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.

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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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