January 18, 2024

Can Survivors Change the World?

Inside This Episode

Annie Alaniz’s world was confined to a poor, rural village in Malawi with limited healthcare and education, until a medical missionary from Texas recognized her potential to reshape the future of her entire community. Thomas Keown’s childhood was marked by a bloody 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland, which sparked a fire in him to give voice to other survivors all over the world. Together, Annie and Thomas are rescuing children from poverty, slavery, and trafficking, begging the question: why does God love to call seemingly insignificant people to accomplish the most significant things?   

Learn more about Many Hopes: https://manyhopes.org/

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Eric Huffman: Today on Maybe God. She grew up in a poor rural village in Malawi with limited access to health care and education, until a medical missionary from Texas realized this little girl's potential to reshape the future of her entire community.

Annie Alaniz: She said, "I really feel strongly that God's asking me to bring your daughter to the United States and put her through school." I mean, it was like winning a lottery. Those things don't happen to nobody type of people, which is what we were.

Eric Huffman: And the majority of this man's childhood was marked by a bloody 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland, which sparked a fire in him to give voice to other survivors all over the world.

Thomas Keown: I used to think that the things I had seen as a child in Northern Ireland were unjust or unfair. And then in Kenya, I just saw some of the most unjust things I'd ever seen.

Eric Huffman: Together, Annie and Thomas are doing the Lord's work, rescuing thousands of children from poverty, slavery, and trafficking, which begs the question, why does God love to call seemingly insignificant people to do the most significant things? That's today on Maybe God.

[00:01:06] <music>

Eric Huffman: If you've spent any time reading the Bible, you've probably noticed that whenever God decides to do something really extraordinary and important, He always seems to choose the most ordinary and least important people to get it done.

When God was looking for Israel's king, for example, He set His eyes on a young shepherd boy that no one else noticed. And when He chose to send His Son to walk among us, He chose a poor teenage girl to carry and deliver and raise humanity's most consequential child. And when Jesus grew up and began His earthly ministry, what sort of people did He surround Himself with? Blue-collar people, ordinary fishermen, and farmers, and construction workers, and even prostitutes. Time after time, God seems to choose to see something extraordinary in ordinary people, something this world can't see.

You're about to hear the stories of two people from remote areas of the world. They are survivors of bombings and wars, extreme poverty, and life-threatening illnesses. In the midst of these harrowing circumstances, God apparently hand-selected these two individuals to make a meaningful and multi-generational difference by helping some of the world's most vulnerable people.

Annie Elaniz was born and raised in Malawi, a small country in East Africa, one of eight children.

Annie Alaniz: I grew up in a small town outside of Salima. My dad was working at a small medical clinic. He's a clinical officer by trade, which is similar to what a physician assistant or nurse practitioner would be here. However, in Malawi, because there's not enough doctors, most of the clinical officers or nurse practitioners pretty much function like a general family practice doctor in a small town.

So like if you go to small towns in the United States, like your general practitioner does surgery, C-sections, deliver babies, and then they also take care of your blood pressure, diabetes, everything else. My parents always liked being in smaller sort of village setting because that's where they felt that the need was the highest and access to basic needs of life was most critical. So I spent most of my childhood basically growing up in that setting.

And we're talking about living in the huts that most people probably only see on the National Geographic videos. We would actually get up really early in the morning before school and walk to the river. We had a bucket that you would tie a rope on and would actually literally throw it into a well to pull water up and then carry it on our heads and take it back home.

My showers were splish splash from a little bucket of water. It was agricultural society. So most of what we ate, we grew. We chased the chickens down to get meat from chickens. So it was pretty much like a little house on the prairie, except in a village in Malawi.

[00:04:35] <music

Eric Huffman: Annie's family cooked all their meals over an open fire. They slept on woven mats on the floor. In addition to serving as the clinical officer for her small village, her dad also helped start a new church where he served as the pastor. When Annie was still in elementary school, missionaries arrived in their village.

Annie Alaniz: They did like a big Jesus video and we had this whole group of people that now wanted to join the church. So this missionary family decided to build the first big church in this area that had nothing that was like a really big structure. So they built it in that area, what was like a huge brick church with iron sheets that were covering it. So it was really nice and really modern.

So we actually moved into the Sunday school rooms and my family lived in there. My parents stayed in one Sunday school room and the rest of the kids, we stayed in the other one. There were seven of us at the time and we all slept in one room together.

For other people that were around the area, we would have looked like we were a family that did better. I had maybe three outfits where most kids would have one. I actually had something I could wear on Sunday to church and I had something that I could play around in, and then I had my uniform that I could wear to school.

