A Reflection: Three Weeks Volunteering in Mzuzu Malawi with Wells4Zoe

A Reflection: Three Weeks Volunteering in Mzuzu Malawi with Wells4Zoe

I suppose if people commit to three weeks in a place like Malawi to give a helping hand to the poorest, one expects them to be dedicated and committed, but there are not enough superlatives in my meager vocabulary to do any kind of justice to the work done by our 25 volunteers this summer, among them was Sharon Loscher. She is an amazingly quiet and reserved young woman who did a spectacular job, living on her wits and leaving a lasting impact everywhere she went in Malawi. Adjusting to the the depravation and lack of facilities is tough, but she was up to all the challenges, and there were many. Her commitment to find answers and solutions were startling and we hope she will work with Mary and the team to bring new hope to the poorest of the poor with whom she journeyed. The whole W4Z community is so delighted that you came

The nail polish lasted well after a day on the farm!!

I travelled to Malawi in July 2010 for three weeks volunteer work with Wells for Zoe. Getting on the plane in Dublin airport to board the first of my three flights, I’ll be honest I had no idea what to expect from this experience. The words of encouragement and support that I received before I left made me believe that this trip was going to be totally different to any travelling I’d done before. It certainly was!

I suppose my trip didn’t get off to the best start, getting stranded alone in Addis Ababba in Ethiopia for 24 hours with no mobile phone network or internet access was quite frightening! However, I arrived in Lilongwe eventually to a smiling Michelle and I’d never been happier to see her in my life! It was a character building exercise and I came out the other end! I was so glad to be finally in Malawi that the 5 hour car journey to Mzuzu seemed delightful! Looking out the window on the journey I realised the beauty of this country and I was amazed by the remoteness of the small villages which could be spread apart for miles and miles! The people walked in their thousands up and down the roads and they were never empty handed or empty headed as was the case!!! How do they do it, I wondered? Some Irish people (myself included!) can barely walk to the local shop and here they were walking miles and often carrying heavy loads-their strength was inspiring!

Arriving at Arás Fáilte, our lodgings for our stay, I realised that if I did have any expectations, our accommodation went far beyond anything I could’ve imagined! There were four bedrooms with bunkbeds, a wardrobe and all ensuite! There was a kitchen equipped with all modern appliances, even a microvave! There was also a living area with couches and a coffee table. I couldn’t believe I was in Africa in this house, it was just like home! We were privileged to be the first lodgers in the newly built Arás Fáilte although this meant that there were a few snags that still needed to be fixed including leaking taps, cold showers and power and water shortages. These were daily inconveniences but putting things into perspective they were minor in comparison to what the Malawian people live with and it really made me appreciate my own living standards at home. We made Arás Fáilte our home and every evening all the volunteers would sit together and eat a meal cooked by two of the volunteers. Everyone cooked in pairs and we all had a day to cook. There was stiff competition over the cheapest meals, the tastiest and the dessert of course!!! I’ve never eaten so well in my life. It was ironic and sad to think that we had so much to eat when there were people not far away from us who were starving. Such are the injustices of this world and I think it’s important while in Malawi to try not to dwell too much on thoughts like this as you would feel that you were getting nowhere if that were the case. You have to keep reminding yourself that you came here to make a difference no matter how small it may seem.

With the little ones in Áras Kate

‘What did you while you were there?’ is probably the question I get asked most after returning. I found myself replying ‘oh, we just helped out in a pre-school and taught for two days in a primary school.’ To be honest, now that I’ve had time to sit down and reflect upon the experience I can see that what we actually did cannot be justified into one sentence alone. Most mornings began about 6.30am and we were up dressed, with breakfast eaten and out the door by 7.30am. Usually our mornings were spent in the pre-school named Arás Kate. Arás Kate was set up by Wells for Zoe for children living in what could be described as the city slums of Mzuzu known as Salisbury Line. There were 250 children divided between two classrooms. The children sat on benches at long tables that fitted about 20-25 children. There were about 8 Malawian teachers working in the pre-school, although only two or three of them had teaching qualifications. Coming from a class of 21 I found the first day in the pre-school completely overwhelming. There were children everywhere! Then they began singing and dancing and I was blown away! They were AMAZING! The music and dancing was so uplifting. It brought the most beautiful smiles to the children’s faces and to us the volunteers as well!

I was surprised at how structured the day was in the pre-school as this was Africa after-all and I had learned early on that this meant no routine, no structure and no pressure to get things done fast! The influence that Mary Coyne’s expertise in education had on this school was immediately evident. There were breaks, eating time (the cost of the porridge, called sema, that the children ate everyday is funded by Wells for Zoe) , music and activity time fitted into the day. There were teachers in the school who were excellent, full of energy and enthusiasm for teaching the children. They were eager to learn new skills from us the qualified teachers. Unfortunately not all the teachers shared this enthusiasm or perhaps they just didn’t have confidence in themselves and their teaching skills. It would be naive to believe that Arás Kate ran this smoothly when Mary and John or the volunteers weren’t there. This was one of the most frustrating things about teaching in Malawi, you can hand out advice and ideas but you can never be certain what would be done when you left. We were particularly disappointed on one particular day when we cleared out a storage room in Arás Kate and found beautiful educational materials and resources stored away on shelves that had never been used before. This just highlights the huge need for training these teachers to be competent and confident in what they do so that they can make the best use possible with the resources they are provided with. The Malawian people are so resourceful themselves that no doubt when given the opportunities they could achieve so much.

