Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Goodbye Blantyre, Lusaka, Lilongwe . . . Hello England

I'm sorry, again, for going so long without posting. I wrote a good few blog posts that I just never got around to typing up, my last month in Malawi was pretty hectic. I'll try and summarise it in one, digestible, blog post:

We achieved our goal of hiking all three of the mountains around Blantyre - Not only did we hike to the top of Mt Soche, but we went back to Michiru and hiked to the summit there too, since the first time we didn't actually go very far up. On the way back down we got a bit lost and had everybody in a bit of a panic that we'd be stuck up there all night with the snakes and the hyenas, but eventually we managed to find our way back down again and made it safely back home thanks to our good friend Sylvia, who, knowing it would be too dark for us to walk back by the time we got down, came to pick us up in her car.

During the school holidays the Samaritan Trust sends as many kids as they can to stay with their families, to try and rebuild relationships and ease them into the process of moving in with their family full-time. This meant that there were only a handful of kids left at the centre for our last week, which was probably for the best since having all of the kids who we'd really build up relationships with there would have made it much harder to say goodbye. Although it was tough figuring out what there was for us to do there, I'm so glad we had the experience of volunteering at the Samaritan Trust. The children there are the most respectful and charismatic kids I've ever met. I really hope and pray that they stay on the right track and really make something of themselves, there are some ridiculously intelligent children there and it would be heart-wrenching to see their talent go to waste.

Even if I forget all of the specific memories of the good times I've had in Blantyre, I'll always know that I loved it and it was my home, because I'll never forget how I couldn't stop the tears from rolling down my cheeks as my bus left the city, and the only comfort I found was in telling myself that I'll be back some day.

Leaving Blantyre was such a momentous incident that I wasn't really thinking about the two weeks ahead of me. The following morning I was up at 4am to catch my bus to Zambia, I said a quiet goodbye to Catriona, not feeling too sad since I knew I'd be seeing her again in three weeks' time. Despite all the brilliant experiences I had in Malawi, the ten days I spent in Zambia were the highlight of my year. I only went to see Sarah, my friend from high school and college, but I had the most amazing spiritual high from being a part of the Coptic Mission in Lusaka. From the quiet time and sharing, evening Bible studies, to the visitations, volunteering at the school, visiting hospital patients and making some really great friends, my time in Zambia really united me with God and taught me a lot about what it really means to be a Christian. Underneath all of this, it was really interesting to see the differences between Zambia and Malawi. My last trip to Zambia strictly followed the tourist trail, but this time I was out and about in sub-urban villages, the Zambian equivalent to where Catriona and I were living in Malawi, but with tarmac roads, relative peace and quiet (Zambians don't blast their music half as loud as Malawians do) and although there were plenty of calls of "Azungu!" I wasn't once asked for money.

By the time I was back in Lilongwe, I was ready to leave, accepting that it was time to move on to next chapter in my life. The time I spent in Malawi and Zambia has shaped who I am, I've some absolutely elating moments and faced some agonizing challenges, but I wouldn't change one second of it. To echo my partner, no regrets here.

Thank you again to everybody who made the experience possible, everybody who supported me. If you're ever thinking of having the Project Trust experience, or going to live in a developing country for a year with a different organisation or off your own back, I whole-heartedly recommend it, and would love to help support you in any way I can. If you supported me or are thinking of supporting a future volunteer financially and are wondering what difference it makes: Yes, I helped African Children, but the bigger difference is yet to come. I've learned so much more about Malawi and about it's problems than anyone could learn from years of studying through books and the internet, and I want to use this knowledge and experience. I don't know how I'm going to do that yet - maybe through a charity, or another kind of development organisation. Maybe it won't be in Malawi but I certainly won't go into any other countries, not knowing them at least as well as I know Malawi, and start trying to change things around. Whatever I end up doing, I want it to benefit other people and I can guarantee that my ability and motivation to do it will be a result of my year in Malawi.

