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Grassroots Volunteering in the Warm Heart of Africa
Published 06/28/2012 by Laura Walker
It's 11am on a Friday morning in June, and my face is glued to the plane's window. I can't help but stare at the small mud huts with grass roofs that surround Malawi's tiny airport as we come in for landing. Even after traveling in Africa on two separate trips for four months, I had yet to see such a rugged landscape. I was arriving from Rwanda where several travelers I had met raved about how friendly Malawians were, and that I must go. After all, it is known as 'The Warm Heart of Africa.' So, I skimmed through the my Malawi guidebook for highlights, and I stumbled upon the Volunteer section.
I am at this moment halfway through a round-the-world trip that has taken me from Europe, to the Middle East, Africa, and then Southeast Asia. Along the way I have participated in a number of fundraising and educational volunteer projects. In my guidebook, I saw a brief description about an interesting project in the Monkey Bay region of Malawi that needed volunteers to assist orphans with secondary education.
Preparing to Volunteer in Malawi
Before I left I emailed Birgit Albers, the director of the Back to School Foundation, to let her know I was coming. Her reply was essentially, "You can come and have a look at the project and see what you can do. Ring me when you get here." I then spent a miserable 36 hours trying get there, thanks to cancelled flights, an overnight stay in Rwanda's airport, and then another one in Ethiopia. But I could not have been more excited that I had made such an impulsive plan and would soon be in Malawi.
I called Birgit when I arrived at my guesthouse in Lilongwe. She said I should take the bus the next day to Monkey Bay. "Sounds great," I said, but before I got off the phone, I had to ask, "Now what exactly will I be doing?" Yes, I had flown nearly 3,000 miles without actually knowing what I would be doing! She said I would assist with after-school tutoring and organic gardening. Perfect! I tutored in college for four years so this was right up my alley.
The next morning I met a fellow volunteer at the bus station and together we traveled to Monkey Bay. We then walked to the volunteer house to meet the director and other volunteers. I was shocked. Having just come from a volunteer project that had gone a bit sour at the end, the Back to School Foundation's great organization was a welcome relief.
What is The Back to School Foundation?
The Back to School Foundation (BTSF) is located in Monkey Bay on Lake Malawi. It was founded in 2003 by Birgit Albers, and is there to assist teenage orphans with secondary education. The school is funded by private donations and sponsorships, paying for about 150 students to attend secondary school, as well as running a tutoring center open to all students in Monkey Bay (not just those sponsored). BTSF also houses 10 orphans during the week who come from far away villages to attend school.
What is the volunteer's role?
Most volunteers assist with after-school tutoring. There are morning and afternoon sessions for secondary school, so there are students coming and going throughout the day. Volunteers primarily help with math, physical science, biology, and English. There are also opportunities to work in an organic garden and help raise small farm animals. On weekdays, volunteers work from 8-12am and 2-5pm. Weekends are free for you to travel and explore the surrounding area.
Volunteering is FREE
Yes, there are no fees. Birgit strongly believes that if someone is willing to give their time, they shouldn't have to pay. The foundation also has a three-bedroom house with running water and electricity for volunteers to stay in. It is just a five minute walk from the foundation. Volunteers are only required to contribute to the cost of food. Birgit does the grocery shopping, and volunteers cook and eat meals together. Birgit is also more than happy to arrange weekend trips for volunteers.
BTSF Foundation's Financial Information
It's important to know how an organization's money is being used, and before you select a volunteer program, you should always inquire. Legitimate projects are honest and have nothing to hide. BTSF currently employs 8 full-time workers from the local community. Birgit takes no pay as the director. Her living expenses are out of pocket and she must return home to Australia four months of the year to work. All of the money donated to BTSF goes 100% back into the project.
Take the Plunge
If you are considering volunteering abroad in Africa or in the education sector, the Back to School Foundation is truly a great project. It's free to volunteer, it's a legitimate organization, and from my time there, I know it is changing lives. I worked with a 23-year old student, an orphan, who is still desperately trying to finish school to make a better life for himself. He came to see me every day for at least an hour to review math. Every day. How many teenagers do you know that dedicate that sort of time to their studies? The students you help are there because they want to be. If you want to make a difference, check out this great grassroots organization and become a volunteer. You won't regret it.