We both graduated University in 2010 and as part of a gap year (or two!) we spent seven weeks in Mtunthama during the beginning of 2012, which was the rainy season. Neither of us are medically trained and so we ended up splitting our time mainly between Amao, the Orphanage, and the Nutrition Rehabilitation Unit (NRU).
We found ourselves running the daily nursery for children from Amao and the local area from 8-11ish which was hectic but a lot of fun! This involved teaching some basic English, playing games and singing a lot of nursery rhymes and songs!
We are both now fully efficient at six verses of Wheels on the Bus complete with actions and have never felt more like kids TV presenters!
It was really nice to get to know the kids and they would come running to us every morning; we actually ended up developing a strangely formal routine of greeting with a handshake and ‘how are you?’ ‘I am fine and you?’ to each individual child.
The nursery has no supplies whatsoever and so it was nice to bring along some books and art supplies to use with the children. Nursery ended every morning with tea served the Malawian way – boiling hot and full of sugar. Our afternoons were mainly spent in the babies’ room, changing them, folding, feeding, washing and generally just playing!
We got really attached to the babies and loved the way they seemed to break into dance at any song we sang, or even sometimes with no music! Whilst we were there two newborns were admitted as well and they both seemed to take well to the powdered milk which was a really good sign.
We also enjoyed getting to know the older children. We were overwhelmed by how hard all the staff and volunteers at Amao worked, and how together with the children it genuinely felt like a family atmosphere.
At the NRU we made up and distributed the special formula milk to the children and their caregivers every three hours. The women who run the NRU are really lovely, and it was really interesting to hear all about the reasons behind malnutrition, some of which surprised us, the symptoms and clinical effects of malnutrition.
Although most of the caregivers spoke no English we felt like we built up a connection with a lot of them in the week or so they stayed at the NRU and they appreciated our poor efforts of Chichewa which was mainly supported by universal sign language.
This was the most shocking part of our experience
and although it was positive to see the children recover
and be discharged, it was also tinged with sadness.
I think this was the part that made
Medic Malawi’s work seem most real to us.
The family we lived with was really kind and welcoming. We paid them £5 a day each for food, which they made clear was not rent and if they could afford to feed us they would happily have us to stay for free. We both had a birthday out there and got to celebrate Malawian style with a lot of food and dancing. We would often sit with them during a blackout in the evening and it was a really good way to get to know the Malawian culture.
Travel-wise, we managed to fit a lot in to the short time we were there. Aubrey, the Hospital Administrator, was really helpful and provided us with a driver to both Kasungu National Park and Nkhotakhota to see the lake. We didn’t get to see many animals, other than some hippos and an elephant, as we did the Safari in the wrong season, but it was still a good experience. The lake is beautiful and we would definitely recommend spending a weekend there.
We stayed at Fish Eagle Bay Lodge which from our point of view was the nicest that we saw, and was in walking distance along the beach to the better known Pottery Lodge. We also got to spend a night in Lilongwe which was an interesting experience and a lot of fun.
The local community is very welcoming and we felt completely safe and comfortable the whole time we were there. One thing we would say is don’t be afraid to ask questions; everyone is very open to talking and sharing their experiences with you. We even managed to appear in a Malawian music video! We loved every minute of the experience and could go on forever talking about everything we got up to.
A few tips:
- Money – We would recommend taking English pounds as it is so strong in Malawi. We took dollars as well but found this was unnecessary. We changed about £100 each at the airport into Kwacha for general spending, but paid for fuel and food money in pounds as it is easy to change in Kasungu, the nearest town.
- If you run out of cash the cash machines in Lilongwe all seemed to work for us and didn’t charge us too much to take money out, although you don’t get as strong an exchange rate. If you want to change English pounds to Kwacha the best rates will be from the people working on the market stalls by Kiboko Safari in Lilongwe although obviously be a bit wary.
- We heard that the cash machines in Kasungu sometimes worked for one of the other volunteers although we never needed to try it ourselves. If you need to go to Lilongwe speak to Aubrey and try and tag along on hospital business so that you can share the cost of fuel.
- Some of the things we would recommend taking –
- If you are going in the rainy season, take a small umbrella and raincoat.
- At least one pair of closed toed shoes to avoid snakes if you go out in the evening. At least one pair of long trousers for the evenings if you go out.
- Girls – It is rude to show your legs, so skirts or trousers (not tight) that come below the knee are important. You can buy material at the market out there to wear as a ‘chitenge’, like a wrap.
- Wind-up torch. These were vital when out after sunset and in a black out and we left ours with the NRU afterwards.
- Insect repellent – we used more than we expected to.
- Books – there was often blackouts in the evening so we found we read quite a lot.
- Stuff for hand washing – we used up what we had very quickly. That said you can always use soap which you can buy out there
- If you like music and want to share it take a USB stick with the files on. Some of the hospital staff houses, and the bar, have a way of playing music from a USB.
- Photos of your family, your house, and the area you live in. People are very interested in seeing these.
- Donations – A lot of the African airlines offer a big baggage allowance. We both took an extra bag with us filled with donations we had collected and were glad we had done. Some of the things we found useful were:
- Medical supplies – gloves, aprons, medicines such as aspirin, plasters, bandages.
- Laptop – the stores department at the hospital is in need of a laptop and I’m sure they would be useful for other departments too.
- For Amao the Orphanage: Powdered baby milk, bedding, children’s underwear, reusable nappies, nappy clips, shoes for all ages, sanitary towels for the girls, indoor clothes horses, insect room spray, clothes, plastic cups/mugs, plain paper, colouring books, balloons (loved!), bubbles, posters, stickers, stationary, balls, nail varnish, sports watches. Avoid individual toys except for softer toys for the baby playpen. Also, educational display material for the nursery on alphabet, colours numbers etc, and workbooks for nursery age.
- Communication – There is an internet cafe nearby but the internet was down the whole time we were there. If you are there for a long time and would like to have the internet it would be worth taking a laptop and buying an Airtel dongle once out there. It is pretty reliable and not too expensive and the area was secure. Otherwise, ask around as some people have laptops and are happy to lend them, or try nearby Kamuzu Academy who are very accommodating to volunteers. We just took English phones with us, but again if you are there for longer I think it is about £10 to buy a cheap Malawian phone and sim.
- Visa – We didn’t need any kind of visa beforehand and were granted a 30 day visa upon entering Malawi. It cost around £20 to renew that at the immigration office in Malawi which we had to do once, or alternatively you can cross the border to Zambia which isn’t too far to the west of Mtunthama and re-enter Malawi. You need a Yellow Fever certificate to enter.
- Language – Although English is the main language a lot of people, especially those from the villages, don’t speak any. The local language is Chichewa – people are more than willing to teach you so it is fairly easy to pick it up out there.