After having spent the evening with Ernest and Ethyl playing cards, and speaking at length about the wonder that is the sandwich, I sat them both down to further understand their experience so far on the ICS programme. The two of them had been with ICS for the previous placement also and I was eager to find out more. From our conversation it was clear that certain instances in the placement had made a particular impression on them, exposing the harsher realities set in their communities.
People live differently
Ernest: We just hear that people are poor but being on the programme I had to witness it with my own eyes. I’ll give an example, somewhere in Thandazga people were drinking water from a stream. From town where I live and that place it is only 2-3 km and people there are drinking unsafe water, I thought what is going on?! We also had a chance to work with vulnerable families and hear their story. There was an old woman who had 14 children. Some were grandchildren and she had to receive all of them, but the woman is sick. She is HIV-positive and has cancer. She works at the hospital from 6 to 6, but she has to take care of the family too. The amount of money she saves is 10,000 K a month (approx. £20), but she spends the whole amount on medication but she has to pay for the children at home. Others are living another life. At first I was like, "everyone lives the same life". The life I live, everyone leads the same life. But after I have seen that I realised people live differently. I want to do something, whether it is small or big it will make an impact, it will always make an impact.
Poverty and HIV
For Ethyl it was their work with the HIV support groups which helped her to really see just how poverty can affect the lives of individuals.
Ethyl: People who are living in the town who are HIV-positive, [but] it is different for people living deep, deep in the communities. The people deep in the community are really suffering, just in terms of their nutrition and things. They may only eat once which is not good for their health. Another thing is for the people who are HIV-positive living in the communities they don’t know much about what HIV is or what ARVs (Anti Retro-Viral drugs) are. The sad thing is, is that they only realise this is the change on [their] body but they don’t know what is happening with [them] – "I go to the hospital they give me the drugs" is what they say but they don’t know much information.
New realities, personal growth
They went on to speak about the various lessons they had learnt and the extent to which it had really opened their eyes to things they had previously only ever heard about on the radio, or read in books. It was obvious that the programme had exposed them to a multitude of realities, but how had it changed them on a personal level?
Confidence. It was hard for me to believe that either of them lacked any confidence in the slightest before joining the ICS programme having seen just how self-assured they were now. They laughed at this and exclaimed that they now felt like those who could lead if they wished and have conviction in their speech.
Ernest: I feel like I can make an impact in the community. At first I was like, "I can’t stand in front of people", and so I thought I need to do it. When I was at secondary school I was like a prefect. Every Friday we would have an assembly and the prefects had to present but I would say no and say I would not go there. I said I would quit if I had to [present]. But now if there is anything, I will go. Now I have 101% confidence I can talk. I can talk to anyone.
Learning a lot
I sat there listening intently, smiling the entire time. It was so wonderful to hear them speak of all that they had gotten from the programme with the utmost sincerity. It was now clear how they had benefitted from the placement, but I began to get curious about what the UK volunteers had taught them, if anything.
Ethyl: I can say I have learnt a lot of things from them. The thing that touches me a lot is that they came from a developed country and are coming to a developing country, living in conditions that are not maybe comfortable for them. They are trying their best to suit the environment and are also helping other people’s communities...
I have learnt a lot. Here in Malawi when we say that maybe dig a compost pit, people here they just dig a hole but with these guys they have taught us to say okay there are stages and all sorts of activities. They look at how we can plan things. When we are going into the communities we do take all the information with us and we ask ourselves how we can work on it, how can we research etc...
I have learnt how to write reports. Here in Malawi of course people like to use computers but it’s mainly Word, they don’t go so much on PowerPoint and so I’ve learnt a lot. I have to say also that the system of monitoring and evaluation is also very different. The UK volunteers they really really go deep into things to get good results. They go step by step by step and they come up with a good conclusion, yeah I have learnt a lot, a lot, a lot of things!
A passion for volunteering
Ernest: It’s like you guys have come here, it’s a unique thing, you had passion. These things you are doing here we can do it if we could just get organised but it would take time. I remember the time we went to an orientation I think it was Godwin (Progressio logistics officer) who said like “next time these guys are gone, the local guys have to do something using your own resources, you should try to think what you can do. You should do something similar to the ICS guys”. So yeah it was like true. I have seen these guys come all the way because they have passion. They have come here to make an impact to someone who they don’t know and I guess they will never meet again in life but they just want to help them. It makes us think to ourselves why we cannot do the same, especially when we are closer to these people than they are...
