Op ed Article, Volunteers

My journey into development work – by Philippa Mander

Philippa is Secretary of the Trust at Phunzira, a charity that has set up and supports a community education centre in rural northern Malawi, and that also supports two government health clinics in the area. She has worked for the charity since 2013.

My first steps out of the comfort of my family home were taken 16 years ago in May 2003, when I joined 20 other volunteers heading out to Kenya for just over 4 months on a GAP year project. I chose a teaching program, and was subsequently placed as a teacher in a secondary school in the village of Matunda, on the Western Rift Valley. As a naive 18-year-old, I had lapped up the endless adverts from large charitable organisations portraying continents of lower-income countries filled with citizens unable to pull themselves out of poverty, poor education and ill-health without the guiding and instructional hand of the wealthier nations. I was looking forward to ‘Making a Difference’.

It soon became clear to me, however, that I wasn’t needed. The school was in part funded by the Catholic Church and much better equipped and staffed than British newspapers and television has suggested schools in developing countries would or could be.  In fact, I became concerned that I was causing more harm than good on this volunteer placement, jeopardising these students’ one-and-only chance at a secondary school education, which their family were paying for.

If I’m honest with myself, this was the first time I really thought about the realities of volunteering – not for us as volunteers but for the receiving community. My fellow volunteers at the neighbouring school came to the same realisation as their teaching responsibilities were stripped back from core subjects to extra-curricular sessions and more ‘ancillary’ subjects like sport. The qualified teachers were, rightfully, concerned about the gap year students’ abilities to properly teach mainstream secondary education subjects, particularly as past volunteers had struggled.

So instead, to make good use of my time, I approached the government funded primary school in the village. This school was chronically underfunded, had only two teachers for four classes, and class sizes of close to 100 children enrolled with many children sharing single desks – and this although only 40-60 of the enrolled pupils would turn up to class each day. Pupil numbers were so high for a village school as primary education had just been made free and many people were attending school for the first time in their teens and twenties to make use of this new opportunity. At this school, I could supervise classes where work was assigned by qualified teachers, oversee break time so that the teachers could plan future lessons over a quick cup of chai and generally lend a hand to allow the teachers a bit of breathing space. And although my being there for one term did not provide a long-term, sustainable solution to the issues the school faced, it was a better use of my time for the benefit of the community than my being at the secondary school.

Philippa with friends in Kenya in 2003

Having said that, although I began to recognise that the project I was volunteering with could have done more to better assess the community’s real needs, there were many things they did well. Firstly, they provided sound guidance and support for young volunteers travelling alone, some of whom away from home for the first time. Secondly, some of our registration fee went towards funding a foundation that sponsored the education of a selection of pupils who would otherwise not have been able to afford secondary education. Thirdly, the project gave us the opportunity to explore new places and experience new things. And, while I recognise that I got more out of my time than the community I was placed in, I have made lifelong friends, which is really wonderful!

Above all else, this placement whetted my appetite for community development work and sparked a dream to spend my life on the African continent. Over the next seven years, during my studies, between various jobs or on holiday, I was lucky enough to continue my travels and volunteering in various countries in Africa (Sudan, Namibia, South Africa), Asia (Sri Lanka, Vietnam), North America and Europe. I used these times and experiences to further form my personal ideals around the ethics of volunteering and development work.

