My experience in the warm heart of Africa – by Aisling Toner
Words alone cannot sum up the experience I had in Malawi. The time I spent here was an incredible, eye-opening and life-changing experience, one which I will never forget.
In January 2013 I packed my bags and set off for a six month stay at the youth programme in Domasi in the south of Malawi. I had mixed emotions about leaving my home in Ireland, not too sure what lay ahead, yet filled with a huge sense of excitement as I was about to embark on an adventure I had been planning for months and dreaming about for years. I have wanted to work in Africa my whole life and after doing a lot of research I found the project which was most suited to me on the OV website.
My last day at school.
I don’t think anyone could have prepared me enough for the culture shock I got once I first arrived in the country. I had never stepped foot outside of Europe before and so this was a huge leap into the unknown for me. Despite feeling like I was a world away from what I’ve always known, I was excited to get to the project and see what the next few months had in store.
It does not take long to settle into life in Domasi where the programme is based and where volunteers stay. On arrival to the project I was welcomed by Emma, the project co-ordinator, both local and foreign volunteers and some local Malawian children and families who lived nearby. I honestly couldn’t have felt more welcome. I was so relieved to have finally arrived and couldn’t wait to get stuck into the work and life at the project.
Within days I was settled into the volunteer role and routine of life in Domasi. Volunteers can choose to partake in a variety of roles within the project; teaching, building and gardening just to mention a few. As I trained as a primary school teacher back home I felt that I could best offer my time and skills to work alongside local teachers, teaching in one of the seven village schools. This involved teaching basic Maths and English to children aged 3-6 in a morning session followed by assisting with the feeding programme at the school. After a break during the day I returned to the school for an afternoon session to assist in teaching children aged between 7 and 18.
As well as teaching the topics planned each week I enjoyed providing lots of opportunities for children to explore art and music and partake in sports and games in the daily teaching routine. Malawian children love to be active and enjoy their singing and dancing. In the quieter months I worked alone at my school with the local teachers, however in busier periods there could be up to three volunteers at each school. Either way the children were happy to see us every morning and were never shy in showing it.
If you would like more information and ideas on how to organise young children on projects see the Original Volunteers guide.
Local children. Photo taken by Aisling.
Not just teaching!
Outside of set school hours I also had many opportunities to become involved in the project and local way of life in the village. I did some one-on-one tutoring sessions, supporting some local children with their English language skills. I had the opportunity to work closely with a deaf girl and her family who lived close-by, using my basic knowledge of sign language to help with communication support. I also gained some experience assisting local builders in relaying the flooring in my school building and with general repair work using fundraised money.
Cultural aspects of my stay
Whilst being in Malawi I wanted to completely immerse myself in the African culture so when I heard of the opportunity to partake in Traditional Dancing, I jumped at the chance. Along with other volunteers I became involved in dance classes and performances. This for me was one of the highlights, an opportunity to have fun with the locals and other volunteers whilst also helping to support the local dance group.
As well as working at the project I had the opportunity to do quite a bit of exploring throughout my time in Malawi. It is a beautiful country with lots to see, the people are friendly and most will speak English so getting around isn’t too difficult, although the transport does require a lot of patience. At weekends many volunteers chose to visit the lake, explore the local area, go hiking, swimming, on safari or travel to nearby towns and explore the busy market places. The opportunities are endless and even the weekends spent in the village never had a dull moment.
The local people go out of their way to make you feel at home and any skills or interests which volunteers can bring to the project are greatly appreciated by all. Local people are thankful for you just being there, even if it just means calling around to visit families for a chat or playing games with the local children.
An eye-opening experience
Time spent with local people in Malawi was a very eye-opening experience for me. They have so little yet are so happy. Throughout my time there and in returning back home it made me re-evaluate my own life and put things into perspective. I came home with a greater appreciation for what we have and a better sense of what is most important in life.
It was extremely difficult leaving the project and coming home was something which I dreaded from the very first week that I arrived. Whether you go for three weeks, or three months you are guaranteed to fall in love with the people and country of Malawi. I now see it as my home from home.
I am still in contact with many volunteers I met during my time there, and without a doubt have made some friends for life. I still keep in touch through letters with many locals which I got to know well. I intend to return to the warm heart of Africa in the near future. The six months I spent there were the best six months of my life.
For more information on Malawi and to get involved see our project guide.