Working on a homework club with primary school students

Wells for Zoe are involved with other pre-schools and schools which we had the opportunity to visit. Our time spent giving in-service and teaching in Luvuwu Priamry School was probably one of the most rewarding experiences of my trip. We planned and prepared our lessons each night with the other volunteer teachers which was always a great laugh!!! It felt like we were on Teaching Practice again preparing our lessons together for the next day. We had to work from the basics, paper, crayons and scissors (these were donated materials, not widely available in Malawi)! The resources were simple and a far cry to anything I’d use in my classroom in Ireland. However, in Malawi they were invaluable and the children enjoyed the interactive element of my lessons. In fact 64 children screaming, jumping and waving their hands in front of you to answer a question is quite an experience indeed!!! The education system in Malawi is way behind the times and reminds me of the old Irish educational system where rote learning is the primary method and there are no chances for any children who may have special needs. Looking at how far the Irish education system has come in the past 50 years gives hope that Malawi can progress, even if this progress is slow.

Other projects where we visited or helped out included the farm in Lusingasi, the birthing centre, St John of God’s Centre and the pump factory. I could go on forever describing each and every project Wells for Zoe is involved in. One memory of my trip that will forever remain with me is the day we went with Harisen and William to watch them fix a pump which had broken in an extremely remote region outside Mzuzu. The women saw us coming and they stood around the well singing and dancing for us while the boys fixed the pump for them. They had been without clean water for some time and they were so delighted to finally have clean running water.

I cannot finish this reflection without mentioning the volunteers whom I shared this experience with. We all came from different walks of life and all with our own individual personalities. However we all shared one thing, our commitment to sharing our expertise and helping the people of Malawi. We also shared a ‘joie de vivre’ which was essential for living in Malawi, in a busy house with plenty of activity and buzz all around! I’ll always remember the fun times and laughs we had in Arás Fáilte in the evenings!

In a recent reunion in the Coyne’s household Mary read out one of the many pieces John has written about Wells for Zoe. This particular piece was written about the volunteers. John described the volunteer experience as ‘nourishment for the soul’. This, for me, really provides a true description of what the Malawian experience can provide for a volunteer. Since returning I find myself looking at all I have and realising how lucky we are here, recession and all! In my class I’m constantly reminding the children to be grateful for all that they have. They were amazed looking at the photographs which I showed them on our interactive whiteboard-a far cry to anything the people in Malawi have!

Mary and John are a true inspiration for the commitment and energy they put into Malawi. I wish you well in your next trip and I hope to remain involved in Wells for Zoe in future years to come.

Sharon Loscher

Summer Volunteer July 2010

Malawi – A reflection

I am home from Malawi now about two months having spent three weeks volunteering with Wells for Zoe in July. Someone said to me ‘you will never be the same again’ and I was like ‘oh yeah’ and thought nothing of it. Now that I’m home a while, I am realising how right they were.

I got involved with Wells for Zoe from two different groups of people. The Charity itself was set up my Aunt and Uncle – Mary and John Coyne and my ex colleague from my school in Dublin – Marie had been to Malawi before.

So the flights were booked, the initial meeting had happened in Lucan and we were ready for the off! I had no idea what to expect there at all as I had never done a trip like this before. I would have heard lots about it from the Coynes and Marie but until you are there it doesn’t really make sense – if that makes sense!

People ask me all about my experience in Malawi and it’s hard to know where to begin, there is so much to talk about and a lot of them are moments you would understand better if you were there!

My time in Malawi was spent in a number of places! Wells for Zoe has lots of projects running at the same time so that meant that there was plenty of variety. Then volunteers usually found their niche or place they enjoyed most and went back there more. I spent time in their preschool – Aras Kate, at a primary school in luvuvuve (that was built by the DIT students on a previous trip) and the farm. I also went on trips with all the other volunteers to see the other projects in action.

The joy of painting

Some of my time in Malawi was spent in Aras Kate in the preschool with the children. They are just infectious, always smiling even though some of them barely have a shirt on their backs. They are mad to play games, touch your hair, skin etc. You look so different to them – it’s like being a celebrity!. They all want a piece! I painted with the children with some of the supplies we brought out and it brought so much joy to them. Our children here get so much opportunity to learn, some of these wee souls had never seen paint so you can imagine the excitement it generated!

