Thinking about volunteering? Stop thinking, just do!

Strip back all frills: the fashion clothing, the fancy cars, the ever-evolving tech devices, the abundance of food, the constant consumer fact, strip back the water supply and electricity while we are at it, and what are you left with?

An exceptional primary school called Faith & Hope in the village of Gako Rwanda, fiercely living up to its name. Full of vibrant energetic children with the extraordinary ability to survive on thread-bare minimum, and an unquenchable thirst for education. Dusty classrooms are equipped with a piece of chalk, basic seating, and a jotter and pencil to balance on a lap. There are no iPads, overhead projectors, WiFi, electricity, play areas, libraries, air-conditioning or even formally-trained teachers.

For us, living conditions in rural Rwanda are harsh; for them it is their norm. The children are adapted to survive the heat and lack of water much better than we are. We need water to wash our hands after going to the toilet, chilled drinks when it is hot, uncontaminated water for brushing our teeth. In Gako, this does not exist.
On occasions we witnessed children secretly trying to collect drips on their tongues from the tap of a water tank that supplies water for making school porridge. Personally, the most shocking aspect was children pleading not for money, but for water...the most basic of human needs. As volunteers, it would have been thoughtless to drink from our water bottles in front of children who have a radar-like sense for detecting water. 

In a way, the lack of technology in Gako village means that the children have never been exposed to the ‘wonder world’ of the fast-paced West. Thank goodness. Other developing countries I’ve visited, regardless of poverty level, nearly always have mobile internet access. The Information Age may be transforming our lives, but it is also standardising us. A country's ancient customs, values and long-practiced rituals are diminishing in favour of a more western lifestyle. As the world evolves and exchanges information, we must  ensure we never lose the diversity of human culture along the way.

‘Together in Sport Rwanda’, a small charity, is a beacon for change within the Gako community. Focus is on improving basic human survival needs: water, food, health care and education.
Donations are currently funding the construction of a much-needed village well; supplying the school with porridge twice weekly; covering health insurance for each child; and paying annual education fees. Furthermore, there is the recently opened 'Girls Hub’ – an educational social enterprise for vulnerable teenage girls, allowing them to sell handmade products, generating their own income that feeds back into the community project.

Future donations will allow the school to increase the number of days porridge can be offered (often the only meal children eat during a week.) A donation of £36 allows another child in the village to start school and receive an all-important education. Presently there is a group of children not fortunate enough to attend Faith & Hope. They congregate under the bushes to watch the activities on the playing field, or stick their heads through the classroom window bars to listen to the teachings. It is utterly heart-breaking.

Education is a vital way to break a family circle of poverty. Even if parents are uneducated, a child that receives an education also receives a lifeline out of poverty. The students of Faith & Hope recognise this opportunity and enthusiastically sprint to start the school day every morning, bounding around classrooms with enormous amounts of energy. When they are instructed to do an activity, they follow with joy and laughter. Not a single voice complains.

It is a stark contrast to the moans often heard in British classrooms: 
“I’m not doing that Miss”, 
“I don’t like PE/Science/Maths”,
“I cant wait for the school holidays”, 
“I hate my teacher”, 
“Why should I put my iphone away in class? It’s my human right”.

Granted it is difficult to recognise that you are privileged when it is all you’ve ever known; infinitely worse when a strong sense of entitlement is thrown into the mix.

Returning home to suffocating consumerism is always a personal challenge after it has been demonstrated how little is required to live a fulfilling life. I examine all the material items I own and question why I accumulated them. I lead a fairly modest lifestyle: I don’t follow fashion or technology trends; constantly search for new ways to reduce my waste and carbon footprint; only buy secondhand; reuse and upcycle items, avoid shopping at chains or supporting brands I don't ethically agree with; yet still I own FAR TOO MUCH.  I visualise the children with holes in their one pair of donated shoes, how they don't notice or let it affect their activities, and I feel both ashamed and inspired.

Many people say, “That is their reality. This is yours. There is isn't anything you can do." NOTHING infuriates me more than this way of thinking.  Yes there is something I can do. Instead of buying my £2.70 Flat White, I can make a coffee at home and put the money towards porridge that will nourish EIGHTEEN children that day. This is the literal financial translation of donating £2.70 to ‘Together in Sport Rwanda'. It is not a silly amount, it actually makes a difference. Not a single penny is lost on administration or advertising. All funds directly benefit those beautiful smiley faces in my photographs. 
Seeing first-hand how instant the positive effects are makes everything extremely tangible. I witnessed health and energy levels rocket after porridge-time. Concentration in classrooms improved allowing teachings to be better absorbed.

Another indirect positive contribution of ‘there is something I can do’ mentality, is to keep mindful of what and why we are consuming. Does it actively benefit the greater global picture, or soley benefit ourselves? If it’s the latter, ditch the urge. Gently encourage others to examine their consumer choices and the concept of over-abundance. We are not existing in our own micro-bubbles. We are each a teeny tiny dot on a giant world atlas and our actions, whether we chose to accept it or not, have a knock-on effect on many others.

Lastly, if you have been moved to direct action and are thinking about volunteering your time to work with the students at Faith & Hope, don’t think, just DO. Find a way. Make the time. Save up the money. Ignore the excuse. You will learn infinite amounts more from the children than you could ever teach them.  You will share happiness in each other's company and forge bonds that make the world that bit smaller. The experience will leave you with a full heart, a deeper understanding of Rwandan culture, a clearer sense of life purpose, and a sharper awareness of your place on this earth.

Thank you to everyone at Faith & Hope primary school for sharing your infectious love and joyful spirits with me. This gift is sewn into my heart forever. Thank you ‘Together in Sport Rwanda’ for creating the opportunity to volunteer and introducing me to this special community. Most importantly, gratitude to charity founder Kari Spence for proving that a small-town girl with a big heart and an ambitious vision CAN significantly change lives. Her unfaultering drive to make a difference is both inspirational and motivational. Keep spreading the love Kari, you wonderful soul. 

“If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way” 


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