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.

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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!

 

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Arrival, adjusting and settling in

Zomba, Malawi

So here I am, back in Malawi. I must say, it is so nice to be back somewhere familiar – where I feel at home, and I know how to behave and what to expect. I’ve gone through quite a few different emotions since being here. Sometimes I feel so alive and happy, and like I belong. Other times I have felt overwhelmed, tired and unsure. I think I am overreacting, because we have only been here a week so far, but it’s felt like a long week – we still haven’t met our volunteers, or started our projects, and so the time feels like it’s dragging sometimes, because we just want to get stuck into it now. But there are always formalities; lots of people to meet, host homes to investigate, timetables and plans to make, more training to do. I am excited now for the task to actually start so I can stop feeling a little bit like I’m in limbo.

Leaving the UK again was hard. Not because I ever miss England itself when I’m away, but just because it involved a whole bunch of goodbyes, yet again. It’s felt like goodbyes have become a normal part of my life, and every time I go away again or leave a country I’ve been for a while, it seems harder and more exhausting. Of course, my lifestyle means there are also a lot of hellos, but for some reason my mind seems to fixate on the goodbyes. I am not sure I can do this for much longer! Maybe it’s time to start thinking of settling somewhere in the next couple of years — but where??

I’m really happy to have some great Team Leaders alongside me. I met Jason, Adrian and Grace in Heathrow, and we will be leading the four teams of volunteers in various places in Malawi. We all get on really well, despite all being so different from each other! We won’t be living near each other, but we will get to see each other quite a lot during the six months, as we have debriefs in Lilongwe and also some project visits where we can see what the other teams are up to. The journey to Lilongwe from London went really quickly, because I slept most of the way, including during the 6-hour layover in Nairobi! Plus, we were all getting to know each other, so it was pretty fun. We actually ended up doing a detour via Mombasa (another place in Kenya) before reaching Nairobi because they hadn’t opened the runway for the plane. A little odd, since we were arriving at the scheduled time, but I’ve learnt not to question these things…

The first thing we saw when driving from Lilongwe’s airport was boys selling fried mice on sticks at the side of the road. This was something I hadn’t seen before! I hadn’t been to this region before either, so it was interesting seeing what it was like. Lilongwe looked nothing like a capital city, but I didn’t really expect it to – this is Malawi after all! We went straight to International Service’s new office where we would also be sleeping as there were several bedrooms. This is the first time International Service has worked in Malawi so we will actually be starting new projects here with their partner organisations (for me and Grace it will be YONECO, and for the boys it will be CYECE). As we were told by our programme coordinators Thomas and Lena, this means we are expected to do a lot! We had a few days of training after our arrival and also met our Malawian counterparts (so they will be a Team Leader with us); I am with a guy called Samson James, from Mangochi, and the others have Ernest, Sky, and Tafadzwa. They are all very nice and super intelligent. Also a little different from most Malawians I have met, in several ways. They have already told me not to buy food from the side of the road because it’s not clean – I’ve cruised through three months in Africa already without any tummy bug, so I’m not really taking much notice! They also don’t seem to eat much nsima. Once they arrived, Thomas and Lena seemed a bit more relaxed about us going out and about and exploring the area. They were a little protective the first couple of days. Not that I’ve really seen much of Lilongwe still; I think we are quite far out of the town.

After training, we boarded a local bus to our placement areas. For me, this was Zomba. We would be spending six days there checking out the homes where the volunteers would be staying, and settling in and getting to know the area before the volunteers arrived. The bus journey was really long, about 9 hours with loads of stopping and starting and faffing, but surprisingly it wasn’t actually too painful; I think I’m getting used to it all, plus I had a few naps. Samson and I were greeted by Felix who would be working with us on our YONECO project dealing with sexual health and rights, and drug and alcohol abuse. There are a lot of components to this project which I will go into as we go along. YONECO is pretty well-known in Malawi, with offices and projects in many districts, as well as its own radio station and many activities such as football tournaments and bands for the youth. I spent the rest of the afternoon meeting my host family who I would be living with for the next six months (!). I couldn’t be happier with the house, family and location. It’s right next to Zomba town, with views of the plateau and some other mountains. Really weird being back and recognising everything – brings back good memories! The house is pretty and has a garden. My host family are Akuzike and Kachengwa, a young couple with a new baby Mulunji (only two months!). She’s so cute and I love her name, because it reminds me of Mulanje mountain where I visited last time I was in Malawi. Aku’s sister Lisangu lives here also, and they have a maid who I call Aunty. Very lovely and relaxed family. I joined in with Bible studies that evening, and so met many of their neighbours. They are a very Christian family, and are aware that I am not Christian, but I’m happy to join in with things to get to know the community and the culture. The evening was really good fun.

The following day, Felix showed us around the office and we also met Jacob who we will also be working with on our project. YONECO’s main office is in Zomba, but we will mainly be working in the district office in Ndola, where we live. I met Thuliwe who is an intern there – I think we are going to be good friends. Also met some of the kids that come here for lessons, band practice and football practice. The rest of the afternoon was spent checking out the host homes, which are all really lovely; some are like mansions! Zomba is a very wealthy area; I noticed that last time I was here as well. Some of the other team leaders have had different experiences with houses in their area. Akuzike must have read my mind because she is getting a heated shower installed soon. Hot showers are the one ‘luxury thing’ I really struggle without; I can sleep anywhere, use any kind of toilet, eat most food, and bugs/spiders don’t bother me, but cold showers are something I truly hate. Aku agrees with me!

On Saturday, after a morning of work, I attended a Malawian wedding reception as part of the YONECO team. The bride worked for YONECO in Nkhata Bay, so we went along to show our congratulations. Lots of money was involved! First, people had to pay some money to go to the front and get a photo with the bride and groom. Then, groups of people went up one by one to present gifts, then dance and throw money over the bride. YONECO had their opportunity, and we presented the happy couple with a new mattress as a gift, then threw the money. I threw all my notes too quickly and ran out before the song was over. It was really fun! I am gonna have to try and get better at Malawian dancing though, I could really tell how inferior my moves were compared to everyone else!

We also had a meeting with the executive director of YONECO, and he expressed his wish for our project to include some environmental issues as well as SRHR. The original project also focused on environment, but International Service scrapped that part of the project, which I was disappointed about. I’m happy to try and include it in our activities, but it obviously wouldn’t be something that is formally evaluated. Not that evaluation is everything! Making a difference and changing perceptions is the most important thing. As the director said, “Every time I look at that mountain (referring to Zomba Plateau), I cry”. I agree. I remember very clearly, just a couple of months earlier, sitting on a bench at the top of the plateau and feeling so sad when I looked down and saw no trees, just a sparse landscape.

Soon we will be going back to Lilongwe to meet the volunteers, and then back to Zomba yet again to finally begin the projects. I’m full of anticipation, and can’t wait to settle into it all.