Volunteers’ Stories: Charlie and Frankie

Charlie’s and Frankie’s Story

“We’ve been looked after amazingly well by all of the staff here, and I know we’re both going to miss Martha’s, Geddess’ and Fabiana’s cooking – we definitely did not expect to be living in such comfort. We have both had a great time with RIPPLE, and we will both take home some very fond memories with us.”

We had known we wanted to volunteer for a while – after 15 months working in New Zealand and a natural gap of six months before starting jobs back in the UK, we had decided that it would be a perfect opportunity to revisit Africa, where we have both worked previously and actually met nearly six years ago. Friends of friends we met in New Zealand had previously volunteered at Mwaya – they had praised the efficient way that RIPPLE was run and said they really enjoyed their time in Malawi. Following sending in the application forms and having a two-hour Skype chat with Susie, we were set to go. We both had previous experience of travelling and working in other African countries, but we were not prepared for the level of poverty which was obvious as soon as we were travelling through Lilongwe in the taxi from the airport; this was something we were to experience further in our work around Mwaya.

After a couple of days getting our bearings in Lilongwe, we had a truly Malawian experience with the AXA bus journey to Mwaya. Luckily we met Lisbeth and Henrik at the bus station, a couple of previous volunteers who were back on holiday – they provided much needed moral support for the journey ahead! After arriving at 6:30 in the morning to make sure we got a seat for the supposed 8:00am departure, the bus arrived at 8:30 and finally departed at 10:30. Just outside Salima a few hours later, there was a loud bang and we glided to a halt, which was quite impressive seeing as the bus driver had managed this with a heavily overloaded bus, and the bang was a blow-out of the front right tyre! We waited for several hours for a replacement bus which, when it arrived, was half full. After all of our passengers crammed themselves (us included) onto the new bus, the touts started trying to load the copious luggage into space which was being occupied by people. This precipitated a mini revolt from the passengers with quite a lot of shouting and shaking of fists, and the driver refused to go anywhere with the bus that full. Following another few hours packed like sardines on the bus in the midday sun, another half-full bus arrived, and we offloaded some of our passengers and luggage and were off on a tandem (and hence very slow) journey. Everything went well for a while, then the bus started making a funny noise. By this time it was dark and raining heavily. The gods must have been smiling on us, however, as we finally arrived at Matete roadblock, and Charlie very kindly picked us up in the 4×4. Our (second) bus arrived at 10:30pm, 16 hours after we arrived at Lilongwe bus station, and remains there as I am writing this, nearly 4 months later, with mechanics still attempting to make it roadworthy once more!

It took some time to settle in to the pace of life at Mwaya, and initially we spent most of our time divided between attending the local clinics, going out with Collins to see his rehab patients and attending Health Club. There are three local clinics – the smaller Mwaya Dispensary and the health centres at Kande and Kachere. As I said before, I don’t think we were quite prepared for the lack of resources at the clinics. The Dispensary does slightly better than the other two, likely due to the fact that it is close to Mwaya Beach and gets more supplies donated from volunteers, but the other two health centres have incredibly little. One does not have a blood pressure cuff, essential equipment given that they perform deliveries and ante-natal checks there, and the other does not have a working thermometer. Neither has more than a handful of bandages for wound dressings, and I was told that they are given 10 a month by the government! We did our best to assist in what ways we could (within the limits of not being registered with the Malawi Medical Council) – assisting and advising the health assistants in the outpatients clinics and helping the nurses in the family planning, ante-natal, antiretroviral, and under-5’s clinics.

  • Frankie, Charlie and Mark with Collins and members of the Health ClubFrankie, Charlie and Mark with Collins and members of the Health Club
  • Frankie taught some of the girls self-defenceFrankie taught some of the girls self-defence

We each spent one morning a week going out with Collins on his motorbike to see his rehab patients. Collins, a RIPPLE employee, does heroic work, mainly with local children but also adults in need of rehab, combining skills from physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and play therapy. On his own he sees a large number of clients in the local area, the majority of whom would not be able to receive similar services if he did not go to them, and makes a huge difference to their lives, providing physiotherapy, mobility and development aids, funds for transport to hospital when needed, and referrals to surgeons in the District hospital. We cannot praise him highly enough in his work, and having the opportunity to assist him was hugely gratifying.

Another of Collins’ activities is running the Health Club, which we were immediately enrolled in as fully participating members. This consisted of twice-weekly meetings of Collins, the healthcare volunteers and a group of local teenagers, some in primary school, some in secondary and some recently left secondary. At these meetings, we devised and rehearsed educational plays which we then performed to the local villages, promoting specific health messages. During our time in Mwaya the club devised and rehearsed two plays, one with the theme of food hygiene and adult literacy (in which I played the role of confused mzungu!), and one with the theme of using condoms and avoiding illegal abortions. So far we have performed these at two different villages (they went down very well at both!) and, after several delays due to funerals and the village Chiefs being disorganised, we hope to preform them again next week.

Before we came out to Malawi, Susie had spoken to us about the area of sexual and reproductive health to evaluate the potential for work in that area at some time in the future, and we agreed that one of our specific goals while we were at Mwaya would be to perform some initial research to support the possible development of such a project. After we had got a handle on how the local clinics ran and settled into life at Mwaya, we got underway. The work that we have done falls broadly into two categories; initially we audited the family planning registers from the three local clinics. This provided us and the charity with a quantitative measure of the uptake of contraception in the local area; hopefully a firm base to support a future project and something to measure the efficacy of any future efforts against. The second part was to go out to the local villages and poll the local population on their attitudes towards family size and contraception, to find if a project would be welcomed locally. For this part of the research, we had a really good response from all of the volunteers, in healthcare, teaching and environmental, with all of us going out to villages and the local schools to get a really good idea of how the local community felt about the issue. We are now in the process of starting to develop a two-pronged education programme, one side aimed at students in the local schools and the other at adults in the local community.

We also took the opportunity to get involved in education while we were in Mwaya. Frankie set up self defence classes for the local secondary school girls, which went down well (there were several boys as well who had to be turned away!), and I tutored a couple of secondary school boys in biology for their upcoming exams. As well as working with the local students, ourselves and two of the other healthcare volunteers (Mark and Triona) ran a first aid course for the all of the pre-school teachers which was a really enjoyable event for everyone involved.

As well as all the work we have had a lot of fun while we have been at Mwaya, from morning exercise on the beach and sunrise swims (some of them voluntary and some enforced by the threat of no bacon for breakfast!), to lounging on the deck on weekends reading and listening to music, and playing Top Gun themed volleyball. We’ve had some lovely evenings too – watching red moon rises in animal onesies, sunset Pimms at Lowani while being entertained by the local choir, trips to Ngala Beach Lodge followed by cocktails and very cheesy pizzas, and even a few outings to Kande Beach to let off some steam! We’ve been looked after amazingly well by all of the staff here, and I know we’re both going to miss Martha’s, Geddess’ and Fabiana’s cooking – we definitely did not expect to be living in such comfort. We have both had a great time with RIPPLE, and we will both take home some very fond memories with us.

Charlie and Frankie (Volunteer Doctors, March 2013 – July 2013)

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