Jessica Sharma’s Volunteer Experience
Another volunteer and myself assisted women with their bead and jewellery making, which was their main income generating activity. We bonded with these women, gained their trust, which enabled us to retrieve their stories. We aimed to use them as a selling point to attach to the necklaces and bracelets, so that buyers would be connected more than a purchase and encouraged to spread the word. We attempted to search for market stalls and online ventures to sell these products to wider audiences, and eventually were able to set up business partnerships with a couple of hotel owners to sell with no profit.
Additionally, we taught basic negotiation in English and how to build rapport with customers. We met women from other villages who had savings and loans programs to allow themselves to fuel their business dreams in a supportive network of women, and some which were overcoming being sex trafficking victims.
With the children, we went to a local Internet café each afternoon and printed out free colouring worksheets, crosswords, generated maths equations, sentence structures, etc. We then split up the kids into aged-based groups to better cater to teaching to them and discover their learning needs. We had to make a teaching plan balancing work and play, adapting to what they were used to. A lot of fun was had playing soccer and teaching educational games. The most rewarding experiences was when there was at least one child who learnt something they never knew, and probably wouldn’t for another couple of years.
The number of children within Noel Orphanage overwhelmed me. Rooms full of babies and toddlers, dorms separate for boys and girls, and a handful that were in their early 20’s. I didn’t even get to meet everyone! For the first week I spent getting to know everyone, touring around the compound, and falling in love with all the babies and mummas that take such good selfless care of them when they also have families of their own. With the hair braiding skills of the girls and the nail polishes I had brought, we started a mini salon which was so much fun. But it was the young boys who were the most friendly and willing to participate. We went to the beach, set up food stands in the markets for the disabled and elderly, played basketball, cards and hosted a dance party. Each day I’d spend a couple hours teaching English and Maths on the backboards, and private tutoring with others aged 8-14, as it was impossible to teach everyone on my own.
One of the volunteers I was with was a nurse, so I was fortunate enough to travel with her and visit a couple of the clinics. It was such an eye opening and emotional experience. To see the lack of hygiene aids, only a few good nurses, and patients with no aftercare because it just couldn’t be funded.
One of the highlights of my trip was seeing the street kids. A pair of previous volunteers who had returned independently had introduced us to a Rwandan woman who had built a home, dedicated to housing and feeding streets kids. Seeing kids as young as 5 chopping for firewood and cooking meals in a massive cauldron broke my heart. We took the initiative to fundraise for food via Facebook from our friends, and pooled in money to buy clothes, shoes, and toys. Although it is only a temporary solution, and not sustainable, the smiles and laughter were priceless.
What did you find interesting?
Kigali, the main city of Rwanda was to my surprise so modern. So clean, and crime free form what I saw, I honestly considered living there. I was so relieved to see flushing toilets, movie theatres, nightclubs, and café’s serving coffee, burgers and the best milkshakes I’ve ever tasted. The memorials were so difficult to visit. The Kigali Memorial Centre is so beautiful and tributes to other genocides from around the world, it’s great for those who want to learn what happened, and it very large. The church memorials, which are further out, were, I can’t even describe. We all cried so much and were so frustrated at how the world sat back and looked on, labelling it as a tribal issue. It’s a must see.
One thing, which I always mention, is the unity of the country. I have never seen a country so community minded, working so hard to rebuild their future and move on from the past. The capacity to love and forgive perpetrators that have destroyed your family, with the knowledge of how important it is to work together is astounding and can be learned from.
The guesthouses were beyond my expectations. I felt so fortunate to be living in a house with private bedrooms and bathrooms, locks on the doors, and separate sections from males. There was an abundance of electricity and Internet, with shops within walking distance to refuel on snacks, water, money and medicine. I was also surprised at how cheap transport was and the ease of getting around.
The beauty of Gisenyi overwhelmed me. It was how I had imagined Africa to be, a combination of rawness and scenery; beautiful beaches, hotels, rocky streets, Moto taxis, markets, relaxing, volcanoes, gorillas, mountain and treks- I was in love.
What were your challenges?
The first thing I learnt early on was African time. Unlike Western society where punctuation was punishable if not followed, it was not the same here. It was difficult at first to get over the annoyance of 2 minutes meaning 30 mins and “see you soon” meaning “see you in a couple of hours.” But it wasn’t long before that became part of my lifestyle, and it was so enjoyable to relax and still be organised and get things done. Amazing.
Culture shock wasn’t really something that affected me. Coming from a strong cultural background, a lot of practices were carried across like dressing modestly, bringing a host gift, discipline and respect for authority. When it came to not understanding why something was done a certain way, I didn’t question it because that is something part of culture, rather tried to understand and appreciate the differences.
