Megan Brown - Volunteer Coordinator
Megan was motivated to study international development in order to learn about different cultures and societies. She loves to travel and has therefore sought out different experiences working and studying in Africa, Asia, and South America throughout her life. When she came to Malawi she had agreed to work in her role for one year, but two years later she is still living and working in Malawi, and loving every minute of it.
How did you become interested in international volunteering? How did you get connected to Naturally Africa Volunteers?
I have always had an interest in volunteering, NGOs, and charity work. I studied for a bachelor's in international development with Overseas Experience, where I had the opportunity to look in depth at issues facing developing countries. As part of this, I studied abroad at a university in Vietnam and also became involved in a community development organisation in Uganda, where I spent time doing background research for a microcredit project. I wanted to expand on this experience by finding longer term work abroad.
When I heard about the role with Naturally Africa Volunteers it sounded like an interesting opportunity. I had initial reservations as sometimes volunteer projects are oriented more towards a tourism experience for people travelling than meaningful development work for the communities they serve; however, after going through the application process and meeting with the UK directors, it confirmed for me that this was a project I wanted to be involved in. It was clear from the beginning that this is a focused, committed, and culturally aware project that makes a huge difference to the communities it works with.
What does a day of work look like for you as volunteer coordinator?
What I love about my role as a volunteer coordinator is how diverse the job is. Every day I do something different. My primary role is to make sure the projects are running well and the volunteers are happy and getting the most out of their experience. A major aspect of the role is project evaluation and development, where I make sure the work we are doing is of maximum benefit to the community. Each day brings something different, I could be meeting with community committees and traditional authorities, attending placements with volunteers to see how things are going, doing airport transfers, shopping trips for project materials, or a morning in the office doing accounts and social media for the projects.
What kind of pre-departure programming do you have in place for volunteers to help set expectations and prepare them for their experience abroad?
Before departing to Malawi our volunteers are given a comprehensive information pack which covers everything from what to bring with them to day to day life on the project. We are also available on the end of the phone or via email if volunteers have any additional questions, so by the time volunteers arrive they feel ready and fully prepared to get stuck in and make the most of their experience.
What is the most commonly asked question you receive from volunteers and what is your response?
One of the most common questions I get asked by volunteers is advice on what to do with donations they have brought with them. As we are well immersed in the community we are able to identify those most in need and those who will benefit the most from the specific donations that are brought. This always brings positive results for the community and makes the volunteer happy to see that their donations go to the people who need them most.
Where are most volunteers from?
On the project we get participants from all over the world, but the most common nationalities are British, American, Dutch, Belgian, Australian, and New Zealanders.
What are the typical characteristics of someone who volunteers with Naturally Africa Volunteers? What characteristics make a volunteer successful?
On the project we get a range of people from a diverse range of backgrounds, ages, and experience, which gives the project a great dynamic. Whilst I have been here we have had volunteers from ages 17 to 68. There is no universal stereotype for the volunteers we receive, but I would say the unifying factors are people’s enthusiasm, open-mindedness, and willingness to help.
One of the common challenges faced by volunteers abroad is coping with culture shock. How do you help combat this and deal with it when it comes up?
Culture shock can affect anyone of any age whether it is their first or fifteenth time volunteering abroad. Volunteering in a rural place gives a real insight into life in Malawi that many tourists would not get. During our induction on the first day in Malawi we cover lots of basics about the culture, which helps to familiarise volunteers with how things are here. Our local staff are very welcoming and open to any questions about the culture and way of life here, they provide a good bridge between volunteers and the community. I find that this helps most volunteers to become comfortable very quickly and to enjoy getting to know the culture instead of feeling disconcerted, uncomfortable, or wary of the unfamiliar.
What do volunteers take away from their experience?
That is a question that would hold a different answer for every volunteer. For some people it would be professional development, by understanding their profession in a different context as with the practicing teachers, doctors, and nurses we have volunteering. For others it could be personal growth, from doing something they have never done before or taking a step forward in their confidence and understanding of other ways of life. Most volunteers leave the project enlightened with a fresh perspective and with unforgettable memories of their experiences on their project work and the people they spent time with.
What is the most fulfilling part about your job?
The most fulfilling part of my job is knowing that all the effort and hard work we put into making sure the programmes run properly has such a positive influence on the community around us. We see children improving in their education and language skills and reaching their full potential. Struggling children are given the extra assistance they need and gain confidence. We see lots of happy faces at the nursery school every day and leaving having had a meal they might not otherwise have received. People who have no access to medical care are receiving vital medical treatment for serious wounds and we are teaching people in rural areas how to do this themselves, so it is sustainable for the future.
Sometimes the work is challenging and there is a lot for our small team to take on, but no matter how difficult it is the end results always reassure us that it is incredibly worthwhile.
What has been your greatest accomplishment in your role so far?
As a team our greatest accomplishment has been planning and building an education centre in our village where we will start with providing I.T. education for school children and adults, this will open up a world of information for people wanting to learn. This has been a long process and now we are in the planning stages of the actual I.T. programmes and are nearly ready to start, it feels like an immense achievement. I am excited to see how our efforts will improve education for people in the community.
Individually, I think the greatest impact I have had on the project has been to improve the efficiency of how it is running, fully utilising the resources we have, and giving us more scope to expand in the future.