The time thing
The other thing was the time thing. At first I was just too late. I’ve improved because you guys are good time keepers! When you say 8 o’clock its really 8 o’clock. If you come into the office late everyone in the office looks at you like "what?! This is not Malawi time".
Ethyl: Again I can say the most important thing we have learnt is trying to get organised.
What is 'development'?
It was interesting at this point then to explore further about how or if their views on development itself had been altered. This was of particular interest to me as my own reasons for applying to ICS could all be related back to my desire for wanting to learn more about the sector.
Ethyl: Yeah , I can say that I never used to think about it. I would just hear that people go into the villages and they work there. I couldn’t really picture what happens there. I didn’t know about what the issues are there, or the conditions in those places. Here we go to the places and I see the conditions for myself and that’s when I said to myself okay so this is what happens...
Even when you read the newspaper they just come straight to the stories not explaining details. When you go there you meet the villagers, the chiefs, you see what they do, so before I knew nothing really. We get to go deep into the communities and see their living standards when we assess them.
Ernest: We take things for granted. When you go to the village you think what you know they also know. One time I was asking a question and I was thinking "do they not know the answer here?" I realised then that they literally did not know the answer. I then thought that okay this is development, but you can’t really see it with your eyes and see that things are changing. You see that they don’t know the answer, and this person can be twice your age and he literally doesn’t know the answer. This is where you can come in and be like, okay, this thing is ABCD...
You can’t always see development. For example, you guys you’ll be here for a short period and people won’t see anything but someone 2 years from today will be like, "I think those guys, this is their fruit". So yes it's development. It’s slow but it happens.
What does a volunteer need?
Without a doubt Ethyl and Ernest were glad they had seized the opportunity to work with Progressio regardless of any hardships that were faced along the way. Having already experienced work with ICS once, I felt that it was definitely worthwhile asking them if they had any words of advice or encouragement for potential applicants.
Ethyl: I can say that first of all they have to have passion. If you do not have passion then you cannot work. You have to be a hard worker, a really really hard worker because there are ups and downs. In this programme there are ups and downs in terms of logistics so it’s like if you’re not a hard worker you’ll just think that its bringing you down and you’ll say I’ve tried this and that and then you would want to quit. So yeah you have to be a hard worker and have passion. Going to the communities you will meet a lot of people there and meet elders so you have to be knowledgeable about the information you are giving. You can’t just create something as you go along.
Ernest: I think I shall just add on that one and underline the word passion. It’s the main thing; I’ll be saying this point for both the local or international volunteers. If you don’t have passion the whole three months then will just be a total mess to you. You have to think that you want to make an impact. For you guys all of this is worth learning. For others they’re just reading books but you get to see the realities.
It's not about money...
Ethyl: …and another thing, the only problem that we are having here is when people see you what they think of is money, but ICS is not about giving money. It is about improving the living standards of the people who are living in the communities. Another thing you have to be that person who can easily suit the environment. You can easily fall into a trap of feeling as though things are boring, and if you do that then nothing will work. You have to have the spirit of working as a team and be active. When it comes to planning and doing presentations you are not going to take anything out of it if you are not active.
Ernest: If you want to make an impact in the community without seeking benefits for yourself then try it and you won’t regret it!
Learning from each other
With that I stopped the dictaphone and we returned to our card game. It dawned on me quite soon after the interview that our talk had helped me to gain a greater insight into what ICS had the potential to offer. Though funded by UK government bodies its advantages evidently are anything but just local. We carried on, the entire team, enjoying one another’s company, continuously learning from each other and becoming the better for it. I felt optimistic and motivated to ensure that at some point I’d be able to speak just as highly of my time here as Ernest and Ethyl had done so today.
UK Progressio ICS volunteer Sammy Hussain chats to Malawian volunteers Ethyl and Ernest about their experiences of ICS.
Photo: Ernest and Ethyl