Volunteers’ Stories: Monika

Monika’s Story

“I will never forget the warmth and generosity of the Malawian people. They have shared meals in their homes, invited us to church and even invited us to weddings. Volunteering has been an incredible experience. I have learned and experienced so much, and it will stay with me forever.”

There are so many experiences to share about my time as a volunteer.

My first experience was on Day 1. I was taking the taxi from Lilongwe airport at noon which should be a 4½ hour trip to Mwaya Beach (instead of the AXA bus which can take 7+ hours) … but a pothole got in the way, resulting in a broken axel and flat tire. We got the car to the side of the road close to a local village. The children bravely came to shake my hand (one by one) and, after showing the children their photos on my digital camera, they were only too happy to pose … and we ended up singing songs and playing a few games. It was a great introduction to the children of Malawi. Needless to say, it took another 3+ hours for another car so I arrived at camp about 9:30 pm. Thankfully, Joan (another volunteer) had waited up for me to arrive.

The introduction week with Dan was very thorough and informative. There were lots of activities to get involved with, and I was able to see the Changu Changu Moto project in action which was very impressive. However, being a physiotherapist by training, I chose to work mainly with Collins who is the Community Based Rehabilitation provider.

Collins took Lindsey (my cabin mate and a ICU nurse from the UK) and I around to the clinics and hospitals. We were able to choose where we felt best suited. Lindsey chose Kachere Health Centre and the weekly Under 5s clinic which is for babies and children up to five years old for weighing and vaccinations. I too was able to work with Lindsey a number of times at the Under 5s clinic which was a great experience to share. The women would sing songs and the children were adorable.

My choice was to spend the days going to visit patients in the local villages with Collins. Collins is a warm and enthusiastic person who really cares about what he is doing. We biked every day and sometimes felt frustrated to spend more hours biking than treating patients. Finally, Collins was provided a motorbike (in December) so our job was made so much more rewarding as we were able to spend more quality time with clients. We had a very open and wonderful rapport, and both of us could think “outside the box” to come up with solutions.

One of my ideas was to make weight bags using the stones from the lake. I had been at Patrick’s sewing shop and noticed he had remnant pieces of cloth, so I decided to try and make some 1lb weights. Our kitchen had a weight scale, so I collected the rocks from the beach, took them to Patrick and explained what I was looking for. He got it right away … and he made me four (1lb) bags with a tab holders. He also made some 2lb weights.

Isaac is developmentally slow due to malnutrition and, at five years old, he cannot walk unassisted or stand/balance for very long. We had been working on balance and strengthening exercises, and the bags were useful as a game to toss and catch (as well as exercising) so he was not thinking about balance but focusing on the bags. He was able to toss and catch after a few visits, and Collins said he had never seen Isaac smile and laugh before. His positive responses made our day. I also decided to make him a swing so I asked the carpenter to make the seat and Collins got the rope. We found the perfect tree and, once we finished, Isaac was on my lap for the first swing of his life. Now he swings on his own, and his whole family and neighbours are loving it.

Meeting the other volunteers and sharing our lives together for three months was great. Everyone had their own stories to tell, and we ended up spending a lot of our spare time together.

The first weekend, a group of us hiked up the mountain. We were told it was a three-hour hike but in fact it was over four hours up and then we had to come down. We were all pretty pooped when we got back to camp. On another weekend, we went to the Chintheche Inn for the “Moon Rock Festival” and camped in the grounds – some borrowed tents from RIPPLE Africa, but I had brought my own tent which I shared with Lindsey. One weekend in Nkhata Bay, I tried scuba diving, but it was harder than I thought! And then there was the day spent at Makuzi Beach Lodge where some went kayaking and I went snorkeling (much easier than scuba diving) before having dinner. White tablecloth and candles made it perfect evening.

Half way through my placement, I had booked a safari with Kiboko Safaris to South Luangwa Park and Victoria Falls in Zambia. Lots of elephants, zebras, giraffes and lions, and I even saw a leopard during the night safari. The helicopter trip was an awesome way to see Victoria Falls. I also went on an all day river rafting trip and even got to Livingstone Island to jump into Devil’s Pool. I was so glad that I had chosen the nine-day trip and Kiboko did a great job!

Back at Mwaya Beach after my safari, it seemed as though I was starting all over again, especially with the language which I found very hard. It seems my ear was not picking it up as easily as the rest, but I kept trying.

Collins got Lindsey and I involved with the Health Club which is for secondary school students. We spent Thursday afternoons discussing topics on health, contraception and AIDS. We got the girls doing a Yoga class, and they all had fun trying to do the positions. Just before we left Mwaya Beach, Lindsey and I had a group who were working on a play about AIDS but, as we were not going to be there to see it performed in January, Lindsey and I decided to take the group of six (four girls and two boys) for lunch at Kande Beach. Most had not been on a matola (local minibus) or to Kande. They borrowed my camera and took lots of pictures – playing pool, trying to balance in the hammocks, and lunch where they finally got to eat a hamburger. The rest of the day was spent in the lake. It was one of our best days. Teenagers need to have fun, and this was just what they needed to get into the Christmas spirit.

The staff are all amazing, and they are so welcoming and helpful. Arnold and Frank came to our rescue many times, and we appreciated all they did for us. The cooks outdid themselves, and we always had such a variety of food and most of the time everyone had seconds. Laundry done daily was a real treat.

Geoff and Liz (RIPPLE Africa’s founders) were here during my placement, and early morning swims at 5:00 am followed by bacon and eggs for breakfast was a real treat. A surprise barbeque for Liz on her birthday was special with one of the local church choirs performing at sunset.

Lake Malawi was beautiful, and having it a few steps away was wonderful. I went swimming in the lake almost every day, and the children loved to join us to get their photos taken or swim with us. Walking along the beach was one of my pleasures – seeing the women washing their clothes, fishermen getting their nets ready for the night fishing, and the occasional ducks and cows wandering down to the lake to drink.

I will never forget the warmth and generosity of the Malawian people. They have shared meals in their homes, invited us to church and even invited us to weddings. Volunteering has been an incredible experience. I have learned and experienced so much, and it will stay with me forever.

Monika (Volunteer Physiotherapist, October – December 2012)

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