http://www.villagebookbuilders.org

Village Book Builders

Volunteer Intern

August - October 2019 • Liwonde, Balaka District

What I liked

I actually stumbled across Village Book Builders by accident. I was taking a course called African Cultures at BYU-Idaho and a young couple, Mac and Brittany, came and spoke to us about an opportunity to travel with Village Book Builders to Malawi. Little did I know that this couple would later become my good friends and that they would be my trip coordinators. The expedition sounded incredible, but as a college student, I found it very expensive so I decided that I would only go on the trip if I could turn it into an internship for school credit. Long story short, I spoke with my school supervisor and Tyler Clark (the co-creator of VBB) and we made it possible to receive credit. And thank goodness. Traveling with Village Book Builders was such an inspiring and impactful experience. I have always considered myself to be a cultured person; I have traveled to South America and Europe, my major is international studies (and minor is economics), my family hosted a Ugandan refugee who became like my sister, my Grandmother is from South Africa, my husband is from Peru, and the list goes on. I felt well prepared and well educated for my trip but had never truly experienced another culture that was so different from mine until I went to Africa. Living something is so different than just reading or hearing about it. We traveled to a rural village named Kadzakalowa located in Malawi, a small, landlocked country in southeastern Africa. Our purpose, of course, was to build and promote a library. The library was built next to a school, and once the the library was left under the school’s supervision. When we arrived, the physical building for the library was already built, and so our job was to work with the villagers to finish the flooring, paint the walls, install the windows and the door, assemble a solar panel system, and arrange the desks, decorations and bookshelves. Our group flew with suitcases stuffed with books to stock the library; we ended up bringing about 1300 books. Aside from the preparation of the library, we also had a lot of interaction with the villagers. For many of them, it was hard to believe that they would have free access to books and computers. This area is very poor, and so although the official language of Malawi is English, only those people who can afford to send their children to school actually speak and understand English. This is why having the library will so greatly improve their lives and open them up to more opportunities. We traveled by foot in groups around the village of Kadzakalowa and the surrounding villages to spread the word about the library. A teacher from the school was with us and served as a translator between English and the local language of Chichewa. We told the villagers about everything the library has to offer and invited them to a celebration we were holding at the end of the week. This library is quite literally the most advanced library in the whole country of Malawi. Although it may not have many books (there are surely more to come), the computers are incredibly progressive, especially for that area. There is no electricity in the village. There are not even flushing toilets. However, we installed solar panels so that the library would have electricity. The computers do not have access to internet, but they are hooked up to Rosetta Stone (a language-learning program) and something else called a Rachel Server. The Rachel Server is a wireless database that consists of thousands of online books, articles, journals, magazines, and much more. It has offline access to hundreds of educational websites, including Wikipedia and Khan Academy. So, if the library doesn’t have a physical copy of a topic that a villager is curious about, they will be able to find more information on the Rachel Server. We also taught the children classes such as success, imagination, and storytelling. My partner Hannah and I, with the help of a translator when necessary, taught music classes. We sang with the young kids and taught them fun nursery songs. Sometimes the kids got a little out of hand, but it was fun all the same. We had planned on leading a Zumba class, but that kind of went downhill once our speaker died. Plus, to my surprise, they did not dance much with us, it kind of just turned into Hannah and I dancing and everyone else watching. I was talking with one of the girls afterwards, and she told me she liked dancing, but she didn’t want to spend her energy doing so. Which makes sense, Zumba is a workout, but I had never thought that they wouldn’t want to dance because they wouldn’t want to waste their energy. We ended up having the older girls teach us some of their traditional dances, which was way more interesting. We stood in a circle and clapped and sang and people would take turns dancing in the middle. They even made Hannah and I dance in the middle. It was so much fun. Our last day of music classes, Hannah and I taught the older girls how to play the recorder. I had brought just under 40 recorders to leave at the library. We tried to teach them “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and it was very funny. We would walk around and help them place their fingers to make the different notes. Hopefully, some of the girls were inspired and will continue to check the recorders out of the library and learn to play beautifully. Another class that I taught was a women’s health class. For this class, my partner Angela and I used a lesson plan from another non-profit organization called Days for Girls. We taught them what menstruation is and how the female reproductive system works. We also taught them about sex, what is true and not true about it, and how to keep track of your menstrual cycle to avoid unwanted pregnancy. These girls do not have access to protective methods, and it is also a common belief that they will not get pregnant when they have intercourse the first time. We explained that no matter when you have sex, there is always a possibility of pregnancy, and the best way to not get pregnant is to practice abstinence. At the end of the class, we handed out packets that contained underwear, reusable pads and soap. We taught them how to put on and take care of the pads. They were so grateful for the reusable pads. Previously, they would stay home (on other words, not go to school) while menstruating, and they had no way to prevent their clothes from staining. It was so wonderful to see these girls excited and happy about learning, there was so much laughing and cheering. Talking about intercourse and menstruation is such a taboo subject, and so they do not have a lot of knowledge about such things, it is mostly based around superstition and untrue assumptions. The last day we spent in the village was so memorable. We had a huge celebration with everyone from the village. I am pretty sure there were at least 200 people there. The school headmaster spoke, the village chief spoke, our VBB coordinators spoke, and there were a couple of skits put on by the children where they exclaimed their excitement about the library. Everyone seemed so excited and passionate about protecting the library. At the end of the celebration, there was a large dance party. I had so much fun dancing with the villagers. Every day as we drove out of the village, the children would chase our van and wave goodbye. Tears filled my eyes as we said our final goodbyes on the last day. Will still had a couple days left on our trip. We still did fun and amazing things, like go on a safari and go snorkeling in lake Malawi, but nothing compares with the relationships and experiences we had in the village. There were a lot of hiccups throughout the trip, for example, we lost our luggage (and found it), we got stopped by police officers who wanted a bribe, and we did not have running water in our hotel because it was out for the entire city. There were certainly times that were hard, frustrating, and where I missed home. But the benefits far outweighed the struggles. I learned so much about life and how lucky I am to have what I do. I will never again take a hot shower for granted! Part of what made this experience so wonderful was the amazing coordinators and the close friends that I made. I know that I will be connected to these people for the rest of my life. This trip was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I am so grateful to VBB for this incredible adventure. Malawi and its people will always have a warm place in my heart.

What I wish was different

To improve the program, I think I would try to simplify it. I often felt like we were too ambitious, and we didn't have enough time to finish all of our ideas. We could have planned better, or we should have had more time in the country preparing the library. As an office intern, after the volunteer trip, I wish that I had more structure. I enjoyed doing writing and research, however, sometimes I wish that I had a specific assignment with a clear outcome. I know that I was the first intern of my type, so I think that for future interns they will have clearer requirements.

Advice

If someone chooses to volunteer in a country, learn about the culture! Research the country and culture you are visiting. Knowing language basics goes a long way. You will also be faced with surprising customs, and being prepared ahead of time helps ease the element of unfamiliarity. Also, just be prepared to be creative. To work with Village Book Builders, you should be open-minded, and whether you will be a volunteer or an intern, you should bring many ideas to the table.
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