When mentioning to friends and family that you’re about to set off for half a years travel in Africa, it’s usually one of the two stereotypes that you get greeted with. First is the exotic one: that each day you’ll be setting out on safari trips and wildlife expeditions where you’ll be found submerged in all that is ‘natural’ and ‘wild,’ things you’d never find at home. The second is more reminiscent of a charity poster: images of the bare planes of Africa, a ‘wasteland’ littered by small villages in which every other person you meet is suffering from some form of disease. Thankfully, my half a year in Africa was nothing of the sort, though admittedly the purpose of my visit was to work in two key areas with charities which sought to empower local communities, and aid their move toward self-sufficiency.
The first clear memory I have of my trip was leaving the airport, where after waving goodbye to my incredibly apprehensive parents, involved discussing with the two friends who were accompanying me on the volunteering mission a few particulars of our imminent journey. One of these friends had family in Dar es Salaam, and after reassuring me that we had all the appropriate documentation for entry into the country, he reminded us of particular bribes that we were expected to offer to certain officials if we were stopped at any point on our journey to Tanzania. Luckily, we made it across safely and bribe-free, and were shown to our place of residence for the next three months: a beach ‘penthouse’ with gigantic spiders and geckos littering every surface we could see.
Our first project took place at an orphanage run by a large family of Irish expatriates. The orphanage itself had grown year upon year, from being once a small home to just ten children, to growing into a communal area for over two hundred children. The family, and the charity through which they ran the project, had a good deal of existing experience in transferring communities to self-sufficient practices. We had observed that one of the orphanage’s key fundraising schemes was through chicken cages – a method of force feeding chickens, selling their eggs and then slaughtering them, selling these into markets.
While this project had a sense of initiative about it, those running the orphanage had recognised that due to thievery, wild predators and generally variable weather conditions, relying on chickens as a primary source of income was hardly viable. This is where we came in, and through our time at the orphanage, we helped as labourers to build and construct a holding house for what was to become an internet cafe. Having spotted a niche in the area, the local heads of the charity project wanted to transform the once-tiny home for children into the region’s tech hub, a location which would draw income from several local communities around the area.
In Mombasa, Kenya, our task could hardly have been more different. The job descriptions we were given were simple: we were to make sure children whose families were receiving ‘school aid,’ a charity child education fund, were actually attending the schools rather than working on behalf of their families. While this didn’t sound nearly as demanding as our job in Tanzania, we constantly found ourselves exhausted, chasing the same children over and over again. Since my trip, we have been in contact with these schools, two-thirds of whom now say that they are operating at full capacity with children.
Whilst it is near impossible to capture the spirit and detail of a six month trip to Africa in a page of writing, I can say that the volunteering mission and the journey itself held some of the most memorable moments of my travels. I had been anticipating poor and run-down images of Africa, yet I came away with a wholly different perspective of the countries I visited and the continent as a whole.
Photo courtesy of Scallop Holden