Let me first begin by clarifying that my whole experience in Malawi was memorable, however, there were particular moments that really stood out in my mind and will do so for the remainder of my life.
In Malawi, I worked for a HIV & AIDS organisation called Tovwirane. The charity is based in the northern district of Malawi, in Mzuzu. Our target audience were in and out of school youths and bicycle taxi operators.
1. The cockroach attack
It was me and my room-mate Kate's first evening at our host home. We had just met our host mum and only briefly met our host dad. It was both exciting and slightly nerve racking. We were in a stranger’s home and at that point me and Kate didn't know each other very well, but low and behold we were about to break the ice when we had to form a defence strategy.
ne of the first things that we had discussed was that we weren't squeamish when it came to insects. BUT we had one rule, we were fine with them as long as they weren't on us. As we sat on Kate's bed discussing the day's event, we heard a crunching sound. Was it a rat? Was it a bird? No it was none other than the acclaimed cockroach. Initially we were both cool about it, a cockroach? No problem, we knew there were going to be cockroaches, we'll just get some ‘Deet’ (insect repellent).
Prior to our attempt at Deeting the cockroach we didn't know that when cockroaches get scared they charge forward, the cockroach charged forward and climbed over Kate’s foot. The cockroach crossed the one boundary that we had set... never touch us. After this, it all went downhill. The cockroach went crazy running around the place and then we discovered that these cockroaches were special, they came in pairs. As we were trying to find the first cockroach its fellow soldier (or life partner) appeared, so we were cornered. The second cockroach crossed a boundary we hadn't even considered. The cockroach was in Kate's suitcase.
It was around 21:00 at this point, which is late by Malawian time as everyone is in bed around 19:30. Our host dad is at our door asking if we're OK, apparently we'd been making such a ruckus that it had raised concerns. Let me reiterate that this was the first real encounter we had with our host dad and it ended with him swiftly finding the two criminals and sweeping them away all in the space of two minutes. It was never the same after that night, but for the next four or five days we experienced similar attacks in which the cockroaches arrived in pairs, maybe they'd heard we'd murdered their predecessors and this was their revenge. Kate and I to this day don't know why they came in pairs, but we thought it was only kind that we kill them at the same time so they may spend eternity with their loves.
2. The chickens
My host family were quickly made aware of my love for animals. As a result, following a short trip to the neighbouring town of Rumphi (a small rural town about one hour away from Mzuzu) they returned with two live chickens for myself and Kate to look after. We were both humbled and shocked by such a kind gesture, and an insight into the extent to which they would go to make us feel at home. Unfortunately, however, this is one of the few examples where it didn't end so well for us or the chickens. The next day I returned home from work excited to tend to the chickens, but alas there were no chickens to be found. I asked my host mother where are they and she very gently told me the news that the chickens were in the car for so long that they couldn't walk and unfortunately were sent to chicken heaven (they were also then served for dinner the following day). This was very memorable due to how funny it is. I remember telling my friends and them telling me that the chickens will definitely not be around for long. It's not all bad news, the host family got us a little puppy whom we named Kingsley. We loved Kingsley very much and he was subject to many a selfie session.
3. The first bicycle taxi operator (BTO) session
Our team was Team Kusintha (Team Change). We had six female UK volunteers and four female and two male national volunteers. Having such a female dominated team, and due to the nature of the work we were going to be carrying out, we all had our reservations. Half of our UK team were 18 and the prospect of telling men who were up to 30 years our seniors to be faithful or abstain was a daunting one.
So, when the time had come for me to facilitate one of the sessions, I was beyond nervous. Having witnessed how perfectly executed the previous session, conducted by my fellow team members Jude and Kate, I had my reservations about how well this session would go. Aside from the language barrier, I'm not a very loud speaker and having the session right next to the hustle and bustle of the bus depot only made it worse. However, when the time came, Patricia and I were able to run a nearly hiccup free session, with all of the BTOs paying attention and showing a keen genuine interest. Unfortunately, later on during one of our other teammate’s session the police came along and started confiscating bicycles, consequently leading to the BTOs dispersing and the session abruptly finishing. But from a bad situation good was found, we were able to have one to ones with some of the remaining BTOs and were able to clearly answer any questions they had.