It also means our parents were able to afford plastic shoes. There's a local store called Bata and they make these plastic shoes. It's like the cheapest shoe you can find. And in the village, my Bata shoes were pretty popular because I had shoes on.

So while my dad was working and you would think, okay, he's in a medical facility. These health centers are really built in areas where people have no access and have no money. They're actually accessing free public healthcare in a facility that has minimal to basically no supplies. So often people to thank him for what he did, they would bring chickens and maybe goats. So we would have chicken for lunch or chicken for dinner.

Eric Huffman: Annie had a front-row seat to her father's work treating local patients. She saw just how many children's lives were lost to malaria and dehydration from diarrhea that was caused by unclean drinking water. She watched cholera ravage local villages and she saw how few medical supplies her father had to treat his patients.

Annie Alaniz: At some point I became aware that childbirth was dangerous. The reason is there were women that would go and have babies and I didn't have a full understanding because I was young. They would go have babies and not come back. Or they would have a baby and something would happen to the baby and the mother would come back and there would be no baby.

What was also always interesting is pregnancy was a hush-hush. Nobody talked about it. I would just see women's bellies swelling, but there was no saying, Oh, there's a baby here. Can you feel the baby move? There were no baby showers. There were no naming babies ahead of time because it was really very clear to the women that having that baby doesn't necessarily mean there will be a baby at the end of the road.

That to me was probably the most shocking discovery once I realized what pregnancy was and what was actually going on. There's an interesting term in Malawi that call pregnant women "women in between". That's like a Chichewa word, mayi wapakati. So wapakati basically means in between because they were between life and death. You're either going to survive this experience or you're not going to survive. So often when the dead body of a woman would come, they would say, "Oh, anali wapakati". She was a woman in between, and this is the result.

Eric Huffman: Despite the conditions in their village and her father's constant battle to keep his small community healthy, his faith in God never wavered. But Annie had her doubts about God's goodness.

Annie Alaniz: I always joke around that when I was growing up, God was not actually my favorite person because He was my dad's explanation for a lot of things. I started to kind of figure out why my dad had made the decisions that he made and worked in the areas that he worked in. And so, you know, he would say things like, "This is what I feel God wants me to do. These are the people that God wants me to serve," and "with service comes sacrifice."

He would talk about Jeremiah 29:11, "I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord." So it's supposed to tell me that no matter what I was going through, there's a plan for me and it's a plan for me to succeed and not a plan for me to fail.

For me, that was nonsense as far as I was concerned, because there were so many things that were happening in our lives that would bring us close to the brink of things. Like one of my youngest sisters got really, really sick with dehydration and they couldn't get an IV line for her. He had nothing that he could help her with. So he literally had to ride a bicycle in the middle of the night in the rain with my mom.

They left like maybe like at midnight and he rode a bike all night long to arrive at the Salima District Hospital, which is a district hospital that's closest to where we were living for her to get IV fluids. We didn't even know if she was going to make the bike ride back.

So you know, for me, the sense of suffering and having a sovereign God who loves us but allows us to suffer, allows the people that live in the village to suffer, you know, for me, food, water, access to health care, basic needs of life. So I was trying to reconcile a God who provides all my needs, who clearly was allowing bad things to happen.

But I would sit at church every Sunday and hear about the sovereignty of God, a loving God who loves all people through good or bad, and that there was a reason for everything. So in my childhood, I didn't think God was my favorite person. I found it unfair that He would call my dad to the calling that He had called him to with younger children and sort of put us what I felt like was in the face of danger.

Eric Huffman: Unlike many in their village, both of Annie's parents were well-educated and spoke fluent English, and they made sure that their own children also received the highest level of education available to them. For most students, that stopped before high school started.

When Annie was growing up in Malawi, there weren't enough high schools for all the kids in the country to go to. So in the eighth grade, Annie took the national exam to see if she qualified for high school. Only the top 5% to 10% were accepted, and Annie did place in the top 10%. And not only that, she was also accepted into a prestigious high school in one of Malawi's major cities.

Annie Alaniz: I was in a big city and there were kids there that had lived so differently from me. They had electricity. They had some indoor plumbing. So I think the realization of the level of poverty that I was growing up in became a source of embarrassment.

I was 14 years old at the time and going to the fancy school at this point in Blantyre and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and realizing that as much as I had thought sort of my dad's choices were crazy, that I was really attracted to the medical field. So by then I was pretty certain that I wanted to go into medicine.

