You hear many stories of student jetting off to faraway lands on their gap years to volunteer and travel, but not many people tell you what it’s like to do as an adult. Volunteering abroad is an absolutely amazing experience and something I would recommend everyone does, if possible, especially in today’s world climate. There are so many countries, and people, in need of a little help or extra hands. Along with being able to provide a little help you can also travel and experience so much; learn new languages, discover new cultures and be a part of the understanding we all need now a days.
I have always been someone who wants to help others, who wants to make a change where I can and experience new things. So around 7 years ago (at the age of 24) I decided to put my money where my mouth was and stop dreaming of making a difference, and go out there and do it. I’m not from a privileged background so it took a few months of saving up and fundraising but I finally managed to save enough to apply to volunteer abroad (it was a lot more expensive back in those days). I wanted to either Cambodia, Sudan or Peru, however they were just a little out of my reach so I settled on going to The Gambia to help out a school and teach English.
Before I set off I begged, borrowed and stole every toy, pencil and bit of paper I could lay my hands on for the children, then set off on my merry way for 4 weeks in a new country. I was travelling alone and would also be on a volunteer assignment alone, most are done in groups now a days. From the moment I landed until the moment I left I loved every minute. I was assigned to a tiny primary school in one of the poorer areas; there was no running water, no electricity, the school was in a housing compound and was a makeshift shaft – it was certainly an eye-opener.
I was staying in a local hostel a short bus-taxi ride away, and each morning I would make my way to the school for a day spent with the children. These absolutely amazing children made each day different (and I don’t even really like children haha). From day one they were amazed by my pale white skin and tattoos; there was one little girl in particular called Niamh who was so taken with me (and I her) that she would remove her sandals and bring them to me so she could sit on my knee and let me put them back on. I ended up taking her to Bijilo National Park just before I went and seriously considered packing her in my suitcase.
My days consisted of teaching the kids basic English, and although it wasn’t Einstein style teachings it was something. Plus, I believe all children – and people – can benefit from meeting people of different cultures. The Gambia is a mixing pot of cultures and religions and I myself learnt so much from the amazing people I met there. I got to be witness to a wedding, a naming ceremony, a street carnival, a government protest, daily rolling blackouts and water cut offs, I got to figure out how hard getting water from a well is. I got to sit in the middle of a forest at a pig farm watching the locals brew palm wine – an experience I remember vaguely after drinking a palm wine or 3.
With volunteering abroad you give your time and skills, but you get back so much more in return. Some of the best memories I have are from my time in The Gambia both with the children in the school and just general life experiences. I probably learnt more than I taught the kids, that’s for sure. With everything going on in the world at the moment it’s the perfect time to write this post and encourage people who might be thinking of it to just go out there and do it.
My experience with volunteering is what actually led me to blogging funnily enough. When I returned I saved up some money to study for my TEFL so that I could explore actual teaching abroad. To help with my TEFL studies I started this very blog to practice my writing skills. So you see, volunteering leads to great things. Would you ever consider volunteering abroad?