Thinking of volunteering abroad? Rose Hennessy of charity Friends of Londiani offers some timely advice
Friends of Londiani are an Irish registered charity working with people in rural communities in the Rift Valley, Kenya. We have a volunteer programme that looks for volunteers to travel to Kenya each year and work with the local people there. The volunteer experience is about working alongside the people to support them in various projects that are making real and lasting changes and improvements to their lives. From installing smokeless stoves that create safer, healthier homes to facilitating courses in Lifeskills to supporting small businesses with skills training and advise – there are many, many opportunities.
We have had several senior volunteers travel to Kenya with us and we welcome and value the contributions their life experience brings. John Spillane is one such volunteer and he has been back and forth to Kenya on many trips since he first got involved with the charity – his most recent trip was in February this year.
This is his story – “In late 2004, the year I got my free travel pass, I decided to deliver on one of my “retirement resolutions” and to “give something back” and applied to volunteer with Friends of Londiani. I was interviewed, was accepted and after a few training and induction sessions found myself in July 2005 with about 20 other volunteers in the green, remote, really beautiful village of Ndubusat.
The three main pillars of Friends of Londiani activities are health, education and water and we were involved in all three during the two weeks we spent there. We – women and men – worked with the local men building a small hospital (I never knew brick laying was such fun but perhaps that was down to the interaction – the craic – with the local men.) We organised vaccinations for the local children and the distribution of mosquito nets. We upgraded the school buildings by putting in concrete floors, doors and windows. We held a number of peer education seminars. We worked with the local men in piping water to the village from a source 5km in the hills and we all really worked well together.
That our presence was appreciated was evident from the friendly reception we received from the local families and the number of times we were invited into their homes for chai (a local brew of tea which I personally hate the taste of!).
And on the final day the women of the area put on a typical Kenyan feast for us all. It was mighty! Then, the entire community turned out to bid us good bye and to show their gratitude by bestowing every one of us with a present. It was an amazing feeling to be receiving gifts from people who we knew had virtually nothing but they gave what they could – fruit, vegetables, eggs and one young Dub even had a live hen thrust into her arms as a gift!
Now, 2015, the European Year of Development I’ve just returned again from Kenya – I’ve taken more than 10 trips at this stage! I am always heartened by noting the progress achieved since my last visit.
So, in the year that’s in it, why not volunteer with us. You don’t have to make a long term commitment and I assure you, you will find it a hugely enriching experience.
And if any potential senior volunteers would like to have reassurance from an old hand, I would be more than happy to talk to you. I can be contacted through the Friends of Londiani website.”
Eithne Phelan volunteered with Friends of Londiani in 2010 – these are her thoughts on the experience.
“When I told my sister that I was thinking of going to Kenya doing volunteer work with ‘Friends of Londiani’, the reaction was as I expected—’Aren’t you a bit old for that?’. Despite the fact that this is exactly what I had been thinking myself, I felt as if the gauntlet was being flung down and it gave me the final impetus to accept the challenge. With the encouragement of my husband and family I sent in my application. I realized I was fit and healthy, that 67 was only a number and that if I put this off I might never do it.
Fundraising was, of course, part of the commitment. This was not at all as onerous as I expected. I opted for sponsorship cards, which I gave mostly to my family. I also organised a coffee morning, book sale and raffle, with the help of many friends. It was a fun occasion and we raised a lot of money. The generosity of people was amazing, especially when they realised that all monies raised were going directly to our projects.
Travelling up through the Rift Valley to our destination took 2 days and when we got there we were greeted at the roadside by a large group of people and school children, singing and dancing and waving flowers, who escorted us to our accommodation after several speeches and welcome dances. It was an amazing and very moving experience and one which was repeated many times in the 3 weeks we spent in Kenya.
The work I did included doing household surveys. This involved visiting fairly remote houses and filling in a detailed questionnaire with the help of the occupants. The surveys ask questions relating to the number of people in a household, health, education, access to water and to a health clinic, distance from school etc. The information is gathered to find out the needs of a community and the projects undertaken are based on these needs. As volunteers we were accompanied by a local volunteer or staff person who interpreted for us, although most people spoke English as well as Swahili.
I found this work extremely interesting and felt very privileged to be welcomed into people’s homes and to meet locals in an ordinary non-tourist way. They all welcomed us and were glad to see us. The children were fascinated with the ’Mzungu’(white people), and seemed so happy and cheerful though obviously very poor. We trekked through countryside which was surprisingly green and very beautiful.
I thought I would find this trekking difficult but I managed fine and I had brought a fold-up walking stick which I found very helpful. Also, I think the sun had a very beneficial effect on ‘elder lemon’ pains and aches. They disappeared completely until I landed in Dublin at the end of the 3 weeks!
I also worked with the Healthy Schools HECA programme. This teaches children about basic hygiene and healthy habits such as hand washing, use of latrines, litter disposal and malaria prevention. This programme also supports schools to provide proper vented pit latrines, clean water and hand-washing facilities.
For me, as a retired teacher, theses visits were extremely interesting and a complete eye-opener. Many of the school buildings were unfinished and had no windows or doors. The teachers’ equipment consisted of one blackboard painted onto the wall. That was it! The classes were huge – sometimes 40 or 50 children and there might be 1 textbook between 5 or 6 students.
I was also involved in helping with business training, interviews for education bursaries, health information field days, painting the children’s ward in the hospital and sports days.
Looking back on those 3 weeks, I feel it was one of the most worthwhile journeys I have ever made, not only for the work in which I was involved, but for what I myself learned and experienced. No matter how much you read or see on television, you simply cannot realize the conditions under which people live until you see for yourself. It has a huge emotional impact which lasts long after your visit is over and you are left with many indelible memories.
Was it difficult for someone aged 67? Well, I wasn’t the oldest on our project. The age range was from 30 to 72. I would have to honestly say that most of the fears I had were not realized. Yes, I was very tired when I returned, but how many times have you heard people returning from a touring holiday complaining of exhaustion? The trekking through the countryside was invigorating, teaching in the schools was stimulating, meeting the people in their homes was a privilege few tourists experience. Being with an amazing, committed group of volunteers made me feel young again – you can’t put a value on that!
You will never regret giving 2 or 3 weeks of your time to such a worthwhile organisation and will get a lot more out of it than you put in. Indeed, you will probably be trying to work out how soon you will be able to return.
So don’t let a little matter of age hold you back from volunteering with Friends of Londiani. As Mark Twain said ‘Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don‘t mind it doesn‘t matter!’ “