Volunteers’ Stories: Ben
“Living at Mwaya helped me gain many friendships and created a special place in my heart that will stay with me forever.”
When I first considered travelling to Africa to do some volunteer work, I didn’t know where to begin looking. I attempted to search some online sources and read about many different programmes which all seemed very interesting but somewhat structured. I got some helpful advice from a friend of mine who spent some time in Malawi with the RIPPLE Africa organisation and decided that it sounded like the perfect opportunity for me to learn about a new culture and do some soul searching. I was not disappointed, and I ended up having one of the most positive and enjoyable experiences of my life.
I left the United States a little less prepared than I should have been when I travelled to Malawi. However, I learned through experience that Malawi is not only one of the poorest countries in the world, but also one of the friendliest countries I travelled to. People are always offering to lend a helping hand or share some useful information to assist foreigners like myself. I should have known that it wasn’t called the “warm heart of Africa” for no reason — it definitely lived up to its description in the six months I spent there.
When I first arrived at Mwaya Beach after a long journey from Lilongwe, I wasn’t really sure what to expect or what I would be involved in. I met Donny, Crt, Paul and Amy, and Pete and Anne, and everyone was extremely friendly and helpful. Donny took me under his wing and gave me some tips (which I kindly ignored and paid the price for later) to help me along the way. After meeting all the other volunteers and all the staff, I felt extremely comfortable and right at home. The staff at Mwaya Beach was always very friendly and was always willing to engage in a conversation. They were also willing to lend a helping hand and made me feel comfortable in an unfamiliar place.
After taking a few days to acclimatise and walk along the beautiful beach and get myself accustomed to the surrounding areas, I took my first trip to the health centre at Kachere. I met Mathias (the medical assistant at the health centre), Dyson, who is the environmental health officer, and the other staff working at both the health centre and the AIDS/HIV Voluntary Counselling and Testing centre. They took me under their wings and let me get involved with the daily activities at the health centre. The nice part about the programme was that it allowed me to be as active as I wanted to be. I found that, similar to most things in life, I got out of it what I put into it.
I found myself most useful around the health centre by doing different daily activities, such as helping with the vaccination and weighing clinics for children under 5 years old. These Under 5 Clinics were usually held every Monday at Kachere. The Kachere Health Centre also had health surveillance assistants (who are government health employees) who did outreach Under 5 Clinics in some of the villages that were farther away from Kachere Health Centre. The Under 5 Clinic days were very challenging due to the small amount of time and large number of women and children who came to have their children vaccinated and weighed. Although it was challenging, it was also one of my most gratifying experiences each week.
Ben with Mattias, the Medical Assistant at Kachere Health Centre
Everyone in the community loved Ben, and he returned for a second visit with his father (see the picture at the top of the page)
In addition to Under 5 Clinics, Kachere Health Centre also has an outpatient clinic on Mondays to Saturdays. Mathias works with the volunteer to diagnose patients, record the patient data, and administer the appropriate treatment (whether it is government issued drugs, an intravenous drip, or wound care). Usually, a volunteer can expect to work at the outpatient clinic until the lunch hour and then travel back to Mwaya to eat lunch and complete other activities which they choose to be involved with in the afternoon.
While at the health centre, it is important to create individual projects or goals to accomplish during your time at Kachere. Individual projects can be anything from implementing a safe/more effective waste removal programme to starting outreach clinics for AIDS/HIV or anything in between. I was involved with extra projects that dealt with the Voluntary Counselling and Testing centres for AIDS/HIV. The VCT staff and I decided that we could improve the testing and counselling by having outreach clinics in villages that were farther away from the testing centre at Kachere. We had teaching sessions with about 15 local leaders from three different villages to educate them about the causes of AIDS, symptoms, preventing the spread of the disease, and other areas related to AIDS education. Then we opened up outreach clinics in each of the villages, and the results were very successful. More people came to get tested and educated, and the population in general increased their awareness of this terrible disease that is tormenting their society.
In addition, the Kachere Health Centre staff and I decided that, since the source of water at the health centre was very unclean and didn’t supply any part of the clinic with clean, sanitary water, we should dig a well and get clean water running to the health centre, the VCT centre, and the staff houses. We raised some money from a group called AVERT and another organisation (the Thompson Taraz Charitable Foundation) of which Alison, who was a previous volunteer and friend of mine during part of my stay at Mwaya, was a Trustee. After the money was raised, members from Kachere, another RIPPLE Africa volunteer, Kieran, and I met with the doctor in charge of the district and came up with a plan to make the project successful. After I left, Kieran took over the project and continued to keep it on track, and it sounds like it’s just a matter of time before the project becomes a successful reality.
In addition to these projects, I also took the opportunity to teach computer skills, like Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and internet and e-mail usage, to certain staff members at Kachere. This was an awesome experience since most of the staff had never even seen a computer, let alone used one before. They were very motivated to learn these skills and took on the challenge of learning something foreign to them. They slowly learned how to type, create documents, and use the internet and e-mail to enhance their ability to communicate with the outside world. Then we found a computer in the area and purchased this for the VCT centre at Kachere to use for keeping data, typing letters, and practising their computer skills. To this day, the staff at Kachere is continuing to update me with e-mails on the progress of our projects. It is very encouraging to know that the people I worked with at Kachere are still working hard to accomplish goals, even after I have returned home.
During my time at Kachere, I saw many new injuries, illnesses, and methods of practising medicine. The “technology” is limited to a blood pressure cuff and a stethoscope, so treatment options are fairly limited. However, I saw so many new cases and exposed myself to a different kind of medicine that I would have never been able to be involved with living in a Westernised nation. The positive relationships that I gained and the experiences I learned from taught me so much about myself as a person that I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Every day I think about my friends at Mwaya and Kachere, and I wonder what they are doing and if the projects are continuing to be successful. I miss the beautiful beach, riding my bicycle in the areas surrounding Mwaya Beach, and all the smiling faces of the Malawian people. Living at Mwaya helped me gain many friendships and created a special place in my heart that will stay with me forever.
Ben (Volunteer Health Care Assistant, October 2005 – April 2006)