Volunteers’ Stories: Patrick

Patrick’s Story

“My five months spent in Malawi were the healthiest of my life, worlds away from the cubical and re-circulated air environment. The swimming will rouse you, the food energise you, and the work will reward you. The kids will wear you out with their aptitude for learning and infinite soccer-playing skills, while the rainy season’s thunderstorms will drift you off to sleep.”

5:30am. Time to wake. Not by alarm though. You’ve come to the realisation that you don’t need one here. No one bothers you to rise at this hour, only the sun and its promise for a new day.

Some are already here to work; the sights and sounds of fishermen returning from a night’s catch can be heard. Their lanterns dance across the lake’s awakening dawn. You’ve come this far, from the farthest reaches of the globe, to the most humbling spot on earth. Your preconceived notions evaporate like the morning’s dew. You’ve arrived: Welcome to Mwaya Beach.

My journey begins in Chicago, a dreary October day at the office. Although dour in its monotony, in a few months I’ll have validated all those hours and days for I’ve just stumbled upon an online epiphany, RIPPLE Africa. Before I know it, my research is done and my application approved. Come January I’ll be embarking on a mission I cannot even begin to fathom. I’ve scrimped and saved, and am ready for the adventure of a lifetime.

The ‘Warm Heart of Africa’ beats strong in Malawi. Walking down the dirt road to Mwaya, the local families are intrigued with you, the newcomer. “Mzungu!” they shout, “What is your name?” My belongings notched tightly on my back, I walk tired and sweaty; hungry with apprehension as I make my way towards Mwaya Beach. A final turn greets you with a gentle breeze coming off the lake. I may not know now, but it’s a place I’ll call home forever.

I came to RIPPLE Africa without a definite idea about how I could help. Between their secondary school, primary and pre-schools, health clinics and environmental projects, there were endless opportunities to lend a hand. It’s a huge differentiation point for RIPPLE Africa and one that bodes well for creating an environment engaging to volunteers, where our time is well spent and results are tangible. As incredibly large and multi-cultured Africa is as a continent, RIPPLE Africa’s way of operating is second to none. This cannot be found elsewhere.

When Geoff and Liz Furber founded RIPPLE Africa in 2003, their idea of working in all facets to empower the local community was a recipe for success. A love for environmental conservation, education and health awareness created a potpourri of opportunities and helps to define RIPPLE Africa’s mission statement: ‘Providing a Hand Up, Not a Hand Out.’

During my volunteer induction, I saw all the different schools and projects RIPPLE Africa was involved with, and was able to see where my help would be best received. Different opportunities simply fell into place. I began substitute teaching at the local secondary school, and soon formed an after-school French Club. This was well received by a very driven and studious group, many of whom had never spoken a word of French before. Students would also ask for one-on-one tutoring sessions for their classes. From seven year-olds looking to improve their reading to high-school algebra and world history, you get a real sense of the kids’ devotion to learning and succeeding in the classroom.

If one-on-one tutoring isn’t your cup of tea, fear not! Some of the most enjoyable times I had with RIPPLE Africa were volunteering with the primary schools. It can be chaotic at times, with over 60 kids in some classrooms, but there’s never any shortage of energy to learn. Many of the schools simply don’t have enough teachers and always welcome teaching assistants. At Mwaya Primary School, I spent one hour, three times a week, helping with elementary maths for Standards 3 and 4. Being able to halve the student/teacher ratio, even for one class a day, helps the children immensely as individual attention at school is difficult with large class sizes. This enables the children who are shy and often struggling, to receive the help they need and not fall behind.

And pre-school! For me, days spent helping with the ‘tots’ or ‘little guys’ were an absolute joy. Materials and classrooms are sparse, but RIPPLE Africa’s pre-schools are all beautifully painted and offer a wonderful environment for children to play games, read stories, and begin their basis for English. Volunteers are encouraged to teach simple songs and dances while also reading English story books. It should be mentioned how incredibly dedicated and valuable the teaching staff is at Mwaya: from Jimmy, RIPPLE Africa’s pre-school coordinator; to Maurice, the primary school teacher and RIPPLE Africa’s education coordinator; to the teachers in every one of the many schools in the area. Day in and day out, their unyielding commitment to these children’s education is inspiring to see.

  • Patrick teaching elementary maths in the library reading room
    Patrick teaching elementary maths in the library reading room
  • Riding in the back of Eddie the lorry with Matthew and Chaz
    Riding in the back of Eddie the lorry with Chaz and Matthew
  • Patrick with Barton, one of the library assistants
    Patrick with Barton, one of the library assistants

This inspiration is found all over RIPPLE Africa. In my five months, I had the pleasure of working alongside the environmental team, some of the smartest and hardest working people I met. Geoff and Liz’s initiative’s to help sustain Malawi’s countryside through tree conservation, tree planting and the Changu Changu Moto fuel-efficient stoves have been tall orders for the team to fill, though they’ve proved to be very successful.

In rural Northern Malawi, acres upon acres of forests are cut down and burned each year to create new farm fields. These acts have proved to be highly detrimental to consistent rainfall, spurred erosion and increased wood consumption dramatically. Through bylaws, RIPPLE Africa has managed to curb such acts by educating local villagers and farmers on ways to create sustainable farming. RIPPLE Africa has also helped plant over 2 million trees in Malawi, to date.

This leads us to RIPPLE Africa’s most exciting idea: the Changu Changu Moto. Our small team of volunteers helped to refine and develop its design, record testimonials and educate local villagers. This enabled our group to fine-tune the project’s details, while also tackling the many different aspects of its success in the field. The Changu Changu Moto fuel efficient stoves are made from locally made bricks and not only decrease wood consumption, but are also safer and produce less smoke than their predecessor, the ancient three-stone fire. The project has spread far and wide, not only around Mwaya Beach but throughout the country. It was eye-opening to be a part of such groundbreaking and impactful work. Despite the basic design principle, it’s a testament to innovation being simple and straight-forward. A real success story around these parts!

