Here’s a great volunteer abroad story from Kat, who worked as a food aid monitor in Malawi, Africa.
What were you doing before you went abroad?
Working very hard indeed to complete my MSc in Development Policy, Practice and Process at the University of Reading.
How did you hear about the job?
I was placed in this job through Voluntary Services Overseas. VSO is an international charity that works in international development through volunteers. Their motto is Sharing Skills, Changing Lives (in case you were wondering!). After I was recruited by VSO I had a placement interview and was asked what kind of placement I would like, I was then matched up with this placement working for the UN World Food Programme. WFP were sent my CV and accepted me.
Why did you want to spend so long volunteering abroad?
I would like a career in international development and for most jobs in this field a certain amount of time is required working in a developing country. Not only that, it was a great opportunity to work in this field and gain some experience. Many other volunteering opportunities result in the volunteer paying a lot of money, which many people cannot afford for a long time. However, with VSO the aim is that while I should not come back having earned money, I should come back not having used much of my own.
What did the job entail?
Originally I was working in the poorest district in Malawi as a field monitor, monitoring the schools in the district with a World Food Programme School Feeding Programme. After 8 months, I was promoted up to the Sub-Office where I was Programme Assistant for School Feeding which meant that I assisted/managed the School Feeding Programme for the 6 districts under the Sub-Office, in the southern region of Malawi. The job entailed supervising and supporting the field workers, disseminating information to field workers, preparing distribution plans of commodity deliveries to the schools and other tasks.
How much money did you have to raise to go out there? What else did you need to do to apply and get accepted?
I had to raise £900 through sponsorship (the main aim was awareness raising for VSO and therefore I could not just pay the £900). The requirements to apply for Youth for Development (a programme within VSO) was that I was between the ages of 18 and 24, had done a years volunteering and had other desirable personal qualities.
Did you get paid or any kind of financial perks such as food or accommodation included?
My return flight and insurance was paid for by VSO, my accommodation was paid for by WFP and I received a living allowance which is enough to cover all my expenses.
Did VSO organise visas and so on?
Yes. VSO organized my flights, my insurance (medical) and in-country training once I arrived.
What was an average day like?
My average day in the field was very different from my average day working in the city. In the field I would wake up at around 5am when the sun came up, walk down the sandy “road” to work, don my motorbike kit and jump on my dirt bike. By about 9am it was already very hot and the sun was very strong, but I would visit a few schools each day and talk with the teachers, check the stock balances and storage of the commodities, observe the school feeding and cooking of the likuni phala (porridge). Each week a situation report was submitted to the Sub-Office.
What were the hardest challenges/negative parts?
While living in the field I was the only white person in the whole town – this was hard at times as I was constantly stared at. People got used to me and were friendly, but sometimes this, plus the awful roads (3 hours to the nearest big city), made me feel very isolated. Additionally, living in the hottest and poorest district was difficult at times because it was very hard to buy food – therefore I had to stock up whenever I was in the city.
And the best bits?
The best bits were the chance to completely interact and work with the community and see how the School Feeding Programme worked on the ground. There were many challenges and obstacles to the programme’s effective running but it was an achievement to share knowledge with the community and teachers and to see the impact that this made on the improvement of the programme and therefore the attainment of the aims of the programme. I wrote my MSc thesis on School Feeding Programmes, so to see the impacts they can have was interesting.
Most memorable moment?
Riding my motorbike down tiny dirt tracks to schools in the middle of nowhere. When arriving at the school I was surrounded by a swarm of children that were so excited and fascinated to see me that I was followed around school by them. Often a furtive hand would stretch out to touch my skin or hair while I waded through the kids to reach the Headteacher.
Would you do it again or recommend it to others?
Yes, I would do it again, although it is quite difficult living completely alone and being so cut off from friends and family. Of course, you adjust to life but you still miss certain aspects of the life you were brought up in. I would definitely recommend this experience to others. If nothing else it makes you appreciate all the opportunities and luxuries we have in the UK. It’s a brilliant opportunity to contribute something worthwhile and valuable to people in situations less fortunate than your own.
Any advice for people thinking of volunteering?
Think carefully about what you want to get out of your time. Be realistic about what you can cope with – it may sound idyllic to spend time living in a village with no electricity and running water, but could you cope with it? I requested a basic living so that I really did work with those most in need, and I was prepared for it. When you are volunteering and are tired, lonely and hungry, remember why you chose to do this and try to find the inspiration to put everything you have into it.