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Want to be a volunteer? Planning to save the world?
Thursday, 19 July 2012 Written by Valerie Kae Ken

Want to be a volunteer?Fifteen years ago, I found myself in Africa for the first time. In 1979, I was studying at the London College of Fashion in England and I had the good fortune to meet a wonderful woman - truly a legend in her own time - a woman who had spent many, many years in Uganda as a religious nun... but a most unusual nun... I used to say that Mary was a “doing” nun, not a “praying” nun. Mary and I developed a deep friendship that has lasted over the span of thirty-two years.

One day, some years after we had finished our studies and Mary was back in Uganda and I was back in Canada, I received a call asking me if I would like to help out with a project to establish a tailoring school in the little village of Nyamitanga near the town of Mbarara in southwest Uganda. Of course I said yes!

And so it began... the first time I set foot on African soil, I was hooked! I believe that when one goes to Africa, you either love it or you hate it... there is no such thing as indifference. And I loved it. I had planned to stay for three months to help with setting up the tailoring school project. I stayed four and a half months. After that, over the past fifteen years, I have traveled back to Africa (at least ten or twelve times now) – to Uganda and now to Rwanda whenever time and money permit. I have written a two-year teaching program for each of the tailoring schools in both countries and now I spend my time mostly supporting the teaching efforts of the instructors who are delivering the course material.

That first visit – in 1996 - was filled with excitement, amazement, confusion, often a lack of understanding, but most of all – a deep sense of satisfaction. I came away feeling like I had really DONE SOMETHING... after all, I had helped to establish a tailoring school in Africa! Wow!

Then it hit me!... Is there really such a thing as “altruism”? Honestly, I do not believe for one second that pure altruism actually exists. I could go into a long philosophical discussion on the topic, but let me try to explain briefly: When I do something out of generosity or pity or charity, what happens?... I feel good, right?... and the more I do, the better I feel, right? The key word here is “I, me”...”I” feel good, “I” feel lucky to be born as “I” did, to be successful, to be able to afford to feel generous, “I” feel satisfaction... do you get it?

So... shouldn’t I be the grateful one?... isn’t it for me to be thankful that I can be so fortunate?

You want to be a volunteer? Okay, let’s start from the beginning – Why? Why do you want to be a volunteer?... think about it... really think about it and be honest with yourself and you might just find that you have a need to be needed.

Next, what is your area of expertise? I have another surprise for you... you don’t need to be an expert! In fact, being an expert is a bit of a liability – I have seen those volunteers who feel they are “experts”... they have so much education, so much wisdom and knowledge that there is no room for them to learn anything themselves. They come just to “teach” – what a pity! There is so much to learn! I chuckle whenever I find myself sitting next to an “expert” on an airplane bound for Africa, and they are going to “save the natives” and to “tell them all about AIDS”... what on earth do they think they know - having learned it from a text-book - when the people they are going to “save” are experiencing it in real life?

Want to be a volunteer?Back to volunteering... the wonderful thing about giving is that it comes back to you... I cannot tell you how many times I have been overwhelmed by the generosity of those who have so little. In fact, it has been my experience in life, that those who have the least are the true givers. When we have so much that we can afford to give something away, we don’t even miss it! The gifts I treasure the most are those that came to me from people who truly struggle to survive, whether it is physical, or emotional. I am truly humbled when, for example, I experience someone who has lost every member of his family to the genocide in Rwanda, and he shows me kindness and patience.

I often think about the fact that I just “got lucky”... It wasn’t anything I did or I deserved or was “owed”... it isn’t my right to have the good life that I enjoy. I was just lucky enough to be born into a good, loving family in a country as wonderful as Canada. I just got lucky.

I don’t remember consciously deciding to be a “volunteer”... I got asked to go to Africa to be involved in what I thought was going to be a “one-time” effort to help a friend and to have an exciting experience at the same time... that’s all there was to it... or so I thought!

When I arrived on African soil for the first time, I remember finding so many differences to the life I know. Now, the more I visit Africa, the more similarities I find. I have come to understand that people the world over are the same - they want the same things, they think the same thoughts, they have the same desires and wishes, they complain about the same things....only they do it in a different language!

After sixteen years of volunteering in Africa, I certainly don’t consider myself any kind of “expert”... but I have picked up a few tips along the way. Would you like to know some of them?

Here’s one: The thing about many places in Africa, I believe, is that colonialism gave the Africans the idea that all whites are rich, and so it follows that they must be smart and beautiful – often, none of which is true! But I have seen my share of “volunteers” buying into this frame of thought and those who actually begin to believe it... and then they begin to act like it... in a not so flattering way! Beware of this and take a good long look in the mirror every now and again – you are no different than when you left home – As one of my brothers is fond of saying, “you didn’t get pretty overnight”... smiles!

