Danielle Morante’s passion for volunteer work has led to many adventures … here, we follow her story in Malawi, Africa … and then track her across the globe to Mongolia …
Hi Danielle. Last time we spoke – quite a few years ago now – you were back from a volunteering experience in Haiti. Since then, you’ve spent a year in Malawi, Africa. What led you to travel there?
Hi Jo, nice to chat again! Haiti was a really great introduction to overseas volunteering. It exposed me to hands on disaster relief and allowed me to learn some practical skills in manual work like swinging a sledgehammer, mixing and pouring concrete, and running a full wheelbarrow of rubble!
After that experience I was keen to find a volunteer project where I could use my professional qualifications as an occupational therapist and invest more time to achieve some longer term goals. In the meantime, I completed a locum role at Royal Darwin Hospital and spent time exploring the beautiful Northern Territory, while finding myself in new and interesting professional scenarios. This work was good preparation for my position at Kachere Rehabilitation Centre (Malawi Against Physical Disabilities www.mapmw.org) in Blantyre, southern Malawi, where I was lucky enough to spend the past year leading the occupational therapy department and lecture at the University of Malawi, College of Medicine.
What were some of the best experiences you had in Malawi?
I love going out into the villages where everything runs on a different schedule, seeing how the farming families live and the countryside, mountains, lake, tea fields, burning sunsets. Climbing Mount Mulanje was always a highlight. Malawian legend refers to the spirits of the ancestors, and there is certainly something magical about the area.
Lake of Stars is an annual music festival set up on the sandy, palm lined shores of Lake Malawi. With food, art, fashion, martial arts, poetry, dance and music around the clock for three days and an awesome, relaxed crowd, it is definitely up there with my favourites!
The Malawian chinkhoswe is a marriage celebration of the best kind – music, food, dancing, beautiful clothing, and traditions including the symbolic exchange of live chickens, the giving of counsel by elders for a long and happy union, and the dancing around throwing money at the happy couple. These events are open invitation, so the entire community gets into the party!
What do you most recall about the people you lived and worked with in Malawi?
I will never forget the ladies cooking group at Kachere. They taught me to prepare the staple dish, nsima, on the outdoor fire, told me all about their lives and children and would promptly correct my Chichewa!
Tailors are typically male in Malawi. Ken and Robert were the best in town and would work around the clock to keep all their customers and support their families. I could design a dress using a drawing or just by describing and a few days later, would collect a vibrant, beautiful, well finished garment!
The Girl Guides at a local primary school were a delight to visit. They would eagerly demonstrate a new song and dance and would proudly show their letters and drawings for their pen friends in Australia.
I often think about the man who ran for over an hour in bare feet on a hot day to return a borrowed wheelchair that had been used by his recently deceased mother. He knew our stock level was critical and he was just so grateful, that he wanted to ensure someone else in need could use it.
Describe some of the tasks you had to complete throughout the year …
I have visited outreach clients in remote areas to deliver wheelchairs and education, trained rehabilitation technicians to make hand splints from plumbing pipe using a heat gun, assembled and repaired wheelchairs, designed bathroom seating using spare parts, taught physiotherapy students, attended Association meetings to introduce an occupational therapy course at the university, and facilitated wheelchair basketball games.
And while you’re completing this interview, you’re actually in Mongolia. You really do get to see a lot of the world! Tell us more about why you’re there …
That’s right – I jumped right into another fantastic opportunity! I will be living in Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, for the next year volunteering as a Disability Officer for the country’s only Independent Living Centre. The Centre aims to establish a supportive environment for independent living, working, education and community participation for people with disabilities. The Centre also provides advocacy in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
What are your current living conditions like … describe the climate, the food, the people you’re currently experiencing …
Exactly the opposite of Africa! I was welcomed to Mongolia with a big snow fall – everything is covered white and the air is crisp. The food available in the city is international; however, traditional Mongolian food features a lot of mutton and dairy. The national drink, called Airag, is made from fermented mare’s milk, which is considered as important as the horses in the nomadic lifestyle of the Mongolian people. I have received a very warm welcome from my colleagues and have commenced language classes, which are quite difficult, but always a laugh! I plan to explore out in the country and go hiking and horseriding when I can.
You’ve volunteered in so many roles over the years. What keeps you motivated … what do you find most rewarding about volunteering?
The variety of roles is what keeps my work interesting. I’m fortunate to be in such a versatile profession that I can be working in a hospital, in a teaching facility, in a corporate setting or supporting people in the community. My approach has always been to remain open to out of the ordinary challenges. While there have been many challenges, the new friends and travel adventures have certainly been the rewards!
What’s next for you? You’re in Mongolia for a year … are you looking any further ahead than this?
My mum is looking forward to reading this response! But seriously, a lot of great things can happen in a year, so I’d like to just enjoy the ride. I wouldn’t rule out living back in Australia after this, but I’ll let you know …
While you’re away overseas, what do you miss most about Port Macquarie/the Hastings area?
I miss the locals, my dear family and friends. I miss long, deserted runs from Lighthouse Beach down towards Lake Cathie, the coastal walk, the bush and being on/in/under the ocean!
Interview by Jo Atkins.
This article was from issue 116 of Greater Port Macquarie Focus.