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Today, Wednesday 15th October, is Mother’s Day in Malawi and it is a public holiday. We are relaxing at home after a couple of hectic weeks. There was a VSO health volunteers peer support meeting 200 km north of Blantyre from 30th September to 3rd October. We travelled there with Lizzy and Irene, two volunteers based in a remote nursing college in the far south of Malawi. On the way we overnighted in the dormitory at a safari camp and went on an early morning game drive; we thought we might see lots of elephants so a bit disappointing to see only a small family group. We stopped at a nursing college to pick up two life-sized plastic wombs to take to the meeting which was at a remote forest lodge on the side of a hill only accessible with a four wheel drive vehicle (we had to walk the last 1.5 km). There was no mains electricity – only one PowerPoint presentation at this conference. Good walks and wonderful views (see left) and it was great to meet up with other volunteers and learn about what they were doing at their placements. Sally spoke about her work with the mute child and this led to interesting discussions on aspects of Malawi culture.

Christmas Edition 2014

Voluntary Service Overseas in Malawi


Pam Dinneen’s eldest daughter Sally Attwood and husband Jim are in Malawi for a year with the Voluntary Service Overseas. Jim is an IT specialist with the Malawi Hospitals, and Sally is retired from a career in Social Services. This article gives an insight into their work with VSO in Malawi ….   

Jim’s work continues to be frustrating with equipment needed by the District Health Offices that was supposed to be distributed in June still not delivered. Thankfully there has been some progress recently. Sally has been enjoying working at the children’s home on Tuesday mornings and Thursday afternoons. On Wednesday she meets with a mother and her nine year old daughter. The girl went missing three years ago for three days and has not spoken since. Sally was asked by a lecturer at the College of Medicine to try to help this girl and her mother. She has made some progress but it is a complex case. On Friday afternoons Sally meets with a group of orphaned girls who are looked after by a nun; she has been asked to support them as they make the transition to adolescence.

One week-end in August we enjoyed visiting other VSOs at a Seventh Day Adventist mission hospital and nursing college in a tea growing area south east of Blantyre. Another week-end two Philippino VSOs came to stay with us and we took them to a small game park in a sugar growing area due south – lots of different kinds of antelope plus zebra and giraffes. One of the volunteers, Ara, really wanted to see a giraffe and was not disappointed. In mid-September we had the opportunity to join a group going to the scenic Majete Wildlife Reserve where we had good views of hippos in and out of the water and a close encounter with a small group of elephants. Yes, fair to say that Malawi is not a hardship posting.

The volunteers we had taken to the meeting had arranged to catch a college bus to their placement, a 3 hour journey from Blantyre, the last two hours on a rough road with lots of river crossings. They were happy for us to join them. The bus was due to leave Blantyre at 3.pm so we hurried home, unpacked and repacked. We got to the shopping centre the bus was leaving from just after 3.pm and then found out that the bus was leaving at 6.pm. In the end we left town about 8.30, stopped for nearly an hour for repairs and got to our destination at quarter to one in the morning. Having said Malawi is not a hardship posting Nsanje District, where we were visiting, is an exception. Temperatures rise to 40 degrees, it is a very poor area and very remote. We walked around the trading centre on Saturday; there was not much trade.


On the Sunday we got up at 5.30 to catch bicycle taxis at 6 am taking us to an area known as Elephant March. Apparently Livingstone recorded a herd of around 800 elephants here but by 1910 they had been shot out. There is, however, fantastic bird life. We spent two hours in a dugout canoe and there were birds coming at us from all directions, pelicans, herons, storks, fish eagles, malachite kingfishers, ‘Jesus birds’ (they walk on water) and ‘Magic birds’ (they change colour when they fly).

Our challenge the next day was to get up at 3.30 to catch the only reliable minibus travelling up to Blantyre leaving at 4 am. Jim was one of five people in a row of seats designed for three so was pleased to stretch a bit when we arrived in Blantyre at 7.45. He cleaned up and got to the office by 9.am, hoping for an early night but this was not to be. A VSO couple based in the north of Malawi had decided to come down to Blantyre after the meeting to visit a Dutch VSO couple and then go up Mount Mulanje. They came down from the mountain on Monday. We all wanted to meet up and the men who had been up the mountain insisted they needed to eat large steaks at one of Blantyre’s best restaurants (which we had never been to). Then the couple from the north decided they could stay on in Blantyre and they moved in with us on Tuesday. Sally was their Blantyre tour guide on Tuesday and Wednesday and on Thursday after a 5.30 am alarm call she drove them down to Majete Wildlife Reserve for an 8 am game drive. On that occasion Sally saw lots of elephants. Here they are.


The volunteers from the north headed back on Friday, the same day a volunteer from the Seventh Day Adventist college and her Malawian boyfriend came to stay for two nights. They left Sunday morning and we left half an hour later to travel up to Zomba Plateau for a welcome back ‘braai’ (barbecue) for a volunteer who’d been away. Jim needed to visit a District Health Office that was most easily reached from Zomba so later Sunday afternoon we went from there to a small town at the foot of Mount Mulanje where we stayed with a VSO working in a Nursing College that is part of a large Catholic mission complex. We got back to Blantyre Monday evening. Yes, the past couple of weeks have been full on, but very enjoyable.

After our week away and week with visitors Jim is now busier at work and Sally has resumed her voluntary work at the children’s home. We are now experiencing some very hot days and next month the rains should arrive. When we arrived at the beginning of February mangoes were just going out of season; now they are just coming into season. We are aware that we are now well over half way through our placement here, some disappointments, our patience often tested and some disillusionment with the concept and practice of aid, but also lots of positive experiences in an attractive and friendly country.

Jim and Sally Attwood