Sunday, 14 July 2013


We had such a miserable time climbing Mt. Mulanje (totally worth doing though, I’d recommend it, we’re just not all that physically fit), that you’d think we’d have agreed never to go hiking again. Guess how we spent the past three weekends? Yup, first we took a trip to Zomba, we went to the market, which was eerily calm and quiet compared to Blantyre market where the sellers shout their throats raw trying to get your attention, and the next day we hiked up to the plateau. The following weekend, after watching a netball match between Malawi and South Africa (Malawi lost by just two points! Apparently Malawi are supposed to be the best at netball in Africa, and 5th best in the world) we spent Saturday morning at Mt. Michiru,
which is one of the three mountains surrounding Blantyre. Actually we spent more time walking to and from Mt Michiru than we did at the mountain itself, we didn’t hike to the summit but we saw some kind of antelope and explored a hyena hide. Our goal is to hike up all three of the mountains surrounding Blantyre and last week we ticked another off the list by hiking up Mt. Ndirande. We took a bus part of the way and spent a while wandering around trying to figure out which path would take us up the mountain, but we made it all the way up. A group of young boys followed us up for about a third of the way, which was a little bit unnerving, and then we had a slightly scary encounter with a woman who didn’t seem to speak any English, but was holding a massive panga and was quite keen to show us something behind a big rock. We politely denied the invitation and carried on up to the top where we sat at “Kamuzu View” and ate our lunch. The view was amazing, it made the Blantyre region look so small, there was a road with houses and shops all along one side and nothing but fields on the other, you could see exactly where the urban and rural areas begin and end.

The school year is coming to a close and a lot of the kids have been receiving their exam results. Some of them did really brilliantly, which wasn’t a surprise in most cases because there are some seriously intelligent kids at Samaritan’s. Chikondi (the boy who speaks at the speed of light) was running around on Friday repeatedly shouting, “Ndakhoza maeso! Ndisangalala!” (I passed my exams! I’m happy!) Unfortunately not all of them did so well but seeing their papers gave us a good idea of what kind of things we need to be working on with them. A teacher wrote on one of the girls’ report card that she’s smart but her attitude gets in the way, which Catriona and I completely agree with, but we’ve seen a real change in her attitude this week and Catriona’s been doing loads of work with her this week.

This week has been really cold. Previous complaints about being cold have lead to to exclaims of, “You’re cold?! You’re in Africa!!!” Yes, it does get cold in Africa. What’s more, we live in a pretty basic house without any kind of heating or insulation. So yeah, we’ve been pretty cold recently. I’ve finally resorted to heating up water for bucket showers and I’ve even mastered the art of wearing socks with flip flops. I was speaking to the kids at Samaritan’s this week and it had been that long since I needed to use it that I actually forgot the Chichewa word for ‘hot’.

On Thursday’s at Samaritan’s we have CSI. No, that’s not Crime Scene Investigation, but Christian Service International. We sing hymns in Chichewa then listen to a Bible story before more hymns and a closing prayer. I think the CSI team are originally from the US so the stories are told in English and then translated into Chichewa for the kids so it works out well for me. This week during the second lot of hymns Rosca, who was sitting next to me, said, in between song lines, “Louise, I want maths. Times.” I love how enthusiastic the kids are to learn. We found out recently that Project Trust aren't sending volunteers to Samaritan’s again this year, and although there are many valid reasons not to, it’s still sad that the kids won’t have anybody to turn to and say, “Give me maths” or ”I want English”. No way for them to really fulfil their desire and capacity to learn. 

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Back to Life

Well, I may have returned from my travels but it still feels a little bit like I’m on holiday. It was great to see all the Samaritan kids again after going away to Zambia but a week in Catriona and I took another leave from volunteering at Samaritan’s in order to attend rehearsals for The Lion King. Our friend and fellow Project Trust volunteer Matilda was working with Nanzikambe Arts, a hub of performing arts in Blantyre, which just so happens to be the same place whose staff train kids at Samaritan’s for their drama-based community outreach HIV/AIDS awareness programme. Matilda and our friend Julian, a German volunteer also based at Nanzikambe, put on a production of the stage show of The Lion King and Catriona played the parts of both Zazu and Timon (seeing as they’re only supposed to appear together in one scene, and neither of them have any lines in it) and as the actress originally cast had to drop out at the last minute, I stepped in and played the
part of Nala. We had such a great time rehearsing and performing, made some great new friends and broke Nanzikambe’s record for the biggest audience ever – the place is kind of like a 90 degree amphitheatre, so there isn’t an exact amount of seats, and the audience on the Friday night was packed in minibus-style.

