“I’ve followed you for years”, messaged Annabelle to my Instagram account. “I really think you should feature Sarah Brook on one of your podcasts.”
This was my very first introduction to Sarah and what lay behind her and the work she passionately devotes her time and energy to, her charity The Sparkle Foundation.
Africa has always been in our family from way back, and when I was able to catch Sarah in one of her very small windows of time I was hooked. I knew that I had to and could do more for both Sarah and her charity.
I have always wanted to work with and contribute to a charity. I had been searching for some time, to find one that struck at the heart of me, something that was aligned to my values and vision.
I had never found one that gave me that opportunity and accessibility until now.
After my interview with Sarah for my podcast, the initiative to help and to give back exploded. I started working with Sarah initially on a one-to-one basis developing her personal brand and strengthening her powerful story. The goal: to inspire others to act.
I knew that I had to share her story and the stories of those within the charity with a wider community.
The more others could learn about Sparkle and, the greater Sarah’s impact could be to help change and educate the lives of her African family, the more I and others could affect positive change.
For me, to truly understand her back story and to learn more about what Sarah was doing with The Sparkle Foundation, I had to make the visit to Zomba, Malawi myself. Which is why on the 7th November 2022, I set off on my personal journey to learn more and find out how I could add value.
I don’t think it was a coincidence that I was making the journey with Annabelle (Sarah’s personal assistant at the time). After all, it was Annabelle who had started my story that I share with you today.
Inundated with requests to share my experience, so many of you have asked how you can help and what sort of planning is required for such an undertaking.
It’s no small feat what is required by all –
it truly is a gigantic team operation.
With the plane ticket booked just 3 weeks before travel (AED 6,000), there was a great deal for me to organise before I was able to board. The list is long and there is a personal cost to yourself.
1. Apply for a visa: $50. And make sure you have access to a passport-sized image.
2. Complete a Police check: AED 250. This can be done online via the Dubai Police app.
3. Travel Insurance: AED 100.
4. Get your vaccinations: approx AED 400 – it wasn’t covered by my health insurance. Hep A, Typhoid, Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis, Polio and Malaria tablets. You can do this at Al Barsha Health Centre.
5. Get a Covid-19 test: AED 100. Via Just Life and they come to your home.
PRE Pre-Departure: Fundraising & Donations
Before you can even begin to do the pre-departure preparations, you must be able to contribute to The Sparkle Foundation. You also must be making the journey with a skill to share.
The minimum contribution to The Sparkle Foundation is AED 5,000 plus one suitcase of items much needed for the children which you can choose from The Sparkle Foundation wishlist (updated regularly).
My suitcase was filled with books to start to build a library for the children. I wanted to continue a legacy that my Granny started with my sister and I. Granny would say, “a child who reads will be an adult who thinks”. To bolster my contribution, I asked my family, instead of a birthday present for me this year, to buy books. Many of my clients and friends also did the same.
To maximise my time with Sparkle, the optimal time for me to go was Monday to Friday – it’s when the school is fully open and we could spend our time with the children and the team who look after them on a day-to-day basis.
I travelled with Ethiopian Airlines, with a very short stopover at Addis Ababa then onwards to Chileka Airport, Blantyre – each flight is around 4 hours. It was definitely a very different experience for me, having spent the last 18 years in Dubai flying with Emirates. It’s worth noting that on the second sector, there is no in-seat entertainment. If you want to pass the time it’s worth taking downloading entertainment to your own technology.
Flights all ran on time and was delighted that both cases made it. Not only I had made it with my two cases, I also had further small wins with my carry on luggage, my trolly bag and a rucksack hidden under a hoodie I had draped over my shoulder. Not quite an established travel hack but helpful when you are faced with an overload of generous donations.
Customs on arrival into Malawi can be challenging. We were advised to spilt luggage contents, and keep quantities to batches of under 20. It’s important not to look like you are bringing in large quantities to sell or you will be charged taxes.
Arriving in Malawi, you are met by one from the team and will have a further overland trip to Sogoja Village, near Zomba around 1.5 hours away. Be warned that the road at times can be slow and bumpy. What you can be assured of on arrival is a warm welcome. We arrived just as another party of volunteers were leaving to the children dancing. There is no hiding from their energy, love and warmth.
What to Pack
Ethiopian Airlines offers a baggage allowance of two 23kg cases in economy. Pretty generous, which was just as well considering all the books I was taking to the charity for the children. In the end, with so much generosity from family, friends and clients, I ended up with just about 2kgs for myself – the lightest I have ever packed – which included long trousers (a must to keep the mosquitos from having a nibble), gym leggings (easy to rinse), shorts, a couple of T-shirts and my underwear. Sparkle give you one of their T-shirts to wear too. It’s dusty, not to mention super-hot. I took an old pair of trainers for every day and left them behind, I have no doubt they are having a second life!
