I signed up for International Citizen Service (ICS) as a recent university graduate looking to do something different, travel abroad, meet new people and contribute to a community in need of a helping hand. I am happy to say that I achieved all of the above during my 10 weeks in Malawi, but my ICS story in Mzuzu, Malawi is so much more than that.
A key part of ICS was the host home where we stayed with our Malawian counterparts for the duration of our placement. My host family was warm and welcoming from the start, with the father’s opening line being: ‘Be free, this is your home now’. Despite the fantastic welcome and wonderful family, settling in was hard, as learning another family’s way of life and getting to know the different personalities, all while adapting to living in a developing country, was pretty stressful! The food was one of the biggest challenges – eating with my hands is something I had never done before and my first attempt at eating nsima (one of Malawi’s staple foods) was what can only be described as pitiful! Thankfully, I came on leaps and bounds in the food department, sampling many a weird and wonderful dish.
For my charity placement, I was allocated to Added Power And Understanding Sex Education, an organisation that goes into schools to teach on the important topics of healthy sexual relationships, STIs and resisting pressure to have sex. Work started off with lesson rehearsals every day, but thankfully after a couple of weeks, we went into schools and delivered the sessions which was a lot of fun as the students interacted enthusiastically with the ICS volunteers and the other APAUSE peers. Work had its issues, as overall it was quite slow-moving, with some organisational miscommunications and clashes in work approaches and ethics amongst the team. These were definitely things I expected to face when working with people from different cultures, but tackling them in the flesh was something that took a lot of time and effort. Willingness to overcome these concerns and a common goal was vital in resolving such problems and overall, we collaborated effectively enough to run some really enjoyable and worthwhile classes.
The trip had incredible highs, like our mid phase review at the stunning Nkhata Bay, a barbeque at a mansion in the hills and a student in one of my favourite classes asking to be my pen pal. There have also been lows like feeling as if there isn’t enough to do, missing home and the shock of adjusting to life in a new country thousands of miles from anything or anyone familiar.
But through it all my team were there. We started as a group of strangers embarking on a crazy adventure together and ten weeks later, they were my second family. We saw each other at our best and worst and the friendships we made are still very strong today. To see genuine, hilarious and kind hearted every single day was truly a privilege.
There are many things I found difficult about volunteering abroad, but with them came some the greatest people and experiences. My advice to anyone thinking of volunteering, whether it would be abroad, in your local community, for a month or for a day, would be to stop thinking about it and start doing it. My ICS placement in Malawi (with Lattitude Global Volunteering) was hard at times, but it’s the most incredible and rewarding thing I have ever done. Returning home to London was enormously bittersweet as the Warm Heart of Africa, as Malawi is known, had truly captured mine.