Name: Marie & Kevin Dixon
Age: 42 and 47 respectively
Dates of stay: 7 April – 12 May 2015
Your background (e.g. vet nurse, uni student studying zoology, taking a career break)
Career break – 3 months off for travel and volunteering. Usual jobs: University Administrator and Software Engineer respectively
Why did you decide to volunteer?
We were looking for a career break where we could spend several months away from home. Our main criterion was to spend some time with monkeys! As well as that, we were looking for the challenge and excitement of working in a different country with different people.
Why did you choose Lilongwe Wildlife Centre over other projects?
It was important to us that there was a genuine need for our help and that our presence wouldn’t be detrimental to the wildlife. Many projects that we looked at portrayed themselves as conservation focused but on closer inspection seemed less about rehabilitation and more like petting zoos.Lilongwe Wildlife Centre’s Born Free accreditation was an important reassurance that the animals would be treated well and have a chance of a natural life.
We rejected a number of projects in other African counties as too risky, given their volatile political situations. Although poor, Malawi looked stable and safe.
In addition, as a married couple, finding a project that offered private accommodation out of the dorm environment and a flushing toilet was a definite plus.
What kind of work did you get involved in? What did you enjoy the most/the least?
The work was very varied: feeding and care of the orphaned primates; monitoring the health of the lions; clearing the trails around the park; primate enrichment; assisting the local staff in the office and with the care of the Centre’s permanent animals; and visiting schools to spread the word about conservation. Orphan care rated highly and the chance to help in the clinic on health checks and operations was a real honour. There wasn’t really anything we didn’t enjoy although I’m not sure how much of a rush Marie would be in to spend any more time washing towels and Kevin found collecting browse a bit repetitive.
Can you describe a typical day?
Up at 7am and walk in the cool, bright light to the volunteer house for tea and toast, and to hear what everyone got up to in the town’s club last night. Maybe there’s time to wash our socks in the outside sink before joining the animal care guys to sit and chop buckets of corn with a big knife and a small chopping board. Then walk round the Centre tossing the corn over the electric fence to the waiting baboons and chatting to Love about Malawi life and politics. Finish in time to prepare bottles of milk for the trio of baby monkeys and sit on a bucket by their door, enticing them to drink. Clean up and sterilise the bottles before picking up a machete, finding the fellow assigned volunteers, and heading out into the sanctuary to cut leafy branches for the quarantined monkeys to play with. After dragging the browse back, it’s 1pm – time to join everyone for a vegetarian lunch al fresco made by Joseph, the resident and very capable cook. This is a communal affair, with banter about the morning’s work and a chance to catch up with any new developments in orphan care.
The afternoon is spent wearing a boiler suit in a dark concrete cell. Luckily there’s a tiny vervet for company and we pass the time playing jumping games and watching our vervet friends through the window. Maybe we even have a little power nap together after feeding time!
Now it’s getting dark so there’s just time for a quick shower and then round to the feed the squirrel in clinic before dinner. Again, this has been laid out by Joseph in the volunteer house ready to get when the working day ends. The next day’s jobs will be revealed on the white board in the lounge – always a moment of excitement!
The evenings are low key. Maybe it’s film night or we’ll play some games, but most likely we’ll head off for an early night and a read while some of the more adventurous volunteers go out for fun in the town.
What are your thoughts on the effectiveness of the charity work we do?
It was very pleasing to see animals being released while we were at the Centre and know the good work is continuing after we leave. The Facebook updates seeing animals we’ve worked with being integrated into troops are particularly satisfying.
Working with the Centre administration clearly showed the dedication and passion the team has for campaigning both locally and internationally to raise awareness of the issues Malawi’s wildlife face and how it can be helped.
The animal sanctuaries we saw in Asia were struggling to find release areas for their wards. In Lilongwe we had the impression of the Centre working effectively with the government to protect and rehabilitate the wildlife.The education group are doing excellent work to engage local people in conservation and bring new ideas to improve peoples lives. It was a privilege to be involved with this.
If you have volunteered at other projects, how do we compare in terms of volunteer experience/welfare etc?
No, we’ve never volunteered elsewhere.
What are the staff like?
Friendly, enthusiastic and extremely dedicated. Before arriving we wondered how useful we would be given our lack of experience with animals, but all the staff were keen to get us involved as much as possible and we felt very welcome and useful. A special mention for Ann, the volunteer manager, who worked exceptionally hard to help us settle in and sort out any difficulties we had, and did a fine job of looking after a dozen diverse people.
What have you taken away from your experience at LWC?
It was rejuvenating to be part of a group of uniformly enthusiastic, compassionate people – both staff and volunteers. We are looking forward to volunteering here back in the UK, and now have confidence that this will be rewarding and enjoyable. Getting to know the monkeys was a moving experience and knowing that they will have happy lives in the wild or at the Centre is very satisfying. Meeting and working with the Malawian staff and people outside the Centre was fantastic and we got to understand the country better than we ever could on our ‘normal’ holidays. We also have a new found appreciation of just how good our life is at home, including a rather shallow excitement about the joy of soft furnishings, especially after many evenings on the ‘practical’ volunteer house sofas!
What could be improved?
Natasha and the other volunteers were great – very patient and helpful, but some of the procedures were a bit vague with people learning them by word of mouth, gaining different information from different volunteers. We would have appreciated some more detailed written instructions, especially in the first week or so. A map showing where things are and what goes on in the Centre would have been incredibly useful (we didn’t even know what ‘holdings’ was until about half way through our stay). The education group seemed hampered by lack of resources and poor communication. This will no doubt improve with more experience of timetabling and better planning.
Who would you recommend this project to in future?
Just about anyone. The accommodation is certainly rustic but not uncomfortable if you are practical about what to expect and don’t mind knocking the occasional cockroach out of the way. We were busy and tired at the end of each day, but the work was not really too physically demanding. It gave a very different post-work feeling than home – in Lilongwe we had physical satisfaction and the joy of completing a job with immediate purpose, without having hours of post-work ‘brain buzzing’ planning for the next day in the office. We had the opportunity to try many new things and were given the help and encouragement to achieve them.
When we first arrived we struggled with the intensity that comes from close living and working with a group of people who were quite a bit younger than us. Within a week or so though we’d found our place and were very happy. It became clear that most new arrivals experienced the same feelings of doubt, so our message is ‘hang on in there’ through the inevitable adjustment. It’s worth it in the end!
Most of the volunteers come to the Centre for the animals but I wonder if there is scope for attracting people more interested in the outreach projects, which was a secondary consideration for us but turned out to be one of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of our stay.
Out of 10, how would you rate:
Your overall personal experience = 9.5 (that’s our joint average!)
Vol facilities e.g. accommodation, food etc = 7 (it wasn’t luxurious but the food was much better and more varied than expected and having our washing done for us was a bonus)
Staff and management (professionalism, approachability etc) = 9
The effectiveness of the project in helping Malawi’s wildlife (welfare, conservation etc) = 9