Volunteers’ Stories: Donncha

Donncha’s Story

“Thinking of the people I was fortunate to work, eat or tour with — over 30 volunteers, the RIPPLE Africa staff, and the members of the local community — I am happy to say that I would count most of them as friends today.”

Having decided to take a break from work, I trawled the internet for hours on end. Eventually I began to apply to some charities, one of the first being RIPPLE Africa. On acceptance, I had to complete my TEFL and a year long psychology course, both of which would come in handy whilst teaching at the primary school at Mwaya. About six weeks before I was due to leave, an email was sent by Liz and Geoff, who are the founders of RIPPLE Africa, asking me whether I would consider turning the teaching post into a busman’s holiday and project manage the new Library. Funds had been donated to RIPPLE Africa to build a library and, as I had worked in a university library, they enquired as to whether I would be interested in cataloging the books, training the staff and implementing a lending system. At first I was disappointed that I would not get to use my TEFL course, etc., but eventually the new idea grew on me.

My African experience began when I missed my connecting flight from Johannesburg to Lilongwe. This necessitated spending a night in Johannesburg. Two days later, having spent almost two hours at the local bus station in Lilongwe, I was joined by two other people, Paul and Amy, who were going to Zambia before starting to volunteer at Mwaya. The chance of this happening, either before or after, was very slim. I was to meet Paul and Amy again in a matter of weeks. When I arrived at Mwaya late on Saturday 9 July, I was met by my first roommate, Jack (from England), together with Adi (from Australia), Christine (from Canada) and Ellie (from USA). As it was the weekend, I took things easy until Monday. On Monday, I visited the library site for the first time. The following day, the three girls from Stowe School in England, who had raised the money for the library, arrived. They were anxious to assist with the first stages of the project. On 13 July, the four of us began to open the 40 or so boxes which were stored in the office at Mwaya. We worked together for almost two weeks, stamping books, re-boxing and categorising the books. (The methodology of how and why I arranged the books, etc., will be available on another document.)

My day started with breakfast between 6.30-7.00am and I worked from 7.30am until 3.30pm with a break for lunch. Most days, I would visit the library site where inevitably Mr Timothy (the headmaster) came from his house, which is situated nearby, to enquire when the library would be opened. Some of the ladies would be mixing cement or plaster, whatever stage they were at, and others carried the water from the borehole. It seems that I had only been at Mwaya a few days when Joe, one of the managers, brought me to a football training session for one of the community football teams (Force Rangers). He asked me upfront whether I would coach the players. With little option, I said that they should be prepared for their first training session the following day. On returning to Mwaya, Maxwell, the manager at Mwaya Beach, asked if I would also coach RIPPLE Africa’s work team. Again, I had little chance to decline, and so there were three afternoons a week and many weekends taken up in a short space of time.

Force Rangers were due to play their second league game in two weeks’ time. At that time, RIPPLE Africa were just training and playing friendlies. The training session and matches with Force Rangers really took off, and maybe up to 34 people might watch training while hundreds attended a league match whether it be at home or away.

Eventually, in September, some employees of RIPPLE Africa approached me with the idea of starting a sports club with the guys playing football and the girls playing netball. In a matter of a week, we had sat down and put together a plan for this. The employees would put some money in a pool every payday and asked Liz and Geoff to contribute funds, also on a monthly basis, for transport and accommodation before matches. The impact this had on the employees in match weeks, either before or after, was magical. Between September 2005 and May 2006, the ‘A’ team in football were only beaten once 1-0. The ‘B’ team had a moderately good run of results, and the netball team who I had very little to do with (except support) went from strength to strength. I worked alongside Edson and Derek, who were the headmaster’s sons, and Jack Longwe, who was the son of the new Librarian and who I was to train at a later stage. By working with these three guys, I left them with some understanding of how and why we did certain things in training. During my time, we did two training sessions in the classroom to see if they could grasp the ideas, etc. At the completion of the first one, Bobby, one of the players with little or no English, stood up and spoke for a while. When I asked for an abbreviated translation, I was told that “Bobby feels he is in a higher place after today”. So I thought at least something had hit home.

