Have you ever thought about volunteering? Have you ever thought of leaving your home to go and volunteer in another country? Have you ever wanted to go to Africa? I had thought about this, but up until 4 years ago it was only a dream. Then, in 2012 I decided to take the plunge and become a volunteer in Africa. I decided that I would go for two weeks, telling myself that even if it was really bad I could pretty much handle anything for two weeks, so off I went!
May 2016 and I have just returned from my 4th project in Africa as a volunteer and I am already thinking about my next trip! I spent 5 weeks as a Conservation Education Intern through African Impact with the African Lion Environmental Research Trust (ALERT) at Antelope Park, Gweru in Zimbabwe. A sudden change in school holiday dates in Zimbabwe left me arriving 3 days before schools went on a 5 week break. As a teacher eager to teach in Africa this was a disappointment but with the quick thinking of the Education Program Manager and some handy contacts, an eager group of 27 children from two local churches willingly gave up their holiday time to spend 3 hours a day for 2.5 weeks learning about conservation.
The group consisted of boys and girls aged between 9 and 16 with varying levels of English and Emmanuel, a 3-year-old grandson of one of the church leaders. Armed with my manual and with the help and support of the coordinators and my fellow volunteers, we began. The course, developed in conjunction with ALERT, Coventry University in the UK and Midland State University in Zimbabwe provides a comprehensive introduction to environmental conservation, ecology and biodiversity, sustainability and wildlife management with a focus on African environments and practical ideas and activities. Modules include Conservation, African Animals, African Habitats, African Countries, African Cats and Tracks and Signs.
Our mornings began at 9am at the beautifully painted ALERT Education Centre and ended at 12 with children being transported to and from the centre by an Antelope Park Safari truck. Each day began with a song and prayer followed by an activity or game to consolidate previous learning. Apart from traditional written work students also viewed short videos and pictures on our one computer and eagerly completed homework and projects.
As a teacher from Australia, learning how to prepare, develop and implement lessons without the use of the usual modern technological devices and aids was a challenge, however it forced me to be more creative and flexible and to think more carefully and critically about my teaching and how best to engage my students.
One of the highlights of the program was the day trip to Antelope Park for all the children who had successfully completed the course (all 27 of them)! The day began with an
opportunity to get close and personal with the 4 elephants at the park, followed by a horse ride, snake induction, a game drive to view many of the park’s animals in their natural habitat and a visit to the lion enclosures to view the ALERT program in action. A certificate ceremony followed with much dancing and singing to cap off a truly special day. For most of the children this was their first time seeing and interacting with animals that form part of their own environmental heritage.
This project has not only been a wonderfully rewarding experience but has made me more determined to put the lessons taught into practise in my own life. It also highlighted the value of education as a means to informing and inspiring others to be the catalyst for change in their own communities.
No matter what area you choose to volunteer in (and there are many) you will find that your efforts will be rewarded many times over. You will develop new skills, a new confidence and friendships with people, young and old, from all over the world. Your horizons will be broadened and you will come away with a sense that you can make a difference.
I have come away with the knowledge that my role as an intern in this project, in some small way, has helped light a spark in these children that will inspire them to continue to develop the skills and understanding necessary for them to build a brighter and more optimistic future for themselves, their community and the world.
Now what could be better than that?