Warm heart of Africa

University of Minnesota alumnus Ben Blair hopes to raise enough money to fund his documentary about an orphanage in Malawi.

by Joseph Kleinschmidt


What: Music for Malawi: A benefit concert featuring The New Gruv and The Debuts

When: 7 p.m., Sunday

Where: Kieran’s Irish Pub, 601 N. 1st Ave., Minneapolis

Cost: Suggested donation of $20


Malawi might not seem like an obvious destination to travel to, let alone a filming location. The landlocked African nation bordered by Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique is among the least-developed countries in the world. Diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria are common, while poverty creates educational barriers for the 1 million orphans living in the country.

University of Minnesota alumnus and filmmaker Ben Blair became interested in Malawi after becoming disillusioned working as a writer and director in Los Angeles. The former journalism student now embarks on a fundraising effort to fund his upcoming documentary, “Maji Zuwa,” inspired by his friend’s nonprofit.

“I wanted to work on projects that create a dialogue and work for social change and give people something to think about,” Blair said. “And not just write projects about video games or guys running a bar.”

Matt Maroon’s service efforts with the nonprofit organization Maji Zuwa, meaning “water and sun,” inspired Blair’s project. Located near the village of Chilumba in northern Malawi, the lodge, orphanage and economic center strives to promote sustainable agriculture, education, and health among the local community. Blair decided to use whatever means possible to spread Maroon’s story.

“They have no capacity for outreach or to make people aware of what they’re doing,” Blair said. “That’s how I can help. I can make a film and share some of the stuff he’s doing.”

Rather than a commercial or sales pitch for the country, Blair hopes to use his documentary to promote community-based development — the belief that sustains the Maji Zuwa organization.

The lodge is a cultural hub for the community, a place central to sparking dialogue among the village’s population that Maroon has developed a six-year relationship with. The director encourages Maroon’s method of understanding and respect, in contrast other foreign aid projects wielding privilege and authority.

“That’s a very dangerous way  to do service,” Blair said. “It’s really important that you understand the culture and the community that you want to work with in order to make the appropriate level of change that is useful for people receiving the benefit.”

The film will attempt to explore the local village’s community through the lens of the Maji Zuwa lodge. For instance, he plans on uploading YouTube videos during production of “Maji Zuwa” to serve as news updates from the lodge. Yet Blair sees his role as a filmmaker as much more than telling a conventional story.

“This project is much bigger than that. It’s more ambitious than that,” Blair said. “I want to tell the story in every way the story can possibly be told.”

Blair hopes to spread “Maji Zuwa,” the movie, to college campuses and film festivals across the U.S. to spark a dialogue about Malawi and even inspire students to study abroad in other unheard of countries. In Malawi, college students from the University of Dayton currently co-design and facilitate each service project Maroon’s Maji Zuwa lodge sponsors.

“It’s a perfect opportunity for a young person to go to Malawi and have this amazing trip in this extremely beautiful part of the world,” Blair said. “There’s something a little different than your traditional study abroad program.”

The organization engages the University of Dayton students’ academic interests in semester to two-week long volunteer programs.

“Whether they’re studying engineering or women’s rights or economics and business, Matt [Maroon] has a way to sort of insert you into the project for the work that he’s doing,” Blair said.

When Maroon’s initial trip to Malawi through a year of service ended, he could not tear himself away from the relationships he built there. That might just be indicative of the country’s nickname, “The Warm Heart of Africa.” Blair’s documentary doesn’t seek to solve all of Malawi’s problems, only to inform audiences about the often neglected country.

“When you want to really do, in my opinion, good in the world,” Blair said, “you have to come from a place of understanding and knowledge.”