Malawian summers – mangoes, fireflies, sweltering heat

I’ll always remember this season in Zomba… there’s something special and romantic about it. Sometimes it’s just too hot for words – you can’t concentrate on anything except the overwhelming heat. Those are the days I dream of Lake Malawi… the ‘no swimming in open water’ rule is tough sometimes! But finally the sun starts to set and the breeze kicks in, and it all starts to cool down. Sometimes in my busy schedule I get a chance to sit on the porch and read, watching the sky getting darker and darker, eventually obscuring the mountain silhouettes. Once darkness sets in, the fireflies start to emerge. Just one or two at first, floating around the garden, resting in the grass. But as it gets later, hundreds and thousands of them appear, everywhere you look, like fragments of glitter or little uncommitted stars. Walking home after dark with these fireflies around me makes me feel safe and in good company.

And how could I forget the mangoes. The season is in full swing. You can’t walk for 2 minutes without coming across them in big tubs ready for sale; a couple of pence each! Or, if that is too much, you can find them on the trees pretty much everywhere. Malawian mangoes are not like mangoes as I knew them before – I’ve seen yellow ones, green ones, purple ones, and they all have different flavours. The yellow ones are so sweet it’s hard to eat them without making ‘mmm, mmm’ sounds. One thing they all have in common is that they are incredibly messy to eat. I get juice all over my hands, my face, and my clothes if I am not careful. When I finish eating, I feel disappointed – one mango is never enough.

We have our last week of activities coming up; after that, we will do reporting for a few days before going back to Lilongwe and flying home. It’s been a mixed few weeks. I can tell this group of volunteers were maybe expecting something different from what we are doing. Development isn’t always as rewarding as people might think, and with minimal support from YONECO it’s been hard to keep everything going. Samson and I have been doing our best though and the volunteers have been focusing on parenting circles – trying to improve them and create networks for circles in different communities so they can share ideas. Theatre is still going strong and the groups are pretty much self-sufficient now. I’m proud of them.

On Thursday we had our culture trip – to Mangochi to see the Lake Malawi museum, and afterwards to the lake itself; Malindi fishing village! I love Mangochi town, it’s so quiet and full of bicycles as opposed to cars. The market there is huge and full of stuff. I bought some fabric as a reminder of the trip and we strolled across the famous bridge watching the hippos in the Shire River. The lake was also great – we were lucky to have a sunny warm day, and took the opportunity to relax, stroll, dance with the local kids and take some group photos. So refreshing to feel the sand between my toes. It made me feel ready for the last couple of weeks here.


Another update from Zomba, Malawi – the rains have begun

The rains have come to Zomba. I’ve noticed a pattern; over a few days it starts to get very very hot and humid, almost unbearably so. This continues to escalate until you start looking up at the sky, praying the rain is on its way. After one particularly hot day, you hear rumblings in the distance. That night, the rains start. Not much warning; one moment there’s just a trickle, and the next it is a torrential downpour, and good luck to you if you happen to be outside! The thing I notice most is that smell of fresh rain. It’s perfect and refreshing. Then the flying bugs arrive in their hundreds – climbing through the windows, climbing up the walls, they disappear as quickly as they arrive but leave bits of wings all over the floor, chairs and counters. Hopeless things… they seem confused and die everywhere – drowning in the sink, burnt by the candle. Apparently if you eat them, you will go deaf.

The rain continues for the following day, which makes a great excuse to stay indoors under a blanket. You go to sleep that night and wake up to a brilliant blue sky, not a cloud in sight. The rain has cooled the air and eliminated the hot dust. You feel reborn. And then the cycle starts again…..

These are the first rains of the season; I hear that over time, it will be raining all day every day. I hope that isn’t soon – most of our activities happen outside!

I’m still loving all the fruits here. Pineapple season has begun and there are even peaches around now. Every time I go into town I wonder what fruit I will find next. I’ve never lived somewhere with so much variety.