During most evenings once lessons were planned and if it was raining, we had to keep ourselves occupied in the volunteer. Lucky for card games, singing competitions, truth or dare, and movies, it wasn’t too hard. I felt like I had to push enthusiasm at times because it’s so easy to curl up on the couch and get tired, or live through your phone. Make the most of the time together; they become your best friends! At one point we went shopping and attempted to bake without the need of an oven, quite a task.
When teaching, we discovered many barriers. It was a lot easier to teach at FVA headquarters than it was at Noel. At FVA we had an office member constantly with us who actively participated in the activities, setting and cleaning up. At times it was hard to correct everyone’s work (those that were given worksheets) and it was also difficult to teach them all together due to the variation of levels they were at, as some would get distracted and bored. Forming a school-like structure needed to be implemented, and eventually we separated the kids into 2 groups rather than 5 different age groups, giving homework to the older kids and checking in on them first thing in the morning before the others arrived. We also implemented a buddy system when older kids were grouped with younger ones to assist us in teaching and also build their skills at communicating and absorbing information. Yet at Noel, there were so many kids, undisciplined, a lack of materials and English speakers, and gaps in knowledge; for example, it took me a while to realise that they had memorised the alphabet song, but could not read the letters when asked at random. By myself, it was quite difficult, I had asked a few of the older boys to be in the classroom with me translating and keep an eye. I also started bringing in sweets as rewards and incentives- make sure you bring a back pack full (don’t worry, they’re cheap), as at the end of class word gets out, and soon your being jumped for “bonbon”/candy.
Knowing what to teach and therefore what to prepare and pack was hard, as we did not know it. The first thing that is thought of when teaching is counting, the alphabet, nouns, colours, months and animals. These are taught to death. Find out what they know first by trial and error and then formulate accordingly.
Without Sonia it was difficult for us to book car taxis and negotiate price. I guess that’s expected in any foreign country. Sonia was so great in booking us all Moto taxi’s at the start and end of our days, so we all travelled together, got a discount, and ended up becoming friends with our drivers.
Volunteer attitudes are something to be wary of. Not everyone you are going to click with, not everyone comes to volunteer with the same intentions, and not everyone is willing to adapt or values teamwork. The most frustrating attitude is expecting everyone to follow your standards or way of doing things. Instead, it’s about them not you, so learn what they have and how it works, and make the most of it with your skills and experiences. I can imagine how hard it would be having volunteers come and go with so many great ideas and suggestions for improvement and nothing ever getting followed up, so learn to adapt and don’t expect results so soon, rather it will take weeks!
Lastly, post travel blues. It took me 4 months to stop crying each night. The answer, channel it into something productive! I printed so many photos and scrapbooked, used my volunteer friends as emotional support, kept in contact with everyone at FVA and am planning ways to support from home.
Take initiative: outside the work hours, find ways to resource the women’s jewellery making for example, whether it be contacting a supplier or finding where old magazines get dumped as they can be used for making beads. Find communities to simply share your company with and play with the kids, sharing stories and photos. Fundraise for clothes, toothbrushes, shoes, soaps, which can be distributed and used while teaching hygiene importance.
Be honest about your whereabouts and plans and don’t disrespect others
When walking through the towns, be the first to say “Muraho” and smile, don’t get offended or upset if you aren’t greeted first, after all, you’re the foreigner whose intentions are unknown! As soon as you make an effort to learn the language and actually use it, you will gain an audience.
Be accountable for your things, don’t leave them laying around or expect others to take care of them for you. Even though it is safe, you still don’t want to be passing blame for your carelessness.
I encourage anyone looking for a life-altering journey to seriously consider volunteering with FVA in Rwanda. Not only will you be changing others’ worlds, but also you will work along like-minded volunteers from around the globe who become friends for life. Skills that I didn’t even know could be gained and used throughout my workplace and university are now a conversation starter to prospective employers. I have learned how to work better in a team playing to others’ strengths, organise and be flexible to interruptions, communicate using different mediums and audiences, and become so adaptable with cultural sensitivity in mind.
I was able to manage projects, and forced into situations to improvise and initiative activities based on the skills and experiences I had so far, challenging myself to not let language be a barrier. I never once felt unsafe, and had a perfect balance of working and sightseeing. The guesthouse for volunteers was like a dream to live in from what I expected, and we were always rubbing our tummies from being overfed.
By the way, there are flushing toilets! Everyone at FVA has been so supportive and appreciates the work you do, and include you when discussing ideas to further reach out to the communities. I truly felt valuable, when I had travelled to be the one impacting others!
Do yourself a favour, and step out of the boat. The opportunities that open up after you do are beyond your comprehension.