Accounting student takes internship in African country
September 14, 2009 —
The old woman stepped forward,
eyes wide, and began to speak in
another language. The translator
explained: “‘My mother told me one
day I would see beautiful people from
In that room, more than 8,000
miles from home, Julie Cook, an
accounting senior from SVSU, had
suddenly realized exactly how
unusual her visit
Julie was in
Malawi, a rural
of South Africa
miles inland from
She spent two
this summer for
to visit friends,
take a missions
trip and have
To get there, she took a flight
through Washington, D.C.: “Welcome
to South African Airlines, Flight 207,
one of the longest flights in the world.”
More than 15 hours later, the plane
landed, and she met southern Africa’s
winter and its 90-degree heat.
Julie’s home there was in the
Mangochi District, an area in the
southern part of the country known as
“the Warm Heart of the Warm Heart
For most of her time there,
she lived along the Shire River on
a compound that held the home
of a German family, along with a
small guesthouse and an old office
She spent her first month living
with a friend in the guesthouse, a
small home with the rare gift of indoor
plumbing, a toilet and warm water.
In fact, just down a dirt road right
beside the compound, she heard that
men would go to the river to bathe
themselves and wash their trucks.
For her second month, she lived
in a small apartment built overtop
a Bible translation office — a second
floor in a place where a second floor
is a rarity.
And by night, as she lay down
to sleep, she would hear the sounds
of the river hippos: grunts Julie said
sounded something like those of a
bigger and deeper-voiced pig.
A Personal Mission
She’d first discovered the
worldwide missions organization
eight years ago and on a whim
contacted a few of the people. Over
time, they got to know one another,
via letters back and forth and, when
they came back to the States every
three years, the rare visit.
“But until this trip, I never got to
visit theirs,” Julie said.
Her friends — a family of a dad,
mom and five kids in their teens and
twenties — lived about five minutes
away from the compound. There, she
walked to see them every day.
While she was there she would
visit several villages nearby. Several
languages are spoken in Malawi, so
she hired a language helper, a woman
named Asiyatu who would ride to her
every day on a bike taxi. At one point,
Julie went with her for three days
to Asiyatu’s home: a village called
Wherever she went, Julie was
noticed. Whenever villagers saw her,
they would yell, “Asungu! Asungu!”
White person. Julie was the only one
there, and at first the sound of it
scared her. Children would swarm
around her, shouting the name over
and over. Asiyatu insisted they were
happy to see her — that was why
they were yelling it. To Julie, it didn’t
sound happy, but she understood: a
difference in culture.
There, for lack of a kitchen, all cooking was done outside, and it
wasn’t unusual for a duck to walk up
and, from the pot of water you were
going to cook with, take a drink.
Villagers ate simple foods. With
almost every meal came ugali, patties
thickened from ground maize through
a stirring process known there as an
These little towns, she realized,
offered exactly what she’d expected
from an African village. Dirt
everywhere. No electricity. The need
to bathe with a bucket and a cup.
There, it was ritual to bathe
everyday, and you did so in a openair
corner whose three walls were
made from reeds. The equivalent to
a bathroom was hole in the ground
screened in the back courtyard. Julie
came to call it the “squatty-potty.”
In Malawi, tradition holds that it’s
the woman’s job to get water—water
they carry in five-gallon buckets they
balance on the head as they walk. The
women in the village asked Julie if she
could help, and they borrowed from
the neighbors a two-gallon pail with a
At the river, they took off
their shoes, hitched up their skirts,
wandered in and filled their pails. The
water wasn’t especially clean, she said.
Particles floated along with the current.
(She knew her immune system hadn’t
spent a life getting used to this. The
fear of what she couldn’t see kept her
from drinking the water herself.)
In Malawi, the same water to
wash hands or bathe would be reused
to rinse vegetables.
In the village, every woman
always wore a dress. Overtop it,
they also wore a chitenje, a colorful,
multipurpose two-meter piece of
cotton cloth for cooking, keeping their
skirt clean and sometimes carrying
When Julie was in the village,
she and her friend, Asiyatu, would
ask each other about the differences
between Malawi and the U.S.
“How do you ground maize?”
“What is a snowman? How do
you build one?”
“How do you get such a blackened
“Why aren’t you married?”
Then, one night, as they sat on
a grass mat, looking up at the sky,
Asiyatu asked, “Do you have the
moon in America?”
An Internship and a Brush with
While Julie was there, she
completed an accounting internship
with the missions organization that
took place in intermittent blocks of
time. One day, she hopes to work
as an accountant for a missionary
Her schedule was comfortable:
rather than a chunk of solid time, she
came to work off and on — worked
with the financial secretary for Malawi.
She worked with programs written
by someone in the organization, so it
was something new — not traditional
accounting, she said.
She organized receipts, made
records and got a feel for how their
system worked. It was limited, she
said, by the lack of Internet access. At
least the computer had it, yes, but it
She said it was a great experience
facing problems with limited resources
and trying different plans to solve
One day, she woke up and did not
feel well at all.
“We think you have malaria,”
they told her.
Malaria is a fever caused by a
protozoan infection. It’s quite common
in tropical areas because the disease is
transmitted through mosquito bites.
“If you look on malaria maps,” she
said, “you’ll find Malawi completely
The illness exhausted her, bringing
her to where even just moving required
willpower. But within three days,
the worst had run its course. By that
Friday, she returned to work.
For three days, she was sick —
sicker, she said, than she’d ever felt in
her life. She had no appetite, and ate
only because her friends urged her to.
“And I could practically hear
my mother telling me, ‘Drink your
fluids,’” she said, laughing.
Julie had to take the medicine a
week after the episode.
She still keeps some on hand
today in case she comes down with it
A Journey of Faith
To Julie, the trip as a part of her
path to a life working with missions.
She thought of this, she said, as
she was climbing Mt. Mulanje — a
height of more than 9,800 feet.
“I’ve always wanted to climb
a real mountain,” she said. “It was
awesome, and I don’t use that word
She called the climb breathtaking
— an experience that drew her closer
to her faith.
“I kept thinking of Bible verses,
of God being bigger than mountains.”
Physically, the climb was challenging.
In fact, after they reached the
bottom, a friend’s exhaustion became
“She just crumpled — her legs
gave way,” she said.
Now, Julie has returned to SVSU
for her last semester of classes. She
received a letter Thursday, Sept. 10,
that she has been accepted into a
missionary development program.
“I would love to go back,” she
said. “I was there for two months, but
there’s so much more I could learn.”
She said she’d love to travel to
other places, to get a get a little taste of
different parts of the world.
She said she remembers the
journey as a trying one, where
she learned much and met many
“But now I have friends in Mpondas Village, Africa,” she said. And that, she added, was the real gift.