Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Date trees, condoms and something to do with sustainability

I would like to begin with a story my parents used to tell me… 

Once upon a time, an old man was hard at work planting date trees when a youth approached him and asked how long it would take for the trees to bear fruit. “20 years” said the man. The youth, surprised, asked him why he was going through so much trouble when, because of his old age, he may never live to see the fruit. The old man smiled and explained that the generations before him had selflessly planted date trees for him to enjoy and so now it was his turn to pass on the favour to those who’d come after him. 

Throughout my ICS journey, this story has come to mind time and time again, and as my placement draws to a close I have found myself thinking about the volunteers who will come after us and the legacy we are leaving behind. 

At our pre-departure training in the UK, we were each given a post-it note and asked to identify the things that worried us about engaging in ICS. I remember a number of more obvious concerns, getting sick for example (which by the way - not fun!), but I also remember trying to untangle an impossible knot in my stomach. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a difference in a developing country. But what if I didn’t? What if I came all this way and realized I wasn’t cut out for planting date trees? 

Sustainability is a big deal. It’s the difference between planting a date tree and handing someone a date…  Or, for example, teaching someone about sexual health or giving them a condom. I don't mean to imply that there is anything wrong with giving people condoms, because this is definitely something my team has done a lot of the past 10 weeks. Our teams focus was SRH&R, and I have to say, I never expected to spend my summer surrounded by so many fake penises, which I’m sure my incredibly religious mother would be happy to hear. But in every village we would visit people would ask us questions, we would answer them and they would thank us. Every peer education session started becoming a little less scary and every day in the field a little more rewarding. 

There are still times I contemplate the sustainability of our projects. What if we were to deliver our sessions on the importance of using condoms and getting HIV tested, but after we leave the condoms run out and there are no HTC services available?  We have worked hard, and achieved more than I ever could have imagined in a single summer. It would be incredible to think that all our efforts would have a lasting impact on the people we've reached out to. But over my ICS placement I have begun to understand development as a ‘process’ and from working with Tovwirane and Progressio, I have faith that with time, love and patience (that Malawians have taught me a lot of) the work we have done will serve as a strong foundation for future cycles to build on as they join in the fight against HIV/AIDS.  I am deeply honored to have become a part of this process, and to offer whatever parts of myself I could to the development of our project.

Volunteering has given me so much, including a very special friendship that has grown beyond my wildest expectations...

You see, Malawi and I are no longer mere acquaintances. We don't talk about the weather before awkwardly parting ways, muttering excuses about the 'things' we have to do with our days. Malawi and I have stayed up until 2 in the morning, complaining about the music and preaching blazing from the nearby church. Malawi and I have been flattened against the windows as our minibuses filled way beyond capacity and clung to each other for dear life as we've flown over potholes and ditches. Malawi and I don't nod politely to each other when we make eye contact across a crowded room. We are huggers, and only mildly apologetic to the people we push past in our enthusiasm. Malawi and I have spent ages braiding each others hair and talking about boys. We know each others secrets, and I know they're safe. Although my future is taking me elsewhere, I know Malawi will always be a part of me, and I hope that feeling is mutual. I hope Malawi understands the utmost clarity with which I can say she has changed me, and pushed me to become even more myself than I was before.  

So, that impossible knot in my stomach I mentioned earlier… is it gone?   The short answer is no. But then again, I’ve never been one for shortcuts. 

The long answer is that I have had an incomparable experience in the warm heart of Africa. I have made friends who have become my family and filled my heart with moments and discoveries I wouldn’t change for the world. But with my love for Malawi and my growing understanding of the issues it is facing, also comes an increasing sense of urgency. Our brothers and sisters here are facing struggles every day, such as the spread of HIV, and they require urgent attention.  The last 10 weeks have pushed, challenged and enlightened me on the importance of the work we've been doing, but with our flight home just around the corner I can't seem to shake the sense of unease, as I leave this beautiful country behind me.  But out of the very long list of things I have to be thankful for, I have to say, this unease is by far the most valuable thing I am taking back home with me. 

The truth is, at the end of the day, I never want to go to bed satisfied with how much I have given to the world, as there is always going to be more. There are always going to be more seedlings you can plant and people to connect to. Although my placement with ICS may be over, I stand here before you, as a volunteer on a mission that doesn’t end with a plane ticket home. The fight is far from over, and I have Tovwirane, Progressio, my ICS family and all the people who helped get me here to thank for what they have turned me into; an agent of change and a humble gardener, planting seedlings in a community that has given me so much.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Malawi: Getting Sick on Placement

"Yes sweetie?"
"In the morning you should go to the hospital."