4. The 'myth' debate
As in any work environment, tensions are bound to arise. In our office however they were far and few between. We were incredibly lucky to have such a great team and together we were a strong united front, ready to tackle the challenges ahead. However, when one of the challenges was internal, it sparked a fire in both UK and national volunteers. At the end of one of our peer education sessions, one of our national volunteers had been approached with the question of, “Is it true if I have sex with a woman who has had an abortion you will I die". To us UK volunteers the answer seemed apparent, no. However, to the national volunteers who had grown up with such claims embedded in their culture and often verified by valued members of their communities, the answer wasn't as clear cut. Following a lengthy discussion of how science claims it's not true but someone's distant cousin’s brother had died as a result of said situation, it led to me, a fellow UK and a national volunteer heading to our local hospital to seek a clinical professional’s opinion. The answer was then fed -back to the group and we came to the conclusion that if asked again we simply say, "Scientifically it's not true."
The whole encounter was interesting, not only because of the confusion surrounding the answer, but it was one of the moments where it was apparent how different our cultures were. As UK volunteers, we had all been brought up in an environment where science and facts are held much higher than any form of speculation and due to this we were all perhaps temporarily ignorant to the fact that in the same way we held science as being our answer to everything, they held what was preached in their communities higher.
When speaking to the clinical professional, she herself had said in her daily life she often comes up against such barriers when dealing with patients, and placed a massive emphasis on the people who need to be tackled when it comes to these myths. In the smaller more rural communities, witch doctors, traditional herbalists, pastors, these are all people who are idolised and thus anything that they say or claim is true. This provides a leeway for detrimental damage to occur to people. The debate led to a learning workshop being conducted on common misconceptions that were found in both Malawi and the UK. Examples of these include, “Can I be cured of HIV if I have sex with a virgin" or “Is it true that people with albinism have no blood”. The passing comment after one of our sessions led to a pivotal moment of our experience. We truly learnt the importance of influential leaders in communities and how they affected Malawian culture.
Another instance where this was emphasised was during an interview for World AIDS Day, with two women who had been living with HIV. Both of the women had been living with HIV for over a decade and with the help of their medication and a healthy lifestyle they were enjoying life. One of the ladies even had a young baby with her. A chilling aspect of the interview was when they were asked, “When were you diagnosed and how did you feel”. One of the women, who was a former sex worker, spoke of how at the time she was diagnosed three other men she knew were also diagnosed. Of the four, she was the only one to have survived. The other lady joined at this point and told us how all of her friends who had been diagnosed have since passed away on the advice of pastors. These pastors would claim that they had been healed from HIV by the power of their religion and must not continue to take their medication. Again, a reminder of how the advice of a highly respected individual can lead to deaths. This is of course not representative of the nation or how everyone thinks or deals with such situations, but it definitely was an eye opener into the power of people.
5. George (our Field Officer)
On a brighter note, our field office George Chaipu was without a doubt one of the best things about the whole placement. A true believer in the Malawian Father's Day (a weekly Friday night occurrence where the fathers relieve stress by drinking), George truly embodied all of the things that you'd hope to find in someone working for a charity.
Without George and his extensive contact book or his knack for getting things done no matter what, I can't say if we would have been able to reach out to as many of the people that we did. It was truly refreshing to see such an open minded individual, who was open to all ideas and truly understood how to empathise with someone regardless of where they came from or what their beliefs were. Not only that, he had a sense of humour and unique dance moves, which made a special appearance whenever there was a good beat on.
6. The children
I cannot complete my most memorable moments without mentioning one of the best things about Malawi. The bright eyed happy excited little faces that you see everywhere, the Malawian children. Wherever we would go we would hear a tiny little voice shout “Azungu! Azungu!” and we would find a group of children huddled together egging the brave child to say it again. Whether it was during one of our sessions or on our walk home we were sure to have a little crowd following us eager to touch our hair or receive a smile from us. A lot of our group would exercise early in the morning or in the evenings (we had a lot of carbs in our meals and got a little chub). I recall on one occasion myself and my Team Leader Ellie went for a run around where we lived. Before we knew it, we had a crowd of 40 children running behind us blocking the roads and causing somewhat of a carnage. Neither of us had brought a camera but it truly was an image that will be ingrained in our minds for the rest of our lives.
In the evenings, Kate and I would often have mini parties where we had a group of regulars come around and play with our host brother TK. Our family were lucky enough to have a loud sound system, which created a wonderful foundation for good dancing session.
7. The two schoolboys
During our stay, we conducted two community awareness events. One was in a boarding school where we had brought HIV testing to the school following speculation that the only reason the students were asking for referrals was so they may leave the school grounds. The other was at a secondary school’s grounds following a march. The march was a huge success with our colourful banners and musical truck attracting all the attention we needed to raise awareness, with many passers by joining and holding our banners and chanting along with us. At our event we had a small stage where we had performers dancing, rapping and singing whilst addressing key issues surrounding HIV & AIDS. The day was paired with one of our other Progressio teams who were working for a women's charity. The aim of the day was to raise awareness and get as many people tested.