So this missionary came to Malawi for a medical mission trip, ER doctor, her name is Donna Ivy. While Donna was working with my dad and just sort of realizing the incredible needs where there are hundreds of people would be in line every single day. I mean, they were seeing two to three hundred patients a day, really, really sick people that you wouldn't see in an outpatient clinic. And he was treating every single person with very, very little, no labs, no x-rays, no CT scans, no MRIs. He was making diagnoses and treating people and they were doing quite well.

So I think that really sparked her interest instead of realizing there are gifted people here, there is intelligent people here who have the capacity to really change the course of their country and their people. The difference is they just need somebody to give them an opportunity. And that's when the idea of me came in.

So she knew that he had a daughter who was interested in the medical field, but not likely going to get the opportunity to because at the time Malawi didn't actually have a medical school. So anybody that was looking for medical school would go to the U.K. So that was basically limited to people with money and access. And that wasn't going to be my family.

So she came back to the U.S. and really started praying about it and felt very strongly that the way she could make her short-term mission have basically a long-term impact would be to educate one of the Malawian children and to see someone who will be able to have access to education, be able to go back and make the changes that they want to see in their own country.

So she contacted my dad after she had returned and just said, "You know, I really feel strongly that God's asking me to bring your daughter to the United States and put her through school." I mean, it was like winning a lottery. Those things don't happen to like nobody type of people, which is what we were. And to even be seen by someone, it was a gift that doesn't happen because often people walk by you and they don't even notice that you're there because there's nothing really noticeable about you. So that was such an incredible gift.

I remember, you know, my dad is like a reserved, serious man, and when he found this out, he was like jumping and literally screaming, "Praise God, praise God". I don't think I'd ever seen him my whole life jump up and down in excitement at that level.

Eric Huffman: Annie's father started the process of seeking a student visa for his daughter, bringing her to the U.S. embassy for interviews and helping her obtain her first passport. She was 17 years old when they rode to the airport and she boarded a plane for the first time in her life.

Annie Alaniz: Everything was new. Sitting on the flight was surreal. Even having food service on the flight was surreal. Do you want butter or this or do you want this or that? Like I didn't even know how to choose because I'd never had choices in food.

So I flew to Dallas and basically landed on July 4th, which was insane because they were doing fireworks. I didn't even know what that was. There were just these beautiful lights going up in the sky and this big celebration that people were doing. So it all was a very dramatic entry into the U.S., extremely overwhelming.

When I got off the airport, I had never seen a room with that many White people because I'm looking around and like everyone is White. And I was overwhelmed because I couldn't see hardly anybody that looked like me. So it was very clear that I was not in Malawi anymore. So everything was really big.

Donna was there with some friends from church and they were holding signs welcoming me. And I remember literally coming in with a little bag. I just had two outfits in there and one pair of very simple tennis shoes that my parents had bought specific for the trip.

Eric Huffman: Donna thought it was best for Annie to start her education in the U.S. as a senior in high school so that she could live with Donna's family and adjust to a new country in a safe and loving environment. Donna quickly became like a second mother to Annie, and in just one year, Annie excelled at school, graduating as valedictorian of her class.

Annie Alaniz: College was a big experience. That was the first time I was sort of let out into the general population and didn't have the protection of my American mom. It was probably the first time I was really aware of what it means to be Black and in the U.S. because that was a foreign world to me that I wasn't aware of.

So I met more Black students there and I think had my own experiences in Dallas as a Black person that started to make me wonder what was wrong with being Black and sort of dug into that a little bit. And that came with some blessings and obviously some sadness. And then me developing some sort of self-esteem issues as well, because somehow in the world I was living in, being me wasn't that cute. So there was a growing experience, definitely, in college.

And then it was also in college that I made a trip back to Malawi for the first time after I'd been here for about two years. I came back from that trip sort of asking myself to look for a bigger purpose as to why I came to the U.S. because I went home and everything was the same. The same problems that I described were still going on. Kids were dying from dehydration.

I had seen the miracles of medicine because I had spent some time with Donna in the ER and could see all of the things that she had at her disposal. And all of a sudden when I went home, I was acutely aware of just how little we had.

So all of that came full circle for me in college instead of seeking for a greater purpose and why did God choose me and what was my purpose with it?

[00:16:48] <music>

Eric Huffman: In many ways, Annie couldn't be more different from the man that you're about to meet. She is a Black African woman, for example, while he is a White European man. But if you take a closer look at their lives, it's clear what unites their stories. Annie and Thomas are both survivors of this world and servants of God.

