It’s like being in a bubble

It’s so easy to forget here, that there is anything outside of this village – it’s such an immersive experience. No wonder so many people extend their stay, or just stay for years and years. Time moves at a different pace here too. The last two months have flashed by… it kind of feels like I’ve been here forever, but also that I’ve just arrived. Sometimes I can’t believe how much has happened in this short time, but days also seem to fly by before I have a chance to blink, and I add more and more things to my to-do list each day.


After my quiet first month in Huay Pakoot, the last few weeks have been a mixture of work hard/play hard. With weddings, new year festivals, elephant birthdays, a visit from our regional director, training of new staff, sunrise/sunset hikes, a weekend trip to a hippie paradise, and of course all the extra manager duties… It’s been full on to say the least. Not really sure where to start, but I’ll try.


Our lovely managers Anna and Max left a month ago and since then Myles and I have been taking on the extra duties and leading the hub. In the meantime we’ve been on a hiring spree of staff – three new girls have started (two were previously interns) and we have another starting next week. A lot more girls on the team than we were used to, but it’s kind of nice talking about girl stuff once in a while. For Anna and Max’s leaving do, we had a huge night in Chiang Mai involving a fancy hotel with a pool, tapas and cocktails, and a rooftop karaoke bar, as well as a group massage session the next day.


The next week was straight into manager duties. Emails take up a lot of time! I think me and Myles both felt a bit lost the first couple of days but we quickly figured out a routine and everything fell into place. I still look forward to staff meetings on Wednesday — they’re a mixture of productive and hilarious, which is something that is rare to find in a work-related meeting! Although I have a lot of admin to do, I’m also surprised at how little this feels like work. It’s such a relaxed atmosphere and there are always people to chat to or events going on which break up the day. I’ve never worked somewhere like this before and it’s a joy every single day; especially when you are working on a project that you believe so strongly about. Myles is on-par with Samson (who I worked with in Malawi) as the best work partner I’ve ever had.


A couple of days after Anna and Max left, regional director Molly visited us, to train new staff Charlotte, Caly and Ali, and to train me and Myles a little as well. It was a relief to have her here especially as she was impressed with how the project was going and how the staff team were all getting on really well. That weekend we had Dee’s wedding. Dee (as well as Don) are two members of our team, employed as National Scholars and community liasons. They are local to the village but also speak Thai and English, which makes them so useful when bridging the gap between GVI and the village – communications are so much easier when you have a translator! So when we heard Dee was getting married to a girl who lives in nearby Mae Chaem, of course there was going to be a big event for it. Most of the village turned up to his house, as well as lots of external people, to eat loads of food and hang out together. Good chance to practice Pakinyaw and socialize with some new people.


The next week was very short as all volunteers wanted to leave for Songkran on Thursday morning! What a privilege to have been around to experience this festival. Songkran is the Thai new year and everywhere in the country transforms into a massive water fight for an entire week — no one is safe. Chiang Mai is apparently the best place to be, so that’s where we all headed (stupidly in an open transport called a songthaew). The closer we got to Chiang Mai, the more we got soaked by giggling men, women and children carrying buckets full of water and standing at the side of the road. I think Songkran is up there as one of the best weekends of my life – everyone was in good spirits, running around with huge water guns (me and the boys got the biggest ones we could find), completely drenched, music playing and chaos all over the streets. There is a canal that runs all around Chiang Mai so it was easy to refill water weapons. I hope I’m around for it next year too! I was not ready to stop the celebrations, so when we got back to the village on Monday we had another water fight with the village kids. They showed us no mercy… water in face and eyes!


The following weekend we visited Pai, which is 4 hours away from our village. I wasn’t overwhelmed by the town, but it was in a pretty area — very similar to where we live! We visited a really cool cave nearby, full of bats and swifts, and went on a bamboo raft through the cave’s river, where we were lucky enough to see huge fish including catfish. You can imagine that being on a cave tour with a bunch of conservationists/biologists turned into a very dorky experience – I loved it. We also watched the sunset over the hills, whilst sitting in Pai Canyon. It looked just like home (Huay Pakoot). We ate a lot of good food, drank some beers, and generally enjoyed chilling out. It was such a relief to go back to the village though – we are all keen for some quiet weekends after the last few eventful ones.


