In the summer of 2012 I volunteered in Livingstone, Zambia as a teaching and community development volunteer. I had always been an avid supporter of non-profits, particularly those focussed on the fundamental human rights of access to water, hygiene, health and sanitation. But fundraising alone just wasn’t enough. Money, whilst essential for emergency relief, doesn’t always get to the root of the issue in driving sustainable change. I needed to roll up my own sleeves and put my own two hands to work.
Waddling off with the world’s heaviest backpack drowning my frame, I started the epic journey from Manchester to Livingstone. I pictured what was ahead, excited yet nervous to experience first-hand a world so unlike my own. But nothing could prepare me for the experiences I was about to have, the deep friendships I would form, and the profound and pervasive impact on my outlook on life that was round the corner. Arriving at the volunteer camp, I was physically exhausted from travel but mentally impassioned with adrenaline running through my veins. I was led to my dorm where I dropped my bag and sat on my bunk. I took a moment to reflect on my surroundings, and the stark contrast from my bedroom at home. Hard floors, basic beds, and a single shelf for my belongings. Here, necessity trumped luxury; western materialistic tendencies replaced by practicality. Setting the tone for the weeks to come, I felt comforted by the modest environment before heading out to meet with the other volunteers. Waking up to my first working morning, I was roused by what lay ahead. I jumped into the rickety volunteer van and travelled some 35 minutes on uneven roads to a local under-resourced school to support as a teaching assistant for underprivileged children, many of whom travel over an hour on foot simply to attend. Stepping my first foot into the classroom, I felt butterflies rising up and dancing around my stomach: ‘What if they don’t like me? What if I can’t give them what they need? How can simple old me make a difference?’ Sat upright in a dusty classroom with broken windows and inadequate desks, 7 eager-eyed children looked back at me. As the morning progressed and the nerves faded, I was struck by the politeness, the obedience and the sheer desire to learn and ‘do better’ for themselves and their family. Mesmerised by their infectious smiles and sincerity, I felt honoured to teach them. Later I’d learn it was them who were teaching me. After a short lunch break, I headed back on the volunteer van to head to the afternoon community projects. The nature of these changed each day, but my first day involved supporting at Maramba’s local Old People’s Home. I could never have envisaged what lay ahead. As the entrance opened, I was greeted by a mini-community – various huts with the odd tree dancing around them - a warm, inviting and a safe and happy place. As I looked closer however, reality struck me. A scene of limping dogs and emaciated figures, too tired or too delinquent to notice the van passing through. I felt my stomach sink and my eyes begin to well-up. This was real – not a moving picture on a television screen - and I was right in the centre of it. Stepping out, I was told we had to go into the huts and encourage the residents to come to the communal area and join us for games, colouring and music. As I precariously set-out, passing head-first through a wall of flies, I encouraged an old blind man I later learnt was called ‘Patrick’ to join us. He spoke no English, but despite the barrier of language, his warming eyes said a million words of sincerity. As the games commenced, I looked up to the room around me. Time appeared to freeze. To the left, a blind woman with a deformed mouth and dementia-ridded, blissfully happy making patterns with crayons and singing to herself. To the right, a volunteer playing the guitar and singing with two old men, tapping their feet and nodding their head to beat of the rhythm. Ahead, a group of women grazing over books, fascinated by the colourful pictures and deep in thought. Suddenly all my apprehension dissolved. These people were so frail, so old, so sick, so deformed and mentally confused, living in a dirty, fly-ridden community. Yet they enjoyed the pure gift of living and took deep joy from experiencing the simplicity of the moment. I can’t put into words how I felt at that very moment, but the feeling will stay with me forever.
As the weeks went by, I continued to spend my mornings teaching at the local school, and my afternoons on a variety of community uplift projects. At the farm, I helped plough and water the tomato and banana plots; James the farmer – despite losing his brother the day I arrived – never failed to wear a heartfelt smile upon his face. At the After School Club, I was swarmed by young children eager to play, hold my hand and with so much love to give, some as young as 6 holding their 4 month old siblings strapped to their back. And at the Adult Literacy Classes, I taught Rachel and Ann basic verbs and adjectives. At the end of my time with them, Ann stuttered that she wanted to give me something to show her deep appreciation, but apologised that she had nothing to give. I told her that her smile and eagerness to learn was a gift in itself – and it really was. When my final day arrived and I had to say goodbye to my new family and friends, every bone in my body and neuron in my brain struggled to resist the inevitable. My time volunteering had pulled me out of the routine of life and placed me into reality. It opened up a whole new world to me. A world I did not want to leave. So whilst intending to teach in Zambia, Zambia taught me. Firstly, as a volunteer, I have seen the reality of life at its most basic core. To see communities of skin and bone, families struggling to get by. These things make you appreciate anything above the core basics of life – anything not absolutely required for survival, even something as simple as a hair tie or a pair of socks. Juxtaposed to this is the unbelievable happiness many people in these places display. And not a false smile, but a warming heart-felt joy for the simple things in life – for the taste food, the refreshment of water, the sound of music, and the companionship of family. This incessant heartbeat of contentment pulsed through every local I met.
Finally, on a personal level, not only did it teach me resilience, inner strength and confidence when faced with a radical culture shock and testing situations, but it enabled me to develop both as a leader and a team member. Moreover, it challenged me to think differently about the world, about what we value in life, and how each and every one of us is empowered to make a positive difference in this world. Zambia was truly magical to me, fostering a zest for life that energises and drives my desire to continuously improve every day. I will never forget it. About the author Carly Davies is from Manchester, England and volunteered on the Community Volunteer Programme in Livingstone, Zambia in 2012. She studied Law at the University of Oxford and currently works in London. She loves anything and everything to do with live music, and has a passion for travelling and supporting community development. Would you like to experience our projects in Livingstone, Zambia and have a life changing experience like Carly did? You can choose from our teaching and community project, our healthcare and community program or you can even volunteer over the Christmas holidays!