The words volunteer and Africa
15 Years Later by John Pope
Seventeen years ago in London I picked up a copy of a newspaper or magazine looking for property rental adverts. Finding somewhere affordable to live in London then was just as much of a nightmare as it is today, but instead of what I was actually looking for, a completely different advert caught my eye. I have no idea exactly what it said but the words ‘volunteer’ and ‘Africa’ were definitely big parts of it.
I had just finished university, had no money but a load of student loans, and I really didn’t know who I was or more importantly who I wanted to be.
Less than a day later I was sitting in a cafe in Central London with a Danish woman I had never met before, who was busy explaining the Development Instructor program to me.
Many things about the school and the programme have changed in the time between then and now but all of the basic principles remain the same. A programme of three parts, the first studying in Denmark, the second working at a development project in Africa, and the third back in Europe or elsewhere in the world spreading information about the work.
Less than a week later I had got on a plane to Denmark, been to an information weekend at one of the schools there, and travelled on to Stockholm by a combination of train, ferry and hitchhiking, where I was working in a Humana People to People shop to raise money for the school fees. A few weeks later I headed back to Denmark and drove a school bus for a while before going on to join my new teammates.
Each part of the programme had it’s own challenges and it would be a lie to say that there were not times when I thought about leaving during the first period but the same motivation that had made me reply to the original advert carried me through them.
I went to Zambia and worked with HIV/AIDS education for half a year, came back to Denmark, travelled to Sikkim in the North East of India to help set up a new school project there, and then returned once again to Denmark where I worked for a while in promotion, telling other people about the programme that I had just completed, the work the organisation was doing in Africa and encouraging them to enrol and take part in the same life changing experience.
I had planned to go to one of the schools in the United States and work there next, but something happened that meant I had to return home for a while, my life changed and somehow I never returned to Denmark or travelled to the school in the US.
In the fifteen years between then and now I have lived in seven different countries, done many different jobs, had some major life successes and also made some massive mistakes. I have worked for the World Health Organisation in Kenya and Morocco, freelance in Poland and most recently for some global companies in London and Barcelona.
The end result of all of these experiences is that one week before my fortieth birthday, sitting in a kayak on a lake in Canada, I had a moment of introspection and self assessment during which I believe that I may have actually found the answer to the question that the younger, advert answering me, of almost two decades ago had been wondering about: Who am I and who do I want to be?
The answer that I came up with caused me to change my flight home to London for one to Copenhagen and a completely unannounced drop into the One World Center to see if my memories and thoughts about what they at the school, are trying to achieve and about how I feel about those goals were right.
What I realised is that as much as I love my life in London, at heart I am a person who believes that the world we live in is one of massive inequality, of unnecessary poverty and of preventable and solvable problems. I am also someone who feels happier and better about myself if I reach the end of my day at work feeling that I have done something that might make a difference to those situations instead of just improving the image and profit margin of a massive company.
I don’t have a vote in any US election so can do nothing about the fact that a racist, sexist buffoon has become the most powerful man on the planet, and there are a thousand other global issues that I can do little to affect, but there are some that I can.
What I do have the ability to affect, together with others, are the lives of millions of the poorest people across the globe by promoting education and development where there is a fundamental lack of either, by working for an organisation that aims to address simple and fixable problems, access to clean water, education about preventable health conditions and access to healthcare, and a decent level of schooling for the next generation.
It's now about six weeks later and I haven't gone home, I haven't returned to my well paid job in London and I don't have any real desire to. Instead I have chosen to remain here and work as a teacher with the climate team, to do something that I know will be hard work, that will challenge me in many ways on a daily basis, but where living and working together with students, teachers and others to run and co-exist in this unique school while at the same time supporting real and sustainable change and development in the world makes me really like myself at the end of each day.