There’s been loads of project stuff going on too. I try and get onto an elephant hike every week, and Ali and I led our first ones last week, seeing Lulu and Dee Dee (the babies). I’m learning loads about the nature here, from just hanging out with the other staff or going on biodiversity hikes. School is still out, so I’ve been trying to rewrite curriculums before that starts up, and while the kids are off school we’ve been going on outings with them to the river to swim/catch tadpoles (apparently they taste good!). I’m getting better at jogging up and down the hills, and always see some cool things on my run – beautiful blue birds called Indian Rollers, and sometimes even elephants. There have been a few elephant events in the village – geyjews (blessings) and more recently an elephant celebration where all the elephants that have been reintroduced to the forest come together in a reunion and eat loads of fruit. It was so cool to see them all together, and I could really notice the differences between them – each one definitely has their own characteristics and distinguishing features.


I’m doing evening English classes with some of the villagers Jaree and Darawan – her daughter Anchan joins too (she looks like Dora the Explorer). It’s always loads of fun and we spend our time giggling, it’s been a great way to practice the language too – they teach me while I teach them! I’m constantly overwhelmed by the loveliness of the people here; they are all so laid back and willing to help. Still determined to learn Pakinyaw, especially as it is pretty simple when compared to other languages; then I can communicate with the villagers here even more, and build up some good relationships.


I’ll try and add some photos to this when I get the chance. In the meantime, you can look on GVI Chiang Mai facebook page to see what we’ve all been up to! There’s loads more to write but that will have to wait for the next blog.


On another note, a video showing our project work here in Huay Pakoot has been shortlisted for Innovative Student Video. Take some time to watch the short video, it shows the elephants and village! If you like it, please vote 🙂



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!

Meeting the team, and the first week of project

I’ve only been in Malawi for 3 weeks now, but the amount we’ve packed into that three weeks has made it feel like three months! It’s been non-stop and eventful.The remainder of the time we were in Zomba, we were working on finalising the team plan. We are given a project plan to work from, which runs for one year, and we have to split up the activities into four cohorts of three months each. Samson and I will be Team Leaders for two of the cohorts. It sounds simple to do the plan, but it’s complicated, since we need to consider which activities would fit best where, how long the trainings and sessions take, how best to reach as many people as possible, and we weren’t getting much guidance from the project partners unless we really pushed for it. I’ve done a lot of pushing since I’ve been here. I’m sure I’m annoying the hell out of everyone at YONECO, but these volunteers have a lot to offer, and I don’t want them to go home feeling like their skills and energy were not utilised because things were moving too slowly.

Obviously since this is the beginning of the project, and the first cohort of volunteers, we have to start from scratch and don’t get any guidance from previous cohorts. That also makes it harder, and budget/resources are another thing we have to consider. For example we are supposed to be training parent facilitators and then forming parenting groups who can talk openly about issues with their adolescent children. We have to train the parent facilitators in order to form the groups, so the training has to be done in the first cohort, but training is the expensive part, and the budget is split evenly amongst the four cohorts. Another problem is that the project assumes that we have one year so three months each, but in fact, these volunteers are only here for 2 months and the next ones only for 2.5 months. So we’re gonna be busy squeezing things in!

I did have some time away from the project planning to pop to church with my host family and met the Vice President of Malawi who was fundraising there. Luckily, we had a private car to take us back to Lilongwe, since another member of YONECO had to go there for a meeting. We stopped by Ntcheu on the way to pick up Grace and Tefadzwa. It was so good to see them again. After a quick photo opportunity at the Mozambique border, and a random stopover in a hotel in Dedza for an hour while the YONECO guys attended a meeting about gay people, we were in Lilongwe by the late afternoon, and found that half of the UK volunteers had arrived! Actually all the UKVs from Zomba were here, and I summoned my energy for some more socialising! They were all very cool and intelligent, so I was happy. It was good to see the other team leaders again too. Had some much-needed beers and a catch up that evening. Whilst we waited for the other volunteers to arrive the following day, we took some of them into town to get their phones and sim cards sorted, and to buy a few things. Explaining how the phones worked took forever, with all these scratchcards and inputting different codes! Why is it so overly complicated here? It was really fun helping all the volunteers out though, and showing them around, and answering all their questions (even if a lot of my answers were “I don’t know”).

