Riding the Volunteer Rollercoaster!

Where to begin…… My assignment has changed scope and direction at least four times over the last two months, for various reasons including lack of budget at VSO Malawi, as well as changes in the global VSO approach to Monitoring and Evaluation. Slightly frustrating at times, but it definitely has highlighted to me the continued need for patience and flexibility, as well as the ability to respond quickly to changes that are out of my control! Nothing stays the same for very long….. August also saw the arrival of the new interim VSO Malawi Country Director who will be here until the end of November.

However, the dust finally seems to be settling and I have found a way forward! Whilst researching all the numerous avenues my project could take, it became noticeable that there is currently no central system in place for processing or organising volunteer reports (these are required for reporting to donors to ensure that future funding can be secured for VSO). In addition, no feedback is provided to volunteers regarding their reports if/when they are submitted. Therefore, my focus has shifted to trying to build relationships between the Program Office and volunteers in an attempt to encourage a change in culture with regards to reporting and communication; as the need for reporting will be greater as VSO gradually progresses the current Country Strategic Plan. In addition to workshops and discussion groups, I am planning to work with the office to set up an Intranet site for VSO Malawi, which will be accessible to both volunteers and the program office staff as a central point for accessing reports/information/templates and all non-confidential information relevant to both staff and volunteers. I will also be working with VSO London to try and develop a plan that can enable my original assignment to be carried out at a later date.

Last week was the second week of In Country Training for us June arrivals, where we were able to reflect and share our experiences of the first 8 weeks in country; as well as gain a greater understanding of the VSO Malawi program areas. We were lucky to be able to go on field visits and see first hand the areas VSO are involved in here.

The first trip was to a government school, which was interesting to visit, but sad to hear about all the challenges that they face and the lack of resources that they need to work with – at least 1000 students with no desks or chairs, or any security, so any supplies that they do acquire are often stolen by passers by. However, the headmistress was still optimistic in her approach in spite of all the challenges they face, and the drop out rate of children has reduced over the last few years. They also had these wise words on their office wall to encourage the staff!

We also visited the Lighthouse, a HIV/AIDs centre in Lilongwe. The most organised and impeccably operated institution I’ve come across in Malawi so far! This was truly an inspirational visit. I was able to see first hand how the move taken by GSK and other pharmaceutical companies to make Anti-Retroviral Therapies available in Africa has increased the quality of life of people suffering with HIV. In addition, knowing that treatment is now available has encouraged more people to be tested for HIV/AIDS, and seek treatment at centres such as the Lighthouse, which are located throughout Malawi.



As part of the VSO Secure Livelihoods program, we also visited a farm that supplies milk to Lilongwe supermarkets, and heard the success stories from farmers about how having one cow to provide milk enabled one of the ladies to put all three of her children through school – very different to the UK! This Milk Bulking Group is sponsored by US AID and was visited by Hilary Clinton earlier this month.



To finish off the week, we visited Mua Mission – a site of cultural heritage for Malawi, where we were able to hear more about the history and culture of Malawi – it definitely helped to better understand the snippets of information that we have picked up over the last 8 weeks. Almost conveniently, this led to a weekend at Senga Bay, along Lake Malawi…..!

The trading part of Senga Bay

The view from the sand

I have been lucky enough to visit many places at the weekends, and climb a couple of mountains – Mount Mulanje in the south and Dedza mountain, just an hour outside of Lilongwe. Both with spectacular views!

The view from the top of Mount Mulanje

The view from Dedza mountain

As a result, I have now mastered all modes of public transport in Malawi – the bus, the minibus, the bicycle taxi and the matola (standing/sitting in the back of a pick up truck!) and only managed to get lost twice!

I am also now the newest member of the VSO Volleyball team!  Needless to say, there is plenty of room for improvement seeing as I’ve never played before, but was definitely good fun – we nearly even won! 🙂

Back to work….. Next week I begin the first of my field trips to carry out monitoring visits and see how work carried out by volunteers in the communities, feeds back into the current volunteer reporting structure; as well as how it can be used more effectively for both staff and volunteers going forward. I’m looking forward to starting….. Watch this space!