The moment we stepped off the plane we had a warm welcome from our Malawi team leaders Kirstie, John and Hiliwona. What followed was a week of getting to know not just our fellow team mates but also the environment we were to live, learn and work in for the next couple of months. Needless to say it was a lengthy 7 days which culminated in bittersweet goodbyes between the volunteers as we divided into our 3 groups and left for our assigned placements.

Even after having attended cultural lessons with the ever entertaining Franciswell, and a crash course in Chitumbuka, it became apparent rather quickly that it was the experiences outside the classroom which shed some light on what the coming weeks had in store for us.  It was our engagement with the neighbouring children which marked the first time I felt that we were directly confronted with poverty, though on a small scale.

A group of us decided to play a game of catch with them when we realised that their few play things were made of old clothes; shorts and socks bundled to form the shape of a ball whilst used bottle caps and cardboard tied with string went towards creating a small toy car. We would play with the children every evening before dinner, just before the sunset when it was time for the kids to go home. Each afternoon as they’d see us coming to join their afternoon football session we’d be bombarded with joyous yelps of ‘hi’s’, ‘hello’s’ and ‘how are you’s’ with even a few promising to teach us Chewa before we left. It struck me that I never noticed their lack of toys, shoes or torn clothing in the midst of our games simply because they never focused on what they went without so it followed that we didn’t either.

The training week though long was not in the least gruelling which amplified my desire to get the ball rolling on our placement and enjoy a solid, satisfying hard day’s work. In hindsight it was not until a chance meeting with a fellow volunteer that I began to further understand the potential and weight our work could hold for not only given communities, but also our own personal development. After two and a half hours of driving towards Mzuzu we stopped at a petrol station and subsequently picked up a peace corps volunteer who was heading the same way. He had already been in Malawi for 18 months, living alone in a secluded village in the mountains. We spoke for the latter part of the journey as I gauged from our conversation that he was studying Forestry and his reason for being in Malawi was to learn from their farming techniques and to advise on certain issues. He spoke at length about how much more he had left to do and learn despite already having been in the country for well over a year.

It was then that the reality of our relatively short stay in Malawi set in. We had approximately 9 weeks to meet targets created by our partner organisation, as well as meeting goals we had set ourselves. 9 weeks which appeared measly in the face of his 2 and a half years. The shock and panic however, was quickly replaced by a fierce determination to ensure that every hour was a productive one.  Our first few hours of productivity began with our house as we thought up ways to make it a home.  We settled for buying foam cushions and plastering our walls with words in Chitumbuka, a setting we hoped would inspire good ideas and conversation. Now having made our home a haven we prepared for the next week of familiarising ourselves with the local volunteers and the partner organisation Ungweru.

Finally, after much anticipation our main projects were revealed to us. The three main categories include Water and Sanitation, HIV/AIDS and Natural Resources Management.  The group at first felt rather anxious as we hadn't thought that the projects would be largely planned by us, nevertheless, we were glad to take on the challenge. Furthermore, the long hours of discussion and organising combined with our 4 mile walks to and back from the office has created a close knit feel between all the team members. Now having essentially drawn up our schedule for the coming weeks we are all excited to actually implement our projects for real and see our ideas and works come into fruition!

Progressio ICS volunteer Sammy Hussain in Malawi

Photo: Mzuzu market