Painting with children in Aras Kate

Dressing up at Áras Kate

This year the volunteers brought out clothing donations that were very gratefully accepted by the children and their families from Aras Kate. Every day as the activities went on in Aras Kate any children that looked in need of clothes were taken and given some new ones. The children would be so delighted with their new clothes and be beaming with pride. This experience really touched me as they would head back to their activities all delighted with themselves!

Allocation clothes donated, thanks to everyone

This little one was over the moon with her new skirt!

Allocating clothes in Aras Kate.

The volunteers also painted the two classrooms in Aras Kate, It was a great thing to do as a team. The result was amazing – a jungle of animals all over the wall. The next day when the children came in they were very impressed!

Aras Kate runs adult education classes in the evening and I also had the opportunity of giving one to them. Before I went into teaching I trained as a Dental Nurse so I did a class on Dental Hygiene. The women were so eager to learn and when we opened up the floor for questions the response was amazing! I could have been standing there for hours! It was great to feel like you were making a difference as so many of them had concerns about their teeth that they couldn’t talk to anyone about previously.

I got my own bit of Adult Ed in Malawi – I was taught how to carry my baby! This little one didn’t seem to mind anyway!!

Me and my baby gorgeous

The opportunity to give two days in-service in a primary school arose when I was in Malawi. The fact that there was five primary teachers there it was a good way of imparting some knowledge. We all worked together in the house planning activities to bring stuff out to the teachers and their classes the nights before.

My class for 2 days inservice

I found this experience really rewarding however difficult. The school had no real resources, no electricity and some of the children didn’t even have a seat to sit on. The children were so happy and eager to learn. There were 67 in my class on one of the days and during the lessons you would have heard a pin fall in the room – that’s how eager they were. It made me quite sad that they had so little to work with and made me think about all we have in Ireland to do the same job. My two days there were very productive and I now have a link with Daniela my teacher in Malawi and with my class here little boxes will find their way over to her when the Coynes are going out (I’m hoping they have room!).

My Lovely Class for two days!

Taken on School Sports day

Fáilte house was a hub of activity in the evenings. Fáilte house – being the home for the volunteers when they go to Malawi with Wells for Zoe.

Sports day in Luvuwu

Living in the same environment with at times twenty people is an interesting thing to do! Inevitably you are going to get on with some people better than others, its good character building! In the evenings two people cooked dinner for the gang which always had a dessert! Many hours were spent around that kitchen table yapping away! I met such amazing people – people I hope to keep in touch with.

To sum up Malawi was a great experience – one I hope to have again in the future. Anyone thinking about volunteering would have a great time with Wells for Zoe. The fact that you don’t have to raise a set amount to get involved will appeal to a lot of people. All money raised goes directly to the causes there as volunteers pay for everything themselves from flights to accommodation and food.

Malawi has changed my outlook on a lot of things. I am so happy to have had the opportunities in the life that were given to me.

Thanks to everyone for their support, encouragement and to the volunteers that made the experience so enlightening.

To Mary and John – the work that you have done and are doing can’t be put into words – I would be here all day and night typing. If three weeks has made me feel like this – what must twenty plus trips do to a person?? I totally understand why you go back and back! I hope to be back very very soon!

Michelle Ní Phléamonn

Summer Volunteer July 2010

Minor Miracles in Malawi

In Malawi, I often don’t know what day of the week it is and I’d normally be hard pressed to say what month it is, but its November, birthday time, not the best time if you want to avoid the spiraling numbers. Dawn is just breaking, its about 5am and I’m rolling out of bed, wondering if there’ll be any water for a shower, it’s too late for God to intervene, so I just hope. Sometimes there’s a dribble, sometimes none, sometimes cold, but TIA and I’m at 1450m above sea level, and the pressure is off and feeling OK. Wash teeth from a bottle, spray on factor 30, not forgetting the bit on my head, put on my 4 year old clothes and boots and I’m ready. Porridge, tea, and maybe a bit of bread. It’s now well before 6 and I’m ready.

Now we have a 250 mile trip, North to Karonga on the Tanzanian border. Because of my age I get to drive the 8 year old Mitsubishi pick up, instead of a 12 year old ex Irish Army Nissan, with seats for nine, the fuel consumption of a tank and comfort to match, but it was free and it certainly works. Comfort was never a prerequisite of my coming to Malawi, and driving there compares favorably to driving a Ford tractor, mowing small fields in West Roscommon, avoiding rocks and drains and trying to avoid the panic of getting meadow cut on a dry day in the 60’s, all the while getting paid one pound an acre.

So I am behind the wheel of a 4×4 loaded with workers front and back and headed off into the total unknown of Malawian bush to install pumps in remote villages. Chances are I’ll return, but when, I don’t know. I do know it will be hot, very hot, up to 45 degrees as it happened, but not humid, I won’t burn, I have great help, but driving conditions could be anything. I have two bottles of coke, two bottles of water and bananas. There’s a chance of nsima, beans and pumpkin leaves. What more does a body need? Oh! Why was I driving because, the police had William’s driving license again (no reversing lights this time) and Harisen pulled the short straw, and had the Nissan. I should be thinking; what age do you think you are, or what are you doing here or many more fairly logical questions, but I do realize that if I declare diminished capacity, then I’m OK. Mad people escape the inquisition of the sensible, reasonable, logical and calculating.

