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.

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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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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:

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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.