These days I enjoy just spending time at home, sitting on the porch, hanging out with my baby sister Mulungi, and the rest of the family. They are a really sweet family – I love how accommodating they are, how their friends and family just pop in and out, sometimes staying a few days or a few months… Mulungi is 7 months old now and despite the fact I’ve been living there for most of her life, she is still constantly surprised to see me, like who is this strange white girl?! We are eagerly waiting for her to start crawling. Blackouts have become very common here recently, so most evenings we are sat in the dark with a candle.


The best mornings are the ones I go jogging in the hills. Fuelled by a banana, I run for about 50 minutes and come back to a cold shower and a cup of tea before work. It’s the best way to destress. Project work has been going slow – there’s certain issues between ICS and our partner organisation, which need to be sorted out, so for the moment we have no budget. We’re doing what we can, but it means a lot of extra work for me and Samson, and it involves people like the drama groups being willing to do things without necessarily being paid. To be honest, the drama groups are the best part of our project… full of enthusiasm, and always ready to help, they are our friends. We’ve provided them with a lot of opportunities by being here, to perform in schools and communities – I hope it helps them to get some awesome work in the future. I know they are very grateful to us for everything we’ve done to them, and we are grateful to them as well. Funny that drama is not even a part of our project, yet I’d rather focus on doing things that are making a real difference here rather than worrying so much about just hitting targets! Their dramas always come with an important message which is tailored to the community or school we are visiting, and the response we get is overwhelmingly positive.


I’ve enjoyed my time here, but now it’s so close to the end, I’m looking forward to going home. It’s been hard and stressful but also rewarding and at times I’ve had so much of a laugh, and I’m glad I’ve had this experience… but 6 months is a long time to be in one place. I miss my friends and family and I can’t wait for Christmas! I’m starting to think about the next steps, and Central America is something that keeps coming into my mind, but I’m not making any definite decisions until I get home. It might be that now is the time I should stick around the UK for a bit, rather than trying to rush off again. I guess I’ll just work out how I feel when I’m home.


See you all soon! Tionana.

A couple of weeks of indulgence, then back to work

Long time no writings…. The reason being, I’ve been either hardcore relaxing or hardcore working. Our week in Lilongwe was really great. Saying this, Lilongwe is probably the worst capital city I’ve been in; there’s literally nothing interesting to do. But just to be with the other team leaders, all living together in the office, was good enough. And to add on that, Lilongwe does have some very nice restaurants, and we had been given a large allowance for food of which we had to provide receipts… so it was a perfect excuse to go on a restaurant tour. Korean, Chinese, Italian, Persian… the list goes on. I felt very rested and satisfied by the time we were going back to our host communities.

It was pretty cool being back in Zomba even without the volunteers – just to hang out with my host family, and catch up with Samson and some work stuff. I got back into exercising to try and shed some of the weight that came from eating very good food for a solid week. Unfortunately I had a bad experience the day before I was supposed to head back to Lilongwe to meet the volunteers; I was mugged and attacked whilst wandering around the Zomba hills. It left me feeling quite traumatised. It’s the first time something like that has ever happened to me, despite all the solo travelling I’ve done. For about a week after, I was freaked out at the thought of being by myself and was having flashbacks. I couldn’t sleep either. Travelling to Lilongwe the day after it happened, on public transport, with no phone, I found very difficult… and then having to meet the team, support them and be enthusiastic was also very hard. So it wasn’t great timing at all but after speaking to the office I decided it would be best for me to stay in Lilongwe for some days and rest/recover, whilst the team went ahead of me to Zomba with Samson for support. Then I wouldn’t have to worry about work for the time being and I could focus on feeling better.

