Getting involved in the community surrounding where I live is something I think is very important. I feel like I am in a privileged position and it is my duty to be able to share my knowledge and experience and help others as best I can.
For me I don’t like to do that with money as such, there are obviously many different ways to get involved and help out others and for some people, the best way to do this is with monetary donations and that is of course very useful. After all, money makes the world go round so we all know it is a necessity in life.
For me, however, I like to physically get involved, I have had the opportunities to volunteer in a few countries over my time, including Tanzania (on two different occasions), Honduras and Malawi. Again, I appreciate not everyone has that option and I am fortunate to have the time (school holidays) and the disposable income to be able to travel.
There are many arguments against this type of volunteering, which these days have become such a big business its called ‘volunteerism’. One argument against this type of volunteering is the fact that you spend so much time and money getting to the country, accommodation, food, travel insurance. Then there is the fact that some companies charge an extortionate amount for you to have the privilege of volunteering (which you are never sure where it actually goes).
All of this money is, therefore ‘wasted money’ and would be more beneficial if you just gave it directly to the organisation for them to do as they need. While I completely understand this argument and in some cases it is true, I stand by my choice to physically volunteer and here is why. If I was to volunteer or not, I would still travel, so why not volunteer while I am travelling.
I have had so many amazing experiences while volunteering, I have grown as a person and I have taken those new experiences, new knowledge, new understanding with me to each new job, country and volunteer placement. I have met wonderful people, both other volunteers and locals from the communities I volunteered in. I have made lifelong friendships. I have gained as much from volunteering as I have given and I believe that is the best thing about it.
Ultimately for me, volunteering has led me to where I am today, without my first experience of volunteering, I would not be sitting here in Kenya writing this blog.
My first volunteer experience
In 2012 I had my first real volunteering experience, I choose to go to Tanzania because of my love for nature and wildlife and of course the opportunity to go on safari while I was there (and a cheeky visit to Zanzibar). I choose a new volunteering company and in all honestly, a large part of the reason for choosing this company was the small fees involved, I think it was around $200 (compared to the $2000 other companies were charging).
By paying these fees it meant that I had a company behind me, a person to meet me in the country who would set me up with a project and organise accommodation etc and peace of mind for my mum who had a number to call should anything go wrong. So off I went, on my own, for a month and a half in Tanzania.
At Kilimanjaro International Airport I strolled out of departures, carrying only my hand luggage. After waiting a long time by the carousel it was clear my bag had not made it to Arusha with me and I was told it was stuck in Ethiopia and I should call tomorrow to see if it has made it.
I met a man holding a sign with my name on it and as it was late at night I was dropped at a hotel and told he would be back at 4:30 am to pick me up. Bewildered I quickly fell asleep and woke up not long after, put the same clothes back on and went to meet him at reception.
I was then driven to a chaotic bus station, given a ticket and bundled on a very old, bedraggled looking bus and bid farewell. I had no idea where I was going, how long I would be on the bus for or how long until I got hungry (anyone who knows me knows this is never long) and of course, what was I going to eat!
After hours sitting at the bus station, cramped in my seat surrounded by many more people than there are seats (if you have travelled on public transport in Africa then you know) and a box of chirping chicks on the luggage rail above my head, we finally started moving. As it turns out the bus was on the way to Iringa, a southern town, some 692km from Arusha.
Along the, at least, 7 hour journey we suffered one break down and had to stop and wait for another, equally dilapidated bus to pick us up and continue the journey, many hair raising moments (bus drivers are notoriously crazy, dangerous drivers), a few ‘wilder wee’ toilet stops where conveniently people come rushing to the windows of the bus holding up buckets of boiled eggs, samosas, mandazi and much more, a preacher who boarded the bus at one stop, preached very loudly for 3 hours and then got off at the next stop and the slowly withering chirps of the chicks above.
On one of the toilet stops, I saw another ‘mzungu’ (white foreigner) and decided to talk to her, correctly assuming she would also be here to volunteer. It was lucky we made friends as we found ourselves sharing a bed that night in a sad little hotel for our stopover in Iringa and me wearing her clothes for the next 2 weeks (I found an underwear shop in Iringa to get some essentials) while I waited for my bag to miraculously turn in our final destination, Tungamarenga. A small little village which turned out to be the gateway village to Ruaha National Park, where I took my first safari, igniting my love of safari.
Please excuse the poor quality of the photos, these were taken many years ago with a very old school little digital camera!
So that was my introduction to Africa, lost baggage, cramped, broken down, dangerous bus journeys, roadside wees, and bucket food. If anyone knows Africa they will know that the story continued in a similar fashion of un-organisation, hilarious events, un-communicated situations, strange food, warm welcomes, un-parallel kindness and generosity and general amazingness for the next month and a half.
Said mzungu and I became good friends while we lived with a local family in a house with no running water or electricity. We cooked outside on fire in a hut, dug foundations for an orphanage, taught in the local school, played sports with the children, cooked dinner with mama, herded goats and danced with the Maasai. We listen to beautiful choir music in the church, learnt about Tanzanian culture, told stories around the campfire and harvested sugar cane from the fields.
We became part of the family and the extended community, we carried water on our heads from the water pump, washed our clothes and our bodies in a bucket under the starry sky and swept the ground until there was not a blade of grass in sight! I can still remember all of it as if it was yesterday.
I recently revisited Tungamarenga, we stayed there before continuing on to safari for the second time in my life at Ruaha National Park. Armed with just a photograph on my phone, I asked in the local pub if anyone knew the guy in the picture.
His name is Pascal and he was the person who looked after us throughout our stay, he was the eldest son from the household we stayed in and he became a good friend. The first person I asked about the photo said he knew him, he was his friend and he would call him. 10 minutes later I was reunited with my friend from around 9 years ago and I was able to buy him a beer and catch up with how everyone is in the family. It was amazing to be able to see him and reminisce about stories from many years ago.
If you would have asked me then if I thought I would be back here ever again, the answer would have been 100% yes. As many people know, once you have been to Africa, you will definitely come back, and that’s exactly what I did.
I continued my university education upon returning to the UK and then the first opportunity I got I returned to the continent. I finished my PGCE (teacher training) and my NQT (Newly Qualified Teacher) year and then applied for a job in Malawi. I spent 4 years there, then 3 in Tanzania and I am now in Kenya and I haven’t looked back since.
Throughout my time I have always tried to get involved with the communities where I can. I think volunteering is one of the best things you can do. Yes it does cost money to do it, but it shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg and you should always check out the reputation of the company you volunteer with the ensure that the money goes where they say it does.
You don’t always need a company either, there are many places you can volunteer without paying fees if you are confident enough to travel and seek them out for yourself. Some companies also have minimum fees to cover their costs but not to make money. In my next blog I will be giving some information about the companies and organisations I have volunteered for and the projects they have been running/are running.
Thanks for reading, I hope you have enjoyed my trip down memory lane. You might also like to read this related blog post Volunteerin from my perspective.