‘My wife, a primary school teacher, and I were at a point in our life when we could take a month or two out to join a volunteer project in Africa.
Our plan to volunteer in Swaziland evolved over a few months. First of all we thought we’d be helping work with the teaching staff and lessons in the NCPs. We then found out that my computer skills (I am a software consultant) could be used with older children. I got hold of some mini computers that I could bring and donate, and was put in touch with a volunteer on the ground in Swaziland. Together, we worked out a plan to start a coding club, which would be a new part of Homework Club run for school children who’d previously attended the NCPs.
Initially we were to fly out in January, but we were delayed when another teacher at my wife’s school left unexpectedly. It meant she could still volunteer, but later, and not for as long. Even so, we were excited and hopeful. We rescheduled so that I would start in mid-March, and she would join me in early April. Friends of mine were holidaying in Ethiopia, so I bought tickets to fly out with them to Addis Ababa at the end of February and then on to Jo’burg for Swaziland, whilst my wife’s departure flight was 3 April. We’d return to the UK at the end of April.
I followed the Covid-19 situation from Ethiopia on WiFi, or sometimes a TV in a hotel lobby. For the first 10 days in March it looked as if we’d be able to go to Swaziland as planned, and I was trying to find time to plan some lessons while experiencing amazing mountain scenery, wildlife, and history in northern Ethiopia.
Things changed quickly in mid-March, first South Africa announced UK citizens could not fly there because they were considered at risk of carrying the virus. I tried to contact their embassy to explain I’d left the UK the previous month, but the next day it became clear that Swaziland was going to follow its neighbour’s policy, close schools, and lock down. Also this day my friends’ UK return tickets were cancelled, and all of us realised there was not much time left to arrange air travel. My wife could not fly out from the UK now, and despite the disappointment we both felt, I had to abandon any plan to continue to Johannesburg, and head for home with computers and all.
We’re very disappointed we couldn’t get to Swaziland and join the programme, especially after all the planning and preparation we’d done. Clearly, all programmes are on hold, and we all wish for the day when the threat of the virus will subside. If we can go out later in the year, we really want to. Moreover we hope that the people in Swaziland, who the programme is in support of, come through this unscathed.’
‘Off to The Gambia!…… Not off to The Gambia!
Oh how I wish I was writing this email from my apartment in Kololi, The Gambia!
Instead I am at home in Chicago, Illinois, USA under quarantine due to the global pandemic. How life moves on such a different path than the one I had planned.
I temper my disappointment by entertaining thoughts of my eventual trip to The Gambia and the exciting challenges I will be taking on. I have every expectation I will be able to work with Mr Adama Bah on several projects we had discussed. The needs are great and our focus will be a blend of general education, business courses, business opportunities possibly a vegan restaurant or a retail shop. Additionally we were deciding whether to build a new school or combine the property (on land donated by the government) into rental space to generate income to sustain additional projects. It is all so exciting and challenging!
The lure of volunteering in The Gambia has not diminished at all. If anything I am more excited by the future opportunity to offer whatever I can to further economic and educational opportunities in The Gambia.
Be well. Be safe.’
I was really excited about my intended volunteer placement to The Gambia starting April 1st. At the age of 61 it was something I had thought about for a long time. Finally the kids were out of university, the mortgage was paid off and at last I could free up a bit of time and money to take the step.
The placement sounded interesting and challenging and something I felt I could really get my teeth into! Final details were in place – the placement role, the flights, insurance, DB checks, accommodation…. it was all systems go until COVID19 reared its ugly head. With only 2 weeks to go before my flight it was clear the situation was becoming more and more serious. I agonised over a weekend about whether to go or not. I was being pressured by my family not to go! In the end I decided it was too big a risk. I was so disappointed, but also somewhat relieved. Within 2 weeks the Foreign Office removed the option to travel anyway, just a couple of days before my flight was due to take off! Who could have foreseen this terrible disaster and the toll it has taken. Once we are on the other side of this pandemic I hope to take up the option again. Until then, STAY SAFE everyone!
