Nicole and the farm kids


Volunteering with the little people

Volunteering has always been in my blood, my parents did it, but at that time it didn’t have a label, it was part of our life. To me volunteering is simply doing a service to one or many people without considering any possibility of a reward. It’s taking the B team, when all the glory is with the A team, slipping in to ask if your elderly neighbour needs anything from the shop, putting yourself out, going the extra mile, caring and being generous with your time and considering others. Of course there are the really difficult tasks like providing respite to someone with a challenged child or adult and a whole host of quiet, unknown, and undisclosed acts of hospitality that just go unrecorded every hour of every day.

Of course there are many things that are called voluntary work like chairing multitudinous committees, managing super teams or promoting issues in the public eye, many of which appear on election literature later to gain the rewards. I find this disturbing and sad and realise that is opportunism not volunteering.

At the bureaucratic level we have training for volunteers, policies for volunteers, sending agencies, monitoring agencies staffed by people in plush offices, on substantial salaries and as a friend says: milking the system, all on the generosity of the selfless. There is a worldwide phenomenon of, if we regulate it, we can employ more bureaucratic types and then,  we can charge people for doing it, and of course bureaucrats never miss an opportunity

After 6 years of bringing volunteers to Malawi we have had just over 400 volunteers and almost all of these have brought their own, individual and memorable contribution to the people we journey with.

We could have started and continued with aims and goals and outcomes. We could go for a SMART plan and spend our time on office work. (Oh it means Strategic, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely). Now we could have done this, but we asked ourselves, who, are we doing this for. Our Malawian friends know what we do and our volunteers will pick it up very quickly and just as quickly tell our donors. Job done without bureaucracy! Strangely the political classes know only one way to go.

Malawi has had 40 years and more of Strategic Plans, most of which have failed miserably, so why should we add to their burden. If we do plans, they will be with the people we try to serve and for their benefit. We have no expectation of a reward, no Evangelism, no hope of putting it on CV’s or hope of promotion.

This morning, April 17, 2012, 7 of this year’s volunteers from the Dublin Institute of Technology, DIT (the largest third level educational institution in Ireland) set out for the airport, 400km away, at 5 am. They will arrive in Dublin at 7 pm tomorrow and hit class on Thursday morning having made an indelible mark on Malawi. Who knows how lasting it will be, or what ripple effect it will have. What I do know that they themselves will never be the same. We had Cassie (Journalism)and Sinead (Engineering) here for the third lime leading the group of fourteen then Claire, Ali, Georgie, John and Tommy, all film and media students.

They had all come through the interview system which is done by former volunteers, came to our gatherings to absorb our ethos from Mary, myself and former volunteers. We usually meet in Lucan, have a bite to eat, a chat and get to know each other.

We expect them to be themselves, bring their big hearts, journey with the people on whatever a daily task is. Try to Inspire Educate and Challenge those they meet, knowing that we promote opportunities, and don’t allow handouts.

They see and live among people in dire poverty and our policy is that they should have smiles on their faces and be prepared for fun at every possible opportunity. How can you relate to mothers? Play with and admire their kids. Bubbles are a great icebreaker in any village. Glum faces, smart suits and clip boards get you nothing except what they know you want to hear. Laughs and hugs and fun make the bond every time. Irish people can do this and make the connection in minutes. That’s why our volunteers are so loved by all, even in the remotest villagers, where white faces are scarce, where the little ones will often run away and cry at first: but not for long!!. These people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care!! What’s a PhD to a woman who never had the chance of going to school, can’t read or write and has barely enough to eat? Without a heart and understanding it’s useless.

Many of our student volunteers have had two or three jobs to fund their trip. The deal is that they pay their way and cost Wells for Zoe nothing. Our hostel costs them 5 Euro per day to cover Water, Electricity and Security.

What do they do is a regular question? Well we have numerous programmes on the go and they spend at least the first day seeing most of what we do. Then they chose what they want to try out. Nightly debriefing and planning keeps us going, and time flies when you’re having fun!

Naturally the film and media people worked on a documentary, but also got amazing insights as Malawians love talking. Cameras are no bother to them.

They also did a course in the teaching of English to the teachers in ZolaZolaSecondary school. The original idea was to do the course with the students but an edict from on high ordained that there should be no teaching in Government secondary schools over Easter as it might give unfair advantage to those who got it. Of course the bureaucrats forgot that all the private schools where their children go could get as much tuition as they needed. Unfair advantage, to a community based school with no Government funding?? What a load of pig manure. Leaving the rant aside, this course worked so well that the District inspector and Heads of schools has asked for it to be continued and expanded and as a result Mary got to give the keynote address, at an inset conference for the inspectorate and local second level teachers. I would rate this achievement as remarkable and also confirm that it came at no cost to our donors or even the Irish taxpayer!!

We and all our volunteers have learned again that, in Malawi, you must be prepared for situation A, B and C at least, and have the character to be unphased by any eventuality.

Maybe I should tell a little story to typify the daily happenings. Cassie and Sinead got up early on Friday last, got a taxi and brought a 41 year old man, whose children they got to know over the years, to the Central hospital. They paid for his care and left a phone with the nurse so as she could make contact. He was admitted and died within 48 hours. We are all so sad, but happy that the, reaction of the heart, by the girls, meant so much for his dignity and that of his family.

How can you measure this, its impact and the ripple effect in Salisbury line where he lived. What would it cost the bureaucrats to achieve this? He was just one unknown man, who was battered and bruised by Geography, his culture, tradition, and poverty, who finally got to pass-on with some measure of dignity. It took an hour of their time on their way to do a day’s work. People can’t be trained to do this. What they had was heart and a caring spirit, and a habit of journeying with these poor people, like Stanley’s dad, as they call him. You can’t do this living in a five star or even a two star hotel and doing the four by four, ritual. This is real volunteering, real caring. I know there is a paid-forward waiting for them somewhere along their journey, well there should be, but they didn’t do it for that. The Universe has its own way of colluding. This is our dream, caring for individuals, not ticking boxes for millions

There is a book of, other stories about these and our past volunteers. They have been, and continue to be special people, who make a real difference to real people by their presence here.

We love them and wish them well in their future lives. They are better people because they came and cared.

When our volunteers come, we don’t put on a show (I’ve seen the shows). They get to see everything both good and bad, things that are successful as well as our failures. We want them to see how and why things fail, but we don’t plan for them. We want them to see Malawi in the raw, warts and all.

Their overall impression from them, of their time in Malawi: Magic, best time of our lives, where did the time go and we’ll be back, as with those who preceded them, they certainly will.

Malawi is not for all. Some people just don’t get it. Before volunteers come, in so far as we can, we try to rid them of their preconceived notions and most of what they have heard, learned and seen about Africa. Africa is a huge continent with an amazing array of cultures and traditions and diversity. Malawi is Malawi, with its own tribes, cultures and traditions and certainly not a homogenous, inert mass of humankind. You can’t assume that a plan devised by one village will work 50 km away. Even though there may be 13 or 14 million people here, we work, not with the millions but the individual people we journey with each day.

Working with small, women’s cluster groups we get to know them, little by little and they us. It’s a patient and painstaking process like taking layers of an onion, but is there and other way? Trust and friendships develop over time and eventually, in most cases, the seemingly impossible happens and people empower themselves.

This is the Africa of Wells for Zoe where most of our volunteers learn that there is a new and simpler way to help: a small, personal and direct relationship with the dark Continent.


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