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 🙂



I’ve moved to Thailand!

I’m writing this whilst sitting on a big wooden balcony – aka our office – overlooking the forested hills of Chiang Mai province. Colourful birds and huge butterflies are flying past. We spent last night camping in the conservation forest and now everyone’s quietly relaxing up here at our GVI base.

Once I returned from Malawi, I began applying for work but didn’t expect something to come up so quickly… I sent off an application to Global Vision International – an organisation that is worldwide – and three weeks later I had moved to Thailand, working on a conservation and community project in the small, peaceful village of Huay Pakoot. The project here works with elephants who have previously been in camps – helping to reintroduce them to the forest, whilst taking data on the elephants and the biodiversity. There has been little research done in this area, and also little research done on Asian elephants in general, so GVI hopes to be able to publish the data found over the 7 years of working here.

The community here is Karen, meaning they are originally from Myanmar but have been living here in the hills for over 500 years. They have a very close relationship with elephants and it’s very normal for a family to own several elephants, which they then rent out yearly to camps for a source of income. GVI has offered the villagers here the opportunity to rent the elephants to them instead of a camp, where they will be kept in the forest and allowed to roam as they please. Volunteers come on the program and help with the data collection as well as providing the necessary funds for GVI to continue renting the elephants. So far, from the volunteer programme as well as a linked charity called GVI Trust, we have managed to reintroduce 8 elephants to the forest. Other organisations doing a similar thing have sprung up in the area too.

The other part of the project here in Huay Pakoot is community-based, and this is the part that I will be coordinating. We try to get volunteers interested in teaching English and conservation lessons at the local primary school in the afternoons, as well as evening classes to adults who have an interest. There are no formal English lessons here except for the ones that we provide, so before GVI came to the village there was almost no English spoken. Most people still speak little English, but thanks to the classes some of the villagers have got pretty good. The aim is to eventually hand the project over to the village, where they can continue an eco-tourism programme, so teaching English is important in order to do this. It also gives them more opportunities to go and work in the cities if they choose to. It’s really encouraged for staff and volunteers to learn the local language here – called Pakinyaw – so we can have a meaningful relationship with the villagers. I’m really determined to pick up the language especially as I’ll be here for at least a year!

Upon arrival, we all take part in a ceremony called a geejew – the villagers come round and tie bits of string around our wrist and drape them on our shoulder to bless us and welcome us to the village. There are a few Buddhists here but the majority of people are animists and believe in spirits. Rituals like this make sure we are protected against bad spirits. The elephants also have a geejew in the village every couple of years, and the ceremony is similar. We’ve been seeing a few elephants in the village over the last few days, having the ceremony.

I already feel very at home here. We’re lucky to have such a great staff team, most of whom have a conservation background so I’m learning loads about the nature here. The villagers and mahouts (elephant keepers) have a great sense of humour. They’ve started coming and hanging out with us more and I hope this continues! Had a lot of training the first couple of weeks but also had time to go on some cool hikes – into the forest to see the elephants, down to the river to swim, as well as a night hike through a stream where we found a huge cobra skin, and a sunset hike up to a place called two tree hill which is the highest point in the area. Days are super busy, but busy with fun things, and there’s always great company around. I’ve done a lot of work in the office sorting out curriculums – it’s school holidays right now so I have some time to get everything ready for the new term. Most of the other staff lead elephant hikes daily for the volunteers. Doing admin and office work isn’t so bad when I’ve got an incredible view to look out at every day.

I’ve also been busy planning summer school which we’re doing twice a week for the local children. We want to get them comfortable coming down to the GVI base – it should be open to everyone, not just us and the volunteers. So far it’s been really fun. On Fridays we help out the community with anything they might need doing – so last week we helped make a fireline, and this week we started building a temple in the village.

I sleep in a wooden hut on stilts, with a mattress on the floor. It’s really cosy. There’s chickens, buffalos and pigs under the house… it can get pretty noisy in the mornings, but I’m used to it by now, and so tired after the days that I can sleep through anything!

There’s so much to talk about it’s impossible to fit everything in! But basically it’s all going really, really well. The manager is leaving at the end of next week, and me and another staff member Myles are going to take on her responsibilities until we find a new base manager – this is as well as our coordinator roles! So I imagine I’ll be even more busy for the next few months, but I’m really excited, it’s gonna be a fun challenge. There will be a lot going on in the next year and it’s really cool to be a part of it.



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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.

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!