The Malawi Volunteer Experience

Written by Chris

We had never really set our plans for how we wanted to spend the rest of our time in Africa, though we had had the idea of volunteering in mind. We happened upon a good-looking organization that we thought were doing some cool things. They did happen to be in Malawi, a country we had not originally planned on visiting, but we thought we would give it a whirl. So after we finished in Victoria Falls, we soon found ourselves in Balaka, Malawi for a month-long volunteer experience.

Malawi is one of the poorer countries in Africa and in the world as a whole. Though it has remained remarkably conflict-free, they have had serious problems with drought and famine, AIDS, corruption, and all the usual issues that Africa is dealing with. In other words, it is a great-looking candidate for foreign aid and the bulk of their activity is putting that money to use through a plethora of NGO’s (non-governmental organizations).

We got hooked up to an NGO that we found through a reputable African volunteers website, the director was very responsive to our emails, and they were doing some work that sounded exciting to us; environmental management, women’s rights, schools, and HIV/AIDS work. And they didn’t have the exorbitant “volunteering fees” that many other organizations seemed to have.

Things got off to a good start. We met the rest of the staff at their office and they couldn’t have been friendlier to us or more welcoming. On the first day we wrote out an “action plan” of our activities to be reviewed by the program manager and then the director (as a former British colony, they certainly retained some of their beloved bureaucracy). Our first week or so, we would shadow the workers on their field visits so we could get a sampling of the work that was being done. We would see the tree plantings and fish ponds, the empowering women group, the early childhood development centers, school construction, and the HIV/AIDS community groups. Afterwards, we would decide what project we would like to get more deeply involved with and spend our remaining time on that. At least that was the plan.

Things got derailed immediately when there was a major meeting with the city council to present project proposals that week and the entire office was absorbed with preparations. We got to attend the meeting, it was an incredibly formal affair with dreaded powerpoints, but they seemed happy with the results. After the meeting, we were geared up to get to work, but we learned that there was a major grant proposal due in 2 days. All work was again focused but we did get a bit of a chance to help with proofreading and our native English-speaking skills came in handy. With that complete and submitted, finally on Friday of that first week we made it out on a field visit. We observed one of their early childhood development programs for a bit of the afternoon. It took place in a small, one-room building with about 30 kids aged 2-5 years and 3 volunteer instructors. They sang songs, had a snack, played outside and did what kids do. It was a nice visit.

Geared up for our daily commute

Geared up for our daily commute

The next week, we found ourselves back in the office, trying to keep busy. The director promised to have me do a bit of website work during our downtime, but he never managed to get the password for their site. Mindy had a bit of work helping to review grant proposals, but with the always unreliable power in Malawi, she and the rest of the office were rarely getting any work done. We did make it in on another field visit in the middle of the week to sit in on a meeting with a local community group working to fight violence against women. It was quite a lively affair compared to the meetings I’m used to.

The meeting started out with a song. In fact, here, they can’t seem to form a committee of any kind without first writing a theme song to sing at their gatherings. I think that is an idea worth spreading. They then put on a skit (or “drama” as they call it) demonstrating a situation where violence against women can occur. Dramas also turned out to be a common occurrence at community meetings. There was then a bit of a roundtable discussion about issues and how to address them. The whole thing was wrapped up with a much more substantial song performance featuring dancing, drums, and a sing-along. There was no Powerpoint. It was a good meeting.

Getting down to business. This is a typical scene in a community meeting where they often share their objectives in song and dance form.

Getting down to business. This is a typical scene in a community meeting where they often share their objectives in song and dance form.

Aside from the one visit, not much else was going on that week and we were mostly hanging around the office. The next week, we had a chat with our director about the lack of work and the deviation from the “action plan”. We gave them a break for the first week with all the business, but we were not able to do much the second week despite the promises and we didn’t want to be wasting our time there if they didn’t need us. We made some plans for a few more field visits that week and things seemed to be getting back on track. Except they didn’t

The third week proceeded much as the last. Employees headed out on field visit without us and we tried to keep busy in the office without electricity. We were getting a lot more promises with no follow-through. Told we would get picked up for a project at 8am; no show. Promised we could work on a new project tomorrow; it had been idled since the funds were used up. We were told they were so happy to have us there to share our experience but they had absolutely no willingness to use it.

We were getting acclimated to the pace of life in Africa. It wasn’t just the two of us that weren’t working much. There were some who seemed to sit around the office most days. Literally just sit, in a chair, the entire day, not even really chatting or anything, just sitting. Naps were common. Someone was almost always out on the porch for a break, and when we asked when the next thing was happening, we were usually told, “later, later”. This seemed to be the way of things in this organization. And in this country. And on this continent. This was turning out to be a real learning experience and not in the way we were expecting.

We did manage to tag along on a few more of the field visits and see a few more things, but we did little else besides observe. There were a few visits to their school project and we did get to attend their big ceremony where they passed out donated bicycles to some members of the community. The organization is doing many good things for the community but not nearly to the level that they seem to be representing themselves. It is hard to blame them, though, as the problem seems to be deeply embedded in the culture. In the constant pursuit of more and more grant money, accomplishments get inflated to their maximum possible extent, on and on, continuously. The reality of what we experienced was far removed from how it had been described to us in advance.

The great bike project. Our NGO secured funds to provide bicycles for many members of the community to get themselves around.

The great bike project. Our NGO secured funds to provide bicycles for many members of the community to get themselves around.

During our help with some of the grant proposals, it was frightening to see how much grant money was coming in and how little there was to show for it. They are very good at stating “we have accomplished X, Y, and Z with the funds you gave us,” but in reality they have only accomplished half of X and seem to be living in a fantasy world where things got done. It was mind boggling; as though they believed the lie.

Our month in Malawi was frustrating but it was also extremely enlightening. We got a peek into the reality of many of the struggles being faced in Africa. It no longer looks to me, as I’m sure many outside see it, like we can just throw in a bit more money and a few more non-profits and shape things up. We are facing a culture where those in charge feel they are entitled to a cut of any money that passes by them, where business owners feel that if they are able shake any more money out of a transaction by any dishonest means necessary then they are entitled to it, and where there are no rewards visible for hard work and so most people work hardly at all. There is a reason I chose to work in an easy field like laser science. These are some tough problems to go up against.

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4 Responses to The Malawi Volunteer Experience

  1. Pattie Patton says:

    Wow, this is very enlightening. However, it all makes sense given the context. Thanks for keeping us all up on your travels and experiences. I love reading these posts.

  2. mom says:

    So are you working on better ways to help? I’m sure Mindy has a few. It must have been very frustrating. I’m proud of you two for trying.

  3. Pingback: The Great Africa Transit | Big Folly

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