A view of the lake

Anyway the trip to Karonga was breath taking, like mountain top, panoramic views of the lake, twisting roads with hundreds of feet of sheer drop either side, wow landscapes, sometimes lakeside communities, boys selling mice on a stick, and then another wonderful community called Every Home for Christ. They brought us to villages never meant to be accessed by mechanized transport, up some tricky tracks with dodgy bridges, to get out and walk places, dried river bed roads, to people who just hadn’t seen white people or red hair or blue eyes or people 64 years old, to people who sang and danced and prayed when they got their well. We went on and on, through valleys with no vegetation, mud huts and hidden lives, over bare rock and scary ledges, always seeing the beauty of the mountains of Tanzania looming closer. What a day, what an experience, there is a God, who left the beauty of a landscape but maybe someone needs to remind him about the people; maybe He sent us!!, Maybe that was a plan but if that’s it, it wasn’t much of a plan!

So why return, time after time, to this, at least, unusual existence?Well, there is certainly something to be said for bringing clean drinking water to remote Malawian villages crippled by waterborne diseases, like cholera and typhoid and maybe the biggest child killer diarrhea as well as water related diseases like malaria. It is almost unbelievable that so many lives are saved by something, so simple, as a pump and well that costs one euro to give a person clean water.

A new pump, after six weeks in hospital with cholera; no wonder she's dancing

Water is the big picture, but we get to do so many others, less dramatic things, like irrigation, seeds, seedlings, education and generally meeting the needs of the people we serve. We say its inspiration, education and challenge and my God how all of these work. I feel inspiration is seriously under rated, but without it there’s nothing. I refuse to be a delivery boy of aid. Go there, give out the goodies and never be seen again, does nothing, achieves nothing and is a total waste of time: of course it may do a lot for a donor’s ego, but ego was never part of our plan. (If we ever had a plan!)

But it is more personal than that. There is so much to be learned from amazing women and so much to be gained from working with people on the most perilous edge of humanity. The whole process of teaching and learning is exhilarating and uplifting, but sometimes it’s annoying, exasperating, devastating, but never bland or boring.

I go there because I know I can help. I go to be with Malawian people themselves. Journeying with amazingly warm hearted, cheerful, hard-working people in their villages, feeling their pain, providing opportunities, coming up with new ideas and sometimes also being told Ah no John, when they feel something just wouldn’t work, meeting and spending time with them, on their terms, in their homes and with their families, sharing meals with them, even though its always that awful nsima!. There are volumes of life-lessons to be learned: patience, perseverance, hope, gratitude, dignity, joy, simplicity, hospitality and humour. They are the salt of the earth, Gods own people, but that doesn’t protect them from a rant, from me, now and again.

And then of course there are the miracles, sacramental moments and awe.

Harisen with the Ambassabor, Liam MacGabhann

There’s three acres of rock hard ground in Luwinga. On Aug 1 2009 a group of Irish students, from Blackrock College teamed up with our building crew to begin digging foundations for a pump factory. It looked like the impossible. Everything was carried and mixed by hand. But, still by November 6, the 4000 sq foot building was opened by the Irish Ambassador to Malawi.

At Easter 2008, ten DIT students, arrived in the remote rural village of Luvuwu, by the time they left 2 weeks later a 3 classroom school was ready for occupation. Like the story of the loaves and fishes, the community spirit of generosity was unleashed.

Like a volunteer sitting on the ground with a group of 4 year olds writing their figures with little sticks, or paper aeroplanes or bubbles or snakes and ladders or music or reading, wonder and awe at the Lord’s presence.

Like Jen clapping as she reads a new page of a 6 year old’s book.

Like being asked to hold and name, an hour old baby girl, in the birthing centre.

Like looking at Binna’s seedlings, budding and grafting; a whole miracle in itself considering that he suffered a serious mental health problem, went to SJOG services and is now (and always was) a genius with plants.

And then there’s a whole range of people finding their feet and voice, beginning to realize their potential, having received the slightest of a jump start.

Malawi is not all pretty, there’s corruption, abuse, aids, infertile soil, lack of education all mixed up with culture and tradition, but on the upside there’s inspirational and endearing women who with a little help can rescue it from all its ills. Maybe that’s another good reason to be there.

Imagine driving a truck loaded with pipes, pumps parts and workers over rocky rutted roads, through a treeless barren, bone dry landscape. Imagine what it feels like to hike with villagers up and down hills, passing their little houses, over parched earth to reach well site. Of course you’re wrecked, hot, dirty, with your brains and ass rattled like never before, but you are certainly alive.

