Nationality: New Zealander
Placement Country: Malawi
Name of the placement: Mudi Community Day Secondary School
What made you volunteer in the first place?
Towards the end of year 13 I started to think that I didn’t want to rush straight into university. I wasn’t sure of my career path and having been so busy at school I didn’t feel ready to leap into yet another stressful year of studying. I knew that I wanted to experience the world. Getting out of New Zealand and travelling was always something I was keen to do as soon as possible and my parents were very supportive of that. I looked into doing volunteer work as I thought it would be more rewarding than simply travelling and would give me a chance to give something back to a community and really live the life rather than just appreciating the tourist sites.
I chose Malawi because I wanted a change. I wanted a challenge. I was up for something completely new and out of my western, first world comfort zone. Africa always just seemed so far removed from our little world in NZ and I was eager to explore somewhere totally different. Malawi also stuck out to me as it looked like a country where volunteers were really needed and therefore could make a significant contribution and help out people in need.
Lattitude were the first and only volunteer organization I looked into for my gap year. I hadn’t seen any other organisations that offered placements that interested me. I wasn’t that keen on Camp America or Canada as I was looking to volunteer in a third world country where I could make a significant difference. I checked out the Lattitude website and watched all the videos of past volunteers and it just seemed like such an awesome experience that suited me and matched up to what I had hoped to get out of my gap year.
Can you describe your placement in detail?
I was placed along side 4 other girls from NZ, Canada and Australia in Makata Village. Makata was a lovely little village situated in the Southern region of Malawi close to Blantyre. The village was 7km off the main gravel road and we travelled in and out using the best form of local transport- Motorbike and Bicycle taxis. The ride definitely took some getting used to on the bumpy and uneven dirt road but it was pretty efficient. (Not to mention extremely fun!) Our village had a small trading center where tomatoes, onions and occasionally green veg, potatoes or mangos were sold cheaply depending on the season. We could also buy rice, maize flour, bread and packaged soy ‘meat’ in the little shops at the local market that sell inexpensive household items like soap. The trading center was good enough for buying most of the food we needed each week.
If we wanted a treat or wanted to get things in bulk we would go to Lunzu. Lunzu is our nearest town, which is on the main road. Lunzu had big markets where we could buy anything we needed like shoes, clothes, food, phone credit etc. Lunzu was also where we caught minivans to Blantyre City. It was only a half an hour ride into the City, which was very convenient! From Blantyre we could catch big and small buses just about anywhere so we would always pass through when travelling. Makata Village was a very warm, welcoming village and the people loved to chat with us. It had a small CCAP church, primary school and secondary school. The people lived in traditional mud brick houses, some with metal roofs and some grass.
Could you tell us about your role there?
While I was in the village I was working as a teacher at Mudi Community Day Secondary School. I taught both form one and form three physics and chemistry. Being the one of only two science teachers at the school I was pretty busy, teaching 20 periods a week. At first this was a handful and pretty stressful as I had never had any teaching experience before and was thrown straight in to teaching a class of 80 students topics which I had only just been taught myself. However as the students got used to me and I settled into my role it became almost second nature. The relationships I was able to build with the students are something I will always treasure and I am so grateful for. Although teaching was daunting at first, it gave me so much in return. While I was teaching I was also learning a lot and I am so happy I took the opportunity to do that. School began at 7.30am and finished at 2pm. After school we would do some marking if we needed and then just play with all the young kids who came to our house every day, rain or shine!
Can you describe your accommodation?
Our accommodation was situated inside the secondary school grounds. We lived in a mud-brick walled house on the outside with concrete on the inside and a metal, corrugated iron roof. There were two rooms, one that was bigger in which 3 of us slept and we kept our food and things. The other was smaller which 2 girls slept in. Out back of the house we had a grass-fenced area with a small mud hut for bathing in (Bucket Showers) and another small mud hut long drop toilet. We also had a little iron shed, which we cooked inside when it was too rainy or windy to cook outside. We had no running water in our house, but the secondary school had taps with running water although they stopped working very frequently so we took many trips to the local bore hole with our buckets.
We didn’t have any electricity at all for the first month, but we were lucky enough to be given a solar power system later on which powered a light bulb in each room and charged our phones. We each had our own bed made after the first month and we had foam mattresses and mosquito nets. It was a small house for 5 people, but it was cozy and safe and I really liked it. We adopted a pet dog who kept us company and scared most of the snakes away!
How did you cope with the big differences between Fiji and home?
Malawi well and truly lived up to its nickname “The Warm Heart of Africa.” The people are the most kind, generous and welcoming people I have ever come across. This made my experience so amazing. To be completely honest I didn’t really struggle with homesickness at all during my trip. From day one the village took us in and helped us to learn the way of life. They taught us to cook, clean, dress, speak the language, carry water, light fires and so much more. It was challenging at first getting used to a new way of life and just growing accustomed to basic things like learning a new language, coping with the heat and greeting each and every person in a room. However it was never unbearable. Whenever you were stuck or feeling down there was always someone to help you or a kid to give you cuddles and make you smile. I thought I would think about home a lot more than I did, but the truth is that when you are there immersed in such a loving, welcoming new culture it becomes home quicker than you know it.
Can you tell us some of your favourite moments?
It is honestly impossible to narrow it down to one favorite moment. There wasn’t a single day where I didn’t laugh and smile or have a funny story to tell the other girls before bed. One of my best memories though was during the first week at placement. It was a tough week and we were all feeling a little overwhelmed. One evening about 10 or so of the kids in the village came over to our house and sat on our porch and sung songs and taught us the words and we were all just so happy. It doesn’t seem like an amazing moment when I write about it and after that we had countless more evenings like that one. But that evening was the moment when I just felt something that made me realize why I was there and that was when I really began to fall in love Malawi and the people. In my diary I wrote “Moments like these make up for all the difficulties of living a third world life and remind me why I’m doing this.”
How about the toughest times?
I’m not going to lie the first month was hard. There was so much to take in and so much to learn, that 6 months ahead of us seemed pretty daunting. I became so close with the other girls though and we all agreed in the end, that we were thankful the first month was such a challenge. Without the challenge we wouldn’t have bonded as quickly and we wouldn’t have nearly as many stories to tell. If the past 6 months were just easy it wouldn’t have been satisfying. We faced challenges but we came out so much stronger and more resilient.
Can you tell us how you developed personally whilst in Malawi?
During my time in Malawi I definitely can say I developed as a person. I have learnt so much from the people in Malawi in so many different ways. Witnessing how happy people are over there, when they have next to nothing has reinforced for me that money and material things will never be a central feature of my life. True happiness is based on who you are inside and your relationship with people and the world around you. Coming home you really appreciate all the things we take for granted. I have definitely become a lot more independent and self confident from living and travelling without parents over looking. After adapting to a lifestyle and culture completely different to anything I’d ever been exposed to, I feel like I have become a lot more open to new challenges and changes.
What are your plans now you are home?
Now that I’m home I’m planning to apply to University for next year to study Law. My broader plan for the future is to branch off into Human Rights Law and International Development. My experience in Malawi has definitely shaped my goals for the future. Before I left I was enrolled to do Health Sciences hoping for a career in medicine. However, being in Malawi I realized I wanted to help people in a different way. Volunteering in Malawi opened my eyes to so many ways in which I can make a difference to people in need. Living like the locals do teaches you the difficulties and challenges people in a developing country face, in a way that you can’t possibly learn just from observation or research.
I’ve noticed how privileged we are in New Zealand to live the life we do and for all the opportunities we get and I’m passionate about doing my part to help less fortunate people get the same opportunities. Malawi will always have a place in my heart and I hope to return one day when I am more educated and can help even more.