I groan and roll over as my little (host) sister looks at me with concern. I don't really blame her.. I'm lying on her kitchen floor. My roommate Chrissy and I had been cooking dinner for our host family, but things weren't completely going to plan. The pasta seemed to have melted into some kind of paste, our mushroom sauce was proof that oil and milk aren't supposed to be mixed together and now I was on the floor clutching my belly. Awesome.

Thinking back to our pre-departure training, I can't help but curse the accuracy of our "you'll probably get sick" warning. Now, 2 months later, I'm curled in the foetal position as I half-heartedly cling to an empty bucket and the remnants of my dignity.

I'd been so careful!
All of my water had been bottled or boiled, and I'd been risk assessing my meals more thoroughly than a team leader on a mission.. And yet here I was! Oh well - these things happen.

I will spare you the messy, smelly, alot-less-solid-than-it-should-be details of my condition... And focus instead on my experience of getting sick whilst on placement in a developing country (Malawi).

As a self-diagnosed hypochondriac this had been one of my biggest fears. I don't like hospitals.. Or needles.. Or blood. Very luckily for me, the next 24 involved all these things, along with a considerable number of complaints and wounded puppy noises to keep my roommate entertained... (Sorry Chrissy).

There were a few key differences I picked up on between my hospital visit here and going to a GP in the UK.

Firstly, just because its a hospital, doesn't necessarily make it exempt from charging 'Azungu' (foreigner) rates, as my team leader later informed me she was charged 20kw more the other day when she'd been in with another volunteer.

Secondly, there didn't seem to be any kind of queuing system. Awkward, particularly for polite foreigners. Nevertheless, when thr doctors door opened, a lady stumbled out, and in I went.

It turns out I needed a blood test and a finger prick to check for malaria. As squeamish as I was, I have to admit, everything seemed very hygienic and well maintained. The nurse was patient with me and didn't seem to judge when I asked for a moment and started meditating on the hospital bed. She tied a glove around my upper arm as a substitute tourniquet, waited for my signal then went for it. She also pricked my finger for a Malaria test, which sounded like quite a routine test and took about 15 minutes (similar to the HIV testing the UK volunteers went for to see what its like.)

Anyway, I'm sure you'll all be very pleased to know I tested negative to having malaria, and the doctor prescribed me some antibiotics which seem to be doing their job.

I can't say it was a pleasant experience, getting sick in unfamiliar surroundings, but I feel very lucky to have had a team leader who helped me get medical attention, a roommate who will throw Panadol at me when I wake her up making whimpering noises at 2am and a little host sister who insists on doing my dishes for me when I'm lying on her kitchen floor.

Well... Maybe not as lucky as all the other, healthy volunteers, but at the end of the day what can you do.
Sh*t happens... And, evidentially, not always when you want it to. ;)

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Malawi Life: Being an 'Azungu'!

"Azungu! Azungu!"

I instinctively look up to smile and wave at the children who gleefully greet me as I walk past.
I am getting used to being known as 'Azungu', meaning 'white person', and have almost started responding to it as though it were my name. It's a strange phenomenon - almost like being a celebrity!

For obvious reasons, my fellow volunteers and I stick out pretty obviously as foreigners in Malawi. Usually this means people greeting you with curiosity, and coming over to ask questions. This morning I was approached by a few university students as I waited for my bus. They were super friendly and asked many questions about who I was and what brought me to this particular little African neighbourhood.

However, just because you're a bit of celebrity doesn't necessarily mean getting special treatment. For example, you may need to do a bit more haggling when you go to the market. Although some sellers are quite honest, a number of them will raise their prices unapologetically when they notice your strange accent or the color of your skin.

I find the whole experience to be quite surreal. Never in the UK would you hear people excitedly shouting 'foreigner' at strangers and waving to them as they walk down the street.
After all, I am many things.

Back home I'm a Baha'i, sort of nerdy, artsy, goat loving, tree hugging, drama student, who always makes a point of ticking the 'other' box so she can write 'world citizen' on census forms. And here in Africa, I suppose, I still am.

But for the first time in my life, I'm also a minority.
And its written all over my face.

There are so many different ways we categorise each other. By the clothes we wear, the colour of our skin, the way we speak, how much money we have... And I'm realizing how easy it is sometimes to let these things distract us, as they are the first things we see. But at the end of the day we are all human, all unique and all doing our own thing on this planet we call home.

I've always believed this on some level, but to live in a country where my race is such a significant part of how I'm seen and the way I'm treated, my eyes are being opened to a new experience entirely.

