Thursday, July 30, 2009

Adam on his project in Uganda 2008

(Above: The site before the construction of the classroom started)

When I first signed up to attend the North South Preparation weekend in March 2008 I had no real idea of where I wanted to volunteer or what I wanted to do, just a vague notion of somewhere exotic and something philanthropistic. My time with Concordia and Uganda Voluntary Development Association (UVDA) spent helping to construct a mud-brick classroom in a remote Ugandan village certainly fulfilled both criteria and more.

Having previously travelled fairly far and wide (think South America, India etc.) I was fairly confident that a trip to Africa wouldn’t be a vastly different experience and should be quite straightforward. Sometimes, however, things don’t always go to plan. Africa was, and is, amazing. I was staggered by the people there and their way of life. The situation there is so far removed from anywhere I had been before, that I almost couldn’t comprehend it. The very core things that I took as absolute were not the same here. You couldn’t get an ambulance in some places, even if you had the money. People didn’t have large families out of choice but out of necessity, it really was survival. People did not plan for the future; sadly, life expectancies can be so low that it doesn’t make sense to save money/invest. Standards of education varied wildly, from learning the internal workings of refrigerators at school (despite there being no electricity for miles around) to not knowing that men had landed on the moon.

Despite all of the above, the people here were happy. And I loved it. Being a foreigner in a remote place meant a lot of attention. The children were great, very hardworking and equally fun-loving. A simple photo, shown on the tiny screen of a digital camera, was enough to send great groups of kids yelling and jumping. The adults were equally pleased to see you, either to practise their English or just to say hello. I’ve never been somewhere were the people were so genuinely friendly.

The project that I was involved with was in collaboration with UVDA. After arriving in the bustling, hectic yet friendly capital of Uganda, Kampala, I met with the organisation’s Director, Rogers. Rogers’ tiny office was in a run-down shack, on the outskirts of town. I remember thinking, “whoops, what have I gotten myself into here then?” Upon entering the dark room I was greeted with a huge bear-hug from a large man who later revealed himself to be Rogers. “Welcome to Uganda! We’re so very happy that you could come!” And it really felt like he meant every word.

(in the picture: the sleeping quarters)

The village was about 150kms east of Kampala and so I was given instructions on how to reach it. The manic journey involved several matatus (shared taxis) and boda-bodas (taxi motorbikes) and a good 8 or 9 hours, but I finally made it in one piece. The village was a marked change from the busy capital, there was no mains electricity for at least 10km in any direction. There was no running water; however, there were several pump-action wells that had been installed by the government. Food variation was hard to come by, the staples being matokee (green bananas) and rice. The occasional chicken could be purchased at great expense if so desired, but after attempting to digest a particularly sinewy and rubbery cockerel we mostly stuck to being vegetarian. In some ways the accommodation exceeded my expectations. We were kindly allowed to stay in a compound building that belonged to one of Uganda’s Chief Justices who grew up in the village and kept the compound as a holiday retreat. The rooms were bare mud and concrete with no glass in the windows, but Uganda’s climate is pleasant enough to not warrant any. There were spare foam mattresses which we gladly accepted and, once our mosquito nets were strung from the wood and straw roof, we had a fairly comfortable place we could call home.

(In the picture: Volunteers at the beginning of the work)

The project itself involved the construction of a new classroom for the village’s government-run school. Education conditions were appalling: one large classroom for over 700 children. Most classes were conducted outside on the grass as the classroom could only hold around 40 children. We worked alongside the local building expert, who directed us in our tasks. One day we may be mixing concrete for mortar, the next day ensuring the bricks are correctly in place. Occasionally we would become more involved with the children, playing frisbee or handing out prizes for the End-of-Term reports, but this was the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps the only disappointing part of the project was how little we managed to achieve in the time allotted. Three weeks was not really enough time to make a big impact on the site and a couple of months would be required to finish the classroom in its entirety. A lack of funding also meant that materials and labour was limited. A small increase would have made a big difference.

(Above: Curious children during the work)

(The work achieved at the end of the project)

Once again the people could not be faulted. So optimistic, they kept the spirit of the project alive. Without them it would be easy to see it as an exercise in futility, but they made you realise that with hope anything was achievable.

I really enjoyed my time spent in Uganda and would do it all over again without hesitation. Now back in the UK I have more of an idea about which direction I want to head in for the near future. I made several good friends of the other volunteers and, in years to come, I know that I will look back at this project with fond memories.

Adam, Uganda 2008.

More on Uganda

Projects available in Uganda

Concordia first Group Project in Vietnam!

Concordia ran its first ‘Group’ project earlier this year to Vietnam with students from Ashington High School, who are based just north of Newcastle in Northumberland. As it was a new project Fiona went along to help set the project up and help our partner, SJ Vietnam, with some Health and Safety training.

(In the picture: Fiona arrives in Vietnam…by bike?)

I thought that by arriving in Vietnam in February I would escape the cold UK winter but was a bit surprised to find the evenings cold and even some rain! However when the sun did come out it was lovely to get warm. It was great to meet up with friends from SJ Vietnam again and they were very excited about having their first UK group coming to Vietnam.

The group volunteered for two weeks at a school in Hai Duong City, which is about 50km away from Hanoi in the north of Vietnam. We all arrived at the end of the Vietnamese ‘Tet’ festival which is like the UK’s Christmas holidays so the school was very quiet the first day. This was quite nice as it allowed us all to acclimatize to our new surroundings and get to know where everything was.

