It was 30+ degrees, the three-hour Sunday sermon was almost entirely in Chitumbuka and I had been introduced to the entire congregation as Phoebe from “Azungu land” (white peoples’ land). As foreign an experience this moment was to me, I embraced it with all my heart. I had been invited into what most of the community consider the important place in Rumphi, the Church! 

Upon my arrival in the small rural town in the north of Malawi, I could already begin to see the signs of what was yet to come. Our jam-packed bus sped through the centre of the small south east African country. The music was blaring through the speakers and the excited buzz of the two teams coming together was ringing in all our ears. The UK and the Malawian team had joined together in forces and we were all excited to start working with the community. 

How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! - Psalm 133:1

After the six - eight-hour journey north, energies started to wilt, the heat was taking its toll and the realisation of the gravity of our situation was starting to set in. The roads became bumpier, the sun was setting, and everything seemed to be so much quieter. 

As the bus trundled along the dusty tracks, I watched in awe as we entered the small but incredibly picturesque town of Rumphi. This wonderfully beautiful old town surrounded by hills was to be my home for the next three months. With this, I instantly felt awake again, my jetlag was forgotten and I was once again running on pure adrenaline. The excitement only grew as we departed the rusty old bus and scanned the area for sight of our soon to be ‘Amamas’ (mothers). 

This first day traveling to Rumphi had set a precedent for the rest of the placement in the sense that I would often feel five different emotions in one day. The rawness of the country, the intensity in which we lived and worked so closely together and the passion we all felt for our project were all contributing factors to many, many ups and downs on the rollercoaster ride of ICS! 

Adapting to life in a developing country, when I had become so accustomed to my extremely privileged Western lifestyle was, to say the least, difficult. But what I had found the most challenging aspect of all was the barrier between volunteer and community member. Every member of our team had begun the project with a genuine urge to help others, to contribute to a developing society and to offer support and encouragement to those that need it the most. 

Unfortunately, we had soon found that good will and well-meaning doesn’t guarantee success. A few weeks in and we were recording poor community involvement in activities, low morale and even rifts between volunteers. In the very simplest of terms, things were not working. 

But what could be done? How could we turn this around? How do you motivate people to work together to achieve a common goal? Well me, personally, I found religion! 

No, I am not about to profess my new found faith. What I mean is I realised that religion was the key to integration within the community. Faith, beliefs and traditions are the glue that holds these ancient communities together and by involving myself in this aspect of Malawian life, I became more personable and relatable to the community. Under the eye of God, we are all equal.  

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace - Peter 4:10

I started to accept invitations to the Sunday sermons and I even witnessed a few traditional Malawian wedding ceremonies. The majority of events I were involved with where Christian, but on one occasion I was lucky enough to dance along with the guests at a Muslim wedding held just yards away from our motel in Lilongwe. 

Something started to change, I could feel it. The more I pushed myself to get involved in the religious traditions and culture, the more I felt involved! I was no longer an outsider looking in, I felt more accepted, and more understood. I noticed that my relationship with my Amama strengthened and I also felt that the national volunteers, and even community members alike, seemed to appreciate the effort we as a UK team began to make to really understand their faith and practices. 

Slowly but surely we found any rifts between volunteers were disintegrating. We found more community members were turning up for activities. People were beginning to trust us, and this was such a relief. We were now working with each other and this was the biggest morale boost our team could have hoped for. 

To say life in Malawi is hard is a massive understatement. Life in Malawi is almost impossible. Poverty, drought, limited resources and disease are just a few of the country’s problems. The people of Malawi suffer such extreme hardship that the discomfort of adapting to the country can only be described as pathetic in comparison to the discomfort so many people endure on a daily basis. 

What Malawians do have is a faith and a culture that binds them together in their struggle. They are not alone because they are together. If a neighbour is sick, they will be cared for. If a person dies, many will show up at the funeral to show their respects. If a couple get married, a huge party will be thrown and money will be collected to support the new couple in their new life together. If a young foreign woman, with weird clothes that cannot speak the language turns up at the church on a Sunday, she will be invited in with open arms and given one of the best spots on the pew. 

What I had realised was this; you cannot succeed in international development by imposing thoughts and ideals.

So what did we succeed on a three-month placement working with national volunteers, a Malawian grassroots charity, Progressio, and most importantly the community of Rumphi? Well, we achieved the building of a union. We overcame obstacles and diversity to become a united front against poverty. We built relationships that will have lasting effects and we planted the seeds of encouragement and built a support network for those that need it so desperately. 

As an environmental project, our aims varied from building goat Kraals and constructing fish ponds to teaching trade and business management to groups of women in village churches. Our progress and success was monitored throughout and it is with great pride that I can say that we smashed all of our targets. 

But this blog is not about those targets. This blog is about how we came together to achieve those targets. Through respecting the importance of religion in the community, we were able to build relationships. By building relationships we could work together, in unity, to build goat Kraals. By building goat Kraals, we, together as a team, proved that change is possible. We proved that people of all cultures and faiths can work together, for a better future. 

Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble - Peter 3:8 

Written by ICS Alumni Phoebe Dando (October - December 2015, Rumphi, Malawi)