I am here now, and as for how my identity has been influenced by life in Malawi, I feel that there are a few things I need to add to my list...

Foreigner, host daughter, team member, sister and friend.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Volunteering in Malawi: Our first day in the field

We are 'Team Tiwale'.
Or in English... 'Let's Shine'.

Yesterday, our team had our first opportunity to live up to this name by visiting a nearby community and shedding some light on important issues pertaining to sexual and reproductive health.

The site was a youth club in Ekwendeni, a small rural neighborhood about 20km away from where we're based in Mzuzu. The community liaisons on our team had negotiated two days this week for us to go in and deliver workshops on HIV/AIDS. Our plan was to split the group into two teams, one for each day, and I was going on day one.

I was excited.
This was big.

After all our study sessions and practice runs, we were finally going to put ourselves to the test and share what we'd learned with the world beyond the Tovwirane office.

It was exactly what we were here for.
So off we went.

In a routine that was becoming all too familiar, we piled ourselves into a minibus (to a capacity that would raise all kinds of eyebrows in the UK) and set off to the site. We arrived to a classroom filled with 46 people, whose ages ranged from about 10 to 25.

They introduced themselves in English and we returned the favor in Chitumbuka, before we all headed outside together to play some energizer games. We then divided into two groups, one for the younger kids, and one for the older youth (I went with the latter).

Overall, the sessions went well. There were many questions, some of which were based on interesting myths I'd never heard of before... (e.g. Can you still get pregnant if you have sex in a swimming pool? Can HIV be avoided with more foreplay? etc.) We answered their questions as clearly as possible, and were happy when they appeared satisfied with our answers (#mythbusters).

After returning to the office we had the opportunity to talk about our day, and highlight some positive moments as well as things we could do better next time.

The day was not without its challenges. Language in particular presented a significant barrier we hadn't anticipated. It was difficult, we found, to keep the delivery of the presentations balanced evenly between the UK volunteers and the Malawian volunteers who were doing the translation.

It's important I think, for future volunteers to understand that working in development is not always planting seedlings and taking selfies with little African children. Sometimes the seedlings don't arrive, the children don't show up, or you could spend a week nailing down the perfect presentation, only to stand before a room full of people where no one can understand a word.

But that's okay.

I know I can't speak Chitumbuka,
But I'm here.
And if I could leave Mzuzu at the end of these 10 weeks having made even the smallest of impacts, I know it all would have been worth it.

Frankly, I'm excited by the prospect of overcoming our first big hurdle. We have a strong team, who are passionate about what we do and uncompromising in our mission.

I know I haven't been here long... Less than three weeks in fact.
But I know already that Malawi has changed me.
Profoundly. For the better.
And I have my heart set on returning the favour.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Volunteering in Malawi: Living vs. Tourism

When travelling the world as a tourist, you see some amazing things.
There’s the wildlife and landscape, local foods and drinks, modes of transport, traditions, clothing… the list goes on and on. It’s an incredibly mind-blowing thing, to step into the unknown with a passport and a money belt, filled with confusing foreign currencies, and experience something completely new.

This is something I’d done before and loved. For me there are few things as exciting as returning home filled with interesting stories and memories of the people I’d met and things I’d seen. However, one week after arriving in Malawi, I have come to discover the unique nature of an ICS placement. Compared to tourism, volunteering is a whole other kettle of fish (which FYI, you can expect a lot of on a trip to the marketplace)! There are two distinguishing factors that stand out for me:
1.       The pursuit of service.
2.       Being part of the community.

There’s something special about coming to a country with the intention to serve it. You are no longer an observer, but an agent of change. You become part of the community, and increasingly aware of the role you are playing in assisting in its development.

Living with a host family is another significant aspect for me. Sitting around a dinner table with my Malawian family, talking about my day and clumsily eating nsima with my fingers is something I never thought would be possible. But being surrounded by such warmth and generosity, it’s impossible to not feel at home. As the days go by, showering with a bucket starts feeling more natural, and you realize eating with your hands is actually pretty fun. I for one am so grateful to be living with a family who help me heat my shower water over the fire, or cook me meals filled with love (not to mention generous portions of beans and maize).

These are but two of the many reasons why being a volunteer is a wonderful way to see the world.

I’m not a tourist. I’m a part of a community.
And tonight, I’m not staying in a hostel. I’m going home.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Malawi: Discovering Language and Culture

Stepping into Lilongwe, Malawi, for the first time was simultaneously one of the most exciting and nerve wracking experiences of my life. Our first few days here brought with them a tidal wave of learning, as we immersed ourselves in the culture and began studying the language ‘chitumbuka’.