Thomas Keown: I live in New York, New York, but was born and made in Northern Ireland. People say, "Where do you come from?" I usually just say Belfast because no one's got any reason to know anywhere else really in Northern Ireland. We're such a tiny little place. I actually grew up on a sheep farm.

Eric Huffman: Wow.

Thomas Keown: Small, small sheep farm. A small farm for regularly sized sheep, I want to clarify that.

Eric Huffman: The sheep were perfectly normal.

Thomas Keown: The sheep were average at best.

Eric Huffman: So now I have an image of tiny sheep. So did you work the farm growing up?

Thomas Keown: I did. I really, really disliked it. As a schoolchild coming home to do what people who lived in the town might call chores, feed animals and clean things out. Well, as far as I was aware, my friends were riding bicycles and playing with their friends. So I never liked it. I really, really disliked sheep. But my childhood was, looking back, idyllic. I would wish for nothing different.

Eric Huffman: I'm sure you have to do this a lot to silly Americans and Westerners in general, but we're going to need help parsing out the distinguishing factors between Ireland and Northern Ireland because you are particularly born and raised Northern Irish.

Thomas Keown: Yes, I suppose the simplest way to think about Ireland and Northern Ireland is Ireland is made up of 32 counties. So six of those counties make up what is Northern Ireland. And there's a border there that separates the UK from Ireland. So the six counties that are Northern Ireland are part of the UK. The actual full name of the UK is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. So we get a mention in the title. And then the 26 counties are the Republic of Ireland.

Eric Huffman: Thomas grew up in the middle of a relentless 30-year political conflict known as The Troubles.

Thomas Keown: It was a large minority of people in Northern Ireland wished Northern Ireland to be part of the Republic of Ireland and a majority wished Northern Ireland to remain as it was. And so it was pretty well political deadlock and stalemate, and then it just descended into violence for three decades.

So I suppose growing up, everybody that I knew had been affected in some way. They had lost brothers, cousins, friends, aunts, uncles, parents, children. I grew up seeing a lot of pretty horrible things happen to innocent people, to innocent families.

Every day on the news, the first item was always a bomb that had gone off, a bomb that had been mercifully defused or someone had been shot. So as a child, I wasn't frightened or didn't feel fear because it was normal. What it did, though, even though it didn't spark fear in me, it did spark a lot of hatred, bitterness, anger, particularly as a teenager.

Whenever you do know friends and family that were killed or wounded, you think, Those people, those people did that. And you probably have a choice. You can either choose to give in to the bitterness and anger and become part of perpetuating a situation, or you can think, Maybe, maybe something can be different. Maybe it doesn't have to be like this.

Largely because of that idyllic family background and near-perfect parents that I talked about, I was able to choose option B. I ended up working for one of the two Northern Irish politicians who architected and signed a peace agreement in Belfast in 1998. The two guys shared the Nobel Peace Prize the next year.

I was entirely irrelevant in that as a college-age man who mostly just wrote speeches that were not read out, but rolled up and brandished for emphasis. But to be close to something like that taught the lesson that I've carried into life ever since, that seemingly unsolvable problems can be solved if enough people bring their influence to bear on them.

Eric Huffman: Similar to Annie, Thomas's faith was largely defined by his parents' involvement at church.

Thomas Keown: Growing up in Northern Ireland, we had a lot of religion. I think in America, there's a lot of religion also. I experienced less faith than religion. So I grew up being sent to church every Sunday, usually twice. There was a Sunday school in the morning, there was church at 11.30, there was evening service at 6.30, and then youth group at 7.30 or 8.

But looking back, I wasn't living the fullness of any kind of spiritual life. So when I was 18, at university in Belfast, I was living with three men called David. Two of them were just living noticeably different Christian lives to me. My Christian life was, I have a ticket to heaven now. If I just don't do bad stuff and lose it, then I'll get there. But there wasn't anything meaningful in the present.

So I thought, "These guys are living a different, deeper, richer, outward-focused, proactive faith than me. What is that? And then so I really said, Probably came to faith in, started a relationship with Jesus in college when I was 18 or 19.

Eric Huffman: Did they walk you to that point in the journey? Or did you just see them as something in them and sought it for yourself?

Thomas Keown: There was no walking or talking. It was just watching. The way that you are is better. I want that. It was noticeable. Mine was a defensive religious position of not losing something. And they're just like, "Hey, I have good news for people. This informs the way that I live and the things I prioritize." And I could just see a vibrancy and a depth and meaning to life.

Eric Huffman: Thomas took that good news with him in 2001, when he moved to Boston to help implement the Northern Ireland Economic Development Program. A few years later, Thomas found himself working as a writer.

