Physiotherapist Melissa’s Volunteer Story

Recent volunteer physiotherapist Melissa Loubser has written a story about her time at Mwaya which is reproduced below. Stories written by other previous RIPPLE Africa volunteers can be found on the Volunteers’ Stories webpage.

The world, and especially Malawi, is full of NGO’s and charities – some get it right and others not. Some even end up doing more harm than good. In general I don’t really like the word ‘charity’ as it has this connotation of giving ‘things’ or handing out money – but the focus should rather be a sustainable change that aims to eliminate the need for continued ‘charity’ – empowering communities rather than making communities complacent/passive. I also believe that the best way to achieve lasting effects/changes, is for non-governmental organisations to actually involve the government. This is often challenging, but if you can get a local government to be on board with a plan for change, it is more likely to be sustainable.

As an NGO – as a charity – RIPPLE Africa sets itself outside of the connotations associated with both descriptions. Their philosophy is to provide a hand UP and not a hand OUT, and this principle governs all their decisions and programs. It is not the easiest approach – it requires careful thought and planning, an in depth understanding of the local systems and culture, as well as a lot of patience and perseverance.

During my three months of volunteering, I could see how much trust and respect RIPPLE Africa has gained from the local community – because they invest time and effort to engage with local chiefs, community members and district government departments to ensure every project is sustainable and benefits the local community. RIPPLE now has 145 Malawian staff and 3550 local volunteers working on their projects – so the role of foreign volunteers is never to replace a local, but rather to give input and teach new skills for them to continue in a more efficient way.

My experience at Mwaya…

In February 2017 RIPPLE Africa employed a local lady, Matilda Mwale, as the coordinator for the disabilities and rehabilitation project. Matilda is trained in special needs education and is very passionate about children with disabilities and/or learning difficulties. Since Matilda has minimal experience with physical rehabilitation and medical history taking, my role during the three months was mainly to teach her some new skills and to assist her in implementing a proper filing system to keep track of all the clients.

I would get on my bike each morning and cycle to meet Matilda at various different meeting points. From there we would walk (at Malawian pace 😉 for anything from 10 minutes to an hour to visit clients at their homes. The purpose of these visits were to assess a child’s living situation, gather information regarding their condition, discuss goals with the parents and to educate the main guardian on implementing home exercises.

After two or three home visits, Matilda and I would share some lunch and have a good laugh about something cute a child did, or shake our heads at the neglect and mismanagement of others. We would sit and brain storm and sometimes find solutions and plan interventions, and other times we would accept defeat being faced with a problem far greater than what we are capable of changing. Sometimes we would have a short nap in the sun to clear our minds before the first children arrived for the afternoon group session. The groups were open to any new or existing clients and would usually involve painting or ball games to entertain the children and help them interact, while Matilda and I would divide our time to give each child some individual attention. These groups were often chaotic, but I somehow liked it that way. After finishing the group, I would get on my bike and make my way back to Mwaya beach to relax with the other volunteers.

Together, Matilda and I also arranged meetings with another charity and the government organisation responsible for people with disabilities. The aim of the meetings were to try and achieve a more collaborative approach to ensure we do everything we can to help each child to improve and become more functional. I also assisted her in designing referral forms, client agreement sheets and templates to record client information effectively and efficiently. Although paperwork is not everyone’s favourite thing, the filing system was essential to ensure continuity of care and progress monitoring for each client.

Matilda became my best friend during my stay in Malawi. Although I was there to train and educate her, I think I learnt more from her through her incredible strength and loving, patient approach to each and every client while still juggling being a wife and mother. She would go far beyond just doing her job and would spend time educating families on various other aspects to empower and encourage them.

When I left Malawi, it was so good to know that I was not needed anymore – that the children were in the good hands of Matilda and that my leaving would not bring everything to a stop. I simply gave some ideas and tried to give Matilda tools to make her job easier and I believe although the changes were small, it mattered.

Melissa Loubser – May – July 2017

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