Monkey Bay, Malawi
14° 4' S 34° 55' E
Jul 31, 2009 19:49
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Text written in: English

Malawi volunteering - Part 1

I’ll try and explain a bit about the place where I’m staying, the projects and Malawi in general. All the volunteers are currently split between two houses on the lake in a village called Namakoma. The main house is a warren of different bedrooms and receptions rooms – the beds are packed into each room which makes everything appear a little cramped but it does have a nice homely feel to it. Our house is a little different, the house itself is being rented from a very wealthy Malawian businessman so it’s more spacious and the grounds are amazing. Currently another volunteer called Will (who is here for 4 weeks) and I are sharing a 4 bed room. When he leaves (next Sunday – wow that has gone quick!) I’ll move into the main house. Both houses are on the beach and an over zealous roll out of bed and you would find yourself in the lake. The lake itself is beautiful, the fresh water makes it ideal for swimming and bathing (the water is warmer than our cold showers) and the scenic backdrop of exotically canvassed mountains that surround the bay make the sunsets breathtaking – anyone who has ever been this close to the equator will testify. For those who haven’t I’ll try and explain. As the sun descends into the horizon it passes through yellows, oranges and reds whilst emitting a haze that blends into the sky and passes through all the colours like a gradient. The image of the sunset is mirrored gracefully in the soft waves of lake. It is stunning and never ceases to amaze. See for yourself.  

Behind our house is Namakoma village where the residents live in mud brick houses with straw roofs. The village is such a contrast from the oasis in which we live. At first, the basic way of life is hard to comprehend but as I’ve got used to seeing the villagers, stopping to say hello and watching them go about their daily business, it is easy to appreciate that what they have is all they need. Walking through the village you’ll see the children playing with cartons of Shake-shake (the local tipple) or chasing a stick around the dirt and sand mix which encompasses their territory; the women will be gathering supplies and carrying them on their head, weaving the lush green vegetation into rugs to be used as roofing, mattresses or fencing and preparing food for meal times. The paths guide you through the scattered houses, tall landmark tress and land owned by the residents. They are very proud people and it is common to see a woman brushing any fallen leaves, twigs or fruits from their land and the paths which pass through the village. The people are extremely friendly and always say hello – it’s considered rude not to greet everyone you pass so a half an hour walk can easily turn into an hour. We are often mobbed by children who are happy to skip next to us or just hold our hands until we reach the boundary of that village, and they love having their picture taken. If you stop and talk to any of the men it is a custom to hold their hand until the conversation has finished. This takes a little getting used to, but once you have done it a few times it becomes normal and you enjoy the surreal experience.

In the morning I go to the township called Monkey Bay and teach Maths and English to the children in standard 5 at the primary school. The route to school is made up of huts, houses, stalls and general life in the township (Sumbi 2). The school is only distinguishable by the brick buildings that make up the classrooms, apart from this it effortlessly blends into the surroundings. The natural light which illuminates the classroom seeps through the mosaic brickwork and reveals a classroom made up of regimental rows of desks, a potholed blackboard and bare walls. This basic existence makes them uninspiring and, if I’m honest, a little sad. But the children bring the classrooms to life with their eagerness to learn, laughter, smiling faces and a general zest for life. In term time standard 5a has 96 children and 5b 83, in holiday time I’ve got just under 20 for both classes. The children are so much fun and genuinely enjoy being at school. When I teach them English I have to get my lessons translated into Chichewa by our resident translator called Moses. To say this is problematic would be a massive understatement but when I get things wrong they all laugh but are excited by a Mazongu (foreigner) learning their language, and will often chant the correct Chichewa at me until I pronounce it correctly. Maths is easier because they learn it all in English when they start school so are used to working completely unaided. In my classroom the children are fortunate enough to have desks, however in the lower standards they either sit on the concrete floor or on broken desks – in Kate’s class (standard 4) there are nails sticking out of some of the broken desks, which the children are using.

In the afternoon my time is divided between two football teams; MVO – the organisations football team and Chizula – recently setup by a previous volunteer. MVO are an impressive outfit with very talented and skilful players. They play on a pitch which is made up of dried mud, sand and rutted burnt grass. Chizula are a little bit rawer, the players are naturally gifted but are a bit rough round the edges when it comes to tactics and understanding the game. Their pitch is a clearing in the village where the perimeter is made up of the huts and fences which encircle the pitch. MVO have about a dozen pairs of boots and the players share the boots on match days and for training (their kicking foot will have a boot regardless if it is a left or right shoe), have been given the boots or play bare footed. Chizula all play bare footed. In a recent match between MVO, who all played in boots, and Chizula the score finished 1-1. They really are made of tougher stuff here.

In general, health and safety doesn’t get a look in but everyone just makes things work. For instance, public transport is done using Mtolas (pron: Matolars), which is a small truck with an open back. People are crammed in and everyone has their own ‘Mtola’ experience that seems to better the last. My best was one we got to a town called Mangochi. The Mtola was already full (or so we thought) with Maize sacks, suitcases, fresh fish, merchandise for the markets and about 25 people. Oh no, we climbed aboard and jammed ourselves in. I had to stand up which meant standing on one foot and leaning over two guys so I could hold onto the cabin. With the wind in my hair we set sail, but not for long as we picked up more people along the way including a farmer with a dozen or so live chickens held in his hands. These are crazy things and just so unimaginable in the UK but they are a lot of fun and, as I said, it just works.

Anyway, in a nutshell, this is what I have been up to. Africa is indeed a crazy place and some of the things we get to experience are just so incredible. I hope this has given you an idea of what I have been up to and a little taste of the craziness that we are experiencing on a daily basis. The next entry for the Malawi diaries will come soon. Tunana.

Photos / videos of "Malawi volunteering - Part 1":

Sunrise - Namakoma