Thomas Keown: I was working as a journalist in Boston, got to travel a great deal because you could write from anywhere. I took a trip in 2007 to Kenya, right on the East coast of the continent of Africa. I went there for no reason other than to go on safari, lie on the beach, take pictures of animals that you couldn't raise on an Irish farm.

And while I was there, I used to think that the things I'd seen as a child in Northern Ireland were unjust or unfair. And then in Kenya, I just saw some of the most unjust things I'd ever seen.

I met a Kenyan journalist with whom I became good friends and he had met this sexual girl called Gift or Zawadi in Swahili, who had lost both her parents. She never knew her dad and her mother had died of HIV. She was begging for food in the streets of Mombasa, Kenya's second-largest city, carrying on her back her infant brother unaware that he was dead while she carried him around the streets, trying to feed herself.

And this Kenyan journalist had two thoughts. He had, number one, "This is not right. This shouldn't happen. Sexuals shouldn't be fending for themselves in the streets with dead infants on their back." And number two, "I am complicit in this. I am a man of influence in my country and I'm not currently using my influence for anything that isn't me."

So this chap took Gift into his house. He began to care for her. He hired a woman to be her nanny and he effectively fostered her when he was 28, 29 years old.

Eric Huffman: Wow.

Annie Alaniz: I thought, "Would I have done that? I don't know." You never quite know in a situation. But as we watched Gift begin to heal and stop crying and start laughing and become a child again, I saw something in her that reminded me of me. She desired the same thing I desired. She desired her community to be different for what happened to her, not to happen to someone else. The only difference was she didn't have access to the loving family and the education that I did.

So I thought, "wow, if we can provide you with education and a supportive living environment, you as an adult could do extraordinary things." But soon after that, Gift may have blown my mind, but my heart was fairly broken by two infants. Their mother had gone off on a bender on this very potent, very cheap local liquor called Mnazi that folks drink in the... it's an ugly word, but in the slum areas of the coast, just to numb the pain. And they left these kids crying.

So neighbours had heard the kids crying. And there's no social safety net. The police were called and they brought the children to us. I had never seen human beings that looked like this. If you told me they were not human, but some other creature and I believed you, I just can't really describe what they looked like. So thin were they that when we took them to hospital, it was too thin to get an injection to get any blood.

And there was a boy called Macharia and a girl called Agnes. And we went out and found their mother, sobered her up with some very strong Kenyan coffee. And this woman said something that I'll never forget. She said, "Save the girl if you want to, but throw the boy in the dustbin. He's not going to make it anyway."

And about three months after I got back to Boston from that trip, her prophecy had come to pass. So severe was the damage he'd endured, that boy died. So to have outlived a child that I held impacted me in an unexpected, deep way. And I thought, "I don't want to do that again. And I don't want anyone I know to do that. And even more, no one has to."

For 20 or 30 bucks three weeks earlier, Macharia could be with us. So I resolved then, how do we do something, even in this one community, to make sure that in that one community, this doesn't need to happen again? So head and heart collided with Gift and with Macharia.

I came back and wrote about some of that for one of the newspapers that I worked for at the time. A story ran in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia in a crappy, free newspaper, widely read, but free. And readers' letters just poured in. We want to meet the Kenyan dude. We want to meet the writer. We want to help. We got all those people together one night and what is now Many Hopes was born. And that was a God moment. That was not planned.

Eric Huffman: Many Hopes, an organization that Thomas created with his new Kenyan journalist friend back in 2007, was born as a grassroots movement in response to the article that he'd written.

Thomas Keown: Many Hopes exists in this world to do one thing only. We exist to rescue children from situations of injustice. That could be slavery, trafficking, simple abandonment and street life like Gift or Macharia were experiencing or sexual abuse and walk with them for the long road until the end of high school, until they are young adults equipped with the character and the capacity to help others. We call it survivor-driven change.

So we invest very deeply in a small number of children. We're not trying to feed millions of children or educate millions of children. We're investing deeply in a few who one day will reach the many. Some folks, including us, might call that discipleship. I think it was Eugene Peterson who once said that Jesus decided that investing deeply in 12 Jews was the best way to one day reach all Americans. So similarly, we invest deeply in a few to one day reach the many.

We have a belief that no one cares more about justice than someone who has experienced an injustice. Gift in Kenya remembers taking her mother to hospital and there being no medicine there because a corrupt doctor or hospital administrator stolen it.

