Monday, 14 November 2016

My Journey as a Volunteer with YONECO, ICS and Progressio

 written by Elsie Gondwe

Sometimes one gets into the right things for the wrong reasons. This was I two months ago, after having finished my Bachelors degree in Medical Laboratory Science and awaiting my graduation, I wanted to make fast money. I wanted a good job and to earn whatever it is that I thought I really needed at the moment. Lucky enough my sister who resides in Nkhata Bay calls to say there is an opening at YONECO (in my mind I thought this could just be what I needed. Money!). So I got through the interviews and was successful enough to go for training (yay!)

That’s when we got repeatedly informed that this was neither a survey nor a job rather we were employed as volunteers. Members were not entitled to a salary nor allowance just a stipend to get by. I was shattered; this was not what I signed up for.

The in country training came to an end and time came to go back and welcome the UK volunteers to our respective partner organization. This interaction with the UK Volunteers was probably the first in my life. Don’t get me wrong, I do meet people from Europe and throw in a few hellos where necessary but the thought of working with not just one but twelve of them scared me (well, that’s how I felt at first).

They all seemed nice, I managed to introduce myself to the UK team leaders who were really friendly and open. As I went around saying hello, I realized that my sentence construction was failing to come out right. I even forgot a few grammars. Of course, I do know how to speak good English but I found myself struggling to get simple worlds out of my mouth. The fast ascent and slang of the UKVs made it hard for me to keep up and maintain a conversation. This was just the first day and I wasn’t confident enough to communicate. I kept on asking myself one question over and over again; 'what kind of a team leader will I be if I can’t express myself enough?' That day went by and so, the training came to an end.

We finally got to our placement - YONECO in Nkhata Bay. First week of work or rather first day being a Monday, we had a brief description of what the organization was about and what is expected of us in the next three months. We had further introductions among ourselves (volunteers). The UKVs had no time to waste and they went straight to planning, coming up with different posters and formulating ideas, assigning roles to members, reading through preceding placement files. They did a lot and these people are organized you have no idea. 

I was of the opinion that they will be playing with their phones and being idle - boy I was wrong. I was the one who looked lazy as I stood there looking at what they were doing. So I started making myself productive and chipped in where necessary to learn new things from them. That week passed with me learning new skills everyday from my fellow volunteers.

I learnt one thing about the UK volunteers, they always asked questions. They are never ashamed to show they don’t know something so they would rather ask than pretend to know- I salute that!
Elsie Gondwe at Kayapapaya receiving a bracelet from Erick Veeto  

Week two came so fast we started planning for field sessions. As an in country volunteer I thought I knew everything there is to know about Malawi. I thought to myself that this was a great chance to showcase how knowledgeable I am about my country. The different scenarios I came across in various schools and communities made me realize how less I knew about my country. This also oped my eyes to fully comprehend how much people needed our efforts to reach out and spread the word on HIV, STI, and teenage pregnancies and other sexual reproductive health issues. The situation in the communities we worked in compelled me to change my approach and perception of such sensitive topics. These issues are a major concern among young people and older members of the country. 

Having schoolchildren approach me after a session to just ask me a simple question made me smile. This came about because I knew I reached out and someone listened and I get satisfaction in the fact that, somehow, I have saved a life.

So it wasn’t about the money anymore, it didn’t matter whether I had to walk a long distance to get to work. I always looked forward to what I could do for the community on that particular day. To top it all, I had the most amazing team with me, team Umoza. The team was so inspiring and supportive. We could disagree at times and annoy each other but we always found a way out. No matter how angry one got, it was never permanent.

When I got the call to start work in my trained field in Lilongwe, all members were happy for me . I had the best support system a team leader and a member could ever get. I believe I inspired fellow in country volunteers to learn more and to gain experience and competence in the roles they chose. Even if it meant pushing and shouting - though that was never my intention. I wanted them to come out of this placement changed and motivated as they choose their various career paths.
A gift to Else: a bracelet labeled Team Umoza) 

My last day at YONECO was memorable. I hate goodbyes but I had to leave. The team took me to Kayapapaya for a cold one (soft drinks by the way this was and still is a dry program). The coordinator threw in a few farewell remarks. Then I was presented with a bracelet with words written vertically around it and the words  read 'TEAM UMOZA'  (I have never taken it off since I wore it ) good memories. But life has to move on, another chapter opened. I left YONECO a happy volunteer; the one-month stay changed my perception all together.