‘My volunteering placement with People and Places was due to go ahead in April 2020, lasting a gorgeous two months on the island of St Lucia. St. Lucia, to me, was more than just a place to volunteer – my father’s side of the family are from St. Lucia and I am very in touch with the culture over here in the UK. My dream was always to go and visit my family and see the beautiful landscapes I had always seen through the pixilated photo camera screens that Aunties brought back after their vacation or on lazy Sundays watching ‘Homes in the Sun’.
So when I heard the news about Covid-19, because of how much I had worked towards this placement, how excited my family and I were for it – with just 20 days before my flight took off into the sunshine – hearing that it had been cancelled, initially left me feeling very flat and upset. It was something that meant so more to me than just a volunteering placement – it was a step closer to exploring my heritage, giving back to the island and shaping the work I want to go into in the future in international development. Nevertheless after hearing the increasing worsening of the situation with Covid-19 it came apparent that it would not have been a safe option regardless. Health is most important, and I have vulnerable family members over 70 years old, posing a threat to them would’ve been detrimental for their health.
One thing that I have heavily reflected on over the weeks leading up to when I would’ve been in St Lucia is how grateful I am of the experiences that I had gained in the lead up to this placement. The people I met, all due to me needing to raise the money for my trip. If this experience had been handed to me on a plate – there is no way that I would have met the people I have. It has opened my eyes to the experiences that are around me and showed me that if I want something, I have the capacity to work hard for it.
I had started working towards this placement as soon as I finished my A Level examinations – I was going to volunteer at Lady Gordon Opportunity Centre, a centre which aids children with disabilities and special educational needs. As I was completely financially independent of my parents I had to work hard to raise the money and committed to three jobs. I decided to carry on as a waitress at the university of Oxford full time, but I also wanted to get as much out of my free time as I could. I decided to volunteer in my local community as I felt as though I could really prepare myself for my placement and furthermore help those who needed it in my immediate area. I soon came across an organisation called ‘The Parasol Project’ a charity that works with the most vulnerable children – some who are severely disabled and others who have no SEN needs but come from a family experiencing hardship. The Parasol Project aims to bring children with all background and needs together in a safe environment – often children with disabilities are separated from children in mainstream schools and our aim is to remove this divide. This volunteering fortunately led to me becoming employed at the charity and firming me my position as a Youth Worker within the organisation, therefore, boosting my confidence and hugely benefitting the experience I had to offer when reaching St. Lucia. Because I enjoyed my role as a youth worker so much, I decided to sign up with an agency working as a teaching assistant. My role at Parasol was only 2 days a week and due to the flexibility of waitressing, in the daytime I was usually free, giving me the time to work for an agency in local SEN schools within my area. I was gifted the amazing opportunity to work in a school with children with severe autism and learn about how those who have autism function and how to benefit them most.
As well as my own personal benefits, I have also reflected on how the cancellation of my placement may have affected the people of St. Lucia. A pandemic as wide as this one has detrimental effects on the livelihood and economic stability of such a small island. The lack of tourism can destroy generational business, charities and generally the way people make their income. Without buying local goods, spending holidays in the Caribbean Sea – a island like this could see damage like no other. St Lucia is still a developing country and, in the future, we need to ensure we are using volunteering organisations like People and Places who operate sustainably, helping the economy and using the costs of the placement to benefit local people and families who have had work stripped away from them.
In conclusion and reflection, St Lucia will always be a part of me. The culture is still very present in my family– we have kept it strong and the island will never not be a part of my identity. I am heading to the University of Sussex in September to study International Development. Therefore, I may even be a better suited individual for the placement if I have the knowledge I will gain at University. Every cloud has a silver lining and I hope everyone who had a placement cancelled this year can go again in the future. I hope we can all take this time to slow down, reflect on what matters the most to all of us and furthermore – appreciate the life we have. Keep safe.’
If you feel you could offer remote help to any of these projects while we are unable to travel during the coronavirus pandemic please email firstname.lastname@example.org
If you would like to learn more about volunteering in Swaziland, The Gambia or Saint Lucia please follow these links: https://travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk/projects/309/Swaziland-education-development-(ED) https://travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk/projects/192/building-livelihoods-in-The-Gambia-(BA) https://travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk/projects/281/benefitting-children-in-Saint-Lucia-through-education-(CDS)