Tropical Cyclone Freddy devastated Malawi in February, with hundreds of people reported dead and thousands displaced. The area near Lake Chilwa, Malawi’s second-largest lake, flooded. Residents in fishing communities lost their livelihoods. Standing water from the cyclone extended the malaria season. The intensity and longevity of the storm were viewed by many as indicative of climate change.
A few months later, a group of students and faculty from the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and the Chancellor College of Law at the University of Malawi visited the region. The group was part of the Environmental Justice, Human Rights, and Public Health course, a collaboration between the two schools, enabling the partners to address and examine the intersection of environmental justice, human rights, and public health from international and comparative legal perspectives. For the first time since the pandemic, Maryland Carey Law students and faculty traveled to Malawi for a 10-day trip to meet their counterparts in Malawi and see firsthand many of the issues they’d discussed during the class.
“It was heartbreaking but so valuable to visit the villages and the sites that were devastated by the cyclone,” said Margaret Bushko, JD ’23.
During the classroom portion of the course, students from both universities met weekly over Zoom. On the U.S. side, the course is co-taught by Bill Piermattei, JD ’99, professor and managing director, Environmental Law Program; Peter Danchin, JSD, LLM, LLB, professor, associate dean for research and faculty development, and co-director, International and Comparative Law Program; Robert Percival, JD, MA, professor and director, Environmental Law Program; and Diane Hoffmann, JD, MS, professor and director, Law and Health Care Program. Chikosa Banda, LLB, LLM, dean of the University of Malawi law school, co-designed the course and frequently lectures as well.
In addition to the classroom portion, groups of four or five students from both universities research specific issues and propose potential solutions. Their work product includes research papers, draft complaints, and more. For example, the team that included Maryland Carey Law student Rosemary Ardman, Class of 2024, drafted a complaint challenging the failure of the government in Zomba, the Malawian city where the university is located, to maintain its sewer system.
Site Visits in Malawi
During the trip to Malawi, the group went on site visits to areas like Lake Chilwa impacted by climate change, met with environmental justice nonprofits, and discussed the research they’d done during the course. In addition, Danchin presented the Matembo Nzunda public lecture, titled “New Directions in Environmental Justice in International Human Rights Law,” at the invitation of the University of Malawi.
“You don’t gain an appreciation of the context until you actually show up and start traveling around and talking to people and talking to environmental nonprofits and seeing the kinds of constraints they have to work under,” Piermattei said. The conversations with Malawian nonprofits, he added, have helped to refine the types of advocacy work students can undertake to assist these groups.
Other meaningful conversations happened on the bus between destinations. Students and faculty from both countries got to know each other and had long discussions about culture and interests, in addition to debriefing on their site visits. Although the trip was at times emotionally taxing and highlighted daunting environmental justice issues, said Ardman, bonding with Maryland and Malawi students as the bus bumped along rough dirt roads in rural areas was “just so incredibly fun.”
Trip to Baltimore and Beyond
In August, the University of Malawi contingent of a dozen students and two faculty members visited Maryland Carey Law. The visit included a tour of the White House and stops at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Environmental Integrity Project in Washington, D.C.; Chesapeake Bay Foundation headquarters in Annapolis, Md.; Harpers Ferry, W. Va., for a hike; and Camden Yards for a Baltimore Orioles game.
“The highlight for me was getting to know the Malawi students better,” said Piermattei, who said there are plans to visit Malawi next year and have a new group of Malawi students visit Baltimore in fall 2024. “I had met them all in Malawi, but it was wonderful to spend so much additional time with them, talk to them about Malawi, their impressions of the U.S., their career ambitions, and get their views on issues big and small. This was the first time they had traveled out of the country, and they really embraced the experience. It was amazing to see their horizons expand.”
Bushko graduated in the spring but participated in several events to help provide a meaningful experience for her new Malawi friends like she received in their country.
“It was really such a valuable learning experience, but it was also filled with all this joy and bonding and a wonderful time with our colleagues,” she said.