At one point during the day, I was appointed the task of getting people to take the test. Two boys who happened to be passing by, one being 20 and the other 17, had just finished school and were headed home. That is of course before I got in the way. Immediately they were both reluctant and refused to go ahead with it, and after several minutes of back and forth and after trying every trick in the book (“I've already been tested”, “I have to take my books home”), they both very sheepishly agreed to go ahead with the test. Just as I was walking them to test point, one of them made a comment which struck me, “I don't want to get tested because I'm too scared. What if I do have HIV.” Prior to this point my naivety or ignorance, or both of these things, had kept me from considering that even though HIV is a very real thing in Malawi and everyone is aware of it, the awareness is the same thing that keeps them from being tested. The chances of them being HIV+ are much higher than in most places in the world and this creates a very real and genuine fear that they could have it, and yes, we know it's a condition that they can live with, but as myself or anyone avoids a task they don't want to do or avoids confronting a possible truth, these boys were avoiding something that would turn their lives around. It's amazing how we can be so aware and so unaware at the same time. Here I was encouraging people to go and get tested, when back home I myself would have gingerly approached to do a task that could have a similar outcome. Thankfully these two young men came and found me afterwards and very excitedly waved their pricked middle finger in the air chanting, “We got tested, we're negative". Although, I know the same can't be said for everyone who had been tested that day.
8. The bridal showers
The bridal showers, oh the bridal showers, during our three month stay Kate and I attended approximately 15 bridal showers. Our host mum was a politician and a very popular woman in the community and it was unthinkable if she were not to show her face at these events for at least 30 minutes! And as her understudy daughters (her other daughters were at boarding school), we had the luxury of rolling up with our cool “amama.”
Malawian bridal showers and their weddings are similar, the difference being the outfits worn by the bride and groom. The aim of these events are to raise money to help the new couple to prosper in their new lives and receive words of advice from family members and friends. There was always a presenter and the presenter had a list of names of people who she would call up. The people (nearly always female) would approach the centre of the stage in a half dance/run. They would then start throwing money at the bride and groom and dance for a bit then take their seat while the next group of people are called up. Between each group of people being called up there would be women who would collect the money in baskets and take them to a table at the side where they would count the money. There were also auctions held for household items, such a, storage boxes, etc, all the while there would be background dancers dancing in the traditional Malawian style. The concept of donating money being essential, is an indication of how these small communities support each other, even those who have very little give what they can. The communities are very tight nit and supporting each other is crucial if they are to survive.
9. Coffee Den, Joys and Shoprite
Unfortunately, no matter how much we try, we do love our luxuries. As with many of the placements, there were places in town where we could have delicious meals similar to those we had at home and a Wi-Fi connection. I can assure you we tried, we really did, but we unfortunately succumbed to the allure of Wi-Fi and good food. For us, these things came in the form of Coffee Den, Shoprite and later on we discovered Joys.
Coffee Den was the first place we found with Wi-Fi, with a weak Wi-Fi signal we could barely load a video on Facebook to see Drake dancing ridiculously to hotline bling, but at the time it was all we had and the place had really good ice creams and milkshakes. We often found ourselves wondering over after a day at work.
The true haven really was Shoprite, a luxury that our friends in the more rural areas of Rumphi and Mzimba didn’t have. Shoprite was a large supermarket that stocked items mainly imported from South Africa. Initially the chocolate and sweets section was very scarce but after two weeks or so it was fully stocked. We had our pick of Dairy Milk, Galaxy, KitKat, Crunchies, all things we were certain we could survive without, but why do that? Also if you're going to get fat from rice you may as well get fat from a delicious peanut butter chunky KitKat (perhaps not peanut butter if you're Laura from my team who doesn’t like peanut butter). Shoprite was but a brisk walk from our office and so we had lunch there almost every day, they had a bakery section and readymade sandwiches (only for the equivalent of 25p!) or roasted potatoes or pasta or whatever you fancied really.
Every day we would all sit on a bench and bond over how poor our diets were getting but loving every moment of it. Shoprite was the place where you'd bump into everyone, quite often we'd have kids come up to us saying, “hey it was you who did the HIV session”, or you'd bump into the city AIDS Coordinator and not recognise him.
Written by ICS Alumni Ikram El Farsi (October - December 2015 cycle)