Village life: RBS vounteering trip to Malawi

Written by Jen Tomlinson 11 months ago.

Volunteering in Africa; who hasn’t been touched by images that have confronted us during charity initiatives and things like Comic Relief? Sitting in the comfort of our homes, watching some amazing work carried out by volunteers helping severely malnutrioned children, and people existing with the most basic of amenities and provisions. It is a heartbreaking fact that such a huge amount of people still endure such an extreme and difficult life.

Twenty colleagues from a range of divisions across RBS took it upon themselves to visit Malawi and embark on a project to really make a difference. RBS offers its staff 3 volunteering days to use annually, and in addition to this the group all used their annual leave allowance to increase the time needed to make the most of the trip. Everyone in the group had to raise their own funding to cover the trips expenses, and in addition they each raised £500 to go directly towards the project and people of Malawi.

The group set off on a 10 day trip in September, and went to support Joshua Orphan & Community Care – which is a sustainable development charity in Malawi, helping orphans with HIV and AIDS, vulnerable children and their families. The team set off with an objective of building a boys urinal toilet for Chigukukiri School as well as other renovation work at the school, and also building a playground for the Solomoni Child Based Community Centre.

Malawi is officially regarded as the poorest country in the world with a per capita GDP of around £200. In 2015, the country was hit by devastating floods that left over a quarter of a million people homeless and destroyed 64,000 hectares of crops that have resulted in severe food shortages in 2016. Consequences of the famine were an assaulting sight for the group from start to finish.

Great Expectations

I spoke to three of the team who gave their accounts of everything from how they initially got involved to the day to day activities while they were away. The one thing that was instantly apparent from speaking to Rachel Blackamore, Jed Bartley and Emily Smithies, was the impact that taking part had had on them, and just how far removed life was in Malawi compared to working here in the UK at the bank.

A group of twenty people - who for many didn’t know each other well - thrust in to a situation of sharing very basic amenities, sleeping next to each other and getting stuck in with every day tasks requires a certain level of open-mindedness and comradery. Showering involved using a cup and a basin, behind a shield of a torn black bag attached to a stick; similarly the makeshift toilet was a hole in the ground which was again behind a torn black bag to offer some degree of privacy. A grounding and humbling experience for everyone involved.

Each of the 3 enthused about the group and what a great team spirit they encountered; an experience that found the group rallying round to support each other with those inevitable moments arose of feeling upset by everything they witnessed.

Rachel was the one person in the group who had previously completed voluntary work at this location in Malawi, and it was quite a mixture of emotions for her to travel back and see how much good had come from their help and contribution during the previous trip. Despite this, there was still so much that still needed to be done.

Back to Basics

One of the major benefits of actually taking the long flight and 24 hours of travelling was that they were able to see first hand the benefit they were actually making to people there through their donations.

With some of the group having never been to a country considered deprived before, on their first day they got stuck straight in and visited some of the local amenities.

Rachel and Emily both described how a visit to the hospital - where Rachel had worked on the first visit - was overwhelming largely down to the sheer volume of children there, but not just that, the smiling happy faces that surrounded them as they went through the hospital. The group then moved on to the Orphanage Centre, where donations were given and the people there were so incredibly overwhelmed with everything that the group gave.

On arriving into the village where they stayed for the first time, Emily noted,

‘Driving from the Orphanage Centre to the village was incredible, a massive eye opener. As we travelled down the tracks, tiny huts were jotted around which serve as the local shops, and amongst the huts there were people pushing bikes laden with charcoal they were going to sell. Everyone sat really quietly in the minibus taking it all in.’

As they arrived on a minibus, the whole village greeted them there singing and dancing; welcoming them with open arms. In many ways the noise and energy were assault on their senses, as they took everything in around them; be it women carrying week’s worth of shopping on their heads, or small children running excitedly towards them – or the occasional rabid infected dog moving about wildly. What the trio felt universally was how much of a warm welcome they received, even with very limited English. The village welcoming was something that Rachel, Emily and Jed all enthused about, and how it was then that they realised the scale of what they were about to be part of.

The welcoming ceremony itself sounded exuberant and fun, with local tribal dancing and men wearing distinct custom dress including masks. Full of singing and dancing, Emily recalled,

‘I don’t know what I expected, but it was quite overwhelming. Seeing just how welcoming and happy everyone was.’