I loved going to Nanzikambe and definitely intend to return there in my spare time, but it was great to get back to our usual routine of volunteering at Nama Simba Nursery and The Samaritan Trust. Friday morning was especially lovely: after a bit of maths we had loads of fun playing with frisbees, the sun was shining, the wind was blowing and we were running around and laughing so much, it was like one of those typical memories of being a child and playing outside in the summer holidays. Afterwards we were chatting to Dorothy, a relatively new addition to Samaritan's, which goes to show how much our Chichewa has come on because she really doesn't speak much English. She told us she was going to get her plate from the girls' hostel, when she came back she had bought two bags of popcorn with the twenty kwacha she'd had tucked into her sock, and she poured the popcorn into two bowls and gave one each to me and Catriona and told us to eat. It was so touching and we felt bad eating the food that she'd just bought but she absolutely insisted so we shared it between the three of us and a few of the boys who were returning from school and proudly showing us the work they'd done in their books. 

Like I say, we've been getting back to our normal work life but we haven't quite returned to the reality of life in Malawi. We're currently house-sitting for the head of Joshua Orphan and Community Care, which funds Nama Simba Nursery, so we are living with the luxuries of a fridge, comfy couches and hot water! The best thing about our current home is the garden, which has enough trees and bushes to accommodate a family of vervet monkeys! 

Yesterday was a new experience - litter picking in Malawi. We joined a group of volunteers made up of locals and expats to walk through the streets of Blantyre to the point where the market meets the Mudi river to raise awareness about the pollution of the river. We had been told  before that it was polluted but this week we found out that there are two sewage treatment plants in Blantyre but because neither of them are in working order, all of the sewage is deposited into the Mudi. Many companies deposit all of their waste into the river and individuals also use it as a rubbish bin, particularly around the market, which is why we chose that spot to clean up. We made a noticeable different but there are still layers of rubbish making up the river banks and we only worked on one small section of the river. We walk past the Mudi on our way to Samaritan's and there's nearly always somebody washing clothes or bathing in the water. I don't know whether or not they know that it's polluted, or if they have any other options, but it would be interesting to see the change in statistics of death and sickness if serious action to clean up the Mudi was taken.

Update: Catriona and I were in the photo for an article about the Mudi river in The Nation newspaper!

Sunday, 19 May 2013


The last few weeks have been a crazy blur of action-packed adventures. My sister and (as good as) brother in law came to visit me and we went on a whistle-stop tour of Malawi and Zambia.

 The first big event was climbing Mount Mulanje. We didn’t even climb any of the peaks, we just hiked up to and over a couple of plateaux, but I think we seriously underestimated the amount of physical strength and effort it requires just to do that. We arrived at the first hut in the dark, soaked in sweat and then spent hours cooking dinner over the fireplace. The hike to the second hut left Mary, Peter, Catriona and I freezing and soaked from the rain/mist. The descent was less strenuous but included a lot of slipping and falling (or as I like to call it, sitting down with style). Despite all the pain, fatigue and discomfort, it was a brilliant experience and we passed through some really beautiful and interesting landscapes. 
Once off the mountain our guide and porters kind of abandoned us in a village, saying a bus would come along soon enough. We were a bit worried about all the attention we were getting from the kids but I was pleased that I managed to communicate to them in Chichewa that we didn’t have anything to give to them but instead played clapping games and wrote in the sand with them. Eventually we gave up on waiting for a bus and took bicycle-taxis back to Mulanje town, which is now my favourite method of transport! I wish they had them in Blantyre!

Next stop was Lake Malawi. We had a bit of excitement on the journey there; waiting to catch a minibus on the highway in Blantyre, we were told to step back from the road because there was a student protest making its way toward us. We stepped back from the road a little, not realising that we were being told to get ourselves out of the reach and sight of the, shall we say ‘rambunctious’, demonstrators, until people starting shouted at us to run from the approaching crowd, many of whom were also running and starting to chant “azungu!”. Don’t worry, Mum, we were never in any real danger. We made it to the lake and spent a night at Cape Maclear before getting a boat out to Domwe Island, where we spent the day swimming and kayaking in the lake before hiking through the woods a bit to climb up a rock where we watched the sun set, then stumbling back down in the dark to our tents pitched on platforms hidden amongst the trees, and sat out in the hammock, watching the stars before going to sleep.