Now, another thing... when you arrive to Uganda or Rwanda, one of the first words you are likely to hear is “Mzungu”. At first it seems flattering to be pointed to, or stared at with groups of children yelling out “Mzungu, Mzungu”... and you smile and wave, enjoying your new-found celebrity status. Wait for it... after months and months, you’ll soon tire of it and wonder why they keep referring to you as “white person” instead of seeing you as an individual with a name. I am not sure why they insist on doing this – but I have found that introducing myself to a group of children by name, and allowing them to say theirs, gives us a better understanding of each other... after all, it has to start somewhere...

Here’s another tip: Leave all your “well laid” plans at home... chances are you won’t get anywhere near what you intend to accomplish! Be flexible and above all keep a sense of humour. I guarantee you that if you arrive with a beautiful, well-organized folder full of “objectives” to accomplish, you won’t get past the first page and will end up frustrated, tossing all those wonderfully prepared pages into a rubbish bin when you depart! And if you are expecting to have all those fabulous, up-to-date resources at hand to assist you in your mission, forget it! If you plan to do a lot of photocopying, keep it to a minimum - paper costs money and machines (and competent people to operate them) are not around every corner.

Internet? Well... sometimes, depending on where you are, and it is extremely slow, but the good thing is that there are internet cafe’s ... but only if the internet is working... sigh!

Telephones? Absolutely! This is the great thing – in fact, I would dare to say that the cell phone set-up in Rwanda and Uganda is actually superior to Canada. You simply walk into a cell phone representative’s kiosk, and for less than $2.00 (but remember that this equates to two days’ wages for the average Rwandese) you can buy a SIM card with enough minutes of talk-time to speak for about 20 minutes locally! The trick is to have an “un-locked” cell phone that can operate in Rwanda so that you can insert a SIM card.

Television? If you are addicted to your favourite program, chances are you’ll be in withdrawal within a week. The programs – outside of CNN, Al Jazeera and BBC - are few and are good only if you are bored and cannot think of another thing to do while living in a country filled with interesting things to see and do. Besides, you’ll be too busy revising that wonderful work plan that you brought with you...

Washing clothes? let me give you a tip here... don’t bring your best white cotton shirt – in about one week, it will be a lovely shade of ecru... compliments of the rust in the pipes. And don’t bring all your black Giorgio Armani T-shirts... they will have a pretty shade of purple at the neckline after hanging them to dry in the hot sun... Oh! And when you do hang your clothes (no... don’t expect washing machines or dryers...) turn them inside out before pinning them to the clothesline. You will gradually see the shades lighten on the inside while the colour on the right of the garment will hopefully last a little longer. And any dry-clean only clothes will have to wait for you to return home!

Want to be a volunteer?Everyone has their own routine... I prefer to wash my clothes every morning... I am not fond of spending an entire Saturday washing a load of clothes, only to find the weather is threatening and I cannot hang them to dry. Hint: each morning, while I wait for the water from the tap to run warm enough for a shower, I put a basin below to catch the water in order to wash my garments worn the day before. I guess it goes without saying that water is a precious commodity and wasting it would not be a wise thing to do... And if it is rainy season in Rwanda, I definitely wash clothes early in the morning and wait for what is a sunny break of at least an hour or two to put my clothes out.

Oh! This is another tip/rule: hang your “undies” in your own room to dry... it is not appreciated to show the local community what you wear next to your skin, no matter how pretty they might be...

Gifts: Okay, it is great to feel like Santa Claus and hand out gifts to the reaching hands of excited children... but think about it... what do the children who end up with nothing feel like while the others gleefully run off with their “goodies” in their hands? Believe me, I have done it and it is not a good idea. As soon as you open a bag with your carefully chosen gifts, hundreds... and I do mean HUNDREDS of children will appear out of nowhere. And you won’t have enough for all of them. So do yourself... and them - a favour... a much better idea is to bring something that everyone can use – books for a library, videos that can be watched by many over and over, music CDs that everyone within earshot can enjoy.

Another problem with bringing over “give-away” gifts is that when you go, every white person who arrives after you will be expected to be bringing something... not to mention how hard it is for those persons who are actually living and working at projects in Rwanda to convince people that it is better to work to earn what they receive. This applies especially to handing out money.

Etiquette – When staying at the Franciscan parish in Kivumu, there are a few unspoken rules of conduct. One is to dress conservatively – not just because of the religious order, but also in respect for the conventional attitudes of the locals in the village. Also, if one is lucky enough to be staying at the friary itself or being invited to eat with the Franciscans, it is very important to respect the meal times that are set by the fraternity. And the kitchen is off limits to visitors entering and poking a nose around, or eating between meals. It is the cook’s domain and not for anyone to enter uninvited.

