The sceptical volunteer

We have volunteered while living in the UK, and there has always been a desire on our part to do some volunteering along the way, to share our skills with others.  At the same time, we didn’t want to get caught up in the volun-tourism industry where you are required to pay a large fee to volunteer/work for a week.  Lastly, we wanted to avoid contributing to a culture of dependency – a big problem in Africa – where locals become accustomed to the mizungus (white people) giving them everything they need.

Surprisingly, this was quite difficult to achieve.

Our first attempt was – sadly – disappointing.  We were given our task for the day, just near the camp, while the rest of the group headed out for the rest of the day with the only vehicle to another site for their work.  At the start, from our own knowledge, we believed that the design was doomed to fail, so our first dilemma was whether to do the work or not. Of course, we didn’t want our efforts to go to waste.  With no-one to discuss this with, benefit of the doubt was given, and we rolled up our sleeves.

Maybe we were too efficient at our job, maybe the project leader didn’t fully understand the task we were given.  But in any case, we had used up all the resources at hand by 0930, and were faced with a day of waiting around until everyone else returned.  For various reasons, we understood that it was unlikely more resources would be available for a few days – so more days of sitting around loomed.

All in all, disappointing.

Another opportunity, was at a new NGO.  Their various projects involve nursery children in nearby villages, but playing with children held no appeal for us.  They also told us they were preparing for the arrival of their first UK group of volunteers.  They still had quite a lot to do getting the site ready to receive 40 students and we felt we could use our knowledge and skills in this endeavour.  They had a long list of tasks, and we made some further suggestions based on living in campsites for the last 10 months.

Over 4 days, we extended the electricity supply into the 5th of 6 chalets and helped to ensure 3 chalets were ready for guests; worked on the shower block to ensure all doors had working locks and enough hooks; organised the shed; transferred knowledge for campsite layout and facilities; gave input to vehicle mechanics … and as with any tasks, dealt with lots of inevitable little hiccups along the way!

All in all, it was rewarding, it was fun, great people, and we felt that we had used our skills to help.

So, what did we learn from our experiences?

We’ve come to realise that we are not the usual volunteer, in an NGO / aid organisation sense.  Having completely gutted and ‘modernised’ our flat and prepped our vehicle for this adventure, we have a lot of practical skills and knowledge that we can draw on.

We found that the challenge for project leaders is to have an overall vision of what needs doing, and not to ‘invent’ tasks for volunteers to do.  We specifically – and we think volunteers generally – don’t like to sit about idly.  A list of projects to complete or tasks to undertake should be complemented by having a reasonable amount of resources available.

So, for now, our volunteering bug has been sent to hibernation.  We have immense respect for people whose passion lies in the NGO, charity and aid sector.  Our interest is more commercial, and we’ll be keeping an eye out for an enticing “Management Couple Wanted” role.


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