The long way to Lilongwe

This morning I woke early wondering what it will be like to find myself back in “the civilised world” in three days’ time. I imagined waking to a cold grey London morning, full of bustle outside, dense with everyday purposeful activity, but with far fewer smiles than I have become accustomed to in Malawi. And I felt a little bit of panic, to be honest. Panic not simply about finding myself in a literally and figuratively colder part of the world, but also panic about losing my own sense of purpose, not knowing where to fit in, of being superfluous and unimportant. Even though in Malawi we have complained and argued about, and often doubted, the effectiveness of our work, and of “Aid” in general, I don’t think many of us have regularly woken without a sense of being somehow needed and valued. This sense of purpose may be misplaced, perhaps artificially maintained by our status as mzungus, our sense of “knowing what should be done”, being part of a larger organisation like VSO, or a vague notion that we’re “helping”, somehow. At some level we can always fancy we have a “mission”! This sense of being needed is of course frequently bruised, usually when our Malawian workmates and employers seem to ignore, forget, resist or undermine what we suggest, and then we become frustrated and fed-up. This is not uncommon. It is then that we turn to our other important source of feeling part of something and of having a place, when we complain and rant with our friends and fellow volunteers after work. Our social networks here, formed early on but always flexible and welcoming, are powerful sources of support and identity in this odd situation. Volunteers are an interesting and varied bunch, from diverse backgrounds, people who we would probably never have gotten to know under ordinary circumstances. But arriving in a strange place with no family or friend support nearby, with a new culture, language and challenges to face, is hardly a normal circumstance. Superficial differences between volunteers are overshadowed by our common predicament and goals. So we end up supporting each other in an unusually open and inclusive way, knowing that we rely on and need one another. Friendship and trust are assumed, and freely given. (A similar though perhaps less intense environment forms when a group of international students arrive together in a new city, as happened when I was in Edinburgh in 2004.) On the flip side, tensions can also escalate in this pressure-cooked environment, with resulting flare-ups and fallouts. Volunteers are all slightly odd individuals perhaps, and David (fellow VSO volunteer in Dedza) and I were wondering this evening whether we’re all either escaping from something, or just weird, as has been rumoured. That’s probably a but cynical, but probably not completely off the mark. (I of course am an exception, neither escaping nor weird.) [Update: 24 March – Returning to Edinburgh for a visit now, reflecting on the life  and issues I left behind, I’m no longer so sure I wasn’t escaping.]

P1040657 Noel’s brilliant
scrabble board, Jess
and I playing along.

This sense of being a team has become more apparent as I say my goodbyes. Yesterday afternoon I said a sad goodbye to Rob, who has been a wonderful friend and mentor over the past six months.  I will see him again, of course, as he will visit Cape Town, but the intense and unique experience of working together through the chaos, and enjoying Malawi together, has come to an end. Yesterday evening was goodbye to Steph, my fellow volunteer and friend at the Mental Hospital – we were both landed in it (with Penny, our third volunteer who has returned to the UK already) and had to make sense of it. Also Kieran, Jess, Chris, David and others said goodbye. Then this morning, after packing and faffing and loading my bike, I bid farewell to Noel and Denise, my two housemates. Ours has been a great house to live in, and they have been warm and relaxed friends. The goodbyes are all brief and businesslike, and we don’t talk too much, just get it done. We’ve all said many goodbyes, and know the drill. The intensity of the lived experience here does not mix easily with it’s temporary contrived nature, and we know this. From our VSO group who arrived in September, I am the first to complete my placement and leave. I wonder if there’s a degree of sympathy or perhaps morbid curiosity as I prepare to re-enter the “real” world, the others knowing that they too will be heading back in their turn. (The inverted commas around “real” are very necessary – it is abundantly clear that our “real” world is full of absurdities and contrivances which we forget about unless we take the opportunity of escaping for a while, which I thus recommend.) So, I woke this morning with some mild anxiety about the future, and about leaving all this behind. But my bike pushes such delicate concerns out of my mind.

Every time I get on the bike and kick start it I still get a thrill of excitement, even when I’m just going to work. Today’s motorbike trip is no exception, though leaving Zomba for the last time the weather is unusually overcast and damp, but at least the heavy rains of last night have stopped.The bike cruises at a modest 70km/h, getting up to 85 on a good downhill, and although it feels quite fast initially, after a few kilometres on the open road I wish it had more power. As always I’m accompanied by a constant flow of people along the road, walking, cycling, standing, watching.

P1040736-P1040738 The magnificent view from the road between Zomba and Lilongwe

The maize which has been a deep green for the past months is starting to yellow and brown already. I speed past bicycles carrying large bundles of purple sugarcane. People turn and look at me as I approach, some wave and smile, and if I was psychotic I’d think they all knew I was leaving, and were sending me messages of goodwill. On the bike, people flash by and disappear quickly into the corner of my vision. Maybe they are waving out of plain friendliness, maybe because I look really cool, or maybe because I’ve got five pairs of freshly washed underpants attached to the back of my bike drying in the wind. It’s only when I speed past three little toddlers, all standing on the road verge with mouths agape in terror, and hands pressed firmly over their ears, that I realise why people are turning to look as I approach. My bike is loud – very loud possibly, and as I remember that the silencer has been rusted through since I bought the bike, it occurs to me with some shame that I may be one of those horrors who disturbs peaceful afternoon naps as they cruise by unawares. There’s nothing I can do though, except wave back. After less than an hour my back and shoulders are in a painful spasm from bouncing and sitting upright, and no matter how I shift my weight there is only temporary relief. It’s tiring riding one of these off-road bikes on a long journey, and not as desperately cool as one expects. P1040740 In Ntcheu, still another dismal hour from my destination, I pull in at a restaurant to pay an unpaid bill, and then utterly unexpectedly meet David and Katy who I’m staying with tonight! They have just finished work in Ntcheu, and after they laugh at my clothes-drying methods we put the bike in back of their bakkie, and drive to Dedza. Fortuitous indeed!

[Next day: More goodbyes to David and Katy (though Katy is visiting Cape Town in a few months with her family), then a two hour ride to Lilongwe to stay at Paul and Sarah’s. For my last night in Malawi we went out for excellent Indian curries. Next morning I bid their good Irish hospitality goodbye, though I will have some chance to repay it when they also visit Cape Town in June. It’s great living in a city which people want to visit!]



  1. Steve said


    Interesting, but familiar, dilemmas you face, Gareth. And it will be interesting to see what you think in two years time.

    But what really fascinates me about your stint in Malawi, and what I have no experience of, is the fact that you’re able to express your words more or less in real-time on this blog (which, presumably, your Malawian colleagues are free to read). Wow!

    I wrote my own thoughts (about my stay in Malawi) in monthly newsletters and sent them off to friends and family, and so they got my thoughts 5 or 6 weeks later. But you’re sharing (and publishing) your thoughts on the 2-week induction *whilst* you’re on it. Again, wow!

    Hmm, I wonder if you get told about blogging (what to write, what not to write etc.), these days, when you do your Preparing For Change…

    Anyway, I look forward to reading more. Hope you enjoy learning about Malawi AND yourself…


    PS I started my VSO adventure in 1995, when email was new. I even worked in the first internet cafe in Blantyre (@ Computer Solutions), after I finished VSO. And when I returned to UK in 1998, to find the internet had ‘exploded’ into life, I decided to upload my VSO thoughts into my first ever website… 🙂

  2. Rumble said

    Loved reading your blog! We spent some time out in Malawi producing a short film about the challenges girls face and their chances of an education, which I’m sure sure would be of interest to you. The following link will take you to video – you may have to copy and paste it into your browser.

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