Culture and religion together define the key dimensional aspects that influence society, setting up behaviours within the community. Malawi is not an exception to this predicament as the laws, beliefs and experiences tend to revolve around these spheres.
For Team Zeneko in Mzuzu, Malawi, such influence on the society is reflected and shared by most of the volunteer’s experiences, who now head into the sixth week of their placement. Both religious and traditional leaders are largely regarded as a symbol of respect and virtue and they seem to command huge following in both churches/mosques and the community at large.
During the period that Team Zeneko has been in Mzuzu, it has managed to organise three successful meetings with leaders from different denominations and faith communities.
In the first month of the placement the team held its first meeting with these leaders, which was primarily concerned with introducing the work of our partner organisation the Centre for Girls and Interaction (CEGI); clearing any misconceptions and stereotypes that the community (especially religious leaders) had towards the partner organisation and to promote the role that the religious leaders are to play on the issue of keeping girls in school. This encounter offered religious leaders a chance to understand the work of CEGI and International Citizen Service (ICS) first-hand. Moreover, the religious leaders’ input provided us with a whole new perspective on how ICS could effectively approach the community and ultimately integrate well into Malawi’s culture.
During this meeting it became apparent how culture and religion affect people’s behaviours. For instance, female volunteers from the UK were advised to put on a wrap (Chitenje) to cover their legs before attending the meeting. They were also advised to be conscious of the use of some words like ‘condoms’ and ‘sexuality’ as these terms could have misinterpreted within both religious and community context.
It was also interesting to note that the leaders, despite coming from different backgrounds, came out of their shells and became engaged in most of the gender topics and ultimately showed interest and offered support and space in their respective congregations for the team to reach out to the youths in both churches and mosques.
Team Zeneko managed to draw positives outcomes from the meetings, such as the newly established relationship between CEGI and the religious services to spread our message about gender equality amongst parents in the community.
It would be safe to say that Team Zeneko is taking a noteworthy initiative in engaging with the community, particularly religious leaders. The team is aware of the significant influence that such engagement has, because these leaders command a huge congregation which is a key target towards making a change in the local community.
Team Zeneko is also privileged to have a pool of hardworking members, particularly within the community liaison team, led by our volunteers Sara and Memory. They have played a pivotal role in effectively organising such meetings.
As a result of these meeting, Team Zeneko has been able to successfully integrate in the faith community. The religious leaders are playing a key role identifying young and vulnerable single mothers to support the team's special project, which is to be implemented soon. Finally, we have planned an inter-religious community event, which will take place on 5 December to mark the celebrations of International Volunteers Day. The aim of the event will be to use the influence of the religious leader, who will publicly advocate for volunteerism as well as promoting gender equality.
Written by ICS volunteer Uchindami Mzumara. Photos by Ellie Craven-Todd and Francis Masingi.