Volunteers’ Stories: Jenny
“Your cultural standards are useless in such an extremely different environment. Open your mind as completely as you have ever done, push yourself to your limits, and hope that you will be able to understand a fraction of what is needed to help.”
I arrived in Matete in June 2003 after a journey of three days from the Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam. My first stop was a lovely place called Mbeya, where I was given a hearty taste of my inner-chump. My cab driver “knew a good hotel” and took me to the biggest dive I have ever stepped foot in. I was promptly presented to a bus conductor who sold me an over-priced ticket to a bus that never came.
LESSON #1: Just because it says Holiday Inn does not mean that it is one. And, unless you’re sitting on the bus, there is no guarantee that one exists.
The second day, I went through customs and was introduced to the ‘money-changers’. Are these people human? Are they deaf? Are they DANGEROUS???
LESSON #2: Patience is a virtue and anyone who can keep a cool head while walking across an East African border should be canonized immediately.
Mzuzu was my next stop, where I was greeted with a warm smile, and better yet, a warm meal (which I shoveled into my mouth as if it were my life’s breath). On day three, after a considerable amount of huffing, puffing, laughing, crying, and SWEATING, I came to my destination. Lawrence – whom you will no doubt meet if you are ever fortunate enough to visit Mwaya Beach – met me at the road and offered to carry my 80lbs backpack. “NO! NO!” was my reply, as I was not going to risk the loss of such a precious parcel after the three day thief-gauntlet I had just carried it through. Thinking back, I’m not sure how far little Lawrence could have gotten with it because it weighed nearly as much as him. And, now knowing that the walk is over a mile, I should have happily parted with the beast no matter what the consequences.
LESSON #3: Although it may seem like it at times, not everyone is out to get you and you can consider yourself especially lucky that local custom calls for anyone younger than you to help you carry heavy things (yes!).
I had a lovely visit and enjoyed my return trip — with all the confidence and vigor of a world conqueror — employing each new lesson I had learned. When the time came for me to become a resident of Mwaya Beach, I plowed full speed ahead into my new surroundings and responsibilities. Full of big ideas and a beginner’s enthusiasm, I began teaching in school and organizing an after-school health club. I studied Kiswahili (because I knew that I would go back [to Tanzania] soon) and biked between villages in order to meet with established health club groups. By the end of week four (week 4 of 24) I was discouraged, disappointed, sad, hurt, angry, and tiiirrreedddd.
LESSON #4: NOTHING EVER GOES AS PLANNED!!!! To expect that is to sign, seal, and deliver yourself to the nearest looney bin.
After re-grouping and re-evaluating my situation, I concentrated on working more closely with the teachers, students, and community members to meet their needs and desires instead of the ones I imagined them to have. I had meetings every day, was getting advice from every corner, and was learning what it meant to be a part time resident in another culture.
LESSON #5: Your cultural standards are useless in such an extremely different environment. Open your mind as completely as you have ever done, push yourself to your limits, and hope that you will be able to understand a fraction of what is needed to help.
Looking back, I see that every day presents a new challenge in Malawi. Some will be positive and some will be painful. In the end, the more you let go, the more you will be able to grasp of the situation that you find yourself in. If you pull this off, your experience will be positive for you and for the people you are there to help.
FINAL LESSON: Don’t listen to anyone who has ‘done it before’. Everyone has a unique experience and as long as you can laugh (A LOT), you will give and take away something amazing. HA!
Jenny (Volunteer Teaching Assistant, August 2003 – March 2004)