The following day was a bit stressful and included a lot of waiting around for transport which was more expensive and even less comfortable than expected, but we eventually made it to Lilongwe, where I was amazed by how big and fancy and capital-city-like everything was. The next morning Mary, Peter and I left for Zambia, thankful that all the transport from then on was already organised by the safari company. We spent three nights at the safari camp which was right by the South Luangwa River, meaning I was often woken up during the night by the sound of nearby hippos roaring. The game drives were brilliant, we saw all sorts of exotic and interesting animals, including antelope, giraffes, zebras, elephants, hippos and leopards.

Then we made the long journey to Victoria Falls, stopping at Lusaka along the way. I knew that Zambia’s economy is stronger than Malawi’s but it wasn’t until we went to a high-end shopping mall in Lusaka that it fully hit me just how much stronger it is. The whole city in general was just so much more developed than Lilongwe and Blanytre put together, but the shopping mall was too much for my brain to take in and I just kind of spaced out, dazzled by how big, shiny and colourful the whole place was.  Victoria Falls, too, was certainly big and dazzling, although there was so much spray that it was pretty hard to see the falls themselves from Zambia. We crossed over to the Zimbabwean side and got a much better view, complete with little 360° rainbows in front of our eyes when the light spray of water was blown in front of our eyes. The next day we floated along the Zambezi river in a raft float (unfortunately during this season the water level is too high for the adrenaline-pumping white-water rafting so we went with the more peaceful version) before going on a walking safari and ticking another one of the big five off our list by getting really close to a herd of rhinos.
It was really lovely to spend time with Mary and Peter, we had plenty of giggles and having them around made home seem a lot closer. It also made it feel like no time since I’d left home, and no time until I go back. It was great to finally see more of Malawi, and see the difference in Zambia and that tiny part of Zimbabwe. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed staying in a tent and living out of my backpack. I’m happy to be home for the moment but I have a feeling that the travel bug may be lying dormant within me, waiting to spring out and whisk me off on more exciting adventures the next time my bank account can handle it.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

I don't have time to think of a good title!

Sorry, sorry, sorry! (As the Malawian people say when I trip over my own feet) As per usual, I apologise for not having updated my blog in so long.

It’s kind of hard to sum up the past four months in one digestible blog post, but I’ll give it a go:

I’ve gone from trying to see the bright side of everything and telling myself that it’s all going to get better to really enjoying life, and having the gap year I set out to have. We’ve found our place at Samaritan’s now; before we got here we were told that our project was of the Teaching/Social Care genre, and we knew that the previous volunteer was kind of like a mum to the kids, but it was different for her because she lived with them. We are tutors. We don’t often teach actual lessons, but we teach the kids on a one-to-one basis, usually mathematics, but sometimes English. Now that we’ve known them long enough and can speak enough Chichewa, we’re also actually friends with them, so sometimes if they’re really not in the mood to study; we just chat or play with them. For example, last week we made hats and aeroplanes (the kids schooled us in how to make origami aeroplanes) out of the paper they’d been writing their maths work on and invented our own ball games, using books and an umbrella as bats.

 Just in this past week, I have been getting slightly more involved with the social care side of things. I’ve left Blantyre for only second and third times since I got here; first on a trip to a Children’s Village (it’s far too big to just call it an orphanage), which is funded by Aquaid. A group of Samaritan’s kids went for a recreational activity day, they didn’t win any of the football or netball matches but I think they really outshone the other kids in the drama and singing. And they seemed to have fun, which of course is all that really matters J I also went on a home assessment, first to see how sisters Mary and Ethel were settling into their home, which was really great since I never got a chance to say goodbye to them before they were reintegrated, and they were looking very happy and well-settled. Then we went to meet Kondwani’s mother to see if it would be suitable for him to move in with her. I only understood snippets of what she was saying but it was still good to be a part of it all and see where she lives.

We usually just go to the Samaritan Trust in the afternoons now, when the kids are back from school, and often spend our mornings helping out at Nama Simba. I know, helping out at the nursery used to be the bane our our lives, but now we’ve gotten to know the nursery kids a lot better too, we know how to distract them from fighting, and that they enjoy learning and being tested on little things like body parts, colours (using the clothes they're wearing) and writing on the ground with sticks.