In August, some new volunteers arrived as my first set of volunteers exited. Paul and Amy (from England) arrived, then Pete and Anne (also from England), Crt (from Slovenia), who was to be my roommate until October, and finally Jorien and Elmar (from Holland). They all taught in the primary or local secondary school, with the exception of Jorien and Elmar who worked at the health centre at Kachere. Before Adi left, I had a great opportunity to have a long discussion with her regarding some of my ideas for the library. Some of the things we discussed may have appeared insignificant at the time, but the impact they were to have on the library would be talked about for months after we opened. One major factor was that Adi ran an art class, and I was anxious for the children to paint or draw pictures to be displayed in the library. She told me who the good artists were and what they were capable of. Amidst the volunteer comings and goings, we received a shipment of 120 boxes from Australia which were donated by Lou Railton who had visited ten years previously. Both Lou and her parents, John and Chris, arrived a short time after the consignment. Geoff and Liz, who had arrived a few weeks before, hurriedly gathered school teachers and school children together to get some photo opportunities with Lou, John and Chris as they were only to be at Mwaya for four days. This consignment turned out to be a secondary job for me as I was to act as distributor, go-between and auditor. It was a rather difficult task because, no matter what was distributed, it was felt more was needed. This was the main reason that it was distributed in a fair and open manner, through the schools and with community leaders present.

  • Donncha cataloguing some of the books for the library
    Donncha cataloguing some of the books for the library
  • Martha with Donncha
    Martha with Donncha

Before Liz and Geoff left, they introduced me to Mr Longwe who was to be trained as the Librarian. Mr Longwe duly began work on 22 August, and we worked together for about two weeks, after which I set out work for him and checked it once or twice daily. Whilst he was learning the ropes, I set about the task of putting together a library manual, which was to be a guide for any future library workers or volunteers. To enable me to embrace an African-style library, I began to network, visiting the District Librarian, Joseph Nduna, at the Nkhata Bay Public Library and Mr Joseph Utu of the University of Malawi in Mzuzu. The advice given by both these gentlemen was invaluable, and Mr Nduna was to see the opus in full swing when I invited him to Mwaya on 1 March. Having completed the library manual, I asked Paul and Amy to read it and give me their opinions. I also sought the advice of my roommate, Crt, and the only change he suggested was the inclusion of diagrams to assist the reader. With the library almost ready to open, Mr Longwe and I put together a simple ‘book handling course’ that we would show the children from Standards 5 to 8. Mr Longwe spoke in Chitonga, whilst I did the actions explaining:

Some of the actions took the form of a “Mr Bean”-like figure (but hey, anything for the cause!). Having a specific project meant that I was able to focus much more on a day-to-day basis. I still had a great deal of freedom in the ways I wished things to be done. The only negative side to this was that I was unable to assist in after-school classes, etc., as time did not allow for this.

By the end of October Paul, Amy, Elmar, Jorien and my roommate Crt had all left. The only new volunteer who was to follow was Ben (who was to be my new roommate after Christmas). By the time I left for a two-month break at the end of the first week in December, the library had been opened with invaluable help from Pete and Anne, who helped to put the books on the shelves so that we could open on Saturday 26 November. The official opening was on Monday 28 November and was well attended. During the next week I witnessed how the community were dealing with this new resource. On the morning I left, Pete, Anne and Ben saw me off, while Lawrence (the driver) and Maxwell (the manager of Mwaya Beach) drove me in our trusty vehicle ‘Rusty’ to the roadside.

On returning to Mwaya on the last day of January, I was greeted by familiar faces and people were only too glad to carry my bags as they probably saw me as the prodigal son. As I walked to the Beach, the numbers grew and I felt as if I had never left as the figure of Chief Chibako shook my hand when I passed the library building. When I finally reached the Beach, some new faces of recently-arrived volunteers greeted me along with the familiar faces of Nephia (one of the cooks) and Force (the environmental projects manager), together with the nightwatchmen. The roles had now been reversed — as I had introduced Ben to volunteers in October, he now was doing the introductions at the dinner table. There was Tracy (USA), Alison (UK), Emilia and Pauline (Scotland), Kieran (Eire), Kun (UK), Judith (USA), and Rachael (USA). Julie from the UK was to join us in late February. It took a few days for the body and time clock to adjust but, with both the staff and the volunteers, the chances of falling by the wayside were slim. Together they were the most dynamic bunch who did so much for each other. At times I stood back from library matters to assist in some after-school classes, spent weekends drawing either times tables that Tracy and Alison wanted for Standard 6 or grid tables for Emilia and Pauline for Standard 5. This incredible energy also went into organising a St Patrick’s Day celebration which would not have been amiss anywhere in the world. The Committee which was set up made sure costumes and hats (compulsory) would be worn, while Rachael said she would make soda bread. Kieran did not wish to be outdone, so he said he would either “Hear Confessions” or “Say Mass”, and thus he also became known as Father Reilly. Easter festivities were to follow soon after, and we enjoyed it even without the Easter bunny.

