By Nihad Ćehić
- Have you ever thought of volunteering abroad? I hadn’t.
Faced with the hundreds of stalls at Fresher’s Fair I found myself gravitating towards the usual suspects – sports, music societies, filmmaking etc. I walked straight past the volunteering stands without even picking up a freebie and giving an obligatory email in currency.
It wasn’t until second year when a volunteering opportunity took me by surprise. A friend of mine had been to South Africa over the summer to volunteer for an entirely volunteer-run charity called Tenteleni.
I had never really thought about volunteering before, sort of discounted the thought without ever exploring it. I thought, “It will probably cost too much, involve lots of hard work and my time would be better spent getting a job.” Sound familiar? So, when my friend started showing me photographs of her project in Lekazi, South Africa I had no expectations as to where looking at the photographs would lead me. As I sifted through the photos I started to ask questions: “What work were you doing here? How did you raise the money? Was it a good experience?” With each answer her excitement about her time in South Africa came through and I was starting to get excited too. It just seemed so interesting. My main concern was the financial aspect, but my friend had raised over £600 from a single letter. I knew it was something I had to do.
The next day I emailed Tenteleni and applied. Eight months later, I was in Johannesburg airport with my project partner from uni looking for the rest of my group. I had been placed in Barberton, South Africa – close to the world famous Kruger National Park. The drive from Johannesburg to Barberton was long and uncomfortable, but the company was brilliant, and the sheer excitement of seeing wild zebras on route certainly beat my squirrel spotting escapades on the Number 4 to uni.
My project lasted eight weeks. I worked in a rural Primary School every day as an assistant to the local educators. The students were fantastic! They were fascinated by everything we taught them and had a real drive to learn from us. The educators were equally welcoming; the school’s English Teacher even renamed me ‘Mandla’ upon arrival (a SiSwati name meaning ‘Power’).
In the evenings we worked on a number of placements: we worked in a HIV Care Centre where I taught Street Dance (in reality, I was doing most of the learning); we volunteered at a nearby drop-in clinic supporting local volunteers who brought food and company for over 400 homeless children daily and set up links for a national book charity to raise literacy levels in Barberton.
I was working 12 hour days; my initial perception of volunteering abroad being hard work was right. However, I was also right by not being deterred. I never felt like I was working – every task seemed worthwhile and energised me further.
On the other hand, my perception about getting a job being a better use of time was wrong. The skills I learnt on project were invaluable. I learnt how to communicate and problem solve in unfamiliar and challenging environments. Something most part time jobs would struggle to provide with the same quality.
Since graduating from university I have spent three years working in the education sector and I am now a Project Manager. I owe my career success to this experience as it has helped to redefine what I value in my life and given me the skills to achieve my goals. I am eternally grateful.
So, have you ever thought of volunteering abroad?
To find out more information about Tenteleni and their projects visit: www.tenteleni.org