At the church I go to, there’s a service for street kids before the normal service. The kids all wait eagerly outside the church building until somebody arrives to open up, and then they pile in, sing and dance for a while before the pastor’s wife preaches to them in Chichewa and then they go outside for mandasi (doughnuts) and sobo (orange squash). I go to help manage crowd control, plate up food and wash hands, but I love sitting in on the service, especially now that I’m getting to know and understand some of the songs they sing. It’s also great because some of the kids who have run away from Samaritan’s go there so I get to chat to them and see how they’re doing. A couple of weeks ago we saw Saidi, who left Samaritan’s a while back, but he was looking indescribably downtrodden. He was in such a bad state that, since he said he wanted to go, Catriona took him to Samaritan’s on the bus, and the change we’ve seen in him since is incredible. He’s so happy and full of life, it’s hard to believe it’s the same kid.

We’ve had a few more issues a home: some kids left graffiti on our house, just some random letters and skull and crossbones, nothing serious, but we’ve also had the outside tap stolen. It was replaced but then the guard broke it whilst trying to fix the new one so we’re again without an outdoor tap. This is a problem because the water needs to go through that pipe to get to the house, so without a tap to control the flow, all of it just shoots out of the opening where the tap should be, and none gets to the house. We’re quite used to living without running water now; it was something I was prepared to do when I applied with Project Trust, and it’s made me realise just how much water I used to use, and waste, both back home and here when we had running water inside the house.

I’m really enjoying myself and feel so at home in Malawi. I quite often think to myself, “This is what I came here to do; this is the gap year I set out to have”.  I’ll be happy to see my family and friends and excited to go to university, but I often find myself thinking that I really don’t want to go home in four months, I wish I could just live here permanently, and worrying that the next four months are going to fly by even quicker than the past four months.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

First Post of 2013!

Sorry again for not posting in ages! (I’m starting to see a pattern in the way I start my blog posts!) Christmas and New Year were actually pretty quiet for me since Nama Simba was closed for a couple of weeks and most of the Samaritan’s kids went to stay with relatives for the Christmas period. Since then a few of them have actually gone back to stay for good. It’s definitely in their best interest to be with their families as long as it’s safe and they’re happy to be there, but I have to say I was sad to see them go. In the past week or so we’ve had a load of new kids come in as it’s actually been made illegal for children to beg and live on the streets. There isn’t actually room for them at TST so it’s been a bit of a squeeze for them. Social welfare are supposed to be coming to take them somewhere else any day now, but in the meantime we’re really enjoying teaching them maths along with the other kids (Thanks Mum and Dad for the watch – it’s come in really handy for teaching them how to tell the time!). It’s pretty hectic trying to keep track of who’s doing what when they’re all working at different levels – some of them are just learning to write numbers or learning to add whilst others are doing long division and multiplying fractions. It’s great to see how much they enjoy learning though; especially when they’re competing against each other or racing against the clock in times table tests.

A few times recently it’s been impossible to do any teaching because of the rain – you can’t hear yourself think for the racket it makes on the roof. But the rainy season has brought out a load of new and interesting wildlife. Lately I’ve seen some really beautiful butterflies and dragonflies, giant African snails, a baby chameleon, and amazing spotted and striped grasshopper and a really cool blue and red bird.
I tried teaching the Nama Simba kids ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ this week. They seemed to enjoy repeating my shouts and copying the actions but they didn’t quite grasp the tune or the idea of putting all four together. After shouting each body part individually a few times I said, “mvetserani” which means “Pay attention”, so that they could listen to me singing it all together, but they all just shouted “mvetserani!” back at me. They can be hard work at times and there are a couple of real trouble makers but most of them are still so cute and sweet.

The older kids in the village, on the other hand, have been giving us a bit of hassle lately. When it’s not raining it can still get pretty hot sometimes, but apparently opening our windows is an invitation to all the village kids to come and poke sticks through, pull the curtains back and shout all manner of things from, “give me money” to “stupid, f**k you!”, and the last time I went out to shoo them away they ended up throwing rocks at me. We’re hoping it won’t happen again since the director of Nama Simba had a word with the village chief for us, but it was just sad to realise that after living here for four months, they still see us as outsiders. I was starting to feel like a member of the community; a lot of people in the village know me by name and I always greet them with a smile when I go out to the market. Seeing the way those village kids act really makes us appreciate how lovely the kids at Samaritan’s are.
Update: Well, in an effort to make our house more child-proof (we think), somebody has mysteriously come and fixed the lock on the gate outside our house. However, when we got home yesterday we didn't realise that the key for the padlock was on our set of house keys, so we scaled the six-foot fence, in skirts, to get to our own house. It was actually pretty fun, and I'm sure that if any of the neighbours saw us, they'll have had a good laugh.