It’s Sunday morning as I write this. My head hurts a little and I’m unapologetically more emotional that usual.
A whole 48 hours have passed since I stepped back onto UK soil.
In the same 48 hours, I’ve travelled up and down the country, caught up with friends and family, applied for jobs, over eaten, and admittedly, as the opening line suggests, had a few excessive incidents on the vino (using the ‘it’s my birthday week/i’ve returned without rabies woo’ excuse).
It’s probably fair to say, as 48 hours go, it’s been busy.
Without sounding like a total cliche loser, throughout the busyness, there has been a really uncomfortable feeling that I’m struggling to shake off.
The feeling creeps up on me every time I’m asked about my volunteer experience.
“Was it amazing?”
“What were you even doing?”
“Is it weird to be back?”
“What will you miss the most?”
I am overwhelmed.
The truth is, it’s hard to know where to start. After 10 weeks fully emerged, and I mean emerged, in such a different and unique culture to our own, it’s a mighty hard task to verbalise answers that do the questions in hand any justice.
But that’s not the only overwhelming part.
Nothing has really changed here.
Have I even been away? Did I even contribute towards anything in Malawi? Is change even a thing? Have I changed? AM I OK?±
According to google, my trusty companion, I’m suffering from a mild case of reverse culture shock (RCS). If I were to ask my other volunteer compatriots, I’d hazard a guess that I’m not alone with this issue.
In the most practical way of dealing with ‘RCS’ and in a bid to provide reference points for all those friends feeling neglected by the dire quality of my communication at the moment, these are the facts:
- How it all began…
Back in January, I made a vow to myself that I would get off my bum this summer and (try to) do some good in the world. After seeing advert after advert for International Citizenship Service on Facebook*, I found myself filling out a short application form and before I knew it, had applied to take part in a summer of volunteering. An assessment day later and I was told that I had been selected to travel to Malawi with Progressio from July to September.
Whilst Progressio is sadly ending it’s work in the coming year, you can still apply for the ICS scheme with other partner organisations here if you’re aged between 18-25 and have that itch to get out there and do some volunteering.
*On this note, hats off to the ICS marketing team – top form progressive profiling using targeted social ads. You had me cornered.
2. The Fundraising Part
Before setting off, I had to commit to raising £800 for the charity. At first this figure seemed daunting given the fact I was working full time, had tickets to lots of festivals and all in all, had very little time on my hands. However, down to how fabulous, generous and genuinely amazing everyone in my life is, the target was smashed.
Thanks again to all those lovely people that supported me, and big props also for not un-friending me on Facebook through the fundraising status’ phase.
You’ll be pleased to know that I’m not planning on taking up a job in the fundraising sector, just yet.
3. The Work Part
I worked for a small NGO, COIDA, in the Northern Malawian town of Mzimba.
COIDA focuses on alleviating poverty in local communities through empowering youth and women.
As part of a team of 7 UK volunteers and 6 Malawian volunteers, a.k.a ‘Team Tiliwamoza’, or Bush to some, we worked intensively with 6 village youth clubs around the Mzimba district area.
Across the district we trained up 58 youths as peer educators to give them a sound knowledge of sexual health, disability and gender rights, and also the skills required to enable them to go on and teach and advise their peers on the same issues.
If each of these youth members go on to speak to 2 new people a month for 12 months about the information we’ve given them, we’ll reach 1392 people.
That is a lot of people hearing simple messages such as use a condom, get tested and that we are all equal. Important awareness messages that are at the forefront in the war waging on the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Team Tiliwamoza didn’t stop with peer education.
We also spoke to parents of the peer educators, held a big international youth day event which had a turnout of well over 1000 people with a lively talent show and speakers on the importance of entrepreneurship, education and volunteerism. We then ran outreach and awareness campaign sessions to solidify our relationships with the communities and spread our message further.
Our team’s special project continued on from the work of the previous cycle, whereby we facilitated vocational skills training for a community that cycle one had helped setting up a village youth and saving loans scheme within. To supplement the vocational skills training, we ran a business improvement workshop. In preparation of the community workshop, I presented a simplified version of the 7 P’s of service marketing to the team – putting my degree to use in the most unexpected environment.
Whilst the project wasn’t plain sailing by any means, we learnt an incredible lot and for every challenge, the team could report a success.
4. The Living Part
Of course after going out and putting in long hours at the COIDA office, or in the villages, we’d need roofs over our heads every evening.
This is where our wonderful host homes came in, and is one of the major ways that ICS is set apart from other volunteering schemes.
I lived in the home of an incredible host mama, Violet, with her 2 year old sass pot of a daughter, Natasha, 10 year old niece, Lillian, and one other UK volunteer, Mister Hol.
Living in the very heart of a community, in the home of a local, provided us with rare insights into the culture that I doubt travelling independently would have otherwise offered.
The privilege exposed us to many unique experiences, including; the true Malawian diet (nsima, rice, and of course, live chickens in the kitchen one minute and on the plate the next), a bridal shower, introductions in front of large church congregations, our neighbour’s Tuesday night choir group practice directly outside our bedroom window, the local mosque calling to prayer, daily blackouts (and accompanying games we’d find ourselves playing in the absence of light and electricity – flashlight hot and cold anyone?), the floating lizards in bucket bath water, the hand washing, our all too friendly guard dogs that would follow us into work, the questionable children’s music videos, the cockroach graveyard underneath our beds, the Beyonce Single Lady dance lessons, and most touchingly, the personal and hugely moving stories we’d be told as we became good friends with Violet.
SO in an extremely shortened form, that is essentially my summer in a nutshell.
The problem with summaries is that it’s hard to do the details justice.
It’s hard to capture the laughs, the in-jokes, the late night conversations, the intensity of a Malawian sunset and the reward of seeing people learn life changing information and the relief when your teaching starts to sink in, or when your idea just works.
Another problem with providing only a snapshot, is that the change and actual long term impact isn’t considered. However, this long term impact can not yet be reported, or even guaranteed, and it is this issue only contributes to my uneasiness.
However, one of my fellow volunteers spoke wonderfully at our debrief on how her parents once told her the story of an old man who selflessly planted date trees and nurtured them so that in the future, the fruits could be enjoyed by others. Just like the planting of seeds for date trees, our work has to be seen as laying the groundwork. Sustainable change has to be slow, and requires time and hard work. It also takes trust, something that as as a life long sceptic, i’ve always struggled with.
As for the self-diagnosed reverse culture shock, I know that will pass. Sometimes 3 months of soul searching and new experiences will make your past normality feel everything except normal. Upon returning, it’s unsurprising that the realisation that the things that have changed the most lie within yourself and the way you see the world, and that this realisation may in turn carry a slightly unsettling aftertaste.
I guess at the end of the day, and the point that I need to remember the most, is that the world is bigger than you and me. It’s confusing and it doesn’t make sense at times, but we’re still a significant part of a much bigger picture. Trust your worth and trust your ability to make a difference, because as i’ve found, change starts a lot closer to home than expected.