Happiness is something called clean water

The intensity of the experience, the work, the concentration, the heat and the exhaustion is pushing you to the limit. But then you dance and sing and laugh with women celebrating the first clean water they have ever had in their village. And you watch the magical scene of children rushing to cup their hands under the sparkling liquid spurting from the pump and it’s impossible to leave that village without a complete replenishment of your physical and spiritual energies.

So, simply put, I go to help, but I also go to be lifted, to feed my soul, whatever that is, with work, sometimes laughter and tears, but with a purpose. The experience is a clear reminder that we are indeed all one, all part of the same creation, all put here to help and love one other. It transcends language, culture, religion and skin color, awakening the spirit of each of us.

We eventually worked till dark and then had to negotiate our way through a still, black countryside, without roads, road signs, electric lights or guides. It looked bad when we got stuck in a deep hole of sand in a river bed. Then there was the relief of suddenly finding the tar road. The drive to Mzuzu was still and calm and the sky of stars was another beauty to behold.

Home just after midnight: bed, sleep and then ponder the next potentially glorious day.

When I ask Br Aidan what his day was like, he always answers every day is a good day, and in Malawi it certainly is.

A month in Malawi.

Miriam Whittle from Ardeevin, Lucan is a Science student in TCD and spent four weeks in Mzuzu with 23 other volunteers

I imagined Miriam Whittle as a 10 year old when she emailed to say exams are over, all is well and when can I go to Malawi? Elaine got into action, booked the ticket with those very efficient people in travelpaths.ie and she was on the plane with us to Malawi. The imaginings of an old man were well and truly shattered when she came to help with preparations, finding that in a few short years, she had blossomed into a stunning young lady, attending Trinity College no less!(Joking, I knew all about her).
Four weeks in Malawi and we returned a confident, grown up young lady to Mary and Dave and of course the very understanding boyfriend at Dublin Airport. As with many volunteers before her, she had done it all, including staying on the farm overnight (only for the brave!!). She was inspiring, smiling, loving, caring, perceptive and challenging. She was a real darling to the children and adults alike, BUT don’t leave her in charge of the fire !!!</em
She writes:

On Holidays from college this summer with no plans or prospects of a job, I had nothing but time, much like many Malawians. Going to Malawi was meant to happen for me. No sooner had I contacted the Coynes when Elaine was helping me book a flight to Lilongwe in July.
In the week before my trip I was quite nervous; the furthest I had travelled in my life was to Turkey, for a package holiday with my parents. The idea of 24 hours travelling made it quite clear that I would be very far away from home, in a whole other world. Then there were the vaccinations and the realisation that there were dangers to be protected from. But worst of all (though with the best intentions of course!) were my friends and family telling me to take care of myself and how good I was to be going.. This made me wonder if I had bitten off more than I could chew. My nerves were so bad in fact that there were tears in the airport, the thought of which only makes me laugh now!
I was very lucky to travel with Mary, John, Elaine and Catherina, all seasoned travellers to Malawi. My many questions had been answered by the time we got to Addis Ababa and though the others caught 40 winks on the flight to Lilongwe I was far too excited to sleep. On the drive from Lilongwe to Mzuzu all I could do was stare out the window and try to take it all in. I didn’t want to miss a second even if it meant a few painful bumps off the window as sleep began to take over. On first impressions the poverty is not overwhelming, but I soon learned that spending time with a Malawian means the slow and painful uncovering of what hardship may be hiding under that dazzling smile.

The work (though it did not feel at all like work) we did from day to day was extremely varied. I instantly realised that four weeks were going to fly and made sure to make the most of each day. As it turned out I managed never to have two days the same. Spending time in Aras Kate is very rewarding. The children are full of fun and so happy, it does the heart good. For more “grown up” days we spent time on the farm where the workers were more than happy to befriend us, even if only to doss off work! The birthing centre is also an interesting visit and a perfect example of the amazing work of Wells for Zoe. The old and new centres are such polar opposites. It still baffles me to think of how Lillian could have worked in the old birthing centre and it’s lovely to think of babies now being born into the clean, bright and dry conditions of the new centre, so that at least they start off life on the right foot.