If Gift is ever in a position of authority in a hospital, do you think she'll be more or less likely than me to look out for practices in the hospital? Probably more. So our vision as Many Hopes will have succeeded in 30 or 50 years time if in any community where we work outside charity is no longer necessary there because local survivors are fighting and winning the battles against the injustice that they themselves survived.

Those who've survived injustice are very often excluded from conversations about solutions. Someone who has survived trafficking or modern-day slavery has a unique perspective on that and often has a tenacious desire to do something about it, but are often excluded from the conversation. Decisions are made not involving them.

Eric Huffman: I've seen what you're talking about. I think some might say, you know, just to see the other side of that is they're also more likely to carry the baggage or be traumatized or wounded in some way. And maybe we shouldn't put the burden on them to fix the problems that caused them that harm.

But I believe you 100% when you say there are some within that group that God especially equips or inspires to lead change in ways that the rest of us can't. How do you know, when of the millions suffering in any given country, this child is one we need to invest in?

Thomas Keown: So 100% agree. Every individual human is a different individual human. So not every survivor of an injustice desires to be in the forefront of a battle against that. Many children just wish to put behind them what happened to get on with their life. And that is what we hope we help them be able to do.

Eric Huffman: Sure.

Thomas Keown: But there are many who desire to be part of the solution and just can't. So we unlock their potential, give them a chance, give them the education in their heads and the confidence in their bellies to act on the desire that's in their hearts.

And we choose where we work by very carefully, very slowly identifying individuals who are extraordinary living in a community where they have a track record of giving voice to the voiceless where they're at with almost no resourcing or support.

For example, our partner leader in Ghana, his name is James Kofi Annan. Kofi Annan sounds like a very storied last name. But if you're born on a Thursday in Ghana, your middle name is Kofi. So there are many Kofi Annan.

James was sold into slavery when he was six years old on Lake Volta. Lake Volta is the largest human-made lake in the world by surface area, and it's the epicenter of the commercial fishing industry in the country of Ghana. And it's powered by child slaves. It costs less to buy a child than it costs to buy a net at Lake Volta.

Kids are bought for 30, 40, 50, 60 bucks. And because it's a man-made lake, there's a lot of trees under the water, and so nets get caught in those tree branches. So children's jobs, they jump off the boats into murky waters to untangle nets from trees. They lose their eyes. They lose their lives. They can't see what they're jumping into.

James did that for seven years. Got out when he was 13. Went through elementary school, went through high school, got to college, got a job at Barclays Bank. No one would have faulted James, given what he'd been through, if he had said, I'm going to donate a bit of money. I'm going to volunteer on the weekends, and I'm going to have a family and get on with life. That would have been wholly understandable. James didn't.

He quit his job at Barclays Bank to go back to the same lake on which he'd been enslaved for seven years to rescue other children still stuck there. As we sit here, James has rescued just over 1,900 children from that lake. And some of them have begun rescuing others.

James is a once-in-a-generation person, you might say. We would say, why? He doesn't have to be. We're seeking to raise up 100, 1,000, 10,000 Jameses, which is game-changing in communities. You don't know when you intervene in a child's life when they're six what potential they might have. There's no way to tell.

I'm not sure if you're a parent or not, but the best thing a parent can probably do is give their children the best opportunity to make the best choice that they can. So that's what we aim to do. Get a child out of a situation where they can live a life of their own choosing, where they have agency and can decide.

What I decided in Northern Ireland, I want to be helpful. What Gift decided in Kenya, I want to be helpful. What James decided in Ghana, I want to help.

Eric Huffman: And what Annie decided in Malawi, she wanted to help. Annie started by excelling in medical school where she finally felt empowered to speak up about her childhood and her dreams for the future of the children of Malawi. Inspired by her vision, a group of med students joined forces and raised $3,000 at a garage sale, which allowed Annie to purchase 10 acres of land close to her village back home.

But her dream of helping children in Malawi through a family-run non-profit didn't happen overnight. Americans with deep pockets weren't exactly writing checks to a young woman from Malawi with no history of running such an organization.

It wasn't until she partnered with two US-based organizations that provided funding and partnerships, one of those organizations being Many Hopes, that Annie was finally able to see God's bigger vision for her family's organization coming to light.

Annie Alaniz: The facility that we have in Malawi now, it's called Portaria, which is safe haven in English. And so we have an outpatient clinic there that sees about 200 to 300 patients a day. We have an orphanage with 120 kids. They live in homes, so they're like home-style orphanage. So they live as families, they eat together, and they have a mom, and they have people that care for them.