There were a few moments during this initial process that really stood out to me. While studying chitumbuka, we learned that if someone were to ask you about your country of origin, you would typically respond with, ‘____ is our home’.

Not my home, ‘ours’. I asked our teacher why and she explained that it’s because your country doesn’t belong to just you, but to your brothers, sisters and entire family tree, of which you are a simple leaf.

For me this subtle difference in language cracked open a window of understanding into the way Malawians view the world. Humility is deeply ingrained in their culture, alongside a love for family and community.

But language isn’t the only way we communicate. Little things like how long you shake someone’s hand, and whether or not you make eye contact while doing so (avoiding eye contact while shaking hands in Malawi is a sign of respect), are significantly different between our cultures. During our session, it was explained to us that Malawian handshakes are longer, because they believe ‘we carry the love in our hands’. One can imagine this being confronting to foreigners, who are used to getting their hands back rather quickly. But as we learn and grow together, we find ourselves better able to appreciate their love as they hand it to us.

While speaking to our teacher, she described learning languages as ‘the tip of the communication iceberg’, and with every passing day I understand this a little more clearly. There is only so far our cluttered notebooks and fractured conversations can take us on our ICS journey. After all, in my eyes, pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones so we could better understand and serve our communities, is exactly what ICS is all about.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Let's talk about beauty...

By the time I graduated high school, I still didn't know how to swim.
I'd never learned, not properly, and there was a reason.

To this day I remember my first swimming lesson. My PE teacher's voice was yelling instructions at me as I awkwardly splashed my way through the water.
But only part of my attention was focused on staying afloat, because meanwhile on the sidelines some boys from my class were laughing together. You see, they'd always thought that 'whales were supposed to know how to swim'.

I didn't cry, or make a fuss.
But when I reached the end of that pool, I got out, and didn't get back in again.
Not for a long time.

A lot of us have stories just like this one.
And consequently, we know what it's like to look at the cover of a magazine and feel a pang of innocent determination... that one day, we want to look 'just like that'.

I remember being one of these girls.
I'd always press the 'fat burn' button on the treadmill,
believing that somehow this convenient little setting would live up to its name and get me the body I'd always wanted. (False advertising if you ask me!)
I'd spend years looking down at my annoyingly stubborn scales, which never had anything new to say.
I'd listen attentively to people I trusted, as they'd offer me 'constructive criticism' on how to be more beautiful.

You see, I know what it's like to be afraid of the water.
Of avoiding the deep end at all costs and wanting to hide in the locker room so that nobody would ever have to know how slow, overweight or uncoordinated you are.
But that's not how you learn to swim.
You learn to swim when your fears stop being as important as your desire to become better.

And it was here, at a very simple realization that I found my turning point.
I don't want or need to be skinny to be beautiful.
I needed to be strong.

And the moment I made this decision, that was what I became.
Because the beautiful thing about strength, is that it doesn't begin with a simple gym membership.
It begins with you.
In the world beneath your skin.

I don't like talking about 'imperfections'...
Because it implies that to be 'perfect' is the standard we are striving for.
And I don't believe that this is realistic, or even possible.

I think it's about time we start setting ourselves new standards.
To be whole.
To be happy.
To be strong.

Because beauty is a whole lot more than a pretty face and a winning smile.
Beauty is nonexclusive.. and a gift we all share, at the heart of who we are.
Some may say it is fleeting, but I disagree.
I believe it grows with us, as we move through life...
Along with our capacity to seek it out and find it in each other.
Because isn't that one of the most beautiful things of all?

I've recently committed myself to being a bigger part of this conversation, and the way I see it, there are two ways to do this:
1. When you see beauty in someone, tell them about it.
2. When someone sees beauty in you, believe them.

I'll be the first to admit that this isn't always easy.
Often, something as simple as acknowledging the beauty in ourselves, can take a hell of a lot of strength.
But I hope you can find it.
Because you deserve to understand how beautiful you are.

In many ways, it's easier to shape ourselves from the outside.
We can diet, apply make-up, do our hair... all sorts of things.
But it's a lot scarier, to stop relying on what our eyes are telling us, and to start believing in this ambiguous 'inner' type of beauty, that you can't see in the mirror.
Because you can't SEE it.
And as a result we are left with two options.
To trust in each other,
and to trust in ourselves.

May you always find the courage to climb back into that pool,
and just keep swimming. :)

Peace and love,

Inga. x