Changing Perceptions on Issues of Consent in Malawi

Written By Sarah Clarbour

Consent has been taught to me, both formally and informally for as long as I can remember, to the extent that it feels like common sense.
"No means No".

This is something I have known since a young age. Consent should be respected at all times and everyone has the right to not consent to sexual activity, and that too, should be respected. I have discovered that within popular belief in Malawi, this is not the case.  Consent is an ongoing global issue which is still being tackled and addressed through different measures; according to the UN, it is estimated that 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives1.

Life skills session at Kaulambwe in TA Fukamalaza

On Thursday, Team Umoza facilitated a Sex and Sexuality session in the rural community of Kaulambwe. I spoke to the parents about the importance of consent: "A wife does not owe her husband sex, and likewise a husband does not owe his wife sex. Sexual activity should be between consenting individuals".

This community session was aiming to raise awareness on sex and sexuality issues and the ways which we can combat them. Within the discussion section at the end of our presentation, a member of our audience, the head teacher of the community which we were visiting, stood up and said: "It is said in the bible: a husband has no authority over his body, but his wife's, and a wife has no authority over her body, but her husband's". Murmurs in the crowd showed a clear approval of this. I struggle to understand how one quote in the bible overrides respect for people, and how this has been interpreted to justify rape.

Despite our clarifications that non-consensual sexual activity is rape, which is against the constitution in Malawi, I did not feel that any understanding or progress had been made. I left the Kaulambwe community feeling disheartened and despairing about the sessions that we were running. It seemed that there was not open mindedness where it is needed most.
What was more concerning still, was that our session in Chiole on the previous day, we were faced with a similar response from a crowd of women claiming, "it is in our culture that we cannot say no to our husbands". To know that the problem is so inherently built into the culture here made me feel like the sessions were useless. Consent has been an incredibly emotionally straining topic for us throughout our placement so far, as it repeatedly crops up in the issues that we address for example: child marriage, rape, and teen pregnancy.

After taking some time to reflect, I spoke to some of our ICVs (in-country volunteers) to try and understand why these attitudes regarding consent are so common and how we can alter our approach to best invoke a change in perception regarding these issues.
Kellina explained to me that most of the adults in the rural community of Kaulambwe were uneducated. She said that in Malawi education is changing attitudes for the younger generation and it is a process which takes time.  Her and her peers know that everyone has the right to not give their consent to sex and that this should, and is respected, however because the older generation have not had access to formal education, many do not understand this.

HIV and Aids session at Chisila CDSS   
Perhaps then we have to hope that attitude change comes with younger generations becoming more accepting on social issues. Once again, I am reminded that change does not happen in a day, and that development is a long term process. Though this feels incredibly frustrating, it is evident that by empowering the youths, and educating them on issues which Malawi currently faces, together we can establish solutions to these and throughout the years that follow I hope that such attitudes will spread so that socioeconomic development follows.

Malawi is a beautiful country, with beautiful people, the vast majority of which are keen to see change and progress towards a fairer, more open-minded future and I am excited to be a small part of this whilst on my ICS placement with YONECO.


Saturday, 12 November 2016

The Unforgettable Month that Changed My Life!

By Bedium Chirwa

Member of Team Umoza 
I could only imagine what life would be like working as a volunteer. I was not puzzled with the word volunteer but before ICS I didn’t know much about volunteering because I was only a businessperson with a shop and with knowledge of my community. Although I was inexperienced, I was enthusiastic about getting the job done while at the same time focusing on my personal development.

