by Lauren Shuttlesworth
We’ve all seen the photographs. And the ads on TV. The crying children with the skinny arms and bloated bellies, staring into the camera with their enormous eyes. That’s what I pictured when I signed up to volunteer in Africa. I’d seen a lot of poverty whilst traveling overseas, but had never before stepped up and actually done something about it. My mum had always talked about wanting to volunteer as a teacher, but sadly, she passed away before she ever got the chance. So In August last year I headed to Kenya, and spent a month teaching children at a small preschool and orphanage. I signed up for the project through a fantastic organisation called African Impact. There are ALOT ‘voluntour’ companies out there, and it really pays to do some research before you leave home. Ensure that the one you choose is ethical and financially responsible. I decided on African Impact because they are the largest ‘on-the-ground’ or African-based volunteer travel organisation out there, and, more importantly, they were very transparent about where my funds ended up.
When I first arrived at the project, I was a little bit shocked. As soon as I walked through the rickety preschool gate, about a dozen or so children rushed up to greet me. They were smiling and laughing. They latched onto every available limb and called out every English phrase they knew. ‘Hallo! How are you! What your name?’ There was no shyness, no tantrums - just squeals of total delight.
The preschool was tiny – just two bathroom sized rooms with patched walls and dirt floors. The children crammed onto rows of little benches so tight that all of their arms touched. There weren’t enough pencils to go round, so half the class had to wait for the other half to finish before they could complete their work. Paper was also scarce, and the kids would beg for more of it. But boy, were they eager to learn! They all lined up patiently after their work was complete, waiting for me to give them more. The play area consisted of a single red slide, and the only toys available were discarded bike tyre tubes and sticks, broken pens, and a few long pieces of rope. But the kids had vivid imaginations, as all kids do, and they used them at full force. Rope was tied in such a way to become a bus, or the frame of a house, or the main component of a complex skipping game. Hair was braided and re-braided. Or at least mine was. ‘Gai!’ they all exclaimed when I first pulled it out. They had never seen hair that long before. It took me hours to unravel the tiny plaits every single night. After a month in Kenya it was difficult to leave. I’d gotten to know the children so well. I’d taught them new games and songs and English words, and they taught me a bunch of Swahili words that I still don’t know the meaning of. It was an incredible, enriching experience, something I will do again. So if you’ve been thinking about volunteering in Africa, or anywhere else in the world that matter, do some research and make it happen. You’ll walk away with more than the usual memories, photos and souvenirs I promise you – it’s the best kind of travel there is. If you want follow in Laurens footsteps then check out our Kenya projects HERE as well as some of our other community projects HERE