A Reflection: Three Weeks Volunteering in Mzuzu, Malawi, with Wells for Zoë
I travelled to Malawi in July 2010 for three weeks volunteer work with Wells for Zoë. Getting on the plane in Dublin airport to board the first of my three flights, I’ll be honest I had no idea what to expect from this experience. The words of encouragement and support that I received before I left made me believe that this trip was going to be totally different to any travelling I’d done before. It certainly was!
I suppose my trip didn’t get off to the best start, getting stranded alone in Addis Ababba in Ethiopia for 24 hours with no mobile phone network or internet access was quite frightening! However, I arrived in Lilongwe eventually to a smiling Michelle and I’d never been happier to see her in my life! It was a character building exercise and I came out the other end! I was so glad to be finally in Malawi that the 5 hour car journey to Mzuzu seemed delightful! Looking out the window on the journey I realised the beauty of this country and I was amazed by the remoteness of the small villages which could be spread apart for miles and miles! The people walked in their thousands up and down the roads and they were never empty handed or empty headed as was the case!!! How do they do it, I wondered? Some Irish people (myself included!) can barely walk to the local shop and here they were walking miles and often carrying heavy loads-their strength was inspiring!
Arriving at Arás Fáilte, our lodgings for our stay, I realised that if I did have any expectations, our accommodation went far beyond anything I could’ve imagined! There were four bedrooms with bunk-beds, a wardrobe and all en-suite! There was a kitchen equipped with all modern appliances, even a microwave! There was also a living area with couches and a coffee table. I couldn’t believe I was in Africa in this house, it was just like home! We were privileged to be the first lodgers in the newly built Arás Fáilte although this meant that there were a few snags that still needed to be fixed including leaking taps, cold showers and power and water shortages. These were daily inconveniences but putting things into perspective they were minor in comparison to what the Malawian people live with and it really made me appreciate my own living standards at home. We made Arás Fáilte our home and every evening all the volunteers would sit together and eat a meal cooked by two of the volunteers. Everyone cooked in pairs and we all had a day to cook. There was stiff competition over the cheapest meals, the tastiest and the dessert of course!!! I’ve never eaten so well in my life. It was ironic and sad to think that we had so much to eat when there were people not far away from us who were starving. Such are the injustices of this world and I think it’s important while in Malawi to try not to dwell too much on thoughts like this as you would feel that you were getting nowhere if that were the case. You have to keep reminding yourself that you came here to make a difference no matter how small it may seem.
‘What did you while you were there?’ is probably the question I get asked most after returning. I found myself replying ‘oh, we just helped out in a pre-school and taught for two days in a primary school.’ To be honest, now that I’ve had time to sit down and reflect upon the experience I can see that what we actually did cannot be justified into one sentence alone. Most mornings began about 6.30am and we were up dressed, with breakfast eaten and out the door by 7.30am. Usually our mornings were spent in the pre-school named Arás Kate. Arás Kate was set up by Wells for Zoë for children living in what could be described as the city slums of Mzuzu known as Salisbury Line. There were 250 children divided between two classrooms. The children sat on benches at long tables that fitted about 20-25 children. There were about 8 Malawian teachers working in the pre-school, although only two or three of them had teaching qualifications. Coming from a class of 21 I found the first day in the pre-school completely overwhelming. There were children everywhere! Then they began singing and dancing and I was blown away! They were AMAZING! The music and dancing was so uplifting. It brought the most beautiful smiles to the children’s faces and to us the volunteers as well!
I was surprised at how structured the day was in the pre-school as this was Africa after-all and I had learned early on that this meant no routine, no structure and no pressure to get things done fast! The influence that Mary Coyne’s expertise in education had on this school was immediately evident. There were breaks, eating time (the cost of the porridge, called sema, that the children ate everyday is funded by Wells for Zoë), music and activity time fitted into the day. There were teachers in the school who were excellent, full of energy and enthusiasm for teaching the children. They were eager to learn new skills from us the qualified teachers. Unfortunately not all the teachers shared this enthusiasm or perhaps they just didn’t have confidence in themselves and their teaching skills. It would be naive to believe that Arás Kate ran this smoothly when Mary and John or the volunteers weren’t there. This was one of the most frustrating things about teaching in Malawi, you can hand out advice and ideas but you can never be certain what would be done when you left. We were particularly disappointed on one particular day when we cleared out a storage room in Arás Kate and found beautiful educational materials and resources stored away on shelves that had never been used before. This just highlights the huge need for training these teachers to be competent and confident in what they do so that they can make the best use possible with the resources they are provided with. The Malawian people are so resourceful themselves that no doubt when given the opportunities they could achieve so much.
Wells for Zoë are involved with other pre-schools and schools which we had the opportunity to visit. Our time spent giving in-service and teaching in Luvuwu Priamry School was probably one of the most rewarding experiences of my trip. We planned and prepared our lessons each night with the other volunteer teachers which was always a great laugh!!! It felt like we were on Teaching Practice again preparing our lessons together for the next day. We had to work from the basics, paper, crayons and scissors (these were donated materials, not widely available in Malawi)! The resources were simple and a far cry to anything I’d use in my classroom in Ireland. However, in Malawi they were invaluable and the children enjoyed the interactive element of my lessons. In fact 64 children screaming, jumping and waving their hands in front of you to answer a question is quite an experience indeed!!! The education system in Malawi is way behind the times and reminds me of the old Irish educational system where rote learning is the primary method and there are no chances for any children who may have special needs. Looking at how far the Irish education system has come in the past 50 years gives hope that Malawi can progress, even if this progress is slow.
Other projects where we visited or helped out included the farm in Lusangazi, the birthing centre, St John of God’s Centre and the pump factory. I could go on forever describing each and every project Wells for Zoe is involved in. One memory of my trip that will forever remain with me is the day we went with Harisen and William to watch them fix a pump which had broken in an extremely remote region outside Mzuzu. The women saw us coming and they stood around the well singing and dancing for us while the boys fixed the pump for them. They had been without clean water for some time and they were so delighted to finally have clean running water.
I cannot finish this reflection without mentioning the volunteers whom I shared this experience with. We all came from different walks of life and all with our own individual personalities. However we all shared one thing, our commitment to sharing our expertise and helping the people of Malawi. We also shared a ‘joie de vivre’ which was essential for living in Malawi, in a busy house with plenty of activity and buzz all around! I’ll always remember the fun times and laughs we had in Arás Fáilte in the evenings!
In a recent reunion in the Coyne’s household Mary read out one of the many pieces John has written about Wells for Zoë. This particular piece was written about the volunteers. John described the volunteer experience as ‘nourishment for the soul’. This, for me, really provides a true description of what the Malawian experience can provide for a volunteer. Since returning I find myself looking at all I have and realising how lucky we are here, recession and all! In my class I’m constantly reminding the children to be grateful for all that they have. They were amazed looking at the photographs which I showed them on our interactive whiteboard – a far cry to anything the people in Malawi have!
Mary and John are a true inspiration for the commitment and energy they put into Malawi. I wish you well in your next trip and I hope to remain involved in Wells for Zoë in future years to come.
Summer Volunteer July 2010