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IT STARTED as a faint whisper, a presence barely noticeable in a room of crowded adolescent thoughts. A silent, shadowy figure constantly seeking out my attention.
Many years later, and the whisper grows louder and louder still, kicking, screaming, blazing away from deep inside. And as I enter adulthood and forge my own path in the world, there is but one thought at fore of my mind: I want to change the world. And I want the world to be better because I was here.
Growing up I was always frustrated by these ideals. I had set the bar so high, it was impossible to reach. Ordinary life could not compete with the glitter of my dreams, and hopes of any reconciliation seemed futile.
There was so much injustice going on in the world. I was constantly seeing images of countries, people, devastated by war, poverty, inequality, disease, natural disasters. Images of families with starving children, of mothers and fathers desperate for food for their children, of people begging for help burned themselves into my eyes. I cannot even begin to explain to you how deeply, and how much of an impact that had on me as a young sixteen year old. And here I was, learning languages I would never speak, and subjects I would never need, all in the quest to be graded like cattle. I felt like I was achieving nothing and that my existence was futile. What did any of this really matter when people were dying in another country not so far away? I remember there was a point when I wanted to drop out of school, discard education and its paper certificates and set sail to do something. The world needs real tangible action, I thought. But I persevered anyway and followed the prescribed course, knowing that when the time came, I would go out and travel and do all of those things. I would explore the world and see it all for myself.
Many years have passed, and many things have changed since then. And that time has finally come. Forgive the clichés, but I have dreamed of this day for so long that I can’t help but dwell on it. But that’s where the idealism ends and the romanticism also evaporates. I came to Botswana, Africa as always, with that same goal in my mind but with low expectations of what I would really be able to achieve and how I would really be able to help. And since arriving here the question I have asked myself over and over again is – Am I getting in the way more than I am helping? Am I really needed here? What can I offer that they don’t have already? How worthwhile is this?
Whilst fundraising and preparing for my journey on the ICS programme, I told people that I was coming here to Botswana, to help people who have HIV/AIDS. I have been here for three weeks and how have I spent my time so far, what have I been doing? Well the first week we spent in the capital with the other two placement groups (also teams of 4 people) receiving some excellent in country training on language, government structures, our placements etc. The second week was mostly settling into our placement town of Maun, and getting to grips with our partner organisation – BONEPWA, the Botswana network for people living with HIV/AIDS. I was ill for most of that week with a throat infection. And now we’re already midway through the third week.
I have to admit. I have been very cautious about the impact we would have here. Before I came I spoke to someone who had spent a number of years volunteering and doing some research in international development here in Africa (can’t remember the country). And as I answered the usual questions about where I was going and what I was doing, she seemed unusually unimpressed and unmoved by it. I received all manner of reactions when telling people I was coming to Africa to volunteer. Some were really impressed, inspired even by my choice. Some were more downcast, confused even – “Do they have gyms in Africa?”, “Isn’t Africa one country?”, looking at me as if I was going to a jungle, a desolate wilderness where I would be constantly at risk by lions, gangs, guns and all kinds of exotic diseases lurking at every corner. Let me tell you now, Botswana (and probably most of the 53 countries in Africa) is not like that in the slightest. But more on that later. Anyway, I asked this young woman about her experience of going abroad and volunteering, something which I had always wanted to do and was really looking forward to, and I was struck by something she said to me. She had been there for quite a few years and talked passionately about how much she had enjoyed the place and what she had been doing, but now I found her working in a school in Winchester as a chef. So I asked her why she had left and abandoned all of that, it was clearly something she cared a lot about and worked for a long time on. And she said that she felt that the more that she got involved and engrossed in all the issues and fighting to make a change, she began to realise more and more that it wasn’t really helping, and that a lot of the time, we inadvertently go there with our foreign perspectives and make things more difficult. We need to leave them be and let them get on with it, we’re interfering too much. Let them fight their own battles.
The reason why it made an impact on me is because it made sense. The first thing we were asked when we met our project co-ordinator was what skills do you have? What can you do? The question was piercing and thrust upon us like a bucket of cold ice. And through my own studies and reading, as well the experience unfolding in front of me I realise the importance and need for practical skills. They need skilled people – doctors, pharmacists, researchers, nurses. It is not that I don’t have skills to share or contribute. I just ask myself, and wonder of the countless other volunteers in other countries in Africa and Asia right now – are we helping or getting in the way? We come here expecting to make big lasting changes that are immediate and fix everything. But it doesn’t work that way. And the world doesn’t need our ‘help’. We don’t know the language, the customs, the problems, THE HISTORY of these countries and their people and we intentionally or not, act like foreigners. What do I really know about HIV/AIDS? Before I came I didn’t even know what they meant. They were just abbreviations that conjured up vague pictures of disease associated with sex.
My view of the disease has been made so much clearer and so much sharper through my efforts to read up on it and to study while I am here. But what of other volunteers? What of the other volunteers who bring our British way of living, for all its positives and negatives? Coming to Africa is seen almost as the ‘fashionable’ or ‘saintly’ thing to do – come and help some poor African children, like the ones we see so often on TV. But how many of us actually get to really know and understand the cultures and people we are living with and meant to be helping? How many of us will take the time to learn the language, understand the cultures and respect the customs?
Because if we don’t understand these places and people, how can we really help? And so I ask… why am I here? Why are we here? And is it a good thing?
To be continued…