It Takes A Village...
Neil fights his emotions as his students at Kazembe Primary School sing him farewell songs on his last day of teaching after nearly four months of hard work. He wants to ensure his memory of the students and teachers to whom he’s grown so close remains happy. In addition to improving the standard of education at Kazembe, Neil helped teach and design a curriculum for an adult English class offered to community members, bravely represented Kazembe in a football match against the local army battalion, revived a chess club, led the help2kids kickball team to victory, and helped a friend in the community to plant their rice field. Neil has forged many relationships during his time as ahelp2kids volunteer both within the community and with his fellow volunteers staying at the Friendly Gecko. It is, indeed difficult not to develop such strong ties with the people you live and work with in such a small community.
Nele brushes a wisp of her blond hair from her eyes as she leads a recently arrived volunteer through Salima, showing her the best places to find various goods. Nele arrived before every other volunteer currently engaged athelp2kids Malawi, and she will remain here even when they have departed. She is a teenager, yet to enter university, however her fellow help2kids volunteers look up to her for her initiative and experience working in Lifuwu. Leadership was not on her agenda when Nele boarded her flight for Malawi, but it is a role into which she has naturally transitioned. She is slightly past the half-way mark of her seven month service with help2kids . During this time she has led songs and educational activities at the Tiyanjane Pre-School, helped develop the English language curriculum for the adult English class she teaches, organized activities for volunteers at the Friendly Gecko, taught classes at Kazembe Primary School, eaten crocodile meat, and seen Victoria Falls. Nele is doing a great job in Lifuwu, accomplishing more than she ever expected and developing cherished friendships at the same time.
An advantage to volunteering through help2kids is that you are able to choose the length of your service. While the majority of our volunteers stay for one or two months, Neil and Nele are among the rare group of long-term volunteers who are able to develop a deeper understanding about life as a volunteer and the community around them. I recently sat down with both of them to discuss their experience as long-term volunteers and how they think it relates to this article about the “Village Effect,” : http://www.npr.org/blogs/goatsandsoda/2014/10/14/351254666/forget-facebook-abandon-instagram-move-to-a-village. In short, the village effect refers to the higher degree of connectedness between people who live in smaller communities and the social, psychological, and health benefits which seem to be associated with that lifestyle.
Neil loves working in Africa and has a long-term interest in East Africa. He has worked and studied in Dar Es Salaam prior to coming to Malawi, however volunteering with help2kids was his first experience living in such a rural setting. Knowing the surprises that often accompany working in Africa, Neil tried his best to entertain few expectations when he arrived in Lifuwu, but was surprised by the challenges and intensity of living and working in such a small community during a particularly blistering hot season. Indeed, when given one word to describe his experience, he chose, “frustrating – but not in a completely negative way!”
Living in close quarters with many other volunteers, not knowing what specific challenges you will face, and working with an under-resourced school, preparing students for critical exams is certainly frustrating. Neil, though, thinks because of this frustration there is great opportunity for reflection and personal growth, “It’s good for your soul because if you can deal with this [the challenge of volunteering], life at home is so much easier…the real impact is not [only] on the community, but on yourself.”
Neil especially valued the camaraderie with his fellow volunteers saying, “There are no boundaries between volunteers. You share experiences and build relationships quickly.” When I asked about his stress level, he replied that when he is stressed out here, he is supported by other volunteers. On the day before Neil left Lifuwu, he took stock of all of the people who were important to him during his service in the community and told me, “I’ve made a lot of good friends. I’m going to miss Lifuwu, It must be the village effect!”
When Nele traveled from the airport in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe to Lifuwu Village, she stared out the windows at small thatched-roof houses as women carried water and firewood on their heads, and she thought to herself, “This is what I wanted; it’s how I expected it to be!” Then it sunk in that she was really in Malawi, and these were the hardworking people alongside whom she would be working. Despite the culture-shock, she was pleased to receive a warm welcome from the people of Lifuwu, “They really helped me and they are so friendly!”
In one word, Nele describes her life in Lifuwu as “happiness” describing how her days are filled with laughing children, and people who are delighted at her studies in ChiChewa (the most prevalent language in Malawi). Nele has developed a very close personal connection to the community in Lifuwu, sharing life experiences with her English class, getting to know a neighboring family, and spending time with the other volunteers. She says the connection with other help2kids volunteers is special because, “You live the same life, you spend the whole day together, and you have fun (especially once you’ve gotten to know each other.” Nele said that “there is no stress here” which sounds like hyperbole until you consider the number of supportive people that she interacts with on a daily basis.
Nele does think volunteering in Lifuwu has changed her, saying “I’m more thankful, and I know I don’t need much to be happy. I’m glad to be healthy.” Nele has definitely gained some valuable perspective about life after witnessing some of the hardships that go along with village life such as what goes into obtaining even basic child health care, getting nutritious food, and the reality of several funerals in just a few months. Nele thinks it will be very hard to leave after seven months, having become part of the community, but she will leave as a more confident, capable, and relaxed person.
More and more in recent times, our interpersonal lives are becoming much less personal. Sometimes, it seems we SMS, Facebook, tweet, and snapchat our friends more often than we actually sit down with them. Indeed, that might be true as our lives become more hectic, laden with more responsibilities whether they be from classes, work, or personal business. We too often isolate ourselves with our work and obligations when we should be working with those close to us to make the job easier. Two young help2kids volunteers have shown us that by dedicating a few months to some serious “face-time” and meaningful interaction, we can become happier, healthier, and more capable. For you, perhaps it simply means devoting a bit more time for coffee and discussion with friends or relatives, but if you prefer to take the same route as Neil and Nele, we are here and ready to help you take the first step!