Taking pictures on the farm

Some days we did things like visit Luvuwu, an area where the DIT students, with Wells for Zoe, have built a school. The first day we visited the children were off school, but having made the journey we decided stay a while. We met the principal, his family and neighbours. We played Hokey Pokey with the local children and games like Duck, Duck Goose. In those situations it’s hard to believe but language is never a barrier, as long as you have tickles! Nonetheless I did try to pick up a bit of the local language, Tambuca, as apart from anything it is an excellent way to bond with the Malawians. They greatly appreciate it too. They certainly are an amazing people.
If you ask me for the highlight of my trip, that’s easy, it was when we went with Harisen and William to repair a well. Though Wells for Zoe are sure to have a contact for each well they install the Malawians are still not always great at recognising a helping hand and often don’t call for help. In this case the well had needed repair for about a month. The alternate well was miles away. The women from the area came singing and dancing for us, it was a warm dry day and it couldn’t have been more African.
But if you ask me what the best aspect about my trip was, I couldn’t tell you, there are far too many options. Was it the people I met, whether Irish, English, Australian, Canadian or Malawian? Is it the way I feel I have grown as a person? Having seen the things I’ve seen and experienced the whole thing it would be impossible not to alter your outlook and perspective on life. Or maybe it was the way that, unlike any other experience or trip I have made, it never ends. When I was home a few days I was settling back to my usual life style, spending time surfing the net, doing things of little importance in comparison, when I saw on the Wells for Zoe website that the preschool which was little but foundations when I left, had been completed, and was being whitewashed by the volunteers who remained. Wells for Zoe is something which will stay close to my heart forever and I want to thank Mary and John for it. They are so amazing to me and I am honoured to be involved.

Áras failte, the volunteer house and much more

People regularly ask me this question; if I went to Malawi, what could I do? and I answer, just be yourself and you will be amazing and you will regularly get a chance to make someone’s day and often change someone’s life, or maybe even, your own. I suppose my answer suggests that we all have one or many talents which can make a significant impact on the lives of the poorest in this remarkable country.
Mary McCaffery is one who has done all that and more, another extraordinary young woman who made a huge impact on her first visit and this year took the place by storm.
She planned meticulously, knew what she was about and had the principal task of arranging and organising our new volunteer house for our summer of volunteers. She left two weeks before us and welcomed us on our arrival (a real treat). She took a very rough and ready, nearly completed (Malawi standard) house and turned into a hugely welcoming, home from home where everyone had reasonable comfort and great craic. She had to rally the troops, get furniture made up, source and collect beds, get cooker, fridge, microwave from Lilongwe, source pots, pans, bed linen, mosquito nets (and put them up), grab plumbers, electricians, carpenters and painters, threathening fire, brimstone and Mary Coyne on them!! do the snag list, get the electricity connected and the water all the while, driving an almost expired Irish army jeep, charming the police, avoiding the craters, cyclists and Napoli style drivers.
After this she, with Caitriona O’Connor, taught (model) classes in a Zola Zola secondary school, where they were spellbinding, invited back and asked would they stay. They made such an impact that we are drawing up a whole new programme for this activity.
Of course she did everything else as well and we all love here for her enthusiasm and energy.

A Volunteers Experience:

Mary brought the wool, needles and inspiration. The women did the rest and the winner of the raffle was delighted

Mary McCaffery, Sligo: a Secondary School Teacher at Rathdown School.
I have visited Malawi twice and I’m not finished yet. This summer I spent 6 weeks there. I was joined on my trip by 5 primary school teachers, a doctor, another Home Economics teacher and 7 university students and we all had a blast….
I was interested in doing volunteer work for a long time but was turned off so many other organisations due to the need to fund raise large amounts. Wells for Zoe welcomed me with open arms. I was drawn to them because of its authenticity and hand approach to their projects. Every cent given to Wells for Zoe goes directly to the projects in Malawi. Donations are not spent on administration or flights for volunteers. John’s record keeping of project expenses ensures that fundraisers get to see first hand how their donations are put to use. Mary’s kindly worded letters bring a human and heart warmed acknowledgement to every donation.
I was inspired this summer to see John and Mary at work. They work with endless enthusiasm and love for Malawi and its people everyday. The locals welcome them with open arms and an open heart. Mary and John have an understanding and respect for the culture and way of life in Malawi, something which took me and many volunteers some time to adjust too. This understanding allows Wells for Zoe not only to become part of a community but to bring new life and hope into the communities.

Netball at Lusangazi. Don't mind the smiles this was serious business.

I spend my summer holidays playing with young children in Aras Kate, meeting some of their parents in Adult Education, teaching knitting to some inspiring mothers, doing some re-decorating, some weeding and digging and of course doing some teaching, all the time laughing, smiling and embracing life, Malawi style.
My experience this summer has shown me how it is possible to enjoy life with so little processions and how the smallest gift (food, a blanket) can make such a difference. A handshake, a smile, a hug or taking a photograph can actually make someone’s day….
My interest in Malawi and my work for Wells for Zoe will continue. I have become very fond it. It may be a small charity but it has a very big heart….
I’m looking forward to my next trip already …….

The hidden gem called Salisbury Line (Áras Kate community)

Thoughtful in an adult education class

Melissa Grant, Toronto, Canada

I suppose since we began this mad effort in Malawi, we have met and been helped by the most amazing and equally mad people along the way. I’m not suggesting that Melissa is mad, but at least mad enough to be part of our gang. Some people we have made friends with are real treasures and Melissa is one of them, a true Canadian gem. (I use the word mad or differently talented! for myself, I feel the work here needs a little alternative thinking!!)
I feel that she loves people, she was prepared to do everything, go anywhere with a smile on her face and a great ability to help and befriend all. She was a big hit in Malawi and I hope she will be able to return some day. Malawi needs her madness, charm and talents.

