Cousin Simon in Cambodia

I was most disappointed to hear that we wouldn’t be getting a Christmas card from my cousin Simon this year. As a result, we have booked a family therapy session to help with the trauma. Turns out that hot on the heels of our cousin Piers he’s on a five week assignment in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, doing some accounting work on behalf of Accounting for International Development (AfID). He’s set up a blog where he keeps everyone post about what he’s up to ( He also sent me something he’d written previously about what motivates him to take these trips, which sadly doesn’t include a recent photo. But if you really want to see what he looks like now, then you can see his profile on LinkedIn.

Seems like he’s had a bit of a year because before heading off he had whooping cough and a successful run in an Edinburgh Festival Fringe show, which ended up being standing room only and even made a profit (only £300 but almost unheard of for a new act on The Fringe). See YouTube clip here(apparently, he’s on on at about 31 minutes – and the two people at the left of the screen are – or were – friends of mine).

Volunteering in Malawi

For some reason I have “Volunteer Project” wired in my head as something that has to be endured, even though intellectually I know better. I have been volunteering on all sorts of projects for years, which I do for fun. But some part of me thinks that I shouldn’t enjoy volunteering. So when someone suggests a “service project” some part of me groans and thinks of pious people cleaning lavatories. (In fact I don’t think that I have cleaned a single lavatory on any service project, but that is not the point.) I do know that I have travelled to many countries around the world, sung, danced, laughed, met amazing people, made wonderful loving friends and invariably had the very best times of my life. Perhaps I just have an aversion to the words “service project.”

Here is one “Volunteer project”–or whatever you want to call it–that I did in 2002:

I had been registered with BESO (British Executive Service Overseas) for years. It has now merged with VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) to become the ‘Short Term Assignment Arm’ or, as I believe it is sometimes called by them, their ‘Dad’s Army’. They approached me in January 2002 about doing an assignment in Monkey Bay, Malawi, in Africa. The ferry service on Lake Malawi was being privatised under a scheme backed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Malawi Lake Services was in the process of taking it over.

My mission was to assist in setting up a computerized accounting system and training the local staff in its use. Quite straightforward, really. There were about nine ships in all, and the main one was the ferry, the MV Ilala, which plied up and down Lake Malawi, calling in at about twelve towns and villages along the way. It was created in Glasgow in 1950 and so was I so we had that in common to start with.

I have travelled to quite a few countries but I had never been to sub- Saharan Africa before. I had very little idea as to what to expect. I wasn’t even sure where Malawi was. (Before you reach for the map, it is in central southeast Africa, surrounded on three sides by Mozambique.) It was hard work, enjoyable, frustrating, and at times infuriating and depressing. If you have read Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Africa you will know something of the problems of the country. There was also a lot of news coverage about the probability of a famine about a year ago, and the AIDS problems in Africa gets TV coverage from time to time.

But Malawi is also a wonderful and beautiful country with warm friendly people. Lake Malawi is known as “The Lake of Stars” and the county generally is called “The Warm Heart of Africa.” You will find that even the most cynical guidebooks tell you that in both these respects it lives up to the hype. And for me it was the most fabulous time – an amazing adventure and rewarding beyond measure on so many levels.

Where to start? I could tell you about the morning I spent as (self appointed) official photographer with Nelson Mandela when he visited an international Rotary Club conference nearby.

Or how I found myself in charge of getting over a hundred of the Rotarians onto lifeboats (don’t worry, no sign of icebergs. It’s normal method of boarding and disembarking from the ferry where there is no harbour.)

Or the large crocodile that sat on a half sunken barge about a hundred and fifty yards from my desk two or three mornings a week.

Or how, with no torch, I helped my driver fix a blown tire by the light of my PDA on a beautiful starry but otherwise black night in the middle of nowhere.

Or the pack of perhaps a hundred chacma baboons that would patrol the shipyard when they heard the siren that was the signal for everyone else to leave at lunch hour. They gave the town Monkey Bay its name.

Or the stunning sunsets that greeted me as I stepped out of the office in the evening.

Or the amazing adventure of working in a shipyard with a floating dock and four Clyde-built ships in the middle of Africa – something special to someone who was brought up overlooking the Firth of Clyde, where for over a century some of the world’s finest ships were built. The eldest ship, The Chauncey Maples, a former mission ship among other things, was built in Glasgow in 1896, broken into 3,500 parcels, shipped, and then carried the last sixty miles to the lake where she was rebuilt and now only waits for development plan and a new engine before she sails again.

Or sailing up the lake on “The MV Ilala” with staggeringly beautiful sunsets, fabulous scenery and a free run throughout the ship of everywhere from the gleaming engine room to the wheelhouse (it’s a guy thing). I was checking the internal control of the bar and ticketing systems on board – honest

Or being given a conducted tour of a working dredger (OK, that is definitely a guy thing).

Or the morning runs down to the lake through mud-hutted villages to watch fabulous sunrises over the lake and the Mozambique Mountains

Or, in the middle of Africa, discussing the merits of ice creams from Nardini’s in Largs with a couple of the local Malawian managers – they had studied engineering in Glasgow many years before and used to enjoy their trips ‘doon the watta’.

Or the wedding that had the most amazing singing, with bouncers at the church door, where I had to dance alone with the father of the bride in front of (at least) 600 Malawian wedding guests (it’s a long story).

Or the wonderful warm people that I met and friends that I made. And the enormous hug I got from the senior manager and chief engineer on my return visit – not very Malawian – and definitely not very ‘Chief Engineer’.

But you might not believe it all. I wouldn’t blame you. As I read again what I have just written, I still find it slightly amazing and I am filled with gratitude for the adventure that I had.

There were times when I wondered how much good I did and how “fixing the accounts” and how training the staff could really be called “useful service.”

Perhaps the best justification for the volunteer work that I did came from Chris Marrow, the former BESO volunteer and General Manager. He had worked on his own aid project in Africa in the past and was familiar with the issues regarding aid work. He believed that enhancing the economic infrastructure of an area is far more effective in relieving famine than simply pushing food aid.

Getting Malawi Lake Services into a sustainable and perhaps flourishing condition will have positive benefits to Monkey Bay, the entire Lake area and the surrounding countries. Well-managed economies do not have famines. Perhaps a ferry service on a sound financial footing can help in that too. Malawi needs all the help of that type that it can get. It is one of the smallest and poorest countries in Africa.

And I believe that I achieved our objective. After two months the ledgers were up to date, the books were balanced, and the accounts were prepared within a couple of days of the month’s end. The staff had been trained in the accounting software and they were quite comfortable using it and other programs.

The experience has had spin-offs for me as well. It has helped me network and has opened doors for me in Scotland. I have become aware of the many links between the two countries. Dr. David Livingstone came from Blantyre in Scotland after which Blantyre, Malawi is named. Also, based on my training experience there, I have now set up my own specialized computer training business in Edinburgh.

It was an adventure and a privilege for which I am enormously grateful. I know that I have been immeasurably enriched. That’s not volunteering, is it?

Simon Maclaren


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