Back in the UK – still volunteering

I have been back in the UK for 3 weeks now. My daughter is in hospital,  getting the treatment she needs, and so I have time before my sabbatical ends to continue with my volunteer experience.

I wrote an ‘initial impressions’ report with 5 recommendations for CONGOMA which I hope will be useful to them and will be a foundation for another volunteer to build on in completing their institutional assessment. So far, I have not had any feedback from them – I hope the silence doesn’t indicate disappointment or displeasure with the contents.

I have also written a brief report for VSO UK on my experience as a volunteer – the benefits I gained from it and the contribution I think other senior managers could make to international development through  a sabbatical. There are also gains for the manager’s employers in releasing them for a period of time to learn new skills, get a different perspective on their own organisation and experience volunteering first hand.  As I have often said – volunteering is a win/win for everyone.

So, after the two reports were done, I thought “what am I going to do now?” Action on Hearing Loss trustees were happy for me to continue with my sabbatical and I didn’t want to just fritter the time away (which would be easy to do!) as that would help no-one.

Yesterday I had a meeting with the Head of Volunteering at VSO UK and with two people from their external affairs team. In my view VSO has been a model of how to treat a volunteer – they were supportive when I had to return to the UK in a hurry, they have never made me feel guilty about letting them down, and now they have enthusiastically welcomed my offer of time in the UK. They have found me a project which fits in with my skills and experience and which needs to be done to help them achieve a larger aim. They asked me if I wanted to do the work in their office or I would prefer the flexibility of working from home – I have chosen the latter.

What I have been asked to produce is a baseline survey of the state of women’s participation and leadership in the UK, with a particular focus on which policies and practices have been successful at increasing it and which have not. Later this year VSO International are launching a global campaign on women’s participation and this survey will help to inform that campaign.

The specific areas which I am collecting data on are those which are referred to within UN treaties where participation in decision making is defined in relation to “political and public life”.

‘The exercise of political power, in particular the exercise of legislative, judicial, executive and administrative powers. The term covers all aspects of public administration and the formulation and implementation of policy at the international, national, regional and local levels. The concept also includes many aspects of civil society, including public boards and local councils and the activities of organisations such as political parties, trade unions, professional or industry associations, women’s organisations, community based organisations and other organisations concerned with public and political life.’

Any blog readers can send me information or thoughts on good source documents or people for data on any of the areas listed above I would be very grateful. In the meantime I have started the literature review and sent a number of emails to my wonderful network of friends and colleagues who are experts in this area.

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The ties that bind us – part two

Sorry to have left the last blog hanging in mid air, but I wanted to separate out the start of my work with CONGOMA from what turned out to be the end of my volunteer journey (at least for now) in Malawi.  The phone call was to say that my daughter was in hospital and needed me to come back to the UK to care for her during her recovery.

Ronald was very understanding, despite the obvious inconvenience of someone doing less than 5% of  a much needed job, and said to me “family comes first” – a concept well understood in his culture and continent.  He organised a bus ticket for me to get back to Lilongwe that afternoon and took me to the bus station to see me safely on the bus.  Meanwhile the wonderful VSO family swung into action and between the Malawi office and London they organised a plane ticket for me to return to the UK the next afternoon and were all very kind and understanding.

The bus ride was, as you can imagine, fairly stressful.  My stress levels were not helped when we set off and the conductor announced that the toilet on board was for ‘passing water only’.  I resigned myself to a four hour journey without food and minimal liquid refreshment to obviate the need for a trip to the basic on board facilities!  Again I experienced the police road blocks and this time noticed the thriving industry of street sellers round each block, with an array of goods that might tempt bus passengers – mangoes, bananas, mobile phone credit.

Suddenly the bus stopped at what I assumed was another roadblock but after 20 minutes (by this time it was pitch darkness outside) I enquired of the passenger next to me what was going on and discovered it was a blockage in the road – a broken down truck.  The conductor then announced that the mechanic had arrived but the truck probably would not be moved until the next morning.  The bus was re-routed, which involved an extra 4 hours on the journey and an eventual arrival in Lilongwe at midnight – where I was met by Baldwin from VSO.

En route I heard on the bus’ radio that there had been a demonstration at the largest primary school in Malawi – which has 10,000 pupils – over class sizes, and which was broken up by the police with tear gas.

I spent Thursday morning packing up my house and belongings.  Outside there was torrential rain, worse than I had seen in the previous two weeks.  I realised I could now live without my all enveloping cycling rain cover and gave it to the security guard outside the compound – he was delighted.  The towels and coat hangers I had struggled to purchase 2 weeks earlier, I packed up and gave to Rosemary for another volunteer.