If I hadn’t had enough bad luck, just before the volunteers were about to leave for Zomba I woke up with incredibly bad food poisoning. I blame Messa’s Lodge. I just felt so awful. Found in the morning that three other volunteers (two of mine!) were also very sick. Really not a nice thing to happen on their first few days in the country! That morning was super weird – I was in and out of consciousness, whilst being slightly aware that TLs and office staff were coming in and out.. some checking I was ok, some saying goodbye, some telling me I needed to get up to go to hospital. Eventually I was dragged to a nearby clinic and put on a drip. Made me feel a bit better. The volunteers who were sick couldn’t travel to their communities that day so we all ended up in the office. Adrian (team leader) also stayed behind to support me.

As we all slowly recovered from our hospital trip, it became really fun hanging out with the volunteers in the office. We took them out for Persian and Korean food, and just had a laugh generally. I was feeling better and mostly able to sleep again. After the volunteers left it was just Adrian and I for a while, and of course the office staff. We continued our tour of fancy restaurants, watching movies and resting. I learnt some coping techniques from a councillor. After a week I felt confident and stable enough to go back and start the project.

Obviously going back to Zomba brought back some memories but generally the feelings of weakness I had before had been replaced by feelings of strength and power. I had a nasty experience and I didn’t let it defeat me; I was still here carrying on. I felt really proud of myself. It definitely wasn’t just me though – I wouldn’t have been able to get through without the support of the other team leaders. All of them helped in different ways. I immediately went to hang out with the volunteers upon arrival. It felt so good to be with them again and they’re an awesome team.

It’s been nearly two weeks now since I got back, so I missed the first week of project (mainly training) and have had to hit the ground running. Since being back the volunteers have been involved in life skills sessions in schools, investigating a community, preparing for parenting sessions, starting our theatre for development, and they’ve also managed to find out some confidential cases of individuals which have been reported to YONECO so the children involved can be helped. I’m really proud of them. We’ve even had a cheeky visit to the botanical gardens.

Zomba is hot hot hot. It’s exhausting. A few days ago however we had cold, cloud and rain and now it seems to have cooled a little, which is a relief. The summer season has brought plentiful fruits… the strawberries and oranges are going out of season, but the lychees, mangoes, papaya and watermelon are coming in, and the South African apples are getting redder. My host family have started to make fresh fruit smoothies as another business (they are busy people!). I’m getting up early and going jogging in the hills before work and before the sun becomes too strong.

So basically, everything is falling back into place. Work is always going to be tiring and it’s always gonna be a struggle, but I have it under control; for now at least! It’s less than 7 weeks now until our projects finish and I’ll be making my way home for Christmas. I’m really really excited to be home now it’s not so long away.

Cohort One Ends

More endings, more goodbyes. It’s an inevitable part of this kind of life. I’m used to it, but that doesn’t make it any easier. At least my goodbyes to host families, YONECO staff and youths at the drop in centres were all temporary – I would be back there with the new group of volunteers. But for my group, it was heartbreaking. They all say they will come back to Malawi and/or Zomba, but who knows when, so the goodbyes had a big question mark attached to them – when will we see you all again? Will we ever see you again?

And of course the goodbyes to our team, to all the volunteers, were final in a way. I’m sure I’ll see most of them again, but we won’t ever have the same as we’ve had for the last ten weeks… everyone together, supporting each other, working with each other every day, watching all our our confidences collectively grow and seeing the difference our group is making to so many people. It’s such a weird situation for all of us. And it’s so lonely without them here. Of course it’s nice to have a bit of a break from being in charge – to turn my phone off and rest – but I miss everything about them.

The project work and our relationship as a team just kept improving in the last weeks. We really managed to do a lot during our time. The best thing about the team is that they will just go and do things with no notice or planning; there’s a school that has some time for us to do a life skills session in an hour? Great, let’s go there and do it! There’s a tournament that is running today? Let’s run along and chat to them about HIV testing. Just like that. We definitely got our message out. We also managed to do a couple more theatre sessions which were a wild success – after training the youths at the drop in centre to be involved in the dramas and community investigation, this now means the activity is becoming sustainable since when we leave the youths can continue to run sessions and reach many communities. The young people love that they finally have the chance to perform in public too – so it’s a win-win situation.

