Volunteers’ Stories: Jon
“Overall, my experience at RIPPLE Africa was simply priceless, and I will always miss the “warm heart of Africa” until the day I return. I had experiences in Malawi that I knew that I could not find anywhere else and made friends who I will never forget. I highly recommend this experience to people who are creative, self-driven, and not easily frustrated by a slower pace of life.”
When I arrived with Jaclyn at Mwaya Beach, both of us had the same question running through our heads: “What did we get ourselves into?” Our four-day journey from North America to Mwaya concluded with a delayed Shire bus ride where we were swarmed by locals asking to be “our friends” and yelling over the engine noise that was loud enough to deafen even the best set of ears. After the all-day bus ride, we were dropped off at Matete in the dark and encountered a roadblock man who offered to escort us to the beach. We could do little more than just pray that he would lead us to the correct location. When we arrived at the beach, the darkness made it impossible to truly understand the layout of our living conditions, so we went to bed not knowing what the morning would reveal.
When I awakened the first morning and opened the door of my chalet, my initial fears were laid to rest as I found myself living in a place resembling a resort with the sunrise greeting me over the lake. Then I encountered the local workers of RIPPLE Africa who were friendly, warm, and greeted me promptly. I quickly learned that all of my basic needs, such as cleaning and cooking, were taken care of by hired staff thus allowing more free time for volunteer work. Although this setup seemed ideal, I still had one burning question: “What EXACTLY was I going to do in Malawi?”
After being oriented by the managers and introduced to RIPPLE Africa’s various projects during the first week, my volunteer experience in healthcare and crash course in public health began. The structure of RIPPLE Africa provides the setting for volunteer work, but does not set guidelines, schedules, or place specific demands on volunteers; a setup that is definitely not for everyone, but fit my personality perfectly. I thrive on situations where there are few restrictions and virtually any thought on a project could be considered. Thus, my experience was defined by my own initiative and only limited by my imagination.
I purposely set aside the first three weeks of my placement to just volunteer at the Kachere health clinic, the voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) centres, and the under-five clinics in an attempt to understand the area’s current healthcare programmes. Each experience was interesting and unique as at Kachere I worked with the eccentric yet delightful medical assistant, Patrick, who diagnosed nearly every case as malaria and saw 60-90 patients within only two to three hours. The VCT and under-five clinics were also interesting as I worked with the health surveillance assistants who had invaluable knowledge about public health issues. These activities, however, were not enough to keep me entertained and challenged for almost three months, so I quickly started to think of public health projects to start for the community.
Ben, Georgina, Jaclyn, and Jon with friends on the beach at Mwaya
Jon helping to start the Drug Revolving Fund (DRF) project
My public health project ideas changed nearly every day for several weeks, but finally I decided on six main projects:
First, I started a drug revolving fund (DRF) for the communities located near RIPPLE Africa’s base. The locations surrounding RIPPLE Africa are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to healthcare access as people are a minimum of 7km away from a clinic and often cannot manage the transport to either the Kachere or Kande clinics. The DRF was designed to bring healthcare to these people as 18 community volunteer dispensers were trained to operate the DRF at five outreach locations. Drugs (analgesics, malaria prophylaxis, oral rehydration salts, and various lotions/ointments) are bought at the District Hospital at a subsidised price and sold to the community at a highly affordable cost (for example, each aspirin tablet costs less than a penny). Currently, the DRF is run by the community and is sustained by the modest profits gained by selling drugs that cover costs for transportation, supplies, and possible future training. This is truly an example of empowering the community, not simply giving a handout.
Second, I finished a water project for Kachere clinic that was started and almost completed by my friend and previous volunteer Ben. In order to get running water to the clinic, I had to persuade the district electricians and plumber to finish the interior wiring for the water pump and to fix/clean the pipes and water tank. This task was difficult as the District is understaffed (for example, there is only one plumber for the whole district!) and often it takes a “mzungu” (white person) such as myself or Ben to persuade anyone to come to Kachere. This project was finally completed after more than a year-long struggle, and now the clinic and immediate surrounding areas have a clean source of running water.
For my third project, I had each health surveillance assistant at both Kachere and Kande clinics conduct a random survey of 30 households in the community. This survey was approved by the District Health Officer and Malaria Coordinator, and was designed to investigate the main reason why malaria devastates the people living near RIPPLE Africa’s base. The survey was mostly completed before I left (I collected 12 out of 16 surveys before I left), and the results will be used to apply for a future public health project to effectively combat malaria in the community.
The final three projects were smaller and aimed at helping with the problem of HIV/AIDS in the community. First, an open day celebration was organised and used drama, poems, songs, speeches, and prizes to promote the awareness of a national HIV testing week and the DRF. This celebration attracted an audience of approximately 800 people and resulted in 211 people being tested (26 positive) for HIV during testing week compared to 130 the previous year. Second, I personally bought equipment (stools, buckets, etc.) to equip the Matete VCT with the bare essentials to properly test and counsel patients for HIV. RIPPLE Africa is currently raising funds to build a new structure to house this VCT, but before the purchase of this equipment, testing and counselling were done on the floor, and I felt the situation was simply unacceptable. Finally, I funded the training of a HIV/AIDS counsellor and tester for the high risk fishing camp located at Tukombo. This fishing camp and the surrounding community was once a thriving area, but it is now devastated by poverty due to over-fishing in the lake. Currently, due to lack of money, people will have sex in exchange for goods such as fish, and the rate of HIV in the area is estimated to affect a staggering one in three people in the fishing camp. This newly trained HIV counsellor/tester will be specifically located in the middle of the fishing camp and help educate and find appropriate resources for this high-risk community.
Overall, my experience at RIPPLE Africa was simply priceless and I will always miss the “warm heart of Africa” until the day I return. I had experiences in Malawi that I knew that I could not find anywhere else and made friends who I will never forget. I highly recommend this experience to people who are creative, self-driven, and not easily frustrated by a slower pace of life.
Jon (aka “Bingu Banda”) (Volunteer Healthcare Assistant, May-August 2007)