Inspiring Malawian youth: The story of UK’s Progressio Volunteers

Malawian youth have, over the years, been branded as non-starters as far as propelling the country towards socio-economic greatness is concerned. Could there be a way out? In this article Nyasa Times’ Samuel Malasa Banda, tells the story of British-based Progressio Volunteers which has unceasingly inspired Malawian young people to be part of the development they want to see.

It could be as a result of scanty resources or simply lack of will; but, the very truth of the matter is: Malawian youth scarcely offer their services for charity. Youths in the country charge even for simply shoving out a strayed car out of the mud. Without cash, things won’t just work out for you – at least if you are to seek services from Malawian young men and girls.

But lately, there has been vicissitude in the tendency, largely because of various external forces especially religious teachings. The do unto others as you would want them do unto you religious adage has, since the 19th century, brought about an aura of freshness as far as volunteer services are concerned.

Chanzi CBO and team Umodzi.
Chanzi CBO and team Umodzi.

Aside the religious factors, there also have been a number of international youth organisations coming and out of the country which have repeatedly preached the gospel of the beauty of volunteerism.

One of such organisations is Progressio Volunteers, a group of young people dedicated to the noble duty of serving voluntarily in Malawi under the banner of the International Citizen Service (ICS) – and funded by the British Department of International Development.

The volunteers who are United Kingdom citizens usually between the ages of 18 and 30 serve in Malawi for a period of 10 weeks before they return to their home country.

The International Citizen Service is structured in a way that the UK volunteers are placed with local development organisations that help in teaching the young people to understand development challenges in Malawi and how they can work together towards alleviating them. The international volunteers learning is also enhanced by recruitment of local volunteers who work hand in hand with their UK counterparts.

The most recent group was in the group from 1st April to 10th June, 2014 and shared their experiences on how they benefited throughout their stay.

Jill Corby 30, a University of Leeds graduate in International Development and Politics said the opportunity to work in Malawi has helped her to have a better understanding of development work in the country.

Jill, who was placed at the Wildlife Environment Society in Malawi (WESM) station in Mulanje district where they were working in partnership with the Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust (MMCT), hailed “the hardworking spirit displayed by young people in the country.”

She further said the ICS programme is designed in a way to change young people perceptive towards development and she feels their 8 weeks in Malawi has played a crucial part in fulfilling this objective.

Jill also emphasised on the importance of people driven development as a tool towards sustainable development.

“Good development comes from the people and it should be led by their needs and young people have to be included because they are the future,” she said.

Her Malawian counterpart, youthful Oscar Kawiya, noted that the presence of their fellow young people has had a positive impact on their community.

He cited establishment of a tea field by Nasambe Youth Group in order to empower them economically thereby decreasing the risk of the young people engaging in environment damaging trade like cutting trees for charcoal.

Similar achievements are also shared by a group which was stationed in Mzuzu City where they worked with Ungweru Youth Organisation – a grouping which works with young people towards helping them develop various skills and talents.

Nekisha De Costa, 26, who was leader of her team noted that Malawi is losing the battle against HIV/AIDS due to stigma and discrimination. She went on to say that many young people in the country are afraid to go for HIV testing because they fear discrimination.

The University of Bedfordshire Youth and Community Studies graduate pleaded with reproductive health service providers in the country to assure youths of confidentiality because failure to do this will maintain the current stand where young people shun HIV testing.

A member of the local volunteers’ team from Ungweru Youth Organisation, Abraham Munthali, pointed out that their team’s work has helped in raising awareness about HIV testing in Mzuzu.

He cited a short film titled ‘Ackim’ which was shot during their 8 weeks placement and dwells on the importance of going for testing. He articulated that the film will help in luring many young people into advocating for HIV/AIDS prevention in the country.

A look at the trend of HIV/AIDS impact in Malawi with a population of 52% females, women are suffering in silence due to the disease. The Coalition of Women Living with HIV/AIDS (COWLHA) in Nkhota-kota is an organisation which helps women with tips on positive living.

The volunteer team that partnered with COWLHA worked towards educating the women on their rights. “It is sad that many women who are HIV positive are afraid o join their fellows in support groups because they fear their husbands” said Memory Dzonzi one of the volunteers.

Memory explained that many men in the lakeshore district are into fishing business. So most of them indulge in unprotected sex with commercial sex workers who patrol the area and if they catch the virus they transmit it to their submissive wives who suffer the consequences of their spouse’s promiscuity.

According to members of the Nkhota-kota team, the sequence women mostly since their husbands deny them a chance to attend support group meetings. Many men live in denial so they do not want their spouses to show to the world that they are HIV positive. This leads to the family failing to access Anti- retroviral therapy.

“Our major achievement has been the ability to educate these vulnerable women on their right to receive medical treatment and the freedom to associate with their friends. I feel our impact in the community has been felt,” said Caroline Vaan Jones.

How effective has the ICS programme been? Country Manager for Progressio Malawi Thomas Msiska highlights that the volunteers have been so instrumental in bringing new ideas to development issues. “We are proud of the contribution of the ICS volunteers to Malawi’s development. Since Progressio provides funds for implementation of activities set by the teams, their work has helped solve many problems in their areas of placement, so we are satisfied by the outcomes”, said Msiska.

Msiska also said that working together of local and foreign volunteers help in skills sharing. He said that since many of the foreign volunteers do not have the practical knowledge of field work, combining them with locals help them adapt to their work environment and they achieve th programme’s objectives.

Aside the achievements, Msiska points out that there are some challenges met by the volunteer teams from the UK.

“Many volunteers have expectations of what they want to do when they start working in Malawi, but there is a slight change because they are partnered with already established organisations who have their frameworks and this results in the volunteer’s anticipations not being met,” the Country Manager said.

The Progressio head added that the urge to see immediate change is another problem faced.

“Since the programme is designed to run for 8 weeks, many volunteers would like to see the impact of their work before they go back home. But there is a need to understand that development is a slow process which starts with changing people’s mindsets before they perform what they learn from the volunteers” reasoned Msiska.

As the foreign volunteers sacrifice their time to help in developing Malawi, there is a need for locals to take up other initiatives in order for Malawi to grow. As we celebrate our 50 years as an independent nation, it’s time we took a leading role in development programmes and not wait for some foreign hands to ignite the spirit of volunteerism in us. Let us volunteer our skills to the development of our ‘warm heart of Africa’ as the 35th president of the United States of America said, “ Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”.

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