  • Patrick working out in the field with the Changu Changu Moto project
    Patrick working out in the field with the Changu Changu Moto project
  • The Changu Changu Moto fuel-efficient cookstove saves wood, cooks faster, produces less smoke, and is much safer than the traditional three-stone fire
    The Changu Changu Moto fuel-efficient cookstove saves wood, cooks faster, produces less smoke, and is much safer than the traditional three-stone fire
  • Patrick with Jacob, Catherine, and Andy
    Patrick with Jacob, Catherine, and Andy

Regardless of how you choose to spend your time volunteering, there is always the ability to do your own side projects and exploration. Near the end of my stay, several of us helped build a new kitchen for Agnes (the head cook, and sweetest lady you’ll ever meet). Several months earlier, a storm had wiped out her old kitchen. We were glad to help.

When not working or volunteering, Mwaya is full of exciting places to explore. Along with fellow volunteers, we scaled the largest mountain (or, incredibly large, vertically-inclined, ‘what were we thinking, but let’s try a second time and get to the top,’ hill) in the area. Scrabble games on chalet decks were also a favourite pastime, as were: biking to Kande Beach (just down the way from Mwaya), weekends to Nkhata Bay, playing soccer with the school team, or heading to Mwaya’s beautiful library to find a good read. Boredom does not exist here.

There are tons of factors to consider before making the big trek to Africa, but rest assured, you’re in good hands. My five months spent in Malawi were the healthiest of my life, worlds away from the cubical and re-circulated air environment. The swimming will rouse you, the food energise you, and the work will reward you. The kids will wear you out with their aptitude for learning and infinite soccer-playing skills, while the rainy season’s thunderstorms will drift you off to sleep.

For me, a typical day always started with a sunrise swim, a great way to start fresh. Though, if you’re the first one up, best to get the stove fired up: Coffee and tea are mighty popular! A breakfast of peanut butter, bread, fresh orange juice, oatmeal or eggy bread always got me off on the right foot. Then to work, wherever the day’s schedule takes you. Along the road you’re able to pick up locally grown produce. Depending on your purchases, there’s no limit to your menu: guacamole, omelettes, pancakes, tomato sandwiches, steamed cabbage, rice and bean plates, carrot cakes or fresh fish from the lake. And if you’ve never tasted a fresh passion fruit, it’s entirely worth climbing the tree near the kitchen to find a ripe one: inconceivably tart and delicious!

A quick realisation to the day is its end. When the sun goes down, things wrap up quickly. There is no electricity in the chalets, so a setting sun means bedtime. Even late nights chatting, playing games or star gazing meant bed by 8 o’clock. This in turn justifies rising early, to get cracking before the mid-day heat arrives!

Getting around Mwaya is done by walking, cycling or, if you’re lucky, scoring a ride in Eddie or Benji, two of the trucks used for RIPPLE Africa projects. The lifestyle certainly affords you a good day’s sweat. I spent every day swimming in Lake Malawi, playing soccer with children on the beach, or teaching them frisbee. Simply put, the environment is conducive to getting out and having a good time. If being outside is your thing, this is your place.

  • A starry night over Lake Malawi
    A starry night over Lake Malawi
  • The local children love playing football after school on the beach with the volunteers
    The local children love playing football after school on the beach with the volunteers
  • The Crew! June 2011. Clockwise from top left: Joe, Charlie, Jess, Shelby, Neil, Susie, David, Emma, Geoff, Patrick, Lindsay (missing Chaz who was at school, and Liz who was back in the UK)
    The Crew! June 2011. Clockwise from top left: Joe, Charlie, Jess, Shelby, Neil, Susie, David, Emma, Geoff, Patrick, Lindsay (missing Chaz who was at school, and Liz who was back in the UK)

Volunteering with RIPPLE Africa will mean days when you haven’t a minute to spare to moments casually defined by locals as ‘Malawian time’. Things go right, and wrong: It’ll rain when you least expect it, you’ll wait an hour to hitch a ride, and the farmer’s stand will be out of tomatoes when you need them most. In retrospect, they’re merely details. My time was defined by the people I was so lucky to have met and share such a valuable experience with. The staff at Mwaya do their jobs to the highest degree, and over time, become family. So do your fellow volunteers.

Malawi may be one of the poorest countries on earth, but nowhere else are there people with such warm and open hearts. It’s proof that value in society is not defined by materialistic gains or wealth, but rather by the pursuit of contentedness and healthy, loving relationships between each other. Call it old-fashioned or primitive, it is not. It is the essence of a happy and fruitful life, a place where children are not defined by their age. Everyone is young at heart. For all the complexities of life hold no bearing when life’s simple pleasures are so readily appreciated.

This is not to say their lives are simple, far from it. There is a seriousness to life’s day-to-day struggles that, for me, was hard to comprehend. Bouts of malaria, HIV and AIDS, malnutrition and unemployment are all very real here. Yet somehow these resilient people manage to see each day as an opportunity, finding the positive side to life.

RIPPLE Africa is unlike anything else on the planet. It gives you a ‘faith in fate’, and a humbling view of humanity. For all the connectivity produced by modern technology, there can be a sense of disconnect amidst it all. Being at Mwaya restores that human element, in a context that is indescribable. You must experience it face-to-face. The bonds made with new-found friends are timeless, as is your own introspection and self-discovery. For all of life’s unyielding uncertainty, I can say without hesitation or apprehension that I will return. It’s the ‘warm heart of Africa’ calling me. I only hope my return is sooner, rather than later.

Patrick (Volunteer, February 2011 – June 2011)

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