One of the benefits of traveling alone without a set plan is the ability to change course as the wind blows and take advantage of opportunities as they arise.
That already happened my very first days in Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi into which I arrived from Johannesburg.
An Extra Day in Lilongwe
I was planning to spend a day there, and then push on up north to my volunteer program at Butterfly Space. But I befriended my dorm mate who planned to spend the next day in Lilongwe going to the chitenge (fabric) market and getting clothing made (sounded good to me!). And, I met some fun young local Malawians who were hanging out at the backyard campfire of Mabuya Camp where I was staying, and they invited me to a restaurant opening party that their friend was throwing the following night. So my planned 1 day turned into 3.
From 1 Day to 2 in Muzuzu
I also had planned to spend just one night in the town of Muzuzu, 7 hours by bus north of Lilongwe and the junction point to get to Nkhata Bay, where I would be volunteering for two weeks. I knew I would be arriving into the bus depot at night and planned to sleep at the closest hostel to the bus station, and push on to Nkhata Bay in the morning.
But on my bus was Patricia, a Muzuzu-local who had been in Lilongwe visiting friends – the very same local friends who I had met. We had all hung around the campfire and had all gone to the same restaurant party together, and now we were on the same bus to Muzuzu. So rather than me crashing at a hostel, I stayed with Patricia. For two nights!
She took me all around Muzuzu, and as she sells clothes as the big outdoor central market, she knew all the ins and outs of the market and the sellers. We ate the local dish of nsima and chicken at her friend’s food stand. We walked on the outskirts and saw the local schools, the local coffee shop, she found me internet, etc. So two days later rather than one overnight later, I was in a share taxi ride to Butterfly Space in Nkhata Bay.
Volunteering at our own Pace at Butterfly Space
I had thought there would be more volunteers at Butterfly Space, and more of a set schedule for volunteering. But while the lodge was full of backpackers, there was only me and one other volunteer. So we set our own schedule with the Canadian head teacher of the school that Butterfly supports: Stepping Stones International Primary School. We sorted donated school supplies. We sorted donated uniforms. We organized and updated the library. We spent a day singing songs and playing games at a local nursery school. We assembled “baby baskets” and brought them to brand new mothers in the maternity ward of the local hospital.
It was productive. It was fun. But as the wind blows, something else came up…
Heading to the Hospital
Over a beer at the Butterfly Space bar, I chatted with another American (we are few and far between in these parts!), Stanley from Arkansas. He has been in and out of Malawi for several years working for different NGOs, and is currently overseeing logistics for Nkhoma Mission Hospital – a hospital that is 100+ years old, about 30 miles south of Lilongwe at the foothill of Nkhoma mountain.
While we were talking, I tried to google the hospital. The main site wouldn’t even load. The second site, for the hospital foundation, loaded…but clearly hadn’t been updated in a long time (the “latest news” posting was from 2016!).
I mentioned that when I’m not CrazyTraveler backpacking the world, I’m a communications consultant specializing in work for healthcare and nonprofits. I mentioned that website content updates is one of my fortes. I offered to help with the hospital site updates. And in the blink of an eye, my plans changed course.
Original plan: two full weeks of volunteering at Butterfly, followed by travels further north to explore the historic town of Livingstonia and to hike and enjoy the popular Mushroom Farm eco-lodge.
New plan: leave Butterfly after 11 days, head south back to Lilongwe, get myself further south to Nkhoma and spend the work week – Mon thru Fri – working with the IT team and hospital COO on plans for the website.
So I write this post from Hope Inn, next to Nkhoma Mission Hospital. I’m working on updating the Nkhoma Hospital Foundation website for a few hours each day, and spending a few hours each afternoon exploring the local village, and trying to line up a guide to hike me up the mountain behind us.
Finally, Playing to my Strengths
Mud hut building weeks ago in Zambia with Home for AIDs Orphans was physical and fun. But I sort of sucked at it. Sorting supplies and organizing for the school was productive and useful, but didn’t require much brain power. All were rewarding, but none played to my strengths. This last spontaneous, impromptu volunteering is right up my alley.
I get to do what I do best professionally – writing, updating, refreshing and reinvigorating content to make it more engaging – and I get to do it on the road, in an exotic off-the-beaten-track place, and for a hospital that impacts and improves the health and lives of the whole community.