For some weeks at the end of March, the rain became incessant, and we sat at the kitchen table waiting for it to stop, either drinking tea or coffee and surmising what we would do at home in that type of weather. On Easter Sunday, we walked out to the edge of the track on which our vehicle would normally travel and we would walk. The water flowed in a torrent and Ben lost one of his flip flops as he attempted to take a picture. Thankfully, as we reached April in earnest, the weather became drier. During the months of March and April, the library opened its doors not only to readers but also to borrowers. At this point, Mr Longwe and his assistant George were joined by Samson. It was during this time Mr Longwe, Mr Timothy (headmaster) and myself were to make decisions which would help not only the school children but also the community as we sought initiatives to assist the local people to use the library resources. The other aspects that had to be dealt with with regards to the library were:

On a day-to-day basis, I stood back and observed what was happening, and I would work outside and meet the library staff on an almost daily basis at 8.30am. This allowed the library staff to have their freedom but, at the same time, gave them a forum for their questions.

Before heading off to Zambia with Ben in April, I joined Rachael in two of our pre-schools at Mazembe and Mwaya. Then Victoria (the Volunteers Coordinator) took me to see Ben in action at Kachere Health Centre. I also met Matthias and Dyson who worked there. There were some patients I saw who are etched in my mind, and I did not need a camera to record their agony. On a lighter note, I called into the pre-school next door and was very impressed with the work of the two Marys there.

By the beginning of April, I said goodbye to Alison, Tracy, Emilia, Pauline and Kun, and then Judith. When Ben and I arrived back towards the end of April, we were greeted by Laura (UK), Zoë (UK) and Justin (USA). Shortly afterwards, Mandy (USA), Vicky and Emily (UK), Bobby (UK) and Vanessa (NZ) arrived. The large number of volunteers helped the school not just with after-school classes but with a new English reading class. This was set up to assist pupils to read in an outdoor reading class once a week outside the library. The last days of April saw me lose another roommate as Ben left for Lilongwe with Julie. As Rachael was about to lose her roommate, Judith, we decided to room together for our last five weeks. In my final full month, we were to be joined by two health workers for Kachere, Katy and Barclay (USA), and David who was doing research for his Masters dissertation in Sustainable Energy and Deforestation at the Royal Holloway College, London University. Whether time stood still or quickened in my last few weeks I will never know, but there never seemed to be enough hours in the day. The footballers and netballers would not let me go without a final party which they and the volunteers paid for, and I do not think I will attend a nicer or more unusual event.

As an overview of my time at Mwaya, it was more enjoyable and rewarding than I could have ever expected. I would never be naïve enough to say every day was a good day because there will be good and bad days, but the former far outweighed the latter. Most of the time, I would be surprised by what the locals (children or adults) would throw at me in the form of questions or problems. One of the biggest diversities I had to surpass was the difference between our idyllic setting at Mwaya and some of the sights I might come across within a short distance. The main thing is to be sure to bring your body and mind together so you are thinking of Malawi and not dreaming of home. In general, the people of Mwaya and Malawi really appreciate what is being done as we can affect certain aspects of life in a community rather than trying to make wholesale changes to a country. The ethos of empowerment, whether it be in the form of women’s cooking or sewing groups, emphasises that they can do something for themselves rather than just looking for money. The staff of Mwaya – Harry and Nephia (the cooks), Martha (who washed and cleaned), along with the managers, coordinators and general staff do touch your heart with the warmth they display. Thinking of the people I was fortunate to work, eat or tour with — over 30 volunteers, the RIPPLE Africa staff, and the members of the local community — I am happy to say that I would count most of them as friends today. Within the last ten days, I have received a dozen emails from some of them and I’m glad to have known them as I believe we all brought something different to the table to assist each other every evening. The burning question methinks has been answered above but, yes, I do think it was a worthwhile experience and would do it again given the chance.

Donncha (Volunteer Librarian, June 2005 – June 2006)


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