She Writes:

I’m currently sitting in Failte lodge (the lodge where all of the volunteers stay), reflecting on my incredible three weeks here. My experience volunteering in Malawi has far exceeded any of my expectations. I have had an amazing time and have learned so much. What I will miss most are the people. The people of Malawi are amazing – they are kind, generous, and always smiling and saying hello. From my first walk through town, I felt completely safe and welcome – I really felt at home here. A few years ago, when I first got the idea to volunteer in Africa, I envisioned a place where I could wander through the small streets saying hello to people, playing with children, and really feeling a part of their world. The only problem was, I didn’t know if this type of place existed. Well, as I walked back to the lodge this afternoon with a couple other volunteers, I realized that a place like that does exist – it’s a small community outside of Mzuzu, Malawi called Salisbury Line, and it is incredible.

Thanks from her student who had learned enough English to do business in the market.

One of my favourite activities here has been spending the afternoons teaching English to adult women in the community. Everyday, about 20 women come to class with huge smiles on their faces, many with babies strapped to their backs, determined to learn. The women come to class for many reasons – some want to learn English so they can do business in town, some want to help their children with their homework, and some never got to finish school when they were growing up, and just want to learn. Regardless of their reasons, I don’t think I have ever met a more determined, inspiring group of people – their smiles and enthusiasm honestly bring tears to my eyes and give me chills.

This afternoon, I was invited to one of the women’s houses, to meet their family and see their home. While I was munching on some homemade donuts and tea, the woman’s husband asked me if Africa is what I thought it would be and if it was anything like I had seen on TV. I told him absolutely not. On TV, like most people, I am constantly bombarded with images of starving children looking sad and desolate, begging for money to help them. Or, on the other hand, I saw Africa as a nature paradise, filled with elephants and lions roaming the countryside. But, I feel that my experience in Malawi is the Africa that most people don’t ever get to see. They don’t get to meet the wonderful local people who are so excited to talk to you, or play with the adorable children who want to hold your hand or touch your hair (which feels so different from theirs). They don’t get to hear 100 children packed in a classroom, singing and dancing to church songs like “Walking in the light of God” that make you feel so humbled, you want to cry. For me, this is the real Africa – this is the heart of Africa, and I feel so lucky to have been able to catch a glimpse of it.

Thank you for a wonderful, heart-warming experience, and I hope to return again soon.

Melissa – Toronto, Canada

Two months volunteering in Malawi

Ciara Devoy August 21, 2010

The ever present smile

Ciara is one of those remarkable young women who puts little value on her own time, ability, skills or energy, but in fact posesses skills in abundance. I first met her in DIT, where she is a student, and was impressed by her directness and conviction. There was no way I could attempt to say other that yes, we’d love to have you, you’ll be great. I was right, she was truly inspiring. She was involved in everything, enjoyed everything, and has changed so many lives forever. I hope she is going home with some idea of the multitude of talents we have observed over the two months. She is some woman for one woman and everyone loves her.

I was never great with words. So trying to describe my two-month trip to Malawi with Wells For Zoë is near impossible for me to do. The Malawians, Harisen and Charity, all the children, the farm, the pumps, Kazando, Denduzei, St. John of God, the market, the jeeps, homework club, adult education, Casca and the Aras Kate staff, the other volunteers, the craic, learning Tumbuka and the traditional Malawian dance…….. Words will never, never do justice to the incredible experience I’ve just had!

If I’m honest, I don’t quite know what I was expecting when I signed up to go volunteering in Africa. I had a meeting with John Coyne himself and Elaine Bolger, they gave me the low down on the projects, the future plans, how W4Z operates, and what I would be doing over there. I could not believe how welcoming they both were and eager to have me on board. I knew I had picked the right organisation! John had said to me, “you won’t be the same person after it”. And how right he was.

I’m not gonna lie, Mzuzu was not half as poor as I had imagined. It is much more developed than I would have ever have thought. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw Dairy Milk in a shop! Nor did I realise how safe it would be out there. I never once felt in danger or at risk. To be honest, I felt safer there than I do here in Dublin. Well, actually, the only thing that made me nervous was their driving. On our weekend treats to Nkata Bay, my heart would be in my mouth watching the Malawian drivers overtake around corners, taking bends far too wide, barely missing pedestrians and all whilst speeding. I really don’t know what could be done to right this though?