At Lilongwe airport I was struck by the fact that at least half the passengers in departures were Chinese.  After a fairly chaotic manual check of all my luggage, because the aiport scanner was not working, we boarded the plane for the first leg of the journey home via Nairobi.

As I write this I am in my daughter’s flat in South London and already Malawi seems a long time ago.  I have not yet had the chance to assimilate the experience; I will write a report on my initial impressions for CONGOMA and I will give VSO UK feedback on the experience of a short term placement as a sabbatical.  Of course I am disappointed that all of the investment in my VSO training has been cut short but ‘family comes first’ and I am just grateful that my daughter is now on the mend.

PS I didn’t use the bus’ on board facilities!

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Photos from Malawi



A typical village in central Malawi – it’s the rainy season so the ground is very green, it would have been dry and brown a couple of months earlier.

ImageWomen carry an amazing array of objects on their heads – here a woman is transporting sand from the lake shore so that it can be sold inland.  This looks like a heavy load to me.

ImageThe market in Lizulu and a hoarding with the President of Malawi, talking about food security. On the opposite side of the road from this photo the market is in Mozambique, which is where I bought an impenetrable pumpkin.

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The ties that bind us – part one

Last Tuesday my placement as a volunteer really got started. I was driven from Lilongwe to Blantyre in the South of Malawi, where CONGOMA (the organisation I am working with) is based.It was a 4 hour trip through some very beautiful countryside, much of it close to the border with Mozambique. The monotony of the long journey was broken up by regular police road blocks – at the first there was a long discussion between the police and my driver about whether or not his tax disc was valid as much of the printing  had faded in the sun. After 20 minutes we were allowed to go on our way, but I feared a repeat performance when we were stopped at the next road block. However, this time we were stopped because one of the police wanted a lift to his station; he had come to attend to an accident but had no way of getting back.

When we arrived in Blantyre, which is very much the commercial centre of Malawi, I went to the CONGOMA office on the site of a hospital and found a memo from Ronald, the Director, explaning that he couldn’t meet me until later because he had gone to the funeral of a relative of a member of staff.

I checked into the perfectly nice lodge/hotel and had lunch. When I explored my room I found alongside the usual leaflet on the hotel facilities (which included wifi) there was a health education leaflet on malaria and how to avoid it. Normally the bedside drawer in hotels has a copy of the Gideon or some other bible, this is the first time I have opened the drawer and found a packet (unopened) of condoms – which illustrates the scale of the HIV/Aids problem in Malawi and the steps being taken to try to prevent it.

There was an item on the local news which said that earlier in the day in Lilongwe some street vendors had stripped women who were wearing trousers. I know that wearing trousers was not legal in Malawi until the 1990s but I haven no idea what triggered this violence against women. There was much speculation on the news about whether it was symptomatic of general dissatisfaction at economic conditions in Malawi or whether it was the actions of organised ‘troublemakers’.

Ronald came in the evening and we agreed my work plan for the next few days, as well as the capacity assessment tools I will use. I start in their office at 8am on Wednesday. Ronald explained that he had been to 2 funerals that afternoon – both of people he had never met, but who were relatives of his staff. These are the ties that bind Malawian communities, especially in adverse times

At breakfast on Wednesday I got into conversation with another guest, who turned out to be the Head of Special Needs in the Malawi Department of Education. He is visually impaired himself and had heard of both RNIB and RNID (but not yet of Action on Hearing Loss). We talked briefly about the provision for children with special needs in Malawi and agreed to meet up in the evening for a more detailed discussion.

I was at my desk in the CONGOMA office by 8am and started my work by interviewing Ronald the the Financial Controller. Mid way through the morning I had a phone call from home which changed everything.

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Mossies and Malaria

I have just returned from a very enjoyable weekend by Lake Malawi, with 2 other VSO volunteers – Rosemary and Liz.  At one point we discussed how obsessed we westerners become by mosquitos.  At dusk we light coils to ward them off when we are sitting outside and spray ourselves copiously with Deet – which is now my only perfume.  At bedtime we switch on the electric mossie zapper, spray ourselves with even more Deet and then hermetically seal ourselves in bed with our mosquito nets.  Even with all these precautions, we spend the next morning comparing numbers and locations of mossie bites (having done our baseline surveys the night before!).

Yet each of us is taking anti malarial drugs and, although it is still possible for us to get malaria from the mossie bites it is likely to be a mild dose which is highly unlikely to kill us.  Not so for most of the local people – most of whom will not even have the most basic anti mosquito protection and many of whom will die of malaria because of lack of access to drugs and immune systems which have been weakened by other illnesses and diseases.

