By Laura Praill
I first visited the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre (LWC) to volunteer in November 2017 and loved it so much that I returned not long after in July 2018! The Centre is the perfect place for animal lovers, and as an animal lover myself, I had such an incredible time volunteering there.
Prior to my first visit, I did a lot of research about the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust and the Centre, as I wanted to make sure I was choosing a well-run, ethical organisation that focused on animal welfare rather than the ‘hands-on’ volunteer experience. I was confident that LWC would be an excellent choice – and I was not disappointed. The sanctuary has extremely high welfare standards and I felt completely safe from the start to the finish of my trip. I also found that I was constantly learning, which is why I chose to return only a short while later for the second time!
At the airport, I was collected by a friendly taxi driver and driven the 30 minutes to the sanctuary, through colourful, bustling Lilongwe. Once at the Centre, my bags were collected and carried for me, and I was greeted by the enthusiastic Volunteer Coordinator, who guided me up the forest path to my home for the next few weeks. Everyone is very friendly and kind and can’t do enough for you. This is why Malawi is called the Warm Heart of Africa.
I got to the Centre just in time for lunch. The amazing chef, Joseph, cooks for volunteers six days a week, making a variety of delicious vegetarian foods from noodles (my personal favourite) to burgers and shepherd’s pie. On Wednesdays, he makes a local lunch of nsima (a maize product that looks like mashed potato), vegetables and mandazi (Malawi’s answer to the doughnut). I spent the day I arrived getting to know the other volunteers and hanging out with wild vervet monkeys while reading my book in the sun. We headed out for dinner at one of the best restaurants in town, Mamma Mia’s, then I settled in for the night in the large volunteer bedroom, which has lots of bunkbeds and plenty of storage. It is a friendly and cosy atmosphere, and you become close to everyone very quickly.
On the second day we got both a town tour and a sanctuary tour. There’s a huge variety of animals at the centre, all of which have been rescued, including olive baboons, yellow baboons, vervet monkeys, Samango monkeys, servals, antelope, crocodiles and a number of birds. In the afternoon, we went into the centre of the city in a very bumpy bus to see the local supermarkets and souvenir stalls. The souvenir market can be a little overwhelming with lots of people pressuring you to buy things, but haggling is always fun, and the items they sell are beautiful and mostly handmade.
I was expected to help with the daily running of the centre and future volunteers should prepare themselves for lots of hard (but fun!) work. I often helped the animal care team with food preparation, feed and cleaning enclosures. There are hundreds of animals at the Centre so there are lots of hungry mouths to feed and feeding and cleaning times are a great opportunity to be around the animals and observe them interreacting with each other. Another important job is orphan care; many of the very young animals at the sanctuary need full-time care and must be bottle fed regularly, kept warm and entertained. During orphan season (November to February), when many young animals are found abandoned or being sold, volunteers may get the opportunity to become a foster parent for the orphans, which is a truly lovely experience. Other work in orphan care involves food and milk preparation, general cleaning and maintenance, and lots of laundry!
I also helped with primate rehabilitation, carrying out observations during reintroductions. This is a great way to get an insight into how social structures work within a group of primates, and I spent hours watching the primates interact with each other. I could see their personalities come out and I developed an understanding of the hierarchy within the group. I helped to create enrichment items for the animals and I soon learned to be very resourceful, as supplies in Malawi are often limited and you must be very creative! We used toilet rolls, sticks, leaves, bottles, old clothes and dried grass to make items to entertain some of the primate groups.
There is also plenty of opportunity get involved in LWC’s community outreach projects. You can teach English to adults, make fuel briquettes (a sustainable alternative to charcoal) and even go to local primary schools and give presentations to the children about the work the Centre does. One of my favourite moments of my first visit to Lilongwe was going to a rural school and being greeted by hundreds of singing, dancing children.
On my last day at the Centre, I hired a car and visited Lake Malawi with a couple of other volunteers. It was certainly an experience to drive a car in Malawi! We went to a beach hotel at Senga Bay, sunbathed, ate good food and swam in the lake. It was a wonderful end to my time in Africa.
I can’t recommend a volunteer placement at Lilongwe Wildlife Centre enough. Every day you learn so many new things, make so many new friends, and most importantly, make a real difference in the lives of so many animals! I can’t wait to return for my third visit in the near future.