When Bakeritalia published her post about how she needs a purpose to be in Italy, when her husband goes to work and kids to school, I felt I really need to get my planned post about volunteering done. And then B touched the theme too, more from an environmentally responsible perspective, and I finally figured out how to outline the post.
I strongly believe volunteering can be a great opportunity to do something for free but have fun at the same time. The fun may come out of doing something with a purpose, from learning something new or from doing it with great people. My problem to write about it is, that I felt like a hypocrite because I have not done a lot of voluntary work in my life – and I am not about to do that much at this point of my life. Still I believe in it. And the few experiences I have had, have been very enriching.
Twice I’ve participated in an about a month long voluntary project abroad, both about 15 years ago. First I went to Amaliada, a tiny country town on Peloponnese and the second time in the village of Kortwia in Ghana (in relative proximity to the second biggest city Kumasi). The experiences were quite different, and to be quite exact it wasn’t quite free: I paid for my fairs. But it was still a cheap way travel as we were offered modest accommodation (see the picture) and simple food. However, the best parts of both of the experiences was to be able to connect with people and gain understanding for the local culture in much deeper level than when travelling as a tourist. And I believe this will often happen when you do voluntary work anywhere in the world, even in your own neighborhood.
Amaliada showed me a very different side of Greece than what I had experienced on the islands. Nobody spoke English (one old man in the village spoke German and his interpreting services were highly appreciated by me), the buses seemed to go where ever the driver felt like and whenever he felt like it (a Greek taught me, that I have to “estimate the delay” if I want to get somewhere on time. I never got good at it but hey, I was on holidays, who cares), cars stopped next to me on the street to touch my pale skin (yep, not getting tanned but still I thought we were all European), and the taxi drives where… an experience.
I went to Amaliada believing that the 15-20 of us from all over the world where about build a well for the area. Initially we were given orange “prisoners clothing” to protect us from the harsh vegetation. They did not breath and in 40 C degrees without a breeze I was melting. And so we were told to cut down the vegetation with dull hand tools. We worked hard for a few days and I failed to see the connection between building a well and cutting down the bushes on such a wide area. But now we were told that we were constructing a recreational area. Fine… a few days later some volunteers convinced some locals with a motor saw to help us and the weeks work was done in 2 hours. After that I overheard the organisers tell the locals off, because what where they now supposed to do with us for the rest of the project. The locals suggested that we’d get further with the landscaping but apparently the plan had changed again…
…a bunch of us were getting a bit fed up with nobody knowing what we kind of good we actually were about to do for the community, so we moved to the nearby beach. I did a few funny work shifts in one of the beach restaurants frequented by locals who only spoke Greek (as did the owner of the restaurant. Probably the most hilarious work experience in my life), travelled among others to Olympiada which was pretty close, and then went island hopping.
It was a shame the project at the end was a scam, but still it was definitively worth going! I got to meet great people (some I still have contact with!), it was fun to cook for each other in the evenings learning from much more than just the Greek culture, we had a ball living on the beach, and I got great company travelling on. One of the things I most appreciated in Greece is the safety, I was never afraid even when travelling alone there. The people are friendly too, there was always somebody happy to help me out or give me advice even though we often had no common language – but these people proved to me ove and over that it is possible to communicate and have fun together even without a spoken language. Also, Peloponnese is beautiful, definitively worth seeing!
I ended up on the voluntary project in Ghana by mistake. There was a group of Finns that had raised money to build a hospital in this tiny village in, well, pretty much the jungle to me. They asked my Dad to go along because he is a doctor and has participated on similar projects before. He was on his way but my Mum got sick so me and a friend jumped on the opportunity instead.
After my time in Ghana I am even more of the opinion that if one wants to get an “overall feel” for a country, one should visit the most known places but also to get off the beaten track a bit. Accra, the capital, and Kumasi had it all. But Kortwia was always completely cut off everything during the rain season, some of the houses didn’t have roofs and people lived in poverty – but were always friendly and smiling. Some of the most horrible moments were when a few of us got offered to take children with us because the loving parents wanted their children to get a better chance. How do you reply to that?
But we went to Kortwia to build a hospital. We started the work on the construction when it was still dark so that we made a proper work day before the after noon sun got too hot. That way we also had a chance to spend some more relaxed time with the locals and look around a bit in the evenings. The best part was that we were working together with the locals, they were paid though and they worked really hard! In Accra and Kumasi people spoke good English but in the villages women hardly spoke at all and even with the most men you could not have a proper conversation in English. However, working side by side we still got to know a lot about their culture, traditions and life. Again: one can connect without a common spoken language when the setting and attitude are right. And if you don’t believe that I have been plastering hospital walls take a look at me in the front of the first picture.
We finished the hospital but for some reason I have no picture of it when it is done!
Btw, the quality of these pictures is poor as our scanner is broken and back then I did not have a digital camera. Can you still remember that era?! It was early 2000 anyway.
PS If anyone recognizes him- or herself in the pictures, please feel free to tell me to remove them. I certainly have not tracked all these people down as there are no close ups.
BACK IN FINLAND
I mentioned to start off with that I haven’t been very good at volunteering in my own community and I do not feel I have the time for that now between work and small kids (well, the parents association at the daycare actually may qualify as voluntary work?). But I have been sorting clothes sent to orphanages in Russia and actually was once delivering a load to Lithuania, and organised programme for teenagers on camps and events on a few occasions. But there are loads of interesting voluntary work opportunities such as being a friends to refugees or elderly, the whole spectrum of Red Cross activities, and answering various helping phone lines. I think it is pretty cool how many schools now have retired people as “school grand fathers or mothers” meeting the younger generation. I seem to be able to only to come up with voluntary work in the social field only but obviously there is other type of work too.
WHAT KIND OF VOLUNTARY WORK have you done and enjoyed, do you admire or have you heard of? Let’s share some tips!
You may want to start by heading over to B to find out about cleaning the beaches
You’ll find a country based index on my tips on free activities and inexpensive travels here