Finally, here are a few lists of items to bring to Rwanda. It is by no means comprehensive, but just to give you an idea of what is useful:

Clothing and footwear:

  • Things that are washable (by hand, of course…smiles!) this means things that don’t need a dryer to put them back into shape
  • Avoid too many white clothes – they don’t usually stay that way (smiles!)
  • And fabric that will dry quite quickly - in case it is rainy for a few days
  • Comfortable sandals and walking shoes
  • An outfit that is “smart” so that it fits an occasion of celebration (church, or the farewell party you will no doubt be given)
  • Warm sweater or jacket for the evenings (I also take a shawl that can be used for extra warmth and doesn’t take a lot of room)
  • For women: I find that skirts, trousers or capris are good (capris are ideal because they are modest enough and yet cool enough...)
  • For men: If you take shorts, it is best to take ones that are knee-length – it is not common to see local men wearing anything other than trousers or jeans
  • Hats – tilly hats, or ballcaps are great if you are going trekking – for daywear, I never bother with a hat
  • Wind-breaker, hoodie

Other Items:

  • Some jewelry, but nothing that you would mind losing (just in case it happens)
  • An alarm clock or pocket radio or whatever you like to have at your bedside. I have an iTouch that I love because it has everything – especially music to listen to at night
  • A good pocket book, or your Ipad (if you are lucky enough to own one) just in case you like to read at night
  • Check that the battery for your watch doesn’t need to be replaced while you are away.. (hard to find)
  • Some plastic basket units or towel hooks that attach by ‘suction cups’ are useful in the bathroom
  • A small hanging unit to dry personal items like underwear (something that can hang from a shower rail – At the dollar store, I have found circular plastic units with clothespins attached that work really well. The bulk of your clothing will be on a line outside to dry
  • Swiss army knife always comes in handy
  • Manicure set
  • Sunglasses, umbrella
  • I usually take a good supply of toothpaste and shampoo to last me. You can buy it there, but it isn’t always the best quality or it might be expensive
  • Don’t worry about soap or washing powder – it is available
  • Creams and lotions for your skin is a good idea
  • Suntan lotion
  • DEET or some other mosquito repellent
  • Any over- the-counter medications like laxatives, analgesics, etc are available, but if you have a preference, you may like to bring your own
  • Your own prescription medications, of course
  • I also bring tubes or containers of medication that I want to replace. Often it is less expensive in Africa and doesn’t always require a prescription. (for example, I buy a cortisone cream called Dermovate a LOT cheaper in Africa!)
  • Clothes hangers: If you have room in your case, pack a few in case you need them. (you can leave them behind)

Light and Electricity:

  • Flash-light: one that is small enough, but gives a good area of light. (note: you can get batteries in Rwanda but maybe not the best quality)
  • Adapter plugs: Note in Uganda it is the British system (three prongs) and in Rwanda it is the French system (two small round plugs and sometimes another for ground) The electrical system is 220 V
  • Your camera and computer should work just fine to be charged over there. – they are usually “dual” voltage

Bedding, Towels, Mosquito nets etc:

  • Not to worry about these. They are provided in the living quarters of the friary

Food stuffs:

  • Food is plentiful for what you will want. Good coffee and tea is available. Fresh tomatoes, potatoes, greens, eggplant, avocadoes, etc. are available at the markets
  • Fish and meat (pork, chicken, beef, goat) are available
  • You might want to bring a few bags of specialty teas if you like decaf tea (although you can buy a good selection in a grocery store in Kigali these days)
  • Beer is easily available – the local beers are Primus and Mutzig, and you can get Heineken, Amstel and Guinness at most places
  • Water is best bottled, or boiled for safe consumption

And there you have it... I offer these suggestions and if you find them useful – great! The best advice I can offer to any prospective volunteer is to realize that you are not “saving” anyone except, perhaps, yourself. And when you arrive to Africa, watch... but most of all, listen... after all, we were given two ears and eyes and only one mouth for a good reason. What you will learn will stay with you forever.

There is so much to learn from people who have suffered deep tragedy that we can only imagine. They have not only managed to survive, but have continued to live with hope for whatever the future brings. The poverty that one sees in Africa is truly heart-wrenching and it is sickening to witness firsthand the inequity that exists in the world. But there is also so much beauty and grace. Whenever I return home from yet another visit to this fascinating continent and am asked about what I think of Africa, I reply “Once you know, you can never not know... meaning that when you actually see and experience Africa in all its splendor and all its tragedy, it stays in your heart forever.“

So you want to be a volunteer? By all means, do it... but understand that you are just a tiny speck of humanity in this vast, mysterious continent.

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