FIRST WEEK: adaptation week

New things are always difficult to adapt to. It was the same with me; it was not easy to acquire knowledge of YONECO’s work into my cerebrum. It was an amazing week of my journey as an ICS volunteer because we were introduced to the code of YONECO and some healthy tips of this lovely organization.  Since a businessperson is always a busy one, I had to show my fellow volunteers my shop so that they could buy some soft drinks as the axiom goes; ‘charity starts at home’. It was a busy week as everyone was preoccupied with the task of adapting to the environment.

Our group leaders had twice the amount of work we all had as they were expected to produce the team’s work plan. It was an interesting week that was full of words like ‘pardon’, ‘sorry’, ‘say it again’…among the team members. This was the case because of the communication barrier that existed between native English speakers and seond or third language speakers of English. Since this was ‘adaptation’ week, we eventually managed to overcome the barrier. We gave our team a vernacular name; ‘UMOZA’ which means “UNITY” in English. I enjoyed this week as the everyone in the team did his or her best to ensure successful implementation of activities throughout our placement.

SECOND WEEK: Let’s do it week
After last week’s introduction to YONECO Values and culture, the second week was much busier. I realized that buses were outside to take us to the field for our first session. Oh! I was so excited ‘TEAM UMOZA! Let’s do it!’ one of the team leaders shouted. It was a word of encouragement which meant myself-esteem was extremely boosted. The team worked well on this particular day and it became a trend for the rest of the week. I felt at home with team UMOZA as everyone was so friendly and caring. Everyone was ready to help me even when I only ask for a definition of a certain word; the team members willingly tell me and go further to explain the importance of the idea. It really is an Umoza (united) Team.

I enjoyed the session because it was the first day to show my talent and skills. Having reached Friday of the week, I started to understand who is an ICS and progressio volunteer as well as comprehending what is expected of me as a volunteer. ‘Mmmmmmh simple’ Learn, teach, respect other people’s views and ideas then join power as a group and impart the learnt knowledge to the target group. That’s how we moved this week.
THIRD WEEK: togetherness week
Indeed life is full of ups and downs, as the week started we thought life would be simple and easy the way the first week was but ‘mmh’ we were all wrong. We never anticipated that our trip to Mfyavya village one of our buses will get stuck in the sand. We spent a lot of time to push it out of the sand and consequently; parenting and peer education sessions had to be rescheduled.

FOURTH WEEK: one goal
I enjoyed this week because everyone was alert and ready to work to personally develop and helping one another to achieve our targets. This is important since we are approaching the days for the mid-phase review.

I had to move up and down in search of the best and clear information to teach some students and community members.

In our first month, I have gathered all the needed information of an ICS volunteer. An ICS volunteer can be defined as:
>someone who works for the good of others
>someone who firmly believes in team work and respects the group dynamics
>someone who is always willing to learn from others

Progressio has shown me the true way to develop and change my life and the environment. I have already seen the true development which is in my learning. My life has really been transformed from a simple businessperson to someone who gives out important information to people who need it in order to  change the world for our own good.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

A Life Skills Session with Secondatry School Students to Remember

By Olivia Sumrie

All the planning and preparation in the world could not have prepared us for our experience at Mpamba School in Nkhata Bay district.

We decked ourselves out in our official Progressio T-shirts and our bright green YONECO chitenjes. We looked and felt the part. Ready to go with our notes, posters and leaflets; we all felt very excited and raring to deliver what we had on our seemingly simple topic "Life Goals".
Squeezed into our mini bus, we drove for about 20 minutes out of town along a rickety dirt road with rural scenes and little villages stretched out on either side. As we crept to a halt at the gates of an enormous school, our reservations began to grow. Our minibus entered through open large metal gates into a huge dusty drive way. The school was vastly spread out but there were no children in sight.

We all stumbled out of the bus, adjusting our chitenjes, squinting in the sun to try and spot the children that were watching us from a distance in the shade. 

A teacher emerged out of nowhere and directed us to a huge building that was larger than any school gymnasium I have ever seen. As soon as we walked through the door, hundreds of faces between the ages of 13 to 20 were all staring up at us and smirking. We scrambled up onto the stage smiling awkwardly. The Headmaster greeted us formally in front of the children; sternly stating that we were expected an hour ago and we had to be quick as it was lunchtime. We had no idea we were late.