My next career move is what brought me to where I am today. In 2010, I stopped jumping from desk job to desk job and went back to university to fulfil a long-term dream of mine and retrain as a paediatric nurse. During my nursing training, I had the opportunity to undertake an international elective placement. Together with two course-mates and a teacher friend, we found a placement with Phunzira, which had begun operating in Ruarwe Village, northern Malawi, just over a year earlier. While on placement, I had numerous conversations with my now colleague Rosa, who had set the project up. It became clear that our ethics around volunteering and community development were very much aligned in terms of assessing a community’s needs, bringing volunteers to work alongside and ‘below’ existing local staff rather than in managerial roles, and empowering the community to be in control of their own development and supporting that rather than telling the community what they need to do and providing hand-outs. After a brilliant elective, I returned to the UK to complete my training and then revisited Malawi with Phunzira for two months to undertake a clinical audit in the health centre, before starting a permanent job in London within the NHS. During my second trip to Malawi, Rosa and I often spoke about the charity, it’s ethics, work and requirements. Soon after that, in 2013, I joined Phunzira as Health Coordinator. Later, I progressed to Trustee and then Secretary of the Trust in 2014. I now split my year between Malawi and the UK, working as an NHS nurse in the UK and overseeing the charity’s projects in Malawi.

My volunteer placements have allowed me to follow a career path I have dreamed of for a long time. They have allowed me to live a life I truly love. They have furthered my clinical skills and made me a better nurse for my patients.

Most importantly, they have opened my eyes to an industry that offers as much to the volunteers as it does to the communities those volunteers are placed in. You should acknowledge these opportunities, but also be aware of any associated pitfalls. Challenge your volunteer organisations around sustainability and community involvement. Ask yourself: Am I, or the community I am placed in, getting more out of this? There is no wrong answer. Both approaches are valid, but you should ask the question and be honest with yourself about what you hope to gain from your volunteering experience.

And, if you’re lucky, your volunteering experience might bring you new opportunities that you had never before considered. I will be forever grateful for all the experiences that I’ve had that were kick-started by my first trip to Kenya in 2003.

Image of mother and daughter taken in Ruarwe village during Philippa’s first trip there in late 2011.
Community, Education, Malawi, Op ed Article

Nyumba Ya Masambiro – From Concept to Handover – by Philippa Mander

Philippa is Secretary of the Trust at Phunzira, a charity that has set up and supports a community education centre in rural northern Malawi, and that also supports two government health clinics in the area. She has worked for the charity since 2013. Nyumba ya Masambiro is this community education centre. Nyumba ya Masambiro means “House of Learning” or “House of Education” in Chitumbuka, the local language.

In 2007 Rosa Nissim left the UK to teach mathematics for one academic year at a private school in the town of Nkhata Bay, Northern Malawi. At the end of her volunteering placement she travelled further north, by boat, to the remote village of Ruarwe. Ruarwe does not have access to utilities such as electricity and running water, nor conveniences such as a market, supermarkets or banks, and there are no roads leading to the village. Access is only by boat along the shore of Lake Malawi and on foot via the small paths through the hills along the lakeshore. There is limited telephone reception, only available from the top of a steep hill on the outskirts of the village where a line of sight is made to the telephone masts in Usisya, 20km south of the village. In this remote community, an eco hostel (Zulunkhuni River Lodge) is a quiet sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of Nkhata Bay life.

The community in Ruarwe survives from fishing and subsistence farming, with minimal outside support for community development. During her stay in the village, Rosa was introduced to the Village Headman at the time, Palombe Mjeremani. Now deceased and having passed his role to his son Robson, Palombe chatted with Rosa about her teaching experience in Nkhata Bay. Palombe believed that access to knowledge and education was key to both community development and residents’ ability to improve their prospects. They discussed ways to provide further educational opportunities to the impoverished community and Palombe asked if Rosa would be willing to set up an education centre to provide support to school students as well as opportunities for other community members beyond school age. He offered a plot of land just outside the village, opposite the primary school, for such a purpose and at the end of 2008 after completing her two month stay in Ruarwe village, Rosa returned to the UK to look into this proposal.

