The University Careers Service is available to alumni as a lifelong service, and links up with a variety of organisations across the world. Careers Service work includes creating internships and volunteer opportunities for current students in the UK and internationally. In this nuanced and thoughtful piece, an alumna Joelle Amponsa Banson recounts the rewards and the challenges of volunteering in a developing country and how she developed the graduate attributes of cross-cultural competency, professionalism in adversity, and an awareness of aid, health and education issues beyond British borders.
Arriving and adjusting
Myself and 13 other UK volunteers arrived in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso just after midnight on 6 July. We were met enthusiastically by our in-country team leaders and national volunteers. Boarding a bus, we were divided into our project groups and driven to our different accomodations across the capital with each accomodation housing between 4 to 7 volunteers.
The first week in country was spent taking part in induction training and acquainting oursleves with the national volunteers.
There were plenty of opportunities to practice our French and Moore (local language) skills whilst buying fresh produce in the markets or trying local delicacies in the small but frequent street-side restaurants. We took a trip to Ziniare, the place of the president’s birth during the first week and were able to observe the differences between this rural village and the Capital where we were staying. It was much more quiet and historic: with a national statue park and a large zoo. A portion of the volunteers were based here, working at the Kabeela project. This is a woman’s association that produces and sells shea butter and a range of other crocheted goods.
In the second week work began, in the sense that we were based at the office and began planning for the weeks ahead. I was based at Djigui Espoir, an association for disabled women that produces and sells soya and cereal products.
The association was founded by Mdme Dominque Toe, herself a disabled woman, as a means of providing disabled women in the capital with income generating activities as well as stopping them from having to beg on the streets. Although undoubtedly the values and ethos of the association are commendable, and the work of the women there is truly inspring, work at the project was often frustrating as it constantly called into question what contribution we as volunteers were making.
We were often assigned tasks such as searching for funding or updating the website but with little to no internet, several days on end were spent staring at our computer screens with nothing to do. When I brought up the issue with my team leader, she informed me that this is just the nature of development work and that if there was nothing to do, it was my responsibility to find something: far easier said then done I assure you. It’s not fair to say that our frustrations as a team were indicative of a serious failing by International Service as a charity, as other projects were genuinely successful. Ours however, regretfully, was a disappointment.
What did define the experience for me though were the relationships that we as a cohort of volunteers were able to build: between our national volunteers, our work colleagues, neighbours and local street vendors. So many jokes were shared and memories made which I still value and will genuinely miss.
We went on a wonderful trip to Bobo Diuolasso, a town six hours outside of the capital. It was green and plush and surprisingly cosmopolitan for what we had become accustomed to in Ouaga. On visiting the National Museum I discovered several interesting facts about the importance of tribal and regional masks in Burkinabe culture.
Looking back, I fondly recall our weekly discussions with the national volunteers on topics ranging from healthcare and education to sexuality and western aid. What they don’t always tell you about working with international development charities, is the type of development you are likely to undertake: a personal one.
It may sound self indulgent but I think that more often than not, these opportunities impact those volunteering more than those they are meant to be reaching out to. Although up till now I still can’t clearly pinpoint the sustainable contribution that myself and my team made to the association we were working with. However, on a personal level I feel more liberated in my way of thinking, less likely to place importance on things that don’t deserve it and just happy to enjoy my life and the opportunities that are available to me. And I have the experience to thank for that.
© Joelle Amponsa Banson
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