This is the story of my experience as a volunteer in Africa. Cross-cultural awareness is an important part of my story. I felt I obtained a stronger perspective on the subject when going through the program `Fighting with the poor.`
People who volunteer in Africa habitually mention the Culture-shock. Volunteers that become a Development Instructor (D.I.) finds that it renders an extremely abundant series of eye-opening experiences. The situations present themselves in multiple forms, as in life, and the line of action of a D.I. is to identify, out-line, and execute solutions to issues that might be of any sort.
How life is as a Volunteer in Africa
The first issue presented itself to me at the Vocational School Project in Guinea Bissau while visiting the school`s orchard. During the first week of my six month stay I was introduced to the facilities of the school. Upon noticing the plants all looking exhaustively dehydrated our conversation steered towards climate change, its present impact world-wide and the lack of water specifically regarding Guinea Bissau. The host, showing me around, said that rain seasons were dwindling, less water every year, and how big a problem nation-wide it currently is.
In one year’s term the rain season only lasts between one and two months whereas years before floods were a commonplace item. With this short and intense down-pour the country has to make due for the rest of the year. Access to general information is not habitually exercised nor is it an easy thing to obtain. Taking this into consideration, alternatives to irrigating an orchard in the dry season can be a considerable challenge. We talked for weeks about options and alternatives to alleviate the absence of water. I repeatedly mentioned what other countries, did to harvest water. I showed photographs to teachers at the school, drawing pictures several times. Researching what we could was important. There were also ideas for where they could find resources for solutions to other problems that might present themselves in the future.
Getting down to the details
Talking figuratively, or in theory, or posing hypothetical was challenging in this environment. I finally decided to aid explanations with graphs and visual material. I managed even though I found people having trouble picturing what I was proposing the message was coming across. A gutter attached to a twenty metre by six metre zinc roof with a drain pipe. This was leading into a reservoir to collect water for the dry season. Nods and congratulations seemed to be in order, but I think it it was only half understood. It still gave me a glimmer of hope that some teachers were getting familiar with the concept. Even venturing their own impressions and explaining the idea to the rest. This forwarded an approved budget.
Before anything was produced, and by sheer chance, Paul Akkermann showed up and made a very generous donation, through contacting the Director of the school, he had his team build a 5000 litre calabash tank as a reservoir. www.degevuldewaterkruik.nl This tank is very cost effective, built out of chicken wire and cement; the quality of this resulting tank is very high. Especially if one considers the costs that are so low due to the materials used. Mud bricks form a perfect cylinder. They give shape and support the building of the structure until it dries. In the end the bricks are removed you find the organic shape of a calabash a reservoir tank results.
The end results
Several months into the project a budget came forth. We started out to buy the materials in the busy central market place in the capital. Subsequently we made way back to the school, seventy five kilometres away. After negotiating and purchasing, we made our way. There were several delays in order to get access to the tools for the installation, as expected. The people in charge of safe-keeping said tools were not there at the time. There was a local and a National holiday. The students finally gathered the tools. The students participated purporting an interaction with a novel concept to them. The installing of a gutter to a roof was a small event. It was and still is subject to scaling up if ever it is needed to accumulate more water for the Dry season`s irrigation.
Being a volunteer in Africa changed me
The happening was integrated to the weekly ¨common actions¨. They are, broadly speaking, the back-bone to how the current projects manage to maintain and make themselves evolve. Actions in community: a trend that might be perceived as radical in such meritocratic and isolationist contemporary times.
The teachers and the students liked the actions implemented. It left a precedent that will serve as a reference to replicate, their first water harvesting system.
The experience as a volunteer in Africa and interacting with locals can be overwhelming. However one can learn here that it is not what we say but how we say it. It can teach us what we do and it helps to get rid of incomprehension and misunderstanding. When this barrier is surpassed bonds and opportunities surge, from getting a job offer, or getting to know new wonderful exotic places, to becoming BFFs with the most unsuspected characters!
Intrigued? Read other stories from DI’s who was a volunteer in Africa here.