“What do I have to lose?”, I say to myself as I apply to a programme that I came across by luck. Little did I know that six months later, I’d be on a flight to Malawi (lovely place by the way, you should definitely go) to spend 10 weeks as a volunteer under the International Citizen Service programme for Progressio.  10 weeks of hard work, good times, and an unforgettable experience… Decent. 

After being graced with the news of my successful application, I had to start thinking about fundraising, and instantly I felt like I’d hit a wall. Every fundraising idea seemed either unrealistic or not ambitious enough. This went on for a while until I asked for help from Progressio ICS’s fundraising team. They gave me a bunch of ideas in regards to gaining the attention of others and actual events/activities I could do. Turns out people go nuts for self-embarrassment and a good cow suit. Simply asking people helps to, you’d be surprised. It’s safe to say that without the teachers and student at my sixth form, Chobham Academy, fundraising would have been a lot harder.

Many runs and hours pestering people to give me money later, I met the other UK volunteers for the first time and was on my way to Malawi. Barely knowing one of the many languages spoken in Malawi and having a very vague idea about what life in Malawi would be like, its say to safe that I should have been a little anxious, but strangely I wasn’t. It didn’t feel real, not until after we got off the plane and journeyed to Messa’s Lodge in the capital, Lilongwe. I was taken back by the life bustling through the streets and the seemingly chaotic environment of the markets (I guess somethings are international constants). Then night fell, and we were in awe of the sky above us; realising what light pollution was robbing us of, we just sat there in the field behind the lodge, admiring. Once we were settled in, we completed our in-country orientation and met the national volunteers for the first time. Surprisingly, they greeted us as if we were old friends returning home. They welcomed us to Malawi and did everything they could to make Malawi home for us for the next 10 weeks by aiding us in learning Chitumbuka (the language spoken in the northern region of Malawi) and teaching us the ‘dos and don’ts’  of the culture.

Once the in-country orientation was over, we set off to Rumphi (once again, great place, you should definitely go) where fellow volunteer Daniel Knight (my roommate and now good friend) and I would meet our host family for the first time. The first thing we noticed when we arrived in Rumphi was the view. My God, what a view it was. A small town surrounded by mountains covered in greenery, a river next to the town that flowed in and out of boulders, and a town centre that was active from dawn ‘till dusk.  From this we came up with our team name, Team Mapiri (mountain in Chitumbuka). Our host mum, Joanna (we called her Amama), our brother, Daniel, and sister, Beatrice, were there to welcome us, once again, greeting us with such enthusiasm and truly making us feel at home. Dinner was nsima (the maize-based staple food of Malawi) with some peas and beans (powdered milk is amazing by the way, you should try it, seriously) and we went to bed, ready for our first day of work.

Our partner charity was SPRODETA (Small Producers’ Development and Transport Association). Their mission statement: To enable small producers to come together and carry out inclusive and sustainable development initiatives. That is exactly what we did during our time out in the field. After meeting our field officers, once again, treating us like old friends (I’m beginning to see a trend among the people of Malawi) and making us feel welcome, we set out to achieve our goals, which varied from training farmers on irrigation and beekeeping to running HIV & AIDS workshops and setting up Village Saving and Loans groups. During the placement, we were all given a role to share with a national volunteer (and in my case, a UK volunteer too). Katie-Mae (UK volunteer), Wiza (national volunteer) and I were given the role of Community Liaison. We were in charge of interacting with the community by holding events and keeping up appearances with the community (quick side note: one of the Group Village Headmen liked me so much that I was promoted to honorary GVH, haha). We held two events: a talent show where the locals could come and show us the different skills and talents they have, and a Sports Day, where we set up competitions (with prizes for the winners) and a football match between two of the local teams. Both were a massive success with great turnouts. By the time our placement came to an end, we’d achieved almost all of our targets that we set out at the start and we were preparing to say goodbye to our host family and friends we made during our placement. 

The last few days were rough. We all knew that goodbyes were due, which led to everyone hunting for gifts through the markets of Rumphi in the last few days for our host families. The morning we were meant to go back to Lilongwe for our debriefing, everyone was in a state, and for good reason. We were saying goodbye to the friends and family we made over the course of 10 weeks, which could have possibly been the last time we ever saw them. Once the tough goodbyes were said, Team Mapiri drove out of Rumphi for the last time and were preparing to head back home. Four extremely short days later, we found ourselves saying goodbye all over again to the national volunteers which, once again, was easier said than done. With just the UK volunteers remaining, we reflected on our time in Malawi as we were on a flight back to Heathrow, feeling stronger, wiser, and humbler than ever before. 

Written by ICS Alumni Abdihakim Abdalla (July - September 2015 cycle)