Moments from Malawi: Reflections from student volunteers

Featuring Shannon Rudy, MSW ’18

Malawi Children’s Mission (MCM) Partnership
May-June 2017

Shannon Rudy, Syracuse, MSW 2018

“They have taught me more than I ever feel I could begin to teach them about the human connection and what it means to be a good person in the face of adversity.  I cannot wait to learn more!”

Part 1:  Elation, anxiety and what to pack 

Yesterday, I stood at the foot of my bed for what seemed like forever, staring at the open luggage with my personal belongings neatly packed away. I went through my list about a dozen times, making absolutely sure that I had everything I could need. Frustrated, I dumped the luggage and repacked everything again. How can I possibly be ready for this kind of opportunity?

It’s hard to coherently put my feelings about studying abroad in Malawi into a blog. I’m elated, nervous, anxious, while at the same time I’m not really feeling anything at all because it hasn’t really sunk in yet. I don’t think it will until I’m on that 14-hour flight across the Atlantic. On another note, I got sick this week, so I haven’t exactly had the chance to get too excited about anything. I hope this throat thing goes away by the time I get on the plane.

All these worries and trivial things to get anxious about make me laugh as I type this. I’m going to Africa! My worries about what clothes I’ve packed and what snacks I’ll bring or what I’ll do on the plane will be null and void. It doesn’t matter there. What matters is the work that will be put into empowering the lives of teachers, grandparents and the kiddos in Malawi. I’m so excited to meet them all, and I’m hoping they’ll like me.

Life will be so different for the next three weeks. I keep forging scenarios in my head of what it might be like, feel like, taste like, but I know there’s no possible way to know. This unknown is what makes me most nervous. Will I succeed in what I’m trying to do? Will the people benefit from our work? Will it last on both them and myself? How can I carry this experience with me for the rest of my life? How will I change? These are just a few of the hundreds of questions bouncing around my head, and I hope to answer a fraction of them by the time the wheels drop back onto the U.S pavement.

This will change my life forever, and I am so ready.

Part 2:  A case of the cankles, the beauty of Africa and “oh my gosh, the kids!”

I have been in Blantyre, Malawi for a week already, and there is so much to reflect on that I hardly know where to start and how to finish. Being in Africa has surpassed all expectations and has quieted the initial anxieties I felt before the journey here. The flight itself was excruciatingly long, but the swollen ankles and tired crankiness of myself and my cohort made the arrival worth it.

The drive to our lodgings gave me my first look at Africa, and how beautiful and vast it is. The mountains in the distance and little shops on the side of the streets welcomed me temporarily home as people waved back at me and my eagerness. If random strangers waved at locals in the States, the general feelings would be confusion, disinterest or probably annoyance. Every person I smiled or waved at here greeted me with a genuine smile and wave in return. I was honestly surprised!

We were all welcomed by the exceedingly friendly staff at Annie’s Lodge, with Ms. Pauline quickly trying to teach us Chichewa. “Wawa!”, “Mulibwanje?”, “Dzinalakondani?”. Hello! How are you? What’s your name? She is still a VERY patient teacher. We were brought to our rooms, completed with mosquito nets over the beds to protect from the bugs and mosquitoes.

The next day we met our drivers, who have continued to be incredibly patient, protective and wonderful to us  slightly-boisterous Americans. Charles, Japhet and Peter have become part of our little family, and their knowledge of Blantyre and the culture has helped deepen our own understanding and learning experience. They never seem to tire of all our questions!

The first few days in Malawi were so emotionally demanding and overwhelming. The first ride to MCM was physically rough and none of us were prepared for the experience. I wasn’t prepared for many things, especially the way the staff and students at MCM made me feel.

Phoebe (pictured below) was the first to meet us, and I think she looked as nervous as I felt, only probably worse considering there were 20 pairs of eager eyes boring into her! Phoebe must be the most gracious, kind woman I’ve ever met. The love for her work, community, and kids at MCM clearly shows, and I can only hope to retain a fraction of that passion for my own pursuits in life.

Prof Youjung Lee and Phoebe Kufeyani, MCM Social Work Director

Phoebe Kufeyani, MCM Social Work Director (right), shown here with Prof Youjung Lee (left)

After touring the facilities, we got to walk in on the classrooms and get our first glimpse of the students and teachers. The rooms, while small, were inviting and emanated a positive learning environment. The teachers were very welcoming as well and were excited to have us and introduce us to the kids.

Oh my goodness, the kids! I was not prepared at all for how instantly loving, trusting and excited they all were to meet us! They made posters and songs in welcome and blessings, yet I was the one who truly felt blessed. I was very surprised that small clusters of kids seemed to “choose” each of us, and the same groups have stuck with me ever since! They held my hand, took an abundance of pictures and videos with me, attempted to teach me Chichewa, and played any and every game they could with me.

I never felt so important to a person before, and I was so humbled and happy to meet them and learn from them. However, it was also very exhausting. They are definitely an energetic bunch! The physical exhaustion was closely aligned with mental and emotional exhaustion as well, partly from the jet lag and partially from the mere experience of it all.