Malaria is endemic in Africa and kills millions every year.  This morning I heard on the BBC World Service Africa that the country was being flooded with counterfeit anti malarial drugs, threatening the lives of millions more, especially pregnant mothers and children.  What sort of twisted mind makes money out of the misery and desperation of people whose lives are already a daily struggle?

This experience in Malawi is a roller coaster of emotions – within a few minutes I can be in tears at the sight of children with swollen bellies asking for our cast off plastic water bottles which they can sell or exchange for food, and a few minutes later I am overwhelmed by the kindness of a stranger, the beauty of the landscape or the thought of the difference a skilled volunteer can make.

I am now about to travel to Blantyre in the South of Malawi to meet up with the partner organisation who I will be working for over the next few weeks.  I hope I am able to make a worthwile difference to them.

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Early impressions of Lilongwe

A bit about Lilongwe , where I am based – the capital of Malawi.  It is divided into the Old Town and the New City – the latter being built in 1975 to be the new capital of the country and is basically the centre of administration, commerce, embassies and International NGOs. The city’s population has grown from about 99,000 in 1977 to about a million today.

It was designed as a ‘garden city’ and there are trees everywhere, with a huge variety of birds and bird song.  At this time of year – the rainy season – it is particularly lush and green. Crossing from one side of the city to the other feels as though you are in the countryside as there are vast tracts of cultivated land on either side of the road. 

I can’t compare this  to anywhere else I have been before – neither rural areas of Senegal and the Gambia nor the city of Tehran – because huge disparities in income are much more visible here.  There is a large number of foreign nationals in Lilongwe with a pretty good lifestyle and Malawians who work for international organisations get a reasonable salary but there is a stark contrast between the newly built flashy Chinese Hotel and its customers and the urban poor trying to sell a few bananas on the road outside. In rural Senegal and the Gambia the whole community seemed to be on a fairly equal footing, with no signs of ostentatious wealth even among the few ex-pats and in Tehran there were disparities but not of the scale that I see here.  Fortunately the Malawians are peaceful and patient and it feels perfectly safe here, even for those of us who obviously have a lot more money than most of the locals. The people selling goods on the street don’t hassle you either.

In the UN’s Human Development Index Malawi is in the 20 poorest countries in the world and according to the UNDP 20% of the population live on less than a dollar a day (2005), and 62% on less than 2 dollars a day.  I spent 70 dollars on a day trip last Saturday – the only way I can feel less guilty about this is knowing that bringing foreign currency into the country and spending it in the local economy makes some sort of contribution.

The city is divided into areas – my house is in Area 9, which seems to be predominantly ex-pats living in modern houses, with walls and security guards (both of which I have). The VSO office is in the commercial area in Area 12, about 15 minutes’ drive away. Yesterday I investigated the new Chinese hotel, and paid an extortionate price for a swim in the Olympic sized open air pool, but I felt refreshed afterwards and, if I can’t find a good pool for less money, I will go back there occasionally. As I left the hotel there were 3 coach loads of young Chinese people arriving, all the notices in the hotel are bilingual – English and Chinese.  I have already seen a lot of evidence of the Chinese presence in Africa, from my short time in Malawi. The staff at the hotel seemed to be a mixture of Chinese and Malawians so at least it seems they are creating local employment and perhaps encouraging Chinese tourism to Malawi (which is good if some of the money is spent in locally owned businesses).

My knowledgeable taxi driver home yesterday pointed out various buildings eg the Parliament building as we passed them, adding to my limited geographical knowledge of the city (friends will know that I am missing the directional and orientational genes). I was amused when he pointed to a collection of buildings and said “that’s the college for irresponsible adults”, meaning the prison – one place I don’t plan to see the inside of!

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There’s no end to the opportunities to volunteer

At the moment a young woman from VSO UK is in the office in Malawi, helping to pull together a funding bid -for Scottish Government funds.  There is a strong historical link between Scotland and Malawi and the Government allocates a significant budget to development in Malawi.  As an exiled (or should I say, lapsed?) Scot this is of particular interest to me.

The fundraiser from the UK is a nursing mother and is expressing milk for the week that she is here in Malawi.  She didn’t want to waste the milk so she asked around if there was an orphanage which could use it, and she has been donating her milk to a local orphanage to feed a 5 day old baby whose mother died in childbirth.

I can’t express adequately my admiration for this selfless act for a baby who has had the worst possible start in life.  It has made me realise, once again, that if you are one of life’s natural givers the ways to give and the opportunities to help others are endless.

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