We have a school that has the kids that are in the orphanage, but also kids from the villages that would not have access to education. And we have over 300 children in this school right now. One of the things that we've all realized is that the real answer to Africa's problems or Malawi's problems lies in the minds of the children. They grow up around those problems. They have ideas about what they would like to do when they grow up to solve those problems.

I mean, that's how I was. I wanted to grow up and be a doctor, and I had ideas about what I wanted to do to be able to make Malawi better. And if somebody hadn't given me an opportunity for education, that's something I was never going to be able to achieve.

Eric Huffman: When Annie was finishing medical school in the US, she decided to become a gynecologic oncologist, giving her the greatest range of skills to help women and children back home. And today, Annie is a surgeon at one of Houston's most prestigious hospitals, and she splits her time between Houston and Malawi.

Annie Alaniz: I realized very quickly, 36% of the kids in our orphanage, their mothers died either giving birth to them or giving birth to one of their siblings. Often the dads can't take care of the kids, and so sometimes the dads are alive, but they will bring kids to the orphanage. So I realized if we're going to keep families together, we need to keep the mothers alive.

I was actually going to the same district hospital where my mother had babies, and her friends went to have babies and I never had insight into what that experience was. And the first time I walked into the Salima District Hospital, women are given a list of what they should bring to childbirth, and it's like they bring razors, they have to bring something to tie the baby's umbilical cord with, they bring buckets of water because there's no running water. They have to bring a cloth to wrap their baby, and they also have to bring a trash bag to lay on when they give birth.

So I walked into a labor ward, and there were women laying on the floor on black trash bags, and it was crowded, there were women hemorrhaging, and no access to anything to be able to actually stop their bleeding, and also no access to blood.

There were times when I'm just like walking by, and I realize there's a baby falling out, and you're just like reaching in and helping deliver. And then after that, they wrap everything that happens after the placenta, and they put it in the trash bag, wrap it, and they get to take it out and burn it. Because it's limited resources, limited staff.

It was such a shock to me because I was watching women have babies here in the U.S., and they bring a birth plan of all the things that they want to happen, and here's a woman in Malawi who just wants to be alive and wants to go home with a live baby, and they put her on the floor and hope for the best.

Eric Huffman: After seeing the conditions of the district hospital, where the majority of women in the area give birth, Annie knew that she had to do better. So she and her team built a brand new birthing center, and with the help of Many Hopes, developed important relationships that are saving lives every day.

Annie Alaniz: We have this beautiful birthing center, and we have a pharmaceutical relationship with Direct Relief, and one of the things that they actually support us with are these midwife kits. When I saw the box and I opened it, I mean, I could have cried. There was everything that you need if she's bleeding, if she needs fluids, if the baby can't breathe, and each one of those kids can do 50 deliveries.

And hours after that shipment had arrived, there was a woman that delivered a baby that was really big. Her uterus wouldn't clip down. She was bleeding. Normally, that's a death sentence. And I walked in there, reached in the midwife kits. There were three tablets of Cytotec that you don't have to refrigerate. You don't need anything modern to be able to actually store it. And I just basically placed it, held her uterus down, and she walked out 48 hours later with a beautiful baby. And I know that in any other circumstance, that woman wouldn't have lived.

And the other thing is, Salima area has a catchment of about 560,000 people. The sobering thing is there's one main operating room there. So often, you send a woman who needs an emergency C-section, and they will sit there because the operating room has somebody else in it.

Often, women would cry when we told them they needed to be transferred because they were feeling that they were being sent somewhere where the outcome is just going to be death for them or death for the baby or both.

So the next phase that we've now embarked on has been building a surgical center, and we actually broke ground in October. We will have full operating rooms there. So if we add the Salima district operating room, that means now we'll have five operating rooms in Salima that were not there before. I know that sounds like nothing for 500,000 people, but it's a pretty significant increase in capacity from where we were starting.

Eric Huffman: Thanks to the funding and partnerships provided by Many Hopes, Annie's organization has greatly decreased maternal deaths in her home country, and they continue to expand services in their clinic. Annie was also able to educate all of her sisters, and one of them graduated from medical school in the Philippines and is the clinic's medical director.

At their local school, a new computer lab allows students to take online classes with a U.S. curriculum in English, math, and science. Annie says she's already seeing the next generation of children empowered to help even more people in Malawi.

Annie Alaniz: One of our kids that just actually took the national exam this year, his name is Samson, he scored 11 points. That is in the top 1%. And he wants to go to medical school. So I very much see Samson as one of the kids that could be the general surgeon that will come years later and be working at that clinic in that operating room. 100% I see it.

