We arrived in Malawi, welcomed by the blisteringly hot, yet somewhat, vitalising African sun. Frantically we shuffled around Lilongwe Airport trying to exchange British Pounds to Malawian Kwacha, before being quickly moved into a compact Toyota bus and driven towards our lodge, where we would receive the in-country training.

I understood that Malawi was a less economically developed country, however did not realise how significantly less developed it was. The country is bare, mostly covered in vast grasslands stretching far, with the occasional settlement or government building. This is even the case in Lilongwe, the capital, where you would expect some degree of urbanisation. 

Much of Malawi’s population is reliant on agriculture as their primary income source, with the country’s two biggest exports being tobacco and maize. Trade deals favouring importers means that, like many other African countries, Malawi is not given a fair trade price, which is one of the main variables in the reason for its GDP per capital being just USD$226.46, whereas in the United Kingdom it is USD$41,787.47.

The lack of urbanisation does have a silver lining, however, the remarkable night sky. As a person raised in London, the city lights have always acted like tape over a portrait. In Malawi, the tape has been torn revealing the marvels of our cosmic back garden. “There’s the southern cross”, my roommate Ethan says overcome with a childish zest. “I’m pretty sure that’s Centaurus”, I contend, and after an hour long debate we agree it’s the moon and eagerly return watching the night sky.

Our initiation into Malawian culture started in Lilongwe, where we first met the national volunteers, our bemused interpreters, tour guides and friends. We all had our premeditated beliefs of what they would be like. In my case, the national volunteers were supposed to be technologically uninformed, non-English speaking and apprehensive individuals. How wrong I was! They represent the majority of the people in Malawi, well spoken, driven and gracious individuals. Malawi’s future lies in the hands of its youth. If they are like the national volunteers, then its future is bright.

We were next introduced to Chitonga, a bantu language which is a fusion of the languages Chitumbuka and Chichewa. The language itself is quite simple. Very simple, so simple it becomes difficult.  An example of such simple complexities is the phrase “I” which is spoken in three different ways (“Ni”, “Di” and “Um”) depending on the context in which it is spoken.

Language is the first of many cultural differences I have noticed out here in regards to the British and Malawian culture. Most strikingly, for me, is the very traditionalist family dynamics within these households, with grown men typically being the breadwinners, whilst the women and children usually prepare meals and hand-wash clothing, etc. One peculiar difference I have noticed is the Malawians’ tendency to be very forward and take things very literally, dulling our English cynicism.

Our particular project is based in the picturesque Nhkata Bay. Sitting on the shore of the huge Lake Malawi, its population is located within a collection of settlements of varying sizes. The town relies mainly on fishing and farming as their primary income. Tourism has also brought business as well as a cheerful vibe, with its population very welcoming and eager to offer a service. This, however, has attracted the trafficking of narcotics such as marijuana and cocaine to the region, which has contributed to increased levels of drug and substance abuse, teenage pregnancy and sexual reproductive health related issues. As such, our team of thirteen ICS volunteers are helping tackle these issues concerning the youth through education and awareness with our local partner organisation, Youth Net and Counselling (YONECO).

Many of the problems of addiction and sexual health are preventable through educating and inspiring individuals who would normally lack such knowledge. Accordingly, our team uses workshops, trainings and awareness days focusing on key topics like HIV & AIDS, family planning and peer pressure, targeting mainly youths in rural regions of Nhkata Bay and those attending schools.

You would be correct in assuming ICS is not a holiday; it does require a lot from you. Waking up at 6:30am and leaving at 7:30am to take a short cut down a near vertical mud spattered hill, is not as fun as it sounds. Although, providing proactive and sustainable development to the young people here in the “warm heart of Africa” makes it all worth it.

Written by ICS volunteer Yusuf Khan