The first couple days were village visits, and seeing where the kids lived was kind of bittersweet to me. On one hand, seeing the poverty and struggles of daily survival with their families and community broke my heart, I felt anguish for them. Yet interacting with them at the school and seeing how much love and kindness they have for others completely floored me. They have taught me more than I ever feel I could begin to teach them about the human connection and what it means to be a good person in the face of adversity. I cannot wait to learn more!

Part 3: Sex, beauty and the life-changing impact of kindness

Working with the Young Women’s Initiative, I realized that I had begun the work under the impression that young women in Malawi would be so much more culturally different than young women in the U.S. However, I found this to be untrue as I got to know the girls more. While some topics about womanhood and sexual education are considered taboo in this culture, I understand the reasoning behind that and the significance it holds on the girls attending MCM. For example, since MCM is a faith-based organization, abstinence is the primary focus in regard to sex education.

I struggled with this, especially since it is my personal belief that safe sex and preventive measures against pregnancy and STIs are crucial to young women’s education. Therefore, the service learning group working with the initiative could not teach these preventive tactics or discuss them in depth.

To promote safe sex in the culture emanates the idea of promiscuity. If a young woman attending MCM becomes pregnant, she is to leave the school. While I understand the reasoning behind this, I also find it frustrating to be unable to provide the knowledge and resources in possibly preventing that pregnancy to begin with.

Sex education and woman’s health are still relatively recent and controversial topics to openly have in the U.S. Even my own education consisted of scare tactics among the students, showing pictures of the worst diseases and encouraging abstinence. However, I feel that it is important and empowering to learn about our bodies and functions early in life, regardless of discomfort.

Despite inability to heavily focus on sex and health, I feel that the Young Women’s Initiative was a very inspiring group to work with. Chikondi was the group facilitator, and she was a wonderful asset to my own learning and experiences. She was very knowledgeable about what the girls were going through, and helped my group determine what topics we could and should not discuss.

One day we had a discussion on self-esteem and what that meant for all of us. While many of the girls said true beauty consisted of kindness, treating others well and being strong, they did not see themselves as beautiful based on physical features. This saddened me, but it sounded just like any girl their age ranging from 11-19.

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“I am smart, I am beautiful, I am worthy.”

We had the girls take out a piece of paper, write their name at the top, and write one thing they loved about themselves. They then had to pass it to the person next to them so they could write what they loved about that person.

This was repeated multiple times until the papers were filled with positivity and what the women liked about each other. This moment was so empowering and I could see the joy it brought the girls to see themselves as others did: beautiful.

We had the girls repeat a mantra to say to themselves every morning; “I am smart, I am beautiful, I am worthy.” Each repetition of the verse grew louder and more confident, and I could feel nothing but pride in the love they had for each other and the gaining love for themselves.

Part 4: Lessons in termination, non-assumption and cultural competency

A week ago today I said goodbye to the staff at MCM and the kids I worked with. It was such an emotionally hard and exhausting day, and I could  feel the sadness of my classmates as they also said their goodbyes. That day was hardest for me when the car was pulling away, and I could see one of the little girls I was closest with crying and trying to hide it.

It broke my heart because she didn’t shed a single tear the entire day or even act bothered by my pending departure. This in itself taught me not to make assumptions about what people may be feeling or how/when they express those feelings. It was a lesson I will carry with me throughout my career, and a moment I will never forget. I wish I could have comforted her.

Termination became a focused theme throughout our time in Malawi, but I don’t think it became a realistic process until we were already gone. Professionals discuss the importance of terminating with clients from the beginning of work and service, in order for it to be less painful for both workers and clients at the end.

For me personally, I realized that I had put termination on the back burner of my mind because I was so consumed with the present work I was trying to do. I was thrown into a whirlwind of emotions, practices, relationships, culture change and experiences that I didn’t have time in the short 3-week period to truly think about and prepare for what happens at the end. I was engrossed in my busy schedule, debriefing, then sleep.

How could I possibly prepare to say goodbye to the people I’d grown to love? It helped to write and receive letters from those I grew close to and I think it also helped that the students we served were used to groups coming and going throughout the year. However, this fact didn’t make it hurt any less for me.  I think these hard lessons about termination will help me later in my professional development.

This experience was so unique in regard to client/worker relationship building, because the relationships grew instantly and intensely in such short span of time. I think that is what made it difficult for me in the end to part ways. This will not always be the case throughout my career, but now I know how important it is to take that time aside to work through the end with my clients.

It’s difficult to concisely describe all the ways in which I know this service learning experience has helped shape my personal and professional development. All nine social work competencies were practiced while in Malawi, something I could not even say happened in my last field placement for a whole year.

18891640_1316728695043045_491104959336792479_oI learned the utmost importance of cultural competency and sensitivity to different belief systems, as well as beginning to understand where I stand as a white American woman with privilege and opportunity.

Hopefully, I will be able to practice in ways that fully encompass all that I have learned, and how to use my privilege in ways that empower instead of oppress.

This learning opportunity was incredible in so many ways, and I can only hope to share a fraction of the experiences, emotions and work with others to inspire people to do the same.

“We say goodbye, goodbye, but not forever.”

~Shannon

Watch for more Moments from Malawi, sharing the first-hand experiences of Binghamton University student volunteers in the Malawi Children’s Mission (MCM) Program.

 

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