My role for the session was Monitoring and Evaluation, which meant I had to interview 3 students before and after the session in order to record the level of knowledge gain and progress of their learning. In a rush before we began the session, I randomly selected a young boy called Nepier to interview. Unfortunately he had no clue what I was saying when I asked him "what is a life goal?". Not off to a good start. Trying to take my job seriously was proving difficult with children surrounding us, laughing and shouting inches from my face. Eventually, after getting a few coherent answers,  the presentation started!

As an introductory lesson, we set out a range of issues such as STIs, peer pressure, substance abuse and teenage pregnancy. To keep it interesting, we performed a play that left Lewis with an STI and Kate pregnant. The kids were in hysterics. By standing up and using drama and humour we finally managed to catch their attention and respect. Thus, when we commenced our learning section, the youth really did try to listen and understand.

Due to the size of the school, my other job of counting the students proved impossible. I managed up to 200 and then, when they started to push and shove to the front it became impossible... I decided to let it be and take this session as a learning curve and be more prepared next time! (Later we found out there were over 450 in the room.)

After the session finished, I found Nepier to ask the same three questions. Without his boisterous friends present he squeezed his eyes shut in concentration, clearly wanting to answer correctly. Luckily I managed to get other volunteers to help take the other interviews and the ICVs (In Counrty Volunteers) were incredible in translating and making the students understand.
Although the school session shocked us at first, it has prepared us for all the school sessions to come. We now feel ready for anything.

Throughout the rest of the week, each school showed a range of knowledge, but they all shared an enthusiasm and excitement at being taught something new.

In sessions with students, when asking "how can you achieve your life goal?", they usually all stated work hard at school. The students in Malawi seem to respect education tremendously. Whilst in the UK, education is free up to 18 years, in Malawi only primary school is free. As a result, perhaps it gives the older youth in Malawi a sense of pride and gratefulness for being in school. Currently, there are nearly more girls in school than boys in Malawi. 

There is a feeling of hope and optimism that the next generation will really try and change life in Malawi with gender equality, life goals, health and human rights. Although we have only been here for three months and might have only skimmed the surface, with YONECO I hope we can help facilitate that change.

Ritual Cleansing: Cultural Practices that Steal Young People's Innocence

“I think there is so much we can do for the women and children who are victims of hyenas, gender-based violence, and all the other social evils that are out there”. This is what Malawi’s 2013 Big Brother Africa representative, Natasha Annie Tonthola, said during an interview with BBC’s Michael Wendling. Natasha explained the ordeal she went through as she was being traditionally ‘initiated’ into adulthood. 


Just as various national and international media channels were awash with a story about a man who was arrested for sleeping with young girls to cleanse and initiate them into adulthood; the celebrated entrepreneur cum girls’ rights activist, Natasha, came to the open and exposed the evils and dangers of such cultural practices.


Honestly speaking; our society is full of different harmful cultural practices that lead to various sexual reproductive health challenges. Many young people like, contraction of Sexually Transmitted Infections including HIV, fueling child marriages as well as teen pregnancies and other associated consequences. These aforementioned challenges have been faced and still affecting new victims year in year out.


Young people can avoid this kind of abuse by knowing their sexual reproductive health rights. No one is supposed to force you into having sex no matter what kind of influence that person has. When you get pregnant or an STI; it is the very same people who start discriminating and stigmatizing you. They are quick to force you into sex cleansing but they are always late to support when the ritual lands you in trouble.


Young people; do not trust others to make sexual reproductive health decisions on your behalf. It is your life and when you are troubled by your community to undergo a harmful cultural practice you can report this by calling toll free child helpline on 116, Community Victim Support Unit or any nearest Youth Friendly Health Service Delivery Point that is close to your area.


Remember; you have your sexual reproductive health rights and make wise and informed decisions. Do not let cultural beliefs and ritual steal your innocence …be assertive and report any form of abuse to remain cool and happy!