Food for Thought

It is at the feeding centres that children get fed once a day, and enjoy a couple hours of education. The group visited 2 out of 12 feeding centres in the area and met with people who had nothing but the clothes they were wearing but yet were so happy.

Emily recalled how a little girl sat next to her had an open sore with flies gathering around it, and just how upsetting it was to see the staff having to leave it, as they didn’t have the provisions to plaster it. Something that we take for granted here in the UK, being able to treat an injury quite readily, is a far bigger task over there.

The group noted how it was during games of frisbee, netball and football with the children that is was really apparent just how lethargic they were from not having eaten. It was clear that they, despite the smiles on their faces, struggled daily with such a small amount of food. The games that they all played together were highlights for the whole group, and provided memorable moments such as a herd of cattle walking on to the pitch mid game.

It would be easy to send money over, which would still help, but what Rachel and Jed both mentioned was that by them being there, adding human touch, it really made a difference. Rachel added,

‘Leaving the feeding centre was incredibly difficult, with all of the children waving as we drove off. Knowing they’d be in the same situation tomorrow. Thinking about what future they’d have.’

Music to their ears

As the days progressed there were various tasks and visits for the group to be involved in, and Jed remembered fondly how while they were building the urinal, some of the children would keep running over to them and want wheelbarrow rides. A poignant memory of some joyful little faces wanting to play.

Emily discussed how some of the group visited the local church for their Sunday service, and how different it was compared to churches at home. In true Malawian spirit, there was lots of singing and dancing, and in the few short hours they were there they were able to see just how important it was for the local community, and the local people at the service were thankful they had taken time out to visit them.

The sense of music and dancing is one which ran through all of the stay. Jed added,

‘One evening we got some dried tins and taped them together to create some makeshift drums, and sat around singing and playing them - it was one of the best nights. That drum kit went on tour with us.’

The final evening spent in the village involved a big meal, where chickens were killed specially for the group as a mark of occasion, as they were also joined by the Chiefs and their wives. The group watched the cook with basic vegetables and the chickens and produced a feast for up to forty people – and saw the excitement of the locals eating the meat and storming up to get a second helping. Sitting with the Chiefs and their wives was an honour that the entire group was overwhelmed by.

Children playing

The smile on the children's faces will live long in the memory of the RBS volunteers.

Homeward Bound

How did returning home – back to normality and routine – actually take effect after such a trip? Readjusting to normal life proved to be more difficult than they had perhaps prepared for. It’s difficult to simply switch off from what had been seen and experienced – remembering the disparity in the lives of those they had met, and recalibrating what truly matters.

Fleeting images running through their minds of one of the smiling children at the hospital, or the leaving ceremony – wondering what they are doing, and hoping that they are ok.

It must certainly put life in perspective. Emily added,

‘When I’ve had a bad day, or somethings not gone quite right at work since we got home, I have taken a step back and thought about how much worse things are happening. To see people with nothing, who are still so happy and content, who come together and work collaboratively is so inspiring.’

We could learn so much from them. The key point is their team spirit and how they look out for each other. They are thriving despite their poverty, lack of provisions and amenities. Their unrelenting ability to remain positive and upbeat in the face of such adversary is a testament to their character.

Ever considered taking part in something like this yourself? I think that they all summed it up perfectly when they each said to go out and explore what opportunities are out there, to have an open mind and consider using the 5 voluntary days a year that the bank offers for a good cause, whether in the local community or further away, in somewhere like Malawi. Jed added,

‘Don’t think about it. Don’t talk yourself out of it. Just do it. It’s the best thing you’ll ever do.’

And reflect…

So far the group has managed to raise over £25,000 and it’s the biggest donation the charity have ever received. Social media has helped to raise further awareness by sharing photos and letting people see for themselves what it was like, to make people think that even without much shared language and with basic provisions, the impact it had both ways was palpable.

The donations given so far have gone towards a variety of things such as paying for caregivers; ensuring that they are adequately trained to educate and support the children. It has also helped by purchasing classroom staples such as pens and paper. One other really great benefit from these funds has been the purchase of a motorbike for the Joshua Field staff to use to ensure that they can access even the most rural of communities.

Rachel made a very good final point; there is plenty of initiatives and support needed close to home too. You can really make a difference here if you’re unable to travel somewhere as far away as Malawi with the associated expenses.

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