My journey as an Indian-American volunteer in Malawi

Vishakha Wavde dancing with ladies after building a cook stove using mud.(Photos courtesy of Vishakha Wavde)

I treasure my Indian roots, and as an Indian-American, have come to embrace American values in the years I’ve lived in this country. A key thing I’ve learned in the U.S. is the importance of giving back to the community. At one point I met a returned Peace Corps Volunteer in her late sixties who shared her stories and pictures from service with me, and I started to think about the possibility of volunteering outside of my own immediate community.

With my background as a physical therapist in Illinois for 28 years, I served as a Health Volunteer in Malawi from 2018 to 2020.

As someone who came from a humble background in India, I was easily able to imagine what life as a Peace Corps Volunteer would be like in a developing country like Malawi, and I was also prepared to adapt to an environment with few amenities.

My cohort included other Volunteers with a South Asian background, and we were all respected and treated as equals by other Volunteers and staff. We brought diversity to our common identities as Americans, both during training and in our host communities.

In Malawi, I focused on HIV and malaria prevention, youth capacity building and HIV support groups. When I arrived in my community I began my process of integration by walking around the community with health surveillance assistants to learn more about key community areas and people’s daily activities. I joined a local church and soon became part of the church choir. This was an immense help with integrating in the community.

Vishakha Wavde building a hand-washing station in Mphompha.

My ethnic background always triggered questions from community members, and those questions offered a teaching moment to help my community understand more about American diversity. My story often inspired Malawian children. They saw in me how education and hard work might help them navigate through life, overcome obstacles, and attain a better standard of living.

The accomplishment most dear to my heart is the relationships I developed during service with people from all walks of my life, whether it was members of the church, my favorite vegetable sellers in the market, my neighbors, or people I met at school where I conducted many activities. These relationships transcended the boundaries of language, culture and living conditions.

My service helped me gain patience, resilience, and a greater ability to understand other people’s views and beliefs. I have a much deeper respect for other cultures.

Professionally I gained the confidence to move beyond the boundaries of my profession as a physical therapist and broaden my work to include community service and the facilitation of behavior change. Service provided me with a global perspective on the healthcare field. New doors have opened for me as I’ve been able to deploy my new skills in global and domestic health, the ability to manage work in extremely rural locales, cultural sensitivity, and grant writing for community projects.

Vishakha was a Health volunteer. The framework of her work entailed HIV and Malaria prevention, Youth capacity building and working with HIV support groups. She currently is a physical therapist in Illinois for 28 years.



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