A few months back, Friday Focus met with an incredible young student from St.Brigid’s College who was about to embark on the trip of a lifetime, volunteering to build permanent homes for some of the worlds most poverty stricken children. Sinead has guest blogged her life changing experience for our readers.  Boil the kettle and take five for this one.

''I had been planning this trip for over seven months, how have I managed to mix up my flight date, thinking it was tomorrow, not today! I am still standing here in my bedroom in Derry, is it even possible to get to Dublin Airport never mind my gate before it closes in 4 hours!  My heart is thumping, I feel sick and I’m shaking.  So many dates have been flying around my head recently - fundraising events, A-Levels, flights, connecting transfers so I suppose I was bound to mix one up, but I can’t believe it was this one. Why couldn’t I have turned up a day early for my English exam!

As I will be part of the team who actually build houses for homeless children, I had planned for so long what practical clothes I would wear in Malawi but here I am frantically throwing anything into a suitcase.  My family are telling there’s no way I am going to make it and to stop packing but I am not giving up, I have been waiting for this trip all my life.  I knew since I was a chid that I wanted to volunteer and help the poorest children in the world, and now that I am on the verge of meeting them and helping change their lives I am not letting them down.  My brother in law has been working weekends aswell as weekdays, and I manage to convince (or force) him to drive me to Dublin today, his long awaited and talked about day off.  We’re in the car and I can’t even talk for the first hour, hysterical crying has left me in convulsions.  My mum and stepdad are in Medajorie, and he phones telling me to pull the car around, that I won’t make it.  My mum is in the background shouting at me to keep going and that she has prayed I make it and believes I can.  We keep going.

There’s no time for goodbyes as we screech into Dublin airport, I get my stuff and run. I reach security 5 minutes ahead of my gate closing, breathlessly attempting to explain to airport security where I am going and why.  After a quick look at my passport they pull me over to an area I’ve never seen.  I panic, I must have missed the flight, and they’re planning to tell me here because they know ill be upset.  Ms Murphy, we are going to fly you in business class.  There are less security checks and you don’t have the time for the standard ones.  Good luck with your trip, we wish you all the best’.  Am I dreaming, this is so surreal and it feels like it’s happening someone else.  I am hurried through into the flights executive area from the gate and I don’t truly believe the airline haven't made a mistake until the flight takes off.  I say to the well-heeled guy beside me ‘bet you didn’t think you would be sitting next to someone like me’ and he gets up and moves without a word.  ‘Ok that’s it, stay quiet now Sinead’ I tell myself, they might still throw me off.

4000 miles later, I’m still on the plane and most importantly, I’m in Ethiopia.  I meet with other volunteers and we begin the connections leg of the journey.  The heat and humidity are unlike anything I’ve ever experienced as we travel to Lililong, followed by more connections to Blantyre where we are staying. We drop our bags in and eat, and I’m like a zombie by this stage. 

None of us can muster up the energy for conversation so we agree to have an early night and prepare ourselves for the sights of Malawi the following day. We are as prepared as we will ever be for what we will find, and totally unprepared at the same time. Although I mentally tried to get myself ready for Malawi before I went with tons of research, nothing prepares you for what you will see.  You say to those who will ask ‘yeah I know it’s going to change me’  but that means nothing until you’re here and the realisation hits you that you and these starving children live in the same world, share the same sky and your very different lives are only 7 hours apart.   While my family are not rich by any means and Derry isn’t Monaco, I come from a land of relative luxury and choice; preference over necessity, make up, expensive cocktails, meeting friends for lunch and new outfits for nights out.  I realise the world I am from is a world of excess, and I am immediately ashamed.  Within the first 5 minutes of seeing Malawi I am changed forever.  These children don’t cry about being orphaned,   poor or hungry.  They cry over things that other children cry over; because a friend took their ball or they don’t want to go to sleep.  They don’t know any different and we have to be careful about what we reveal about our own lives as to not hurt them.  Ignorance is bliss.

We spend the weekend adapting to the heat and environment.  At first the natives don’t seem very friendly and they stare at us. It’s quite daunting, especially because most of the men carry machetes too. Our guide tells me to smile back, that they are frightened and curious if you can be approached. I take her advice, and after I do this once everything changes.  I see the bright smiles of the most caring, strongest people return back at me and my heart melts and Monday cannot come quick enough, I want to help in a practical way and waiting is frustrating.  To get an understanding of how Malawian people earn money, we visit a tea farm and I find out this is where the machetes are used, I feel immediately relieved!  The land goes on as far as the eye can see and even children will work here from early morning at 8am until 4 or 5pm, for the rate of one pound and fifty pence per day.  This is the going rate for farming and because the money is used straight away top buy food with little or none left, the workers aren’t in a position to try and increase this.

Monday finally arrives and I still feel like I am in another planet.  We set off in our van and immediately are met by tens of women and children who walk alongside the side of our vehicle clapping, dancing and singing a welcome song!  My heart is bursting at the display of gratitude and the smiles of the children are so overwhelming.  The guide us the full way to the building site and as soon as we reach it and disembark, the children hug and thank us.  I have waited for this moment my entire life, and it’s exactly the motivation I needed ahead of this mammoth task. 

We get five minutes training on how to mix the cement type substance that will hold the bricks together and we lay the first brick.  Not to state the obvious, but building houses is hard work, never mind two houses in five days!  We take it in turns to take breaks if the heat is too much and the children of the families who will occupy the house are on hand to keep us laughing and motivated.

At lunch time, the children keep a distance while we eat our packed lunch, and nothing has prepared me for the agonising restrictions which meant we couldn’t share our lunches, and it’s tough to see the bigger picture that food helps us keep our strength up and that sharing won’t make us feel better because there isn’t enough for everyone. 

We work alongside Malawian nationals to build as they know the building materials, weather and environment.  Every day is a learning process and new experiences every day further make me realise how dangerous Malawian life is compared to western civilisation.  While passing building materials to one of our local support team, I scraped his leg with a brick.  This is now life threatening because of lack of medical facilities.  Wracked with guilt, it stays with me until days later he has healed and I can finally breathe a sigh of relief.  I see a thirteen year old girl breastfeeding her baby, and these are my toughest days. 

We find out more about the support network the children have.  Most are orphans, but all are cared for. The care may be stretched and food scarce, but families don’t look after just ‘their own’.  Across the village, female teenagers and women take turns to look after the vulnerable children which includes feeding them whatever they can, wet-nursing babies and making sure they go to school if a teacher is well enough to take the class.  The education structure is haphazard, and a teacher may or may not attend class that day and also chooses the start time which isn’t communicated to the children so a day’s education is pot-luck if they are there at the right time on the right day.

The week flies in, and in five days we have built two homes.  Homes for families who have nothing, and we cannot ever understand the difference this has made to their lives.  The children look around their new home in wonder and sheer delight, and hug me tight and the maternal appreciation can be seen in the eyes of the female family members, their children are at least a little more shielded from the world in here, a little safer and a little closer to them''.