Written by Milly Whitehead on 12 / 03 / 2014
Gap Year Advice
At some point in our lives most of us have thought: ‘I’d like to give something back’. Many of us have felt this way in particular about countries on the African continent blighted by famine, wars and corruption.
If you are a rational thinking, ethically-attuned human being living in a society unaffected by the daily struggle to survive, then it is natural to feel you’d like to give your time, skills or at the very least spend some of your relative good fortune (I write this with caution, knowing you might not feel particularly feel great fortune flowing from your pockets!) with those that have had a more difficult start in life.
However, very few people get much further than the thinking stage! It’s easier to sit on the couch and give a few pounds to charity than motivate yourself up, out and into action.
Volunteering at home gets overtaken by a busy social life and the idea of volunteering in Africa sounds fantastic on pape. But it becomes less attractive once you start doing the sums, totting up the cost of international flights, visas and covering your costs for the length of a project.
For many, that’s the end of the journey – a few more pennies are tossed into the charity jar and the door closes.
But if you do get yourself into gear then the results, both personal and for those whose lives you touch, can be remarkable. Here are just a few of the amazing rewards you can expect from taking action.
First off, you'll be ensuring that your money goes direct to the project you have chosen to help. By comparison, handing over money to large charities with big overheads – or seeing your taxes feed into foreign aid, which can then ‘distributed’ by corrupt governments, you have very little control or understanding of the impact your donation has made.
Using the services of a gap year travel company to place you in a well-managed and supported project needn’t feel like a gamble with your money either.
There are plenty of great gap organisations (both in the charity and private sector) which operate transparently and invest your fees in an ethical way. You can check Price Pie, a website that verifies that placement fees are spent in an ethical and fair way way.
You'll also have an opportunity to see firsthand the infrastructure, education systems and politics of the country where you are working. This experience will give you valuable insight as to the challenges and obstacles to development way more than any television programme or class ever could.
If you're like me, you'll fine it will instil an appreciation for the incredible people working to overcome them on a local scale, too.
You will gain an understanding of the cultural reasons that some projects fail, such as when charity handouts of mosquito nets to poor communities are seen to be of more value as fishing nets than as protection for sleeping children. The importance of education suddenly becomes crystal clear when you see something like that!
It’s important to see that not all 'great' project ideas work first time, and to understand the reasons for that so that you engage with the real issues at play. Development can be a slow process and understanding that can be the start of a passion and personal journey to really make a difference.
This understanding will stay with you for life, sharing your experiences with others will help to disband development myths about Africa being a helpless cause and motivate others to contribute in their own way. Hell, it might even motivate YOU to do more!
There’s plenty of talk about the globalised world expanding our social circle and connecting people from different cultures, but how many of us can honestly say our friendship group extends beyond ‘people like me’? Take a look at your Facebook friends list – how many contacts do you actually have from other continents?
We need to embrace our ability to connect globally online and seek travel experiences that genuinely put us shoulder-to-shoulder with our international neighbours. There is so much to be gained from understanding how people in other parts of the world see things differently (or, more often than not, the same way we do!).
There’s a revolution in travel going on; couch surfing is on the agenda and people are becoming more aware of the ethics of travel and ecotourism.
Finding volunteer work in Africa, or any other part of the world, will give you the chance to meet and build genuine friendships with people from a new culture. You may discover, as I did, that many Africans speak several languages despite a poor education (I was beaten hands down in many a scrabble contest, highly embarrassing considering my English degree!).
And - at the risk of gross generalisation - you'll find they are some of the most faultlessly generous and positive people you could ever meet.
You’ll also meet other volunteers who share your worldview, interests and sense of adventure. Organisations like The Leap send their volunteers overseas in teams, so you’re matched up with 5-15 other young people to live, work and play alongside.
The Leap’s programmes in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa are testament to the fact that your experience could combine challenge, reward, friendship and ultimately a life-changing experience.
The only question is: are you up for the challenge?
on 12 / 03 / 2014