I stayed at the Sparkle Shack, it has 4 bedrooms, a chef and cleaner on hand. It also has surprisingly good WI-FI. There is one bedroom with an en-suite bathroom, the other 3 are shared. The cost of a day’s full board and accommodation is around AED 500 per day.
There is alternative accommodation approximately 15 minutes away https://www.kefihotel.com. It’s not always available and you have to rent the entire unit, which is about AED 500 a night. There is no chef or meal plan available and you have an additional cost of a taxi for a round trip return to Sparkle daily. With severe economic constraints, taxis are expensive and sparse.
A detailed itinerary is provided before you travel. Sparkle expects volunteers to share their experience and skill set. This is defined prior to any plans can be made or being accepted as a volunteer. I was able to utilise my personal brand and public speaking training with the Sparkle team on one of my afternoons.
A typical morning always starts with greeting the children at the school gates, they open at 7.30am. You have no choice but to be an early bird. There really was nothing more rewarding than seeing so many happy faces and receiving generous hugs.
Children start with a little play time before breakfast. It’s an impressive operation, children as young as two are so self-sufficient. They know where to wash their hands, collect their breakfast, sit and eat and return their plates for washing. My 13-year-old nephew in Scotland could learn a lot!
Mornings, we assisted in the classrooms. We also took time outside the school to visit the community hospital. That was tough! The conditions and level of treatment available are so limited. Children with broken bones are still in hospital immobilised after three weeks because they have no plaster casts or crutches.
The maternity ward was spilling over. In neonatal parents, we allocated times at three-hour intervals to feed their babies and then sit outside until their next time slot. Be prepared. We took gifts, which the hospital had suggested, which included a little bag of soap and milk.
Afternoons consisted of sharing our specific skill sets with groups identified by The Sparkle Foundation. In addition, we spent time with local ladies in a community group, participated in a sports day for the children. The children love to dance so make sure you are ready to dance at every given opportunity.
Highlights also included a local village walk around the community to meet neighbours, fetching and filling buckets of water from the well and washing clothes in the river. Our visit was also timely as we were able to see the arrival of 80 bikes donated to The Sparkle Foundation by World Bike Relief. Bikes were then carefully allocated to staff, community members and youths, some of which had a daily trip of two hours to get to Sparkle.
Evenings were early to bed, we quickly learned how to tuck our mosquito nets securely around us. The Sparkle shack is simple. Although there is a generator, solar power panels have been recently installed. Power is easily drained and power cuts can happen. A head torch is invaluable so don’t forget to bring one with you. There is no AC!
We did venture out one evening to Zomba Plateau and visited the Sunbird Ku Chawe Hotel. Located on the ridge, with fabulous views, we were able to enjoy sunset drinks followed by fabulous pizza in Casa Rosa. There is currently a massive fuel crisis in Malawi with drivers having to wait up to 12 hours in long queues to fill their tanks, so going out and driving is a luxury.
Chefs Ben and Agnes made sure we started the day with a good breakfast, cereal followed with a hot breakfast and fruit. There was always lunch and an evening meal. One evening we tried our hand at Nsima which is the staple food in Malawi, it’s a thick porridge made from maize flour and water. You must roll it in your hands and eat it, messy but a fun meal to have together.
It’s impossible to single out one experience, each one has found a special place in my heart. However, without a shadow of doubt, there is one stand out individual who works tirelessly behind the scenes: Sarah Brook.
Sarah’s desire to give back and share so much of herself with those in The Sparkle Foundation is awe-inspiring. She gives every part of herself and more to ensure the success and security of all within the Sparkle Foundation family, and it’s a very big family.
The values that Sarah and Sparkle instill is all about helping the community to become self-sufficient and this is evident, in not only how the children behave incredibly independent, but the initiatives that support the village and local businesswomen.
My experience with Sparkle will last a lifetime, it has had a profound impact on me. It’s my hope that in return – by reading my blog, viewing my insta stories and posts, and listening to Sarah’s podcasts – it will ignite something within you as readers.
In closing my advice, there is no perfect time to take the time out to give back. Give thought to your skill set and how it could be utilised by Sparkle, and reach out to Sarah and her team. You will not regret making that commitment.
Small things can make a big difference. A few things I wished I had taken with me: local currency money – dollars are accepted but if you have Malawian kwacha, it’s easier to buy drinks from a supermarket for example; Apple Pay isn’t available but a debit card is handy for emergencies; a bum bag to keep your phone secure whilst with the children, they just love anything with buttons to press; and a head torch, tucking yourself into the mosquito nets in the dark can be a challenge.