Well, where on earth do I start?! Our time in Africa, so far, has been epic! We have met so many great people and even been in very close proximity with a real life Malawian Minister!

First of all, the journey to Malawi was a long one BUT this was a perfect opportunity for us, as a group, to bond with each other. When we arrived in the capital we were greeted by the one, the only, ‘Godders’ aka Godwin Kamanga - what a chap he is! He then guided us to the coach and we were whisked through the capital to St. John’s Convent where we were to have our in-country training (stopping en route for our first Malawian meal… pizza, obviously). 

We were then trained for a week, setting us up nicely for our next three months living in Malawi. This week was also an opportunity to meet our Malawian counterparts; the in-country volunteers who were selected to join us in our Progressio ICS experience. They greeted us warmly and their generous hospitality has continued ever since.

We were taught the basics of the Chichewa language and were also given plenty of background on the culture of the country (which is very different to ours by the way) by two amazing tutors, Austin and Fransiswell. Chichewa is the main language of Malawi and is the most widely spoken. Austin was an incredible teacher and kept the class engaged with plenty of energisers but the in-country volunteers have also proved invaluable in helping us to pick up useful phrases and expressions. It helps that they have amazing English (putting us to shame)! In fact, for anything Malawi related, you can count on them to supply you with the knowledge.

When the training came to an end, we separated into our three groups which each comprised of UK and Malawi volunteers, and then headed off to different parts of the country to work on projects of varying themes, from HIV and AIDS to wildlife conservation. Our group is working with COWLHA (Coalition of Women Living with HIV and AIDS) and we’re based in Nkhotakota in the central region. It’s a tremendous town full of life and situated on the picturesque shores of the famous Lake Malawi. 

But now let’s get down to the really important stuff… the project itself. COWLHA is a nationwide organisation working with women and girls living with HIV and AIDS to help them assert their sexual and reproductive health rights. They are currently running a project called “We Have Rights Too!”, which addresses the harsh reality that many of these women have experienced violations of their rights at some point. A violation can be made by anybody but the most common violators cited by women include health workers, intimate partners and traditional leaders. Our Field Officer, Annie, equipped us with lots of knowledge about exactly what defines a violation ahead of our planned visits to the local support groups that COWLHA works with. A violation can be anything from a partner’s refusal to use contraception to poor medical advice or verbal insults. It is an extremely broad topic though and every day the organisation is discovering new forms of violations, reported by their target group of women.

At the aforementioned support groups we have been lucky enough to hear first-hand about how the members have adapted to life since being diagnosed as HIV Positive and about the challenges they have faced. These meetings are so important because they bring women with HIV/AIDS together so that they can all fight their problems as a team and support each other on any issue. With the help of COWLHA, they are also learning more and more about their rights and are feeling increasingly confident in exercising them. We have all been impressed by how confidently the women speak and the openness with which they talk about what they have been through. Some of the groups have also established small businesses, such as sewing bags and school uniforms, in a bid to empower themselves economically and gain financial independence. 

At every meeting, regardless of where it takes place or who is in attendance, there is plenty of singing and dancing and us volunteers are always welcomed with open arms (even if our dance moves are sometimes a little questionable). It’s inspiring to be part of these gatherings and to see just how optimistic and upbeat these ladies (and men – every group we have visited so far has had a small number of male attendees too) are, despite their often difficult circumstances. 

In terms of objectives for the rest of our placement, COWLHA are particularly keen for us to work on trying to attract more youth to support groups. Currently young people diagnosed as HIV Positive face huge stigma from their peers and are often told that they will never be married. For these reasons, they are hesitant to attend meetings for fear of their status being known to the community. We have heard that some youths do confide in the support group Peer Educators in secret but generally reject the invitation to join the wider gatherings. Involving youth is going to be a real challenge and we have to be realistic that this isn’t an issue which will be resolved overnight. However, as a team we hope to gain some more insight and lay the foundations for the future cycles of Progressio ICS volunteers working on this project.

So, it’s probably time to sign off but we really are having the best time here in the immense heat and are always excited for the next day, to find out what we will be doing and who we will be meeting. We’ll be sure to keep you posted on our progress!

UK Progressio ICS volunteer Robert Browning (not the famous poet!) Team Nkotakota

Photo: View of Lake Malawi in Nkotakota