Like many school leavers, Abby Fisher wanted to do something with her gap year.
But Abby didn’t want to go to an elite British institution with a history and reputation as long as your arm, she wanted more of a challenge.
Abby went to Malawi. It’s a landlocked country in south-eastern Africa bordering Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique, with a population of just over 16 million. The official language is English but the locals speak dialects of Chichewa.
While some 19-year-olds might be fearful going to a country so different from their own, Abby relished the opportunity to experience a different way of living.
Before going away, Abby did a preparatory course with Lattitude Global Volunteering, an organisation which places 17- to 25-year-old volunteers all over the world.
On arrival, she completed an orientation course before joining the staff at Bwengu Primary School.
“I lived in the village next to the school with two Australian girls who were working with the secondary school. There was no running water but we had electricity five days a week, so we were lucky.”
The staple food in the region is nsima, cooked cornmeal of porridge like consistency, and that was what Abby mostly ate.
“There’d be meat for a special occasion, but basically I was vegetarian while I was there.”
She also managed to pick up some of the local language. “That was interesting. Sometimes I’d pick up what the l
ocals were saying about me, and would surprise them when I answered in their language. I lost count of the number of marriage proposals I received. If they’d known I was a poor student, they probably wouldn’t have asked.”
Abby returned to Hamilton, planning to work and save for university but she couldn’t shake the volunteering
and travel bugs. And that’s where English Language Partners came in.
She found the Waikato centre online, completed the 12-week training course and became an ESOL home tutor. At 19, Abby’s a fair bit younger than most of their volunteers (she’s the youngest, fully-trained ESOL home tutor in Hamilton) but that doesn’t bother her at all.
As soon as the new year began, Abby volunteered to help with Waikato’s summer course for refugees and migrants. Straight after that she had her first learner, from Afghanistan, a mother with two young children. In between her waiting job at a local bar and restaurant, she also made time to volunteer at an ESOL-Literacy class for three hours, including helping with set-up and pack-down three days a week.
She thinks more people should be encouraged to volunteer. “It’s the best thing, seeing the progress people make, and some of these new migrants from refugee backgrounds have come so far. There are those special little moments, when you see things click.”
ESOL-Literacy class teacher Gayle Pearson says Abby is a natural when it comes to teaching. “She just knows how to relate to these learners. I don’t need to tell her what to do, she just knows what to do and the learners love her.”
Abby’s dedication and enthusiasm was acknowledged when she won the Youth Award at Volunteering Waikato’s annual Excellence Awards earlier in the year. She was nominated by Jo de Lisle, English Language Partners’ manager, who says Abby has been generous with her time, helping people to gain confidence and independence as they settle into their new community. “Quite simply, she’s fabulous,” Jo says. “She has given far more time than we ever expected.
“Her experience in Malawi no doubt gives her a better understanding of what it’s like to be a stranger in a new land, and it helps her to empathise with the learners in a completely natural way.”
Abby has since returned to Malawi but plans to begin university study at Victoria in Wellington next year, doing a BSc/BA majoring in human development, international relations and second language teaching.
Chances are she’ll be back at English Language Partners when time permits.
Writer: Alison Robertson | Photos: Michael Jeans