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.