During the community investigations, some of the volunteers uncovered some pretty serious cases relating to child abuse among other things. A group of them including fellow team leader Samson, worked endlessly to try and get this case sorted out and reported to the police, whilst the rest of us kept the project going. It was incredible teamwork and everyone got very emotional about the cases as well as frustrated that no one else that we took it to seemed to be taking it seriously.

After all this good we managed to do around Zomba’s communities, we ended the placement on a high. After a final week of parties, dancing and cake, we drove back to Lilongwe in good spirits, and entered Messa’s Lodge (where we all first met) singing and dancing. Being reunited with the other team leaders was a breath of fresh air. We presented our end of term report to all the other teams and it was interesting seeing what everyone else had done. The next day was full of ‘last times’, and some emotional speeches from the volunteers as we all gathered around in a circle. Then we drove the UKVs to the airport for a final goodbye, and waved the ICVs off on their coaches later the same day.

This happened on Friday, but it wasn’t until Monday or Tuesday the next week that I fully recovered from the lack of sleep and busy-ness of the week, since the weekend was spent in Kasungu National Park! This meant an early morning start on Saturday to travel there, and we would stay overnight. We were thrilled to see that our lodges looked out over the lake, with a view of hippos slumbering as well as many wading birds and some eagles and pied kingfishers. ICS paid for the weekend, including some very decent food. Saturday was basically for relaxing (in our cases, sleeping), strolling around (which we were later told wasn’t allowed, but at least it was a pretty walk), and we had some drinks in the evening… it turned into a very late night which made it difficult getting up at 6am for our safari. But, waking up early was so worth it – seeing the perfect scarlet circle of a sun, over the misty water, was an unforgettable sight. Kasungu is a very heavily poached park and this was apparent from the safari. We did see a herd of zebra, many antelope, and some pretty birds, but not much more. We got right up close to the hippos on the other side of the lake, who quickly plummeted into the safety of the water. Some of them had babies!

We were very lucky that afternoon to see a herd of elephants come to the lake to drink. That was definitely a highlight of the weekend. I was so tired and grumpy when we finally got back to Lilongwe and the fact that we started meetings/training the following day didn’t help! It was full on. Spent the whole of Monday basically giving “constructive criticism” to International Service. Which just meant an excuse for all of us to moan about project partners and/or volunteer dramas! To be fair my experience has been mainly positive but sometimes it feels good to share the headaches with the other team leaders who understand!

Luckily the week wasn’t as full on as we originally thought. After a long Monday I think they realised how tired we were and we had shorter days, and time to go into town and stock up on things. We moved from Messa’s Lodge to the office which gave us a bit more freedom and at least there wasn’t a problem with running water (although the powercuts are common). We were supposed to go back to our host communities at the end of the week, but after protesting that we needed a rest and some time together with the other team leaders, we now have a whole week here in Lilongwe where we can relax. Am enjoying it at the moment, I imagine I’ll start getting restless soon though, and then it will be time for new beginnings as the next group arrives.

They told us again and again, that we wouldn’t see any change. That we would be like a drop in the ocean. But they were wrong.

We’re the first cohort. We’re setting up a completely new project; and development isn’t always as glamorous as it looks. Change is slow – we were reminded of that so much during training. Things move slowly. Expect to be disheartened, expect to be frustrated, expect to not be able to see the difference you’re making – you just have to trust that you are doing something good.

I feel very lucky, then, that I see lives changing on a weekly (sometimes almost daily!) basis. Things changing as a direct result of our team being here, talking to people, inspiring them, teaching them, organising events in the community.

That time we talked to the netball and football teams about HIV, and encouraged them to get tested when they were previously too worried. Clearing up all these crazy ideas people have about sex and HIV. When we raised awareness of our drop in centres, and now a load more young people have come and are setting up a drama club there. Watching the children’s faces light up when they are given the chance to express themselves through drawing, or dancing, or moulding things from clay.