In 2009, Rosa spent the year in the UK. She set up the charity Phunzira, meaning ‘education’ in Chichewa, the national language of Malawi, and set about fundraising. She then returned to Ruarwe in 2010 to start building. Using a rammed earth style of building and employing local staff to build, six buildings were constructed. Having gone through some changes in purpose over the last seven years, these buildings now house the following: a youth centre; a library; a computer room; an IGA room; an office; and a store room. Solar power was first installed 2011 and is now complemented by a pico-hydro turbine, installed in 2013. The rammed earth style of building was chosen as it uses resources widely available in the surrounding environment such as mud, stones and sand. As a result, costs were kept to a minimum for items such as cement etc, large scale maintenance is only needed infrequently and, additionally, the rooms are cooler in the hot season and warmer in the cool season.

Phunzira was very fortunate to receive donations of books primarily from two London-based secondary schools, allowing the library to benefit from a wide range of novels, reference texts, encyclopaedias and curriculum textbooks. We also received donations of paints, pens, paper, toys, and more for youth activities.

Nyumba ya Masambiro is now able to offer the following services to the catchment community: a junior youth club three times a week focussing on education, creativity and sports; access to a well stocked library with a borrowing system in place as well as access to newspapers which can be read on site; tutorials run in academic subjects such as maths, English and science; and IT lessons. All these services are offered completely free of charge. In addition to these services Nyumba ya Masambiro also runs a nursery school during term time for preschool children for a nominal charge. Nursery students receive teaching in basic maths and English and receive a sweetened maize porridge breakfast daily.

As well as these ongoing projects, Nyumba ya Masambiro has been involved in supporting larger-scale, one-off projects within the catchment area, including: construction of two science laboratories at the local secondary schools; the building and donation of an ambulance boat to the government for the transfer of critically ill patients from Ruarwe and Khondowe clinics; the training of a local community member as a Medical Assistant (equivalent to a doctor) for Ruarwe clinic; and the maintenance of the school office block at a primary school.

In order to fund the free of charge, ongoing community services, Nyumba ya Masambiro runs some micro businesses (IGA’s). These include: a solar charged battery box rental scheme; phone charging from the solar and pico-hydro systems on site; the provision of typing, printing, scanning and photocopying facilities (particularly to local schools during exam season); the sale of eggs; the sale of some garden produce such as sugar cane, bananas and papayas; and a profit-sharing scheme with a local community member to run football screenings using a TV satellite system. The aim is for NYM to become fully financially self-sustainable and no longer be reliant on Phunzira’s financial support; the staff is making great inroads in achieving this aim.

Nyumba ya Masambiro is staffed exclusively by local Malawians who have been trained by Rosa and a variety of volunteers over the years. The staff consists of four members of Management: a project manager; a bursar (who is also the librarian); a project coordinator; and a business coordinator. There are four additional members of staff: a project/business assistant, a cook/cleaner and two night watchmen. Nyumba ya Masambiro does not necessarily expect staff to be fully qualified before they start their job; training sessions on group cohesion and personal development are part of the ethos of the centre. This gives local community members the opportunity to not only earn a salary but also to develop skills as an individual.

When Nyumba ya Masambiro was founded it was fully reliant on Phunzira for funding for projects, maintenance of the educational centre and staff salaries. It was the intention from the very beginning that the centre would become financially self-sustainable and that the community would take over the running of the centre, through the staff, local trustees and an executive committee, in order to take ownership of their own development projects. As a result, all facets of management have been slowly handed over to the staff over the years as they have been trained up. In April 2016, a huge and colourful ceremony was held alongside the Annual General Meeting at which the centre was officially handed over to the local community. All legal ties between Phunzira and Nyumba ya Masambiro were separated and since this time the day-to-day running of the education centre has been in the hands of the staff alone, with occasional assistance offered by Phunzira staff as required.

It has been wonderful to witness the personal development of the individual staff members, the unity of the staff as a team, and the support from community members for the centre as a whole. While financial sustainability has not yet been achieved in full for salaries, we remain hopeful that this will be accomplished in the near future. If you are interested in supporting Phunzira financially, please visit Donate or if you are interested in volunteering for any of the ongoing projects please find further information on our Volunteers Pages.