(Above: a street view in Hay Duong City)

Our quiet was soon over when all the school children came back and we were all a bit overwhelmed by our welcome. The Hai Duong Children’s centre has around 1000 children, with over half of them living at the school in the orphanage and the rest of the children have some type of disability linked to the ‘Agent Orange’ bombings during the Vietnam war in the 1970’s. It was thought that over 50,000 children have disabilities linked to these bombings in Hai Duong area alone.

(Below: Fiona with one of the Children in the orphanage)

Our group, which consisted of two teachers, one support worker and five students, was raring to go and all got really involved in the life of the school. Our day was divided into three slots. We would spent one slot in with the baby orphans helping to feed and playing with the babies (who were just lovely), the second slot, teaching English to the children and the 3rd slot doing environmental work around the school, like painting the railings etc. The work was tough but very rewarding too.

Our accommodation was in the school and we slept on bunk beds with no mattress under mosquito nets. All the children also sleep on the bunk beds but just on grass mats. We ate local food which was rice, meat and tofu and no knives and forks to be found so we all got good with chop sticks.

The project was a real success and the group had a great time. They did find the living conditions tough and living in a noisy school quite challenging but it gave them an amazing experience that would stay with them for a very long time.

Our partners in Vietnam really believe in volunteering and cultural exchange. It is wonderful to see a country that has suffered so much in its recent past putting so much energy into being so positive, it really was inspiring. If you want a challenging and fulfilling experience then volunteering in a Vietnamese orphanage is a real must. Fiona J

(Fiona Callender, Volunteer Programme Manager, February 2009 Vietnam)

(In the pictures: the volunteers teaching and with local hosts in Vietnam)

Projects available in Vietnam

More on Vietnam

Thursday, July 9, 2009

BBQ on Brighton beach

8th July 2009 - Brighton Beach BBQ

24 people, 12 nationalities, 2 BBQ, lots of burgers and ketchup

Concordia hosted its annual beach BBQ on Brighton beach to celebrate Helen P birthday and to have a social gathering. 2 UK projects joined staff members, volunteers and friends. The 2 groups were Stamner Organics and Moulsecoomb Primary and Wildlife Project who are were all volunteering locally. Ivan and Ali, our 2 EVS volunteers on a year long project at Hove YMCA also joined the gathering.

Despite the earlier rain the BBQ went ahead by the West Pier on Brighton beach. The rain stayed away and fun was had by all. We even had Mari singing a Japanese song, accompanied by Francesco on guitar. The evening was over too soon with both groups, and Helen having to get trains home. Fiona managed to get the 'bucket BBQ' home in one piece on the back of her bike.
Chloe, Sara and Mari

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

EVS in Brussels with Linden Farrer

Linden Farrer is on a EVS project in Brussels with AVSO -

I arrived in Brussels just over 3 months ago. I’d never been to Belgium before so I was really not sure what to expect, except that I knew it was between France and the Netherlands, and that the country was divided between French speaking areas and Flemish speaking areas.

So it was with some trepidation that I walked off the Eurostar and began my stay in the city. The first few days were spent walking randomly around the city, using a map occasionally to get my bearings. I bought croissants in shops, drank coffees in cafes, and saw quite a few of the sights within my first week. Later on, I began cycling to the outskirts and then to neighbouring cities and towns, which is a great way of getting a feel for the size of the place.

Brussels is a capital city, with beautiful old buildings, a lot of history, lots of parks of various sizes, and lots of lively little squares lined with restaurants and bars. Every weekend there is some festival or celebration taking place, and often you can walk into town and find yourself without even attempting, in the middle of some kind of event. Most people new to the city are really impressed with the range of things going on. Sure, it’s not as lively as London for clubbing or gigs, but in terms of street parties and festivals, it’s much better. For those who tire easily of the city - which is quite hard to imagine - all of the train fares are half-price at the weekend, meaning you can visit many of the other cities, such as Ghent, Antwerp, Li├Ęge, and Brugges for cheap (usually less than £10 weekend return).

OK - so what about the project? Well, the organisation I work for, AVSO (Association of Voluntary Service Organisations), promotes voluntary service at an EU level. As such, I’ve been involved in organising seminars, conferences, building websites, writing reports, and communicating and meeting lots of people. The pace of work varies from quite relaxed to pretty hectic, but it’s always interesting. I’m here until the end of October, and have a good picture of what I hope to achieve before I leave, and how I’m going to go about doing it.

I’d say that voluntary service at AVSO is a good opportunity for anyone wanting to learn more about the European Union and EU funded programmes, and develop their skills managing projects. Anyone happy working independently on projects in an office, or with a background in youth work, project work, or NGOs (non-governmental organisations), will find this environment familiar and comfortable. I wouldn’t recommend it to people wanting to work outdoors or directly with youth or other groups. Nor would I recommend it to people wanting to quickly master French or Flemish because the working language in the office, in European institutions, and for many internationals living in Brussels, is English. For those wanting these things, there are plenty of other EVS projects to choose from.

Finally, I’ll say a bit about the place I live - the Institute of Cultural Affairs. Far from being an ultra-revolutionary left-wing grouping straight out of the 1960s, it’s a place which is kind of in-between a hostel for young stagiaires (interns), trainees, students, volunteers, and professionals from all over the world (though mostly Germany and Finland!) and a ‘community’. Well the ‘community’ bit sounds a bit odd, and reading the manual for the place can put you off staying, but basically it means eating together, having some ‘house’ responsibilities, and being expected to help out from time to time with various things. I’m sure some people wouldn’t enjoy having food prepared for them, or find the lack of privacy that comes from living with so many people in close quarters difficult, but personally, I can’t think of a better place to stay as a volunteer if you want to meet people quickly, and not have to worry about cooking or buying food for yourself.

Click here for pictures of projects in Brussels

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