Every time the volunteers talk to the youths – either at events, or drop in centres, or just people they meet in town – they are changing lives. I can see it happening. As young people ourselves, working for a well-respected charity such as YONECO, people listen and respond to us. They look up to us. They come to us with personal issues and we have that chance to advise them. Some of these people may not have spoken about sex, or other issues facing them, so openly before. We make sessions interactive so that the volunteers are just guiders, but the youths themselves dictate what we talk about, and they love asking questions.

It’s so amazing watching how well young people here respond to our team; they really listen and follow the advice we give them. As well as young people we have also been training parents, so they can speak more openly to their children about issues facing them. Parents have personally come up to the volunteers who ran those sessions and thanked them for teaching them so much.

I couldn’t not mention our theatre sessions. Through engaging the volunteers as well as the youths at the drop in centre, we have been reaching out to communities and performing plays which are fun, as well as informative about YONECO and about how to deal with certain issues the community may be facing. A major success was when well over 100 people turned up this week to watch our drama and they loved it – staying for 3 hours in the sun to watch everyone perform! It also gives the youths involved more skills and a chance to show off their amazing talents in acting, so they are super happy to be involved.

And of course, the other lives that are being changed here are our own. Me and Samson and the volunteers. I see everyone becoming more confident every day, and forming friendships that will last a long time.

Maybe looking at facts and figures, it looks like a drop in the ocean, but I think that every person whose life is enriched or changed by this project – every person who learns something or gains a skill – it makes it all worth it.

Halfway through Cohort One

This job sure does keep you on your toes. Just when everything starts to click, a routine forms, relationships form and the project is going swimmingly, things all start to fall apart again. I’ve had a hard week – a really really hard week, in so many ways. There have been many issues I have had to manage and in the end we’ve made the decision for two volunteers to go home. I have been reassured by the guys at International Service that I did all I could, and so I shouldn’t take responsibility that they have had to leave, but it’s still upsetting. I know it’s for the best for both of them though. I felt like I haven’t really had a break this week and there have been many tears, many phone calls to the head office, many late nights and early mornings, many moments where I’ve had to think quickly of the best solution or the right thing to say. I guess what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and I have really been tested this week but I’ve come through it and all the issues are sorted now. Looking forward to week 6 going back to normal.
Luckily, the volunteers are all awesome and so the project has been ticking along despite the team leaders being rather preoccupied. We’ve been doing our drop in centre sessions, also training some parents to run parenting circles to support their children, we’ve had the tournament semi-finals where we discussed human rights. We even had a cheeky morning visit to the botanical gardens where a gardener there gave us a tour and told us all about the plants and trees. The volunteers loved it! There may even be a chance for us to plant some trees around Zomba that are provided to us by the gardens.
On Friday we saw the guys from the Lilongwe office for our mid-term review. It’s always nice to get some positive feedback from them and also to reflect on how much we’ve actually done since being here; I felt proud of myself and of everyone else.
The Friday before, we visited Ntcheu where another YONECO team is based led by Grace and Tefadzwa. On the same day, the Dedza team led by Jason and Ernest visited – so it was like a big reunion! I can’t express how happy I was to see them again. I really love those guys. We will also see the Ntcheu team this coming Friday when they visit Zomba.
Apart from that, I’ve been getting on with other things… trying to keep up with gym sessions (although my visits are not as frequent as I’d like), also visiting the tailor a lot for African outfits, playing bawo which is the best game ever, spending quality time with my host family, colleagues and volunteers, occasionally participating in worship. I visited a church with a friend last Saturday which was a seventh day adventist church. Services are long and generally last all day, however I just went for the morning, and then joined them for lunch, which was really fun – met some lovely people. People just tend to assume I’m already religious so I don’t really get people trying to convert me, and it’s just a nice way to spend time with the communities.
It kind of feels like I’ve been here forever, but at the same time it’s going really quickly. We have less than four weeks left with these volunteers, and just four months left before it’s all over. I am gonna be really sad when these volunteers leave. They’ve become my whole world. I’m so proud of them and I’ll miss them so much. But at the same time it will be really nice to have a bit of a break from being on call!

