called the bush, which can be misleading for most Americans. It’s more like…rural, rural, rural, rural, rural, off grid living. No electricity, no running water, and a hole in the ground for a toilet, and I love it. I’ve been able to get Wendy set up with her own solar pump system for her hand-dug well. I installed a tank tower with a 2000L water tank, and designed a variety of low voltage solar battery operated lights. At my house, water is hauled from the village well. I have a small solar panel, but on the bright side I have my own chmbuzi (hole in the ground), actually I have two. The roads can be a problem, especially in the rainy season. There is dirt with many holes and an abundance of big boulders jutting up in the center…with the odd pipe sticking out for me to trip over in the dark.
Dan, what types of simple pleasures do we have in Ashland that can be life and death in Malawi?
Obviously, Ashland Hardware. What I wouldn’t give for an Ashland Hardware Chidubah branch location. Seriously though, Ashland Hardware…well stocked stores, a reliable food source, and medical care. On a daily basis, people come to Wendy’s place in search of assistance for medical issues. Routinely people are given money to go to the clinic at the nearby trading center (2k by foot). Small injuries here can be life altering in Malawi. As an example, there is a tinkerer who lives on the hill just below Wendy. We pass his house multiple times a day and see him working on his pots and pans. One day while walking down the hill I realized he wasn’t working and hadn’t been for a day or so. I inquired as to why, and discovered he had a small cut on his hand from a jagged piece of metal. His hand was wrapped and swollen to about three times its normal size. I asked him why he hadn’t gotten treatment and he answered he could not afford it. So I gave him 5000 Malawian Kwacha (almost 7USD) for a bicycle taxi and treatment at the clinic. I saw him four days later and his hand was much improved. He was back to work within the week. He could have easily lost his hand and livelihood over a $7 issue.
What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned while spending time in Malawi? What words of wisdom can you share with us back here in Ashland?
We have no idea what we truly need and what we can truly do for others with what we have.
Tell us about the work you are doing. Are there any goals or specific endeavors you are undertaking?
We do everything from helping people to have money to go to the hospital, and/or cover school fees. We replace roofs on or rebuild houses/churches. Wendy provides additional water to villagers in the dry season. We provide food. We provide assistance. Wendy is trying to educate by implementing best practices for farming and husbandry by living what she is teaching. Upon my return there will be three new major projects in the works:
You told me a story of having two children following you for breakfast in the mornings last year. Now there are more than thirty children coming each day.
Yeah, it just organically became Wendy’s morning feeding program, and later a nursery school. During August of 2017 I would walk up to Wendy’s each morning and as I passed Cele and Efero’s house (which was a broken down house with one room left the size of a big closet) they would follow me up to “kucheza” or visit. Wendy noticed little Efero’s hair was turning auburn, a sign of malnutrition. At three years old, sad to say, that’s pretty common in Malawi. So, we decided to feed them breakfast every morning. Shortly after I returned to the United States Wendy told me that the girls had brought friends and she was now feeding 30-50 children under the age of five every morning. She eventually hired two village ladies as teachers and a cook to help with the kids in the early morning, but with the rainy season the class was exposed to the elements. Think of Ashland’s flood back in ‘97…every other day. But with no building, they needed something better. With the help of local contributors I was able to build a schoolhouse and cook room on Wendy’s land during my visit this last June.
As part of the evolution of this journey you have now created a non-profit. How does this work and what is the role and mission?
Yes, we created Steps4Malawi, Inc a 501(C)3 charitable corporation.
STEPS4MALAWI has a three fold mission:
1) Supporting the Chidubahrising project (Wendy Elerick). Steps4Malawi contributes financially, spiritually, physically and by building infrastructure. In addition to the projects themselves, Steps4Malawi also supports the various village pastors and churches connected with the Chidubah church.
2) STEPS4MALAWI micro-enterprise program is designed to create real economic change in Malawi. Working with SOLES4SOULS we utilize gently used shoes as a resource to help entrepreneurs in Malawi with an opportunity to start and sustain a small business (a micro-enterprise) of their own. Because shoes that are no longer needed are donated, STEPS4MALAWI will be able to provide a constant quality supply of product to entrepreneurs. Because of this, they will be able to lift themselves and their family out of poverty.
3) We will be bringing a specially designed and built (in Chico, CA) Bore hole rig to Malawi to drill bore hole wells (up to 60meter deep) to add badly needed wells in the bush villages. We will be able to do so at a fraction of the cost of traditional well drilling. Plus, we will not be charging for the service. Costs will be just materials and living costs for the Malawians working on the project. This can take the cost from $20,000.00 US per well to $1,000.00-$2,500.00 per well. We will also be exploring the possibilities of micro-enterprise businesses starting to build these well rigs in Africa and supplying them around the continent.
Dan, you have now traveled back and forth between Ashland and Malawi several times. You mentioned that since you have been back, whenever you see a fancy sports car drive by you quickly run calculations in your mind of how far that money could go in Malawi.
I can hardly believe it myself. I see modern luxuries in terms of help for Malawi. The cheapest 2018 Corvette could feed and cover living expenses for 117 village families for a year in a country that frequently experiences famine. On average one snowmobile could do the same for 25 village families. Yeah…talk about culture shock.
Dan, I want to challenge our community. That the person who has the sports car, boat or RV who can afford to give it away … would step forward to donate it to your non-profit.
Wow. That would be a huge gesture. I don’t think anyone can truly fathom how huge without going to Malawi. Just, wow.
Therefore I am calling out the person or people who have something that they could contribute, to do so. I know you are out there. Do something awesome and support action! As a community let’s get behind Dan’s drive and initiative to see what happens. I will donate the space monthly to follow Dan’s journey and rally the community.
I want to inspire and encourage young people to see more possibility in life and in our world. Dan, you have just zagged when everyone else has zigged! We need people like you and young people need to hear your story.
Wow Shields. Thank you so much. First I’d like to say we try to earn our way. I’ve used the shop the best I can to support my endeavors, but the shop is being passed on to a new generation. I still want to earn as much as I can my own way. To do this, in a manner that can assist me, and native Malawians, I am bringing back original African art, carvings, jewelry, etc. to sell through Steps4Malawi. These items are available for sale both online (soon) as well as the Steps4Malawi showroom (currently) at Dan’s Shoe Repair. Dan’s and Steps4Malawi will continue to partner and share space. There are many people whose hearts have been touched by our work in Malawi, and have donated towards the cause, to all of them I would like to say thank you…and bring ten of your friends to join in. Seriously, if anyone would like to donate, anything, tax deductions are available and they can do so at 27 S 2nd St. in Ashland or through our Facebook page Steps4Malawi. Come into Dan’s Shoe Repair and meet Alise, the American face of Steps4Malawi.
Dan, I want to get more targeted than just good ideas and wishful thinking. Is there a specific financial goal or objective that we can rally behind to help you accomplish?
OK – DONE – Let’s do this!
Thank you, Shields. And everyone else involved in helping with this endeavor.
Dan, for years now you have been collecting shoes at your downtown store. You finally decided to ask where those shoes were actually going. What did you find out?
I discovered that Soles4Souls has been operating for years and worked with other third world countries and has shown great success offering micro-enterprise opportunities. They are operating in countries such as Haiti, Sierra Leon, Moldova, and Honduras. Through a few conversations with the CEO, Soles4Souls selected Malawi, and me to serve Malawi as their partner in providing retail shoe sales micro-enterprise opportunities. After an in-country visit with me in 2017, Soles4Souls provided a one-year operations grant to Steps4Malawi to start this project. In a nutshell, we are offering a way to bring subsistence farmers into sustainability with their own business, and we are being offered the chance to make this project there self-sustaining. Check it out at: Soles4Souls.org
In Southern Oregon we have spring, summer, fall and winter. We may now be having a smoke / fire season, but Malawi has a hunger season. What the heck?
Yes, the farmers depend on the rain to plant their crops. Quite often the weather doesn’t cooperate with the growing season. Then in November, December and January people don’t eat much if at all. The most relevant and horrific famine happened in 2002 with some estimating deaths to be in the thousands. But food shortage is a way of life there.
Dan, can you layout the scope of the service you are providing?
I’m gonna be honest with you, in America it’s really just me and one other person on the board of Steps4Malawi which is supporting two people on the ground in country…one of them being me. When I’m in Ashland, I work with one other main person, and when I’m there I am working mainly with one other person. We are small, we are doing what we can, we are one on one. We are mildly organized, we need help, but we are making a difference.
Dan, what are some other ways that we, as a community, can help you?
Donate shoes. Tell friends and family. You could always buy some African curios from us as gifts. Support us without spending any money by going to Smile Amazon and selecting Steps 4 Malawi as your charity. Donate your Corvette.
What are some of your long-term visions for how the work in Malawi can evolve?
To help Malawians get to the point that they can help other Malawians. I hope to actually impact the economy moving from just subsistence to sustainability. It would be great to bring interested invested people there to help… Shields you are invited. Bring your son.
Thanks Dan… I have definitely got this on my list. I had not really ever considered doing such a trip, but I am inspired by your bold action. Life is short and I think it is better to do something rather than nothing… so good on you and who knows… maybe you will see me in Malawi.
Awesome! I’ll hold you to it.
Seeing what you have seen now, what would you tell your younger self if you could go back in time?
To work harder, save more, spend less on myself, and to start helping others sooner.
Where can the community follow your journey and keep up to date on what you are doing?
Well, besides the LocalsGuide, there’s Steps4Malawi.org or check us out on Facebook. You can always come in the Steps4Malawi / Dan’s Shoe Repair and see Alise.
Dan, we wish you all the best and I imagine the best is yet to come!
Thanks a million!
27 S 2nd St. Ashland, OR