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.