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DIT, Volunteer

Ciara Devoy

I was never great with words. So trying to describe my two-month trip to Malawi with Wells For Zoë is near impossible for me to do. The Malawians, Harisen and Charity, all the children, the farm, the pumps, Kazando, Denduzei, St. John of God, the market, the jeeps, homework club, adult education, Casca and the Áras Kate staff, the other volunteers, the craic, learning Tumbuka and the traditional Malawian dance… Words will never, never do justice to the incredible experience I’ve just had!


If I’m honest, I don’t quite know what I was expecting when I signed up to go volunteering in Africa. I had a meeting with John Coyne himself and Elaine Bolger, they gave me the low down on the projects, the future plans, how W4Z operates, and what I would be doing over there. I could not believe how welcoming they both were and eager to have me on board. I knew I had picked the right organisation! John had said to me, “you won’t be the same person after it”. And how right he was.


I’m not gonna lie, Mzuzu was not half as poor as I had imagined. It is much more developed than I would have ever have thought. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw Dairy Milk in a shop! Nor did I realise how safe it would be out there. I never once felt in danger or at risk. To be honest, I felt safer there than I do here in Dublin. Well, actually, the only thing that made me nervous was their driving. On our weekend treats to Nkata Bay, my heart would be in my mouth watching the Malawian drivers overtake around corners, taking bends far too wide, barely missing pedestrians and all whilst speeding. I really don’t know what could be done to right this though?


On the other hand, our home – the spacious and wonderful Áras Fáilte, was so much more than I thought it would be. I felt guilty for the first few weeks that we had so many luxuries, but I guess I got used to it. It was brilliant for us all to be sharing the house together – a real ‘bonding’ experience! It meant there was always someone around to chat to, or play cards with! We became quite the family.


Electricity, water, hot showers, a cooker, a microwave, a fridge….the house had it all. We truly were blessed to be living with such comforts. It made life much easier for us, especially when there was up to twenty of us dining. It saved us so much money (and fuel) on eating out. Every night two people would cook dinner, and we’d divide the cost between us. The meals we had were delicious – and there was nearly always a dessert! Needless to say we ate very well… Probably too well! Having the market and supermarkets close by meant cooking meals and stocking the fridge was easy peasy. Fruit and vegetables over there were just delicious – fresher than fresh. We ate some amount of bananas, apples and oranges. Now that I’m home the bananas taste so rotten in comparison I point blank refuse to eat them!
The house is truly a credit to Mary and John, and they are so good to have spent so much time, money and effort on it, so that we would have somewhere to live independently. Thanks a million!


Hands down, my favourite part of the trip was simply playing with the kids. Whether it was at Aras Kate preschool, Denduzei preschool, Kazando primary school, at Lusangazi farm, or at Luvuwu school, once there was a child to run around with I was happy. A mere tickle or cuddle meant the world to the little dotes. Their big dark eyes would light up at the simplest of things, with “round and round the garden” proving a big hit! I soon learned “monyanee” means friend in Tumbuka. I loved dancing and singing with the children as well. Learning their words to the best of my ability and copying their dance moves, I felt very Malawian!


Zaminamina aye aye!


I also loved working on the farm at Lusangazi. Weeding, watering, pruning, composting, harvesting, tilling, hoeing… the day always flew on the farm. The farmers there are such wonderful people, and so appreciative of the help. They were so interested in our families back home, how we live, and how Malawi compares to Ireland. Miriam Whittle and I stayed overnight on the farm, and were welcomed into John and Lindsay’s home for dinner (we were full for days). They were so grateful to John and Mary Coyne for everything, and so proud of their beautiful home. They are just one of the many families the Coyne’s have touched.


On a typical weekday, bedtime was around 10-10.30pm. If we were being wild we’d push it to maybe even after 11! We would be wrecked, after a day of going like the clappers I loved tucking myself into my mossie net and hearing the wild dogs howl! 7am was rising time, and on a good day by 7.30 we’d have left the house. Our working day ended at 5pm, and from there we’d do our shopping in town and at the market. For the first few weeks I wished there was something to do after dinner – someone to help! I felt useless once we got home. But given that it was pitch black by 5.30, it would have been too dangerous to do anything really. And I know we do need time to relax and recharge the batteries, but I still felt like I could do more in the evenings. I’m still trying to think up things to do! I’ve got an idea or two.
That said, I loved the weekends, heading off to Lake Malawi, feeling like I had earned it. I was exhausted though; all I wanted to do was sit, read and tan (burn). It was a great way of gearing ourselves up for the coming week.


Six weeks into my eight-week trip, I hit a brick wall. I felt as though people that I thought were my friends were only after my money (money that I didn’t have I might add!). I did have reason to believe this – with one friend telling me straight out I should buy him credit for his phone. I felt very white, even though I tried my best to fit in; I was just one big Mzungu (white person). But I got over this feeling quickly – by confronting that man and any others that were looking to take advantage of me. Telling them to their faces sternly that they were not allowed ask for such things, just because I was white, that I was a friend, and not a dollar sign. I definitely felt better after ranting, and they then knew not to demand anything else. So I think for someone travelling to Malawi for the first time it is important to keep in mind that you may be befriended, or feel like a walking Kwacha, but you have to deal with that situation head on if it arises.


Around about that time I also began to question the work I was doing. I was asking myself what difference was I actually making, what good was coming out of me being in Africa – I was changing nothing. This feeling stuck with me for one day only, mainly because I asked Melissa what she thought, and she quickly put everything into perspective for me. And of course I had made a difference. In fact, to make myself truly believe this I made lists of what I spent donation money on, and who I helped, and if I organised something in aid of someone else etc. I needed to write that all down, and to see those lists get bigger, to me, meant I was making a difference. However small it may have been.


Bottom line is, Wells For Zoë works. It works simply because it helps Malawians to help themselves. The Coynes have coyne-d (!) the phrase “a hand up, not a hand out” and I believe that is why they are so well respected in Malawi. I continuously heard the Malawian people praise John and Mary for their kindness and generosity. From Will.I.Am exclaiming “John is a hero, he is a good man, no, a great man!”, to the tiny tots at Aras Kate shouting “Gogo Mary!” and waving frantically at their favourite teacher. I was talking to a woman who was getting water from the pump before Adult Ed in Áras Kate, and said that it was all thanks to Mary Coyne that she could now understand that bit more English. The Coynes, along with Harisen and Charity Amin (who I miss terribly) have done so much for the people in Malawi, more than they shall ever know. They are incredible. It is a huge honour to work with the four of them, and I am beyond grateful to them for giving me the opportunity to volunteer with Wells For Zoë. I had the most amazing 8 weeks of my entire life.


I would go back in the morning if I could.


Tawonga chowmeiney.

Visited Malawi

Summer 2010