The inside scoop & the local poop: I came to volunteer in Malawi for a few weeks seeking an experience that would let me immerse myself in a local area and local culture, get to know more deeply a particular place and people, and give back to the local community at the same time.
Despite all my best research and months of planning in advance, there are just some things you can only learn once your boots and backpacks are on the ground, in country.
Beauty: Here at Butterfly Space in Nkhata Bay (pronounced “Kata Bay” as the “n” is silent), I have both the peaceful beauty of Lake Malawi and the frenetic charm of the local town and its markets, stalls, food vendors, fisherman, and local shops. I was afraid things might be overly touristic here. But really I feel like I have just plopped down in an active authentic fishing village that just happens to have a few hostels on the lake front. Other than a small handful of souvenir stalls at the market, you don’t feel like you are in an overly touristic area.
Backpackers: Butterfly Space is a backpackers “lodge” as well as a volunteer community. So there are lots of travelers from all over the world passing through. Lots of people to talk with. Swap travel stories with. Drink a beer or Malawi gin with. There are lots of volunteers from other spots in Malawi who come here for vacation. And lots of intrepid backpackers making there way around Africa who heard about the beauty and beaches of Lake Malawi and made their way here.
Baggage: I paid an upgraded volunteer fee to have my own room (rather than crash in the volunteer dorm). So I can fully unpack and not live out of my increasingly heavy, African craft-filled bag. And because I’m here for two weeks, I don’t need to constantly be unpacking and repacking – which gets really exhausting to do too regularly.
Celebrity status: as I’ve been here about 6 days now, many of the local villagers and shopkeepers know me/recognize me. So every time I walk downhill into town or uphill back to the lodge, I have people calling out to me, greeting me, etc. I wish I could say I remember everyone’s name, but they all seem to know mine, remember I am American, that I am volunteering for two weeks, and want to know how I am doing and what I have done that day. I am never short for conversation.
Organization, or lack thereof: The volunteer program is a bit disorganized. While at Home For AIDS Orphans in Zambia we were fully immersed in the volunteer program and living in the camp with only other volunteers, here most people at Butterfly are not in fact volunteers. Just a small handful of us are. And there isn’t really a set volunteer plan or schedule, so we sort of cobble it together each day.
That said, it’s been rewarding. We’ve organized school supplies. Sorted duffels and duffels of donated school uniforms that two schools in the UK send each year. We’ve delivered baby baskets to a local maternity ward. Taught at a local preschool. That said, I’m just not sure what I’ll be doing the next day or the next day.
I told the one other volunteer here with me – an 18 yr old girl from England – that I was going to be assertive on Monday and try to set a plan. I’m only here for another week. But she has a month ahead and I want to make sure that before I push on, she has a bit more structure so she can get the most out of her experience here. Malawi, meet pushy American east coast Jewish woman….
Imbibing: The main activity after volunteering is beers or Malawi gin on the sundeck. And the sun sets around 6pm, which makes for a long night of drinking and socializing. While I had hoped I might lose weight on this trip, I might instead come home with a beer belly.
Steps: Everything here is uphill or downhill. My cabin is at the top of a long flight of stone steps. The lake and sundeck are at the bottom. The restaurant, in the middle. These stone steps are all irregularly shaped, and at night, can be really downright treacherous. I may have buns of steel after my two week stay here, but for now, my poor knees are paying the price.
THE COMPOST TOILETS
Butterfly Space is super eco friendly. They sponsor local permaculture/sustainable agriculture programs. They are building a program to encourage schools to have gardens and teach responsible farming. They recycle. They take eco -friendly to a whole new level: compost toilets.
It is like an outhouse. You pee. Or poo. Then scoop ash (to absorb) and pieces of dried plant (for smell…which helps only a little bit).
At least there is a proper toilet seat and the compostable toilet paper they provide is both plentiful and high quality. There is a permaculture garden onsite at Butterfly Space, so I assume they put the compost to good use.
Eco friendly. Good for the world. But still kinda, ugh, unpleasant.