Day two and three

This morning started with a shower and a health warning. The shower was cold, and I stood next to it, only occasionally daring to put part of my body into the stream. There was a knock on the shower door.
“Doctor? Doctor?”
“Yes hello Doctor Rhada.”
“Oh I’m sorry Doctor I’ll go next door.”
“The showers are cold.”
“They are cold?”
“Yes, the water is cold.”
“You must turn the red tap.”
“[sigh] Yes I have.”
“And the water is not warm?”
“No it is cold.”
“You mustn’t shower in cold water. Very dangerous, you will catch a fever!”
I laughed. At breakfast we had a few more tussles over whether or not Milo comes from South Africa or India (I suspect neither), and whether we were eating oats or rice (it was clearly oats).

Penny, Me, Dr. Rhada, Steph

Penny, Me, Dr. Rhada, Steph

We had the first of our two Chichewa lessons, breaking up into groups of five, each with their own tutor. Our tutor was also the author of our Chichewa handbook, and hugely energetic. In two lessons we can only cover the basics like greetings and introductions, but our tutor managed to squeeze in some grammar as well which made is more interesting. At ICT2 (In-Country Training 2) in six weeks’ time there are apparently more lessons. ICT2 is meant for those who will be working in Malawi for two years, so it’s unclear whether I will go to it. Also on our program for the day were meetings with various programme managers (Health for us) and the VSO Malawi director, and a briefing from a local GP on health issues. When asked about working in hospitals here, he simply sighed and said “Ja… It’s quite a challenge. Doctor’s are thin on the ground. Know your limits.” This may be good advice to remember.


We took a break and walked down the dusty red road outside the centre, passing hordes of kids returning from school. They wore uniforms and clutched well-used A5 notebooks in their hands. They laughed at us and were curious, shouting “I am fine!” at random intervals. We we tried out some basic Chichewa, but they mostly didn’t get it.

The scale and organisation of VSO’s operations continue to impress me. There are 17 volunteers being deployed this week all over Malawi, to complete a total of 120 VSO volunteers here. From the assessment day in London at the Putney Bridge offices, to the Pre-departure Training weekend at Harborne Hall in Birmingham, to our current ICT – In-Country Training – it is all meticulously planned and the decades of experience in doing this sort of thing is clearly evident. They helped us medics and psychologists register with the Malawian Medical Council, though poor Dr. Rhada has to do six weeks of rotation through various medical departments before he can be fully registered. Steph, Penny and I were spared this ordeal as we “have already made up your minds to work with the mentally deranged.” We will thus not need to be familiar with other departments, reasoned the Deputy Registrar for the Council, who also gave us a straight talk laying down the laws and regulations of the Medical Council. VSO drove us back and forth to the necessary government offices to get forms verified and stamped, and seem to have fast-tracked the procedure which can often take up to four months. VSO is evidently known in the relevant government departments, and seems to be well thought of and respected.

After two days at Msambe Catholic Centre, we moved to a hotel in Lilongwe for the start of meetings with our future employers. Nice basic hotel, hot water showers, tiled floors, and apparently wireless internet in the foyer! Alas, this did not work, despite repeated polite requests to the front desk. Most frustrating. We had an very enlightening talk by the Prof. Samu Samu from the Agricultural College. Apart from being a top-notch comedian, he was also very insightful and spoke frankly about differences in culture between Africa and the West. He spoke of his bewilderment in the UK, where it is not appropriate to ask people many questions, about personal matters or even practical stuff. “In England all the information is out there [on signs]. In Malawi, all the information is in people, so you must ask.” He went around the room asking people their names, whether they were married and how many kids they had. If they weren’t married, he asked why not, pressing for an answer – but in a good natured way. “Westerners say Malawian people talk a lot, but we must first find out all this information. Then we can start working and be quiet.” Prof Samu tells how he boarded a bus in the UK, and seeing only two people sitting at the back, he went to sit in the seat next to one of them. The person was affronted, asking why he didn’t sit somewhere else as the whole bus was empty. Baffling – “Why would you sit by yourself? In Malawi we will sit together and get to know each other first.” He then spoke frankly about the perception of whites and Malawians in Malawi. Pointing at a two casually dressed white volunteers and the smart suited black employer next to them, he explains “If you report a laptop has been stolen, the police will come, and they will arrest him [points to Malawian employer] even if he is innocent, and not the white people.” Even if we dress scruffily, we will always assume we are wealthy – which is an accurate assumption generally. The Prof says “We Malawians sometimes feel like strangers in our own land.”

By this stage we were all very familiar with the VSO presentation style, and the breaking into small groups, writing stuff on post-its, discussing in pairs, and so on all became a little tiresome after a while.

Between briefings in the hotel

Between briefings in the hotel

The techniques are all contained in a book we were given in the UK describing “Participatory Approaches” (PA’s), and we ourselves are encouraged to use these approaches when working in our jobs or teaching others. The idea is to encourage participation (as the name implies) and avoid a unidirectional student-teacher approach. This does work very well to create familiarity and force people to think about the issues, but there are some things that can be covered much more quickly with a brief talk! The approaches also make us feel a bit spoon-fed at times, and we regress into waiting to be told what to do – ironically! For example, when meeting our employers for the first time, we are all told – volunteers and employers to wander out into the garden area and, asking only two questions of any person there, find our respective employers and stand with them. A bit artificial, and with the effect that after working out who our employer was and standing with them, we waited to be told what to do next – which was talk to them, exactly what every volunteer would do if left to their own devices! The general idea behind these “PA’s”, however, is excellent and sensible and I have taken it to heart. VSO’s ultimate goal with any project is to try and implement a sustainable intervention – that is, something which will have lasting effect in the community after the volunteers have moved on. Merely providing a service like doctoring or running an IT department or even teaching does not necessarilly do that. We discussed some case histories showing how ineffectual that approach can be. Rather, we are supposed to involve and share knowledge, to educate, to leave something behind. (The VSO motto is mos “Sharing skills, Changing lives.”) I have little idea how to do this, but will bear it in mind when I get to Zomba.

Dr Rhada listens intently

Dr Rhada listens intently

We are also introduced to VSO’s HIV/AIDS programme, which asks all volunteers to remember HIV education in everything that they do. A lively man who has been living with HIV for fifteen years tells us all about his experience, and the troubles he has with stigma, getting jobs, getting government grants, and getting tablets. HIV+ people are called “walking corpses” by others in the street. He is upbeat and powerful though.

That evening we all go across to the bar next to the hotel. It’s a small dingy place, selling only a few soft drinks and the three standard beers. The lighting is terrible, and the atmosphere grim, though we do well as a group to liven it up. By this stage we have a good feeling of camaraderie, all of us finding ourselves in a strange place doing the same thing with similar hopes. It’s good to know that wherever we go in Malawi while we’re here, we’ll have a place to stay.

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1 Comment »

  1. Tom said

    Not sure if you are still interested but according to wikipedia.org Milo originates from Australia…

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