From the Doghouse to the Warehouse: First Weeks in Lilongwe

I’m not sure what I was expecting from the cheapest AirBnB listing in Lilongwe. You’d think that a place called ‘The All Creatures Animal Welfare Trust: Veterinary Clinic and Kennel’ would need no further description. Still, I hadn’t started a housing search in the weeks prior to departing for Malawi and I needed a quick roof over my head while looking for a more permanent living situation.  I also felt reasonably sure that nobody would post an actual veterinary clinic on AirBnb.

Fun Fact: I was the first AirBnB guest to stay at the All Creatures office building.

I was wrong. The next eight days saw me holed up in a small room abutting a kennel sheltering forty-eight dogs, a dozen cats and a handful of ducks. Never were there less accommodating roommates, and yet, there was a silver lining to be found amongst all the barking, howling, dirt and fleas. To avoid being penned up with the animals, I spent as much time as possible outside of the AirBnB exploring the capital of Malawi and all it had to offer.

In many ways, Lilongwe feels more like a large town than it does a capital city. A true peri-urban sprawl, light traffic meanders along tree-lined streets and lazy vendors post up next to piles of bananas and cassava tubers. People are generally friendly and helpful, which saved my housing hunt from being overly stressful. By week’s end, I was comfortably situated in the guest-wing of a large compound just a short walk and even shorter bus ride from the office.

Let me explain what I’m referring to when I mention the office. For the next eleven weeks I’ll be interning with a locally-based NGO and working with them on a girls’ education advocacy initiative. The internship is a required course credit for Penn’s International Education Development Master’s Program and provides an opportunity to put classroom theory into practice.

Not knowing what to expect from Malawian working environment, I showed up at the office on my first day to find a crammed, buzzing hive of activity. All of the (roughly) fifty NGO employees, their desks, computers, paper files, and project materials were squeezed into a single warehouse. Cardboard boxes and filing cabinets served as partitions, with up to five staff members occupying each makeshift cubicle. Evidently, The NGO had shifted its headquarters to a new location only days before my arrival. Adjacent structures that would later become additional office buildings were still being constructed, temporarily forcing everyone into a shared space until their completion.

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The office of the present.
The office of the future.

But as was the case with ‘The All Creatures Animal Welfare Trust: Veterinary Clinic and Kennel,’ this situation also provided me with a silver lining. Being packed so closely with my colleagues helped me become acquainted with nearly everyone employed by the NGO. I was able ask questions and experience the top-to-bottom mechanisms of the workplace. Having a better understanding of different types of nonprofit work was a key reason for choosing to enroll in the International Education Development program, and I am getting exactly that here in Lilongwe.

The benefits don’t stop there. I’m not certain that uncomfortable proximity always breeds familiarity, but the office layout has turned out to be a conducive environment to forming new friendships. My second week in Lilongwe ended with an invitation from several work colleagues to watch a Malawi Premier League football match. It was a wild Saturday at Bindu National Stadium in support of the Nyasa Big Bullets vs. the Be Forward Wanderers of Blantyre.

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Nyasa Big Bullets vs. The Be Forward Wanderers.

Twelve weeks is a short amount of time to spend in a country – even one as small and accessible as Malawi. I’m looking forward to working in the office and enjoying some R&R with my Malawian colleagues outside of it.

That’s all I’ve got for now! Check out my next blog post for a little more detail on the work I’ll be doing while in Lilongwe as well as some more scenes from around the city.

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