On the other hand, our home – the spacious and wonderful Aras Failte, was so much more than I thought it would be. I felt guilty for the first few weeks that we had so many luxuries, but I guess I got used to it. It was brilliant for us all to be sharing the house together – a real ‘bonding’ experience! It meant there was always someone around to chat to, or play cards with! We became quite the family.
Electricity, water, hot showers, a cooker, a microwave, a fridge….the house had it all. We truly were blessed to be living with such comforts. It made life much easier for us, especially when there was up to twenty of us dining. It saved us so much money (and fuel) on eating out. Every night two people would cook dinner, and we’d divide the cost between us. The meals we had were delicious – and there was nearly always a dessert! Needless to say we ate very well… Probably too well! Having the market and supermarkets close by meant cooking meals and stocking the fridge was easy peasy. Fruit and vegetables over there were just delicious – fresher than fresh. We ate some amount of bananas, apples and oranges. Now that I’m home the bananas taste so rotten in comparison I point blank refuse to eat them!
The house is truly a credit to Mary and John, and they are so good to have spent so much time, money and effort on it, so that we would have somewhere to live independently. Thanks a million!

She was like a magnet, making their day

Hands down, my favourite part of the trip was simply playing with the kids. Whether it was at Aras Kate preschool, Denduzei preschool, Kazando primary school, at Lusangazi farm, or at Luvuwu school, once there was a child to run around with I was happy. A mere tickle or cuddle meant the world to the little dotes. Their big dark eyes would light up at the simplest of things, with “round and round the garden” proving a big hit! I soon learned “monyanee” means friend in Tumbuka. I loved dancing and singing with the children as well. Learning their words to the best of my ability and copying their dance moves, I felt very Malawian!
Zaminamina aye aye!

I also loved working on the farm at Lusangazi. Weeding, watering, pruning, composting, harvesting, tilling, hoeing… the day always flew on the farm. The farmers there are such wonderful people, and so appreciative of the help. They were so interested in our families back home, how we live, and how Malawi compares to Ireland. Miriam Whittle and I stayed overnight on the farm, and were welcomed into John and Lindsays home for dinner (we were full for days). They were so grateful to John and Mary Coyne for everything, and so proud of their beautiful home. They are just one of the many families the Coyne’s have touched.

On a typical weekday, bedtime was around 10-10.30pm. If we were being wild we’d push it to maybe even after 11! We would be wrecked, after a day of going like the clappers I loved tucking myself into my mossie net and hearing the wild dogs howl! 7am was rising time, and on a good day by 7.30 we’d have left the house. Our working day ended at 5pm, and from there we’d do our shopping in town and at the market. For the first few weeks I wished there was something to do after dinner – someone to help! I felt useless once we got home. But given that it was pitch black by 5.30, it would have been too dangerous to do anything really. And I know we do need time to relax and recharge the batteries, but I still felt like I could do more in the evenings. I’m still trying to think up things to do! I’ve got an idea or two.
That said, I loved the weekends, heading off to Lake Malawi, feeling like I had earned it. I was exhausted though; all I wanted to do was sit, read and tan (burn). It was a great way of gearing ourselves up for the coming week.

Six weeks into my eight-week trip, I hit a brick wall. I felt as though people that I thought were my friends were only after my money (money that I didn’t have I might add!). I did have reason to believe this – with one friend telling me straight out I should buy him credit for his phone. I felt very white, even though I tried my best to fit in; I was just one big Mzungu (white person). But I got over this feeling quickly – by confronting that man and any others that were looking to take advantage of me. Telling them to their faces sternly that they were not allowed ask for such things, just because I was white, that I was a friend, and not a dollar sign. I definitely felt better after ranting, and they then knew not to demand anything else. So I think for someone travelling to Malawi for the first time it is important to keep in mind that you may be befriended, or feel like a walking Kwacha, but you have to deal with that situation head on if it arises.

Making someone very happy

Around about that time I also began to question the work I was doing. I was asking myself what difference was I actually making, what good was coming out of me being in Africa – I was changing nothing. This feeling stuck with me for one day only, mainly because I asked Melissa what she thought, and she quickly put everything into perspective for me. And of course I had made a difference. In fact, to make myself truly believe this I made lists of what I spent donation money on, and who I helped, and if I organised something in aid of someone else etc. I needed to write that all down, and to see those lists get bigger, to me, meant I was making a difference. However small it may have been.

Bottom line is, Wells For Zoë works. It works simply because it helps Malawians to help themselves. The Coynes have coyne-d (!) the phrase “a hand up, not a hand out” and I believe that is why they are so well respected in Malawi. I continuously heard the Malawian people praise John and Mary for their kindness and generosity. From Will.I.Am exclaiming “John is a hero, he is a good man, no, a great man!”, to the tiny tots at Aras Kate shouting “Gogo Mary!” and waving frantically at their favourite teacher. I was talking to a woman who was getting water from the pump before Adult Ed in Aras Kate, and said that it was all thanks to Mary Coyne that she could now understand that bit more English. The Coynes, along with Harisen and Charity Amin (who I miss terribly) have done so much for the people in Malawi, more than they shall ever know. They are incredible. It is a huge honour to work with the four of them, and I am beyond grateful to them for giving me the opportunity to volunteer with Wells For Zoë. I had the most amazing 8 weeks of my entire life. I would go back in the morning if I could. Tawonga chowmeiney.