The next couple of days were for training, and also getting to know our team and explaining a bit about the projects. All of my in-country volunteers were also very cool and intelligent, so I was happy with all ten of them! They also got on really well together, which was great. We’d been taught a lot about how to deal with the different nationalities not mixing, but our team didnt seem to have that problem. Don’t want to speak too soon, but so far they’re all getting on great. Whilst the volunteers were training, it was so nice to spend some time with the other team leaders. It’s amazing how quickly you can get close to people when you’re all thrown into the same situation and in a strange country. The last night, five of us went out to a local club conveniently located opposite our hotel; we really needed a break since we hadn’t finished work that night until 10:30pm, preparing all the volunteers to leave the next day. Our last night without responsibility, before we would be expected to be on call for our 10 volunteers! It felt so good to dance, and I also realised I love Nigerian music.

We figured that the following day would just be sitting on a bus going to our different areas and so we’d be able to sleep, but no such luck. For starters, we all woke up at 5:30am because we were told the bus would leave at 6:30 sharp. Of course, this didn’t happen. Oh Africa… the buses that turned up were so tiny, there was no room for our luggage (and barely enough room for ourselves), so they had to go back and get a roof rack fitted. In the meantime we had some more forms to fill out – there are always, always forms. Finally left at about 9am, all squished up so there wasn’t really a chance to sleep. Zomba and Ntcheu were in the same bus. Somehow the journey took hours, and we didn’t arrive in Zomba until late; we then had to try and find everyone’s host homes in the dark. The poor driver, and Jack our coordinator, had to drive all the way back to Lilongwe that night; a further five hours. I fell asleep pretty much as soon as I got to my home. It was so nice to see the family again and be back below the majestic plateau.

We had the Sunday to relax and adjust before our first week began on the Monday. I kept my phone on me, expecting at least one volunteer emergency in the first couple of days, but I got nothing! It was hard to relax though – my brain just kept whirring, as I planned how the week would go. I wanted to make sure the volunteers felt stimulated. We hadn’t been given much information, only that we would have some kind of orientation – it was all quite unorganised, which can be quite typical here, and it’s something I’m going to have to get used to because I’m generally not good with that style of things. It was great to see everyone on the Monday looking happy and settled. Of course there’s also been a few tears and struggles with the volunteers this week, but they are all very strong people and really they’ve done very well adjusting – I’m proud of them!

The first week went fast and slow at the same time. It felt like it had been a lot longer than a week, and I came home every day totally exhausted. We had some training on sexual health and rights as well as parenting, we had a tour around the head office and picked up some important contacts (namely the radio – some of the volunteers are very keen to feature on air!). Also had some time for a guided learning session focusing on culture and dance, which was so fun, especially when we got all the teenagers from the drop-in centre involved. Our office in Ndola is also a drop in centre, and we will be doing some project work there as well as in another drop in centre in Chinamwale. Some of the volunteers were still feeling a little disorientated in Zomba, so we found some time for them to explore the town, and I also took them to the Botanical Gardens which they loved – especially as it was full of monkeys! Zomba is such a good place to be, there’s always things to do and places to go. Friday was our first field trip; we visited a parenting circle that had been established by YONECO, to see how it worked and also to identify some parents who we could train to be facilitators, who could then set up their own circles. It was a successful trip and a great way to end the week.

I’ve also been working over the weekend – a couple of meetings, a host home visit, and some parenting circles to see. A quick feature on the radio too – me and a couple of volunteers were asked if we would give some advice on the radio to young people, about a half hour before the show began! So we quickly prepared something. I was so jittery but it went well and was really fun. I think I might have accidentally sung along to a song before the microphone was turned off though.

The workload is just because it’s a new project, and there’s lots to do. I’ve had a bit of time for a rest too, and have joined a gym here. I’m feeling happy – and a little tired, but I’ll get used to it! I value those odd hours I can sit in the park in the sunshine and read a book, while the monkeys run around me.

I’m feeling happy now, but the first week or so in Malawi was difficult for me. As I mentioned before, saying goodbyes again and again, because of always going off somewhere different, was starting to get to me. Arriving in Zomba made things even harder, because it was a familiar place where I had already made memories, and now I was here alone, and to start this new scary adventure where I had a lot of responsibility. The memories from my trip earlier this year kept coming to me as I walked past familiar places, and I couldn’t escape them. Now I’ve had some time, and I feel like I’ve made a little life for myself here, a life that is just mine. I’ve made new memories, and when I walk home from work and I see the sun setting over the plateau, I realise how lucky I am to be here. I remember why I like doing this kind of thing by myself, and just meeting people along the way. Lots of new people, and I know for sure this won’t be the last time I come to Malawi, so the goodbyes at the end won’t be as sad.

Bring on this week; week 4 of Malawi, week 2 of project.

NB The internet hasn’t been good enough for pictures, but I will try and get some up at some point.

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.