My Summer with SVA in Malawi

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The group of volunteers posing with the Umunthu workers and the director, David Odali (bottom row, second from right)

The group of volunteers posing with the Umunthu workers and the director, David Odali (bottom row, second from right)

My experience of going abroad this year was an ambitious one of which, before departing, I was very unsure, but upon arriving back I wish could have been even longer. I went to Malawi with 9 others who study at Scottish universities for 7 weeks at the beginning of June to undertake a project with SVA (Student Volunteers Abroad). We worked in Bangwe, near Blantyre, in the south of Malawi. The overall aim is part of a much longer term project to empower youths and the very challenging task of alleviating poverty in the area, but our goals for the 7 weeks were based over the different organisations we worked with. Firstly, we were based at Umunthu foundation, an HIV testing clinic, and we aided their post-test club of counselling people after they had been tested positive or negative for HIV. Their building was also funded by money we and other groups in years before us had fundraised. The group worked with the Forum for the Development of Youths with Disabilities, which provided support to youths who not only faced challenges relating to their mental and physical disabilities but stereotyping and discrimination due to a lack of education: for example many albinos in rural areas of Malawi are killed as it is thought that their bones can cure certain illnesses. The last project our fundraising money went towards was a youth association called ECOYA (Environmentally Concerned Youth Association) in which I was involved in most, visiting it every day along with two others to help classes and oversee where the money was going. It held a 5-day psychosocial counselling course to train youths about issues such as alcohol and substance abuse and gender-based violence and it was rewarding to witness the contribution they could make to Bangwe Police Station’s Victim Support Unit after their training. They also held computer classes which could be invaluable to their chances of getting a good job and I was very pleased one of our group decided to donate her laptop to ECOYA as they only had one computer which made teaching a class of 30 very difficult indeed.
On top of these funded projects, we were also able to help at schools and orphanages. I worked at BAHASI (Bangwe HIV/AIDS Self-Help Initiative) Orphan Care Centre where I mainly attempted to help fundraise. White people such as me are known in Malawi as “azungu”, and the presence of a white person on television or radio endorsing a fundraising project or going to a potential donor can make a big difference. As a result, many of the group found themselves on MBC (Malawian Broadcasting Corporation) several times, including on live television.
On a personal level, it was very humbling and, occasionally, distressing, to witness the poverty that exists in Malawi. While I have seen the extreme poverty that exists in parts of Scotland, it was another thing to have child orphan after child orphan kneel down in front of you begging for change in Blantyre city centre. It was also difficult at times to explain to Malawian that while we come from a developed country in Scotland, we ourselves are not wealthy enough to fund someone’s university education, as one Malawian wanted us to do.
Overall, I feel I have had a very rewarding and life-changing experience and I am very grateful to the Principal’s Go Abroad Fund for providing assistance for me to undertake this trip. Hopefully the team of volunteers was able to improve the situation in the Blantyre area a little as part of the long term vision of sustainable development that SVA holds. I have kept in contact with many people I have met in Bangwe and maybe one day I can return there to see them again, hopefully with Malawi in a better state of economic and social development.

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