Guys, don’t worry, I’ve got this.

Ooh la la. It’s funny how it takes so long to find your feet sometimes, and then all of a sudden everything just clicks. I feel like I have this all under control finally. Of course there are still dramas and things that go wrong basically every day that have to be solved, but I can handle it, and it’s ticking along. Work relationships have improved drastically – me and my counterpart Samson have reached an understanding of each other, and despite being very different we stay honest and open with each other, build off each others’ strengths and try and mitigate each other’s weaknesses. I am learning to be more relaxed and flexible about things whilst I think the YONECO guys are also starting to understand the way I operate and that I don’t like to be messed around.

Something I didn’t anticipate here was that things would be a struggle because of my gender. Perhaps I should have thought about it; after all, the way women are viewed here is not great, as I experienced last time I was here! But in the sector I’m working in, I didn’t think it would be a problem. And most people are fine and listen to me, for sure. But there are a few who just don’t take me seriously, interrupt me or tell me I’m wrong when I know I’m not, who don’t appreciate the fact that I am assertive and organised and in a position of leadership. It’s very frustrating when my leadership behaviour is seen as something amusing, or annoying, or even “cute” (cue me being very angry) rather than, like, the only way anything is gonna get done in this place!

Week 3 has been successful, after a slow second week. We have finally started to do stuff on the ground; activities are beginning to get going, and our messages are getting through to people. The volunteers are so great at interacting with the young people and I really feel like the youths are listening and responding. It’s amazing to see. It makes me feel so emotional sometimes! I’ve had to leave the room to have a cry a couple of times, because it’s such a rewarding feeling and also because it’s just so nice to see how great the volunteers are doing. Some of them have really developed and blossomed since being here. Also I’m just super-emotional here all the time, kind of like a rollercoaster, but it’s good to be emotional.

We have been preparing our Theatre for Development sessions which Samson has experience in, so he’s been training some of the volunteers who are interested. It’s so much better than just contacting and booking some trained artists already, because when the volunteers actually are the trained artists, they can be actively involved on the ground, which is what they prefer. It’s also cheaper! We’ve also begun our sports tournament, using 8 under-17 football and netball teams from local schools, and playing SRHR-related warm up games. When we chat to them about SRHR and learn about their views, I can really see why all this awareness-raising is needed… some of their views are not healthy and/or are incorrect. Unfortunately, we’ve had two quarter final matches this week and in both of these, one team didn’t show up! This is a problem because people will hear about it and start to not take the games seriously, so I am a little worried about this coming week. Luckily we’ve managed to get the teams that showed up involved with the SRHR games and also playing a football game with them ourselves!

This week the volunteers finally got to run the sessions they had been preparing for the drop-in centres; life skills, art and dance sessions. They went so well and we had people begging for us to come back soon! We will do sessions every week if we have time. We also had a visit from the supervisors to check how we were doing, it was really nice to have a chat with them and ask loads of questions/rant about irritating things! Not that there are many irritating things any more… like I said, things are falling into place. We have had a few illnesses, hospital visits and also some group tensions, but nothing too serious so far… in general all the volunteers get on really well with each other.

It’s been a good weekend spending quality time with the volunteers, Thuliwe from the office, and my host family. We’ve even had a chance to try out some woodcarving after making friends with some of the guys at the market. Woodcarving is very famous here, so I’ll definitely pick up some souveniers. The volunteers loved the session.

Halfway through Week 4 now but I’ll talk more about that next time. In the meantime, internet really is too bad to upload photos onto this blog, so I’ll attach a few links so you can see some photos elsewhere: