When you think of volunteering overseas you may imagine endless days in the lazy sun checking on the progress of safari animals. You may envisage cuddling orphaned Asian babies, singing soothing songs as they fall asleep in your arms. You may foresee yourself standing in front of an enraptured class of young kids expertly teaching. You may imagine flawlessly communicating with locals, buying street food and local clothing or fabrics or perfumes.
What you probably don’t picture is endless nights of paperwork, staying up until 1 AM filling travel expense forms and trying to remember how to account for your funding while your partner and room mate struggles to stay awake. More than likely, you do not imagine turning up at an abandoned church, fully equipped with demonstration gear that you have lugged halfway across the county on a small push bike, having spent all night preparing to teach prevention of HIV/AIDS to what turns out to be a completely empty room. You probably don’t think about eating nothing but rice for days and days on end, or roaring arguments with your team mates. I doubt whether you’d consider or prepare yourself for running out of conditioner and, after searching through 20 different supermarkets, realising that nowhere in the country even sells it.
Perhaps you think you would be prepared for the heartbreak of seeing a hungry child, or an orphaned child, a child who can’t afford schooling, a toddler who’s parents can’t afford clothing, a bright and intelligent young person who never stayed in school, a child who works hard at school for 10 hours and then spends all night crouched on the floor in the trading centre selling somasas for pennies. But you’re not.
I thought I had mentally prepared myself for every obstacle, every challenge, every heartbreak. But I didn’t. I couldn’t have. The motto of ICS is “Challenge yourself to change your world”, it’s even on the back of every volunteers work T-shirt. Well, thanks ICS, it’s certainly a challenge. One I never expected or could have prepared for, but one that has indeed changed my world and myself for the better. Because as frustrating as it is when nobody shows up, or I argue with my team, don’t like the food, as heartbreaking as it is to see people suffer, it’s equally as rewarding to learn to be flexible and adaptable, to improve my communication skills, to remember that life is not about collecting material goods or status, but about giving back some love and kindness to the people who really need it.
The work I do with ICS and Restless Development will have an incredible and lasting effect on the community I am based in. It will reduce early marriage and teenage pregnancy, contribute to stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS and empower and inspire young people to fight for their needs and rights in a world that rejects them. But the biggest and most lasting effect will be on me. In such a short time I have learned so much about myself and my place in this world, about what I really care about and what I feel I am meant to do with my life. I’ve learned that I don’t want to spend my life in a comfortable home with 2.5 kids, a car and a mortgage. I’ve learned that some things are far more precious than a comfortable life could ever be. Giving. Learning. Teaching. Culture.
I am not British, I am human. I do not live in Tenby, I live in the World. I’ve learned that countries and borders are political constructions. I’ve learned that we allow them to separate us from other cultures and new friends, new knowledge. I’ve learned that I can find a home, a family, a network of friends in the most unlikely of places. I’ve learned that people need me, and I need people. I’ve found myself and I’ve found my purpose. I want to save the world, and although that may not be achievable I’ve learned that if you shoot for the moon, even of you miss you’ll land among the stars and make at least some difference, and that’s my purpose.
Photo credit: Joe Burton