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Sarah Ní Ghallachóir

Volunteering with Wells for Zoë, Mzuzu, Malawi
June/July 2015


When my good friend and colleague Fiona asked me what my plans were for the summer holidays, I told her that for the first time since starting teaching 8 years ago, I had none; she seized the opportunity and said “let’s go to Malawi”. No. No, no, no was my answer. I had been through a tough 6 months and having been to East Africa in 2011, I knew Africa was hard. I wanted a holiday, a chance to breathe and regroup, drink cocktails by a pool, reading the adventures of Jon Snow in “The Game of Thrones”! No, Africa was not what I needed. So when we boarded our flight a little more than six weeks later, no one was more surprised than me!


When flights were booked, we looked to what we could bring with us for our month’s stay in Mzuzu, Northern Malawi. Having spoken to Mary and John, we learned that one of the items they were in need of in Malawi was bras, so we set up a Facebook page and invited all our family and friends to donate one or two of their used bras. The beauty and miraculous power of social media was quickly made apparent and we started getting bras from Over 50s clubs, Slimming World groups and individuals who tormented everyone around them for weeks! They came from every corner of Ireland and as far away as America and England. Eventually we had over 2,500 bras of every colour, shape and size; unbelievable!


When people asked if there was anything else we needed, we started getting donations of clothes, underwear and stationary – faith in humanity was without doubt restored. People are good. And ultimately I think that’s one of the most important realisations I’ve had on this journey – people want to help, they want to do their bit.


When we first arrived in Mzuzu, after nearly two days of travelling, feelings of excitement, determination and nervousness were definitely to the fore – I worried that I wouldn’t actually be of any use, that I’d be awkward and lack the traits that a job like this entails. It didn’t take long for us to settle in and any worries I had subsided, as Mama Phil (the housekeeper in Fáilte Lodge) showed us around our lodgings for the month! With all modern appliances available to us, I began to relax and started thinking it might not be so hard after all!


We quickly got into our own routine. For the first two weeks, we got up between 6-7 am most days, spending our days between Zolo Zolo Secondary School, Mica Pre-school and out with Alfred and the boys from the factory fitting water pumps.


The smells were always what make me remember that I was in Africa, the smells and the red earth. Burning rubbish, diesel, food cooking – all equally familiar and alien. I loved being a part of the community, learning the different nuances, hearing their stories, about the locals’ superstitions, realising that getting a taxi means putting your hand out for any person driving a car to take you to your desired destination!


Teaching in Zolo Zolo was a great experience; challenging me in ways that teaching at home hadn’t in a while. Suddenly, I was forced to think outside the box, get creative and plan my lessons without my best friend the photocopier, or my good pal: the projector!


My form one English class had 82 students, but I needn’t have worried about discipline issues; unfortunately corporal punishment is still very much in use in Malawi, often doled out by an older student in the class (ages vary significantly as the students are made to repeat if they don’t pass the exams at the end of the year). The kids were a joy to teach; enthusiastic and smart and very eager to get as much out of the class as possible.


Secondary school education is very much seen as a privilege in Malawi, with only those who can afford to pay the fees at second level, able to avail of the opportunity. Fees vary, the cheapest I experienced was 9,000 kwacha with the most expensive I heard of reaching 32,000 kwacha (€4.50-€16) per term and of course uniform and books after that. It was disheartening and frustrating to know that so many bright and ambitious young children were being denied what we deem to be one of the most basic of human rights. Thankfully with some of the donated money we raised we were able to pay these fees for some students, something Wells for Zoë is becoming more involved in every year.


Mica Pre-school was our happy place while we stayed in Mzuzu! Run by the most amazing caregivers: Miriam, Margaret and Jen. Here, we sang, danced, cuddled and played with the most charming and beautiful little ones. We spent hours with them, reading, being licked, getting our hair done, and generally making them smile! Their stories of malaria, HIV (which effects 1 in 5 people in Mzuzu), being orphaned, abuse and prostitution (both disgustingly prevalent in Malawi) broke our hearts and made us more determined to help in any way possible.


Mica was our first big donation drop, we brought them underwear and clothes and came back another day with toys for them. We followed this donation drop with more: in old age projects, Umoza groups (street children), primary schools, adult education centres and a special needs vocational school, as well as in remote villages we visited while installing the pumps. It’s difficult to effectively describe the abject joy these donations brought to so many different faces during our time in Malawi. Whether we dressed a child from head to toe, or gave them a pair of underpants, the reaction was the same; joy, pure and utter, unrestricted happiness. And this above all else is what I will remember in years to come when I think of the month we spent in this beautiful country. As Mary often reminded us: people gave us the smarties and we gave the smarties out!


The water pumps are what started Mary and John’s journey. They are the most tangible and significant contribution which Wells for Zoë’s donors have made. The reactions of the villagers as they see water flowing from their pump is beautiful, with singing and giggles mingling with the rush of water, it is a sight to behold. One I will treasure always. We were thrilled to be able to pay for 4 pumps to be fitted with the money we raised. A sustainable lifeline for hundreds of people in the most rural of villages. We loved the pump days, even though they often entailed hours of horrific roads (the most loose definition of the word), the sheer excitement and beauty of those smiling faces was enough to leave us wanting more and more!

Mary, John and two other volunteers; Clare and Cathal, arrived during our third week in Malawi. This is when we got an insight into how hard it is to be a functioning, on the ground, connected organisation, in a country which is seemingly unabashedly corrupt. We got to experience the day to day running of Wells for Zoë; visiting projects, sitting in on meetings and generally getting a perspective on the daily challenges faced by Mary and John in their mission to make life better in Malawi.


These interactions are why I will always be a supporter of Wells for Zoë and the Coynes. Their commitment, passion and focus are inspirational. They are the constants, the campaigners, the supporters and the champions of the people of Northern Malawi. But what I liked the most was their mantra, which was evidently put to practice every day – “we give them a hand up, not a handout”. This is the future of Malawi, the only way they can move forward.


As the Irish saying goes “Go leor déanta, neart eile le déanamh!”


Sarah Ní Ghallachóir
Teacher, Colaiste Eoin, Stillorgan, Co. Dublin, Ireland
w4z Volunteer June/July 2015

Visited Malawi

June/July 2015