Short Term Volunteering is an Exchange: Sharing, Learning and Reflecting in a New Community

VMM Short Term Volunteering: A Memorable and Addictive Experience

Short term volunteer Eileen demonstrates yoga

Short term volunteers, sharing new concepts with their new community

Noel and Eileen Ryall, a couple from Midleton in Cork, have returned from their short term volunteering placement with the Justice and Mercy Community in Oyugis, southern Kenya. One of VMM International’s partner organisations, over the last twenty-five years JAM has developed a range of health, education and livelihoods services and facilities for the surrounding rural community, who could otherwise ill-afford to avail of them. In just the four week placement that Noel and Eileen spent with the JAM community they have left a lasting legacy. They also took away a valuable life experience, reflections on their immersion into their new community overseas, who may see and do things that little bit differently, and have also caught the bug for volunteering, particularly VMM’s partnership model and mission to “share who we are, not just what we have”.

VMM Volunteer Preparation and Take-Aways

As well as the VMM Short Term Programme‘s accommodation and flexibility to find a suitable placement at short notice to utilise both Noel and Eileen’s skills set, they also found the VMM pre-departure training to be invaluable. Any apprehensions they may have had were allayed, their expectations were grounded in reality and they were orientated in VMM’s ethos of sharing and partnership with the organisation and community they would be joining as guests, and which subsequently made their volunteering experience unforgettable. It also wasn’t all one-way traffic in terms of sharing of knowledge and expertise. While in Kenya, in addition to sharing his farming knowledge, Noel also learned about the cultivation of new crops which we don’t grown in Ireland, such as cassava, pawpaw and the many different types of bananas for all occasions. Eileen shared her knowledge of yoga and meditation as therapies in healthcare settings and in return learned about HIV/AIDS medication and care. However, it was not only in their professional capacities that both learned from their new community. They also reflected on culture, community and life, wherever that may be: encapsulated in the commonly used mantra of “pamoja” – we are one/together (Swahili).

Living with Their New Communities: Volunteers Reflect on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Short term volunteer reuses plastic bottles

Reusing plastic bottles as seed incubators

One striking insight that they both took away from their experience of living with their host community is that, by mirroring their shopping habits with those of JAM staff, Noel and Eileen saw how they – people from the ‘West’, in the ‘developed’ world – have wholeheartedly embraced a disposable culture. It became noticeable in just two short weeks of shopping in the supermarket, that they had created the vast majority of the waste in the communal rubbish pit, when compared with that of the staff who shop locally and often grow at least some of their own food. Noel noted how nothing in the local society is wasted; food, water, packaging and containers, bits and bobs; all were reused in some way or another.

Noel felt some guilt when seeing the amount of empty water bottles, which only he and Eileen would buy, accumulating in the rubbish pile, destined to be burned. Provoked by this challenge and inspired by his colleagues, he improvised and decided to reuse this resource and turned this waste product into individual, portable and reusable mini-greenhouses for seed germination. Usually just planted into the soil, now the seeds, incubated in their own heat and water trap, had a much greater chance of sprouting successfully into healthy seedlings, which are then transplanted into the garden and produce reliably healthy and high-yielding crops.

He also noted that much of the local diet was vegetarian, bordering on vegan. And yet, he remarked how hard working his colleagues were, and how they did not waver under the heat of the sun due to an insufficiently nutritious diet. They did not require meat with every meal, nor every day, to work long and hard.

The Volunteer Experience: Evokes Personal Insights on Life

Short term volunteer Eileen enjoying mixing in the community

Getting to know your neighbours

Both Eileen and Noel also observed how Kenyans have a different sense of time; that it is valued. This in contrast to the hectic pace and paucity of time in our modern, ‘developed’ society. Kenyans believe in “pole pole” (slowly slowly); sure and steady wins the race; what doesn