As the kids of these communities get educated, there's a natural tendency for them to not just want to help back at the orphanage, but there's a tendency for them to want to help where they also grew up, right? So I'll give you an example. We have two boys here. They came from the orphanage. They actually got scholarships, and both of them are at Grand Canyon University in Arizona.

Both of them now, as they're finishing school, are starting to think about what do they want to do at home. Both of the boys, Buswell and Jimmy, they're actually drawing plans to build businesses, to actually do something in Malawi that makes a difference. So while it's a business, it's going to provide employment for local people.

Buswell is doing a chicken farm. Jimmy has dreams of doing a little apartment complex. So we can take an area that had villages that will now have apartment complexes, chicken farms, and homes for people. It's going to come from the kids that we have.

Each one of those kids that comes back and builds a house in their village. They're changing each house that was once a hut into an actual house with electricity, running water, all of those sort of things that were very rare to find at some point. We educate the children, they come back and develop their villages. And I can see that tangibly with Jimmy and Buswell because they're already doing it.

Eric Huffman: Remember when Annie admitted that God was not exactly her favorite person when she was a kid? We asked her how she feels about God today.

Annie Alaniz: The evolution of my faith has been of greatest interest. I think the first time that I was probably struck was the opportunity to come to the U.S. It was so out of the blues from a woman who had only known us for a short time, but her faith and belief in God had moved her to do something that seemed crazy. You just meet people for two weeks. You don't even know this kid that you're about to bring into your home. And you're a White woman who lives in a very tiny town in Texas, and you're going to take a Black kid and move her in with your family.

That could be a making of a crazy story, but her belief in God was beyond all the fears. It broke all the barriers. There were no cultural barriers in God, no racial barriers in God. I think even just that experience alone was the beginning of me starting to think of a God that was just greater than the suffering that I had seen.

Even the verse that I used to roll my eyes at with my dad, I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, Jeremiah 29:11, it's one that I carry now so differently. But now I actually see. He always had plans for me to prosper and not to fail, and to give me hope and to give me a future.

And I think as that picture sort of became clear, I lived with parents who took the road less traveled, and God blessed them beyond measure. Because my coming here hasn't only just changed my community, it changed my parents' life. I built a house for my parents that they didn't have. My dad had his first car that he never had. So it's a blessing that went to the child that had the least amount of faith. And now I'm able to bless my family, bless my siblings, and bless my community.

I have been imposter syndrome that I can't even describe. Often I feel too small, too inadequate. But God brings people, like Many Hopes, to basically help me walk this journey, find resources to take on a burden that I thought, "I'm just an African girl. How am I going to be able to handle something this big and be able to fund it?" And He brought Thomas, who wants survivor-driven change. And he gets to go out on our behalf and advocate for us.

So I look at God now, even when I'm in Malawi, as a doctor now who works between two worlds, I get to be in the U.S. and see the miracles of medicine. I can take a stage four cancer and treat a patient, and I see them five years later alive and working. And I go to Malawi, and a stage one cancer, he's going to hospice because there's no surgeons, there's no chemo, and there's no radiation.

And I get to decide in that moment if I'm going to say, God is not my favorite person, or God is still all-knowing and all-loving and all-sovereign, and He still knows the plans that He has for me and for this patient. I think that has really been the evolution of my faith, that even in suffering, I have now learned to still see the sovereignty of God, and to love and to follow Him, even when things feel good or things are extremely challenging.

Eric Huffman: I pray that one day I'll have the faith of Dr. Annie Alaniz, the faith that trusts God no matter the circumstances. You know, Jesus said that just a little bit of that kind of faith is powerful enough to move mountains, and that's exactly what I see Annie and Thomas doing. They're moving mountains that were once deemed immovable, mountains like cyclical poverty, maternal death rates, and the kind of hopelessness that so often robs vulnerable people of their dignity and their will to live.

I confess that I look at mountains like those and still see them as permanent fixtures in this fallen world, but Thomas and Annie have both reminded us today just how far a little bit of that faith can go whenever God calls us to change the world.

To learn more about how you can help children in Malawi and other countries around the world, head to manyhopes.org today.

This episode of Maybe God was produced by Julie Mirlicourtois and Eric and Geovanna Huffman. Our associate producer and social media manager is Adira Polite, and our editors are Brittany Holland and Justin Mayer. All of our full-length YouTube videos are directed by Donald Kilgore. A special thank you to Lindsay Hadley for introducing us to today's guests.

Please don't forget to rate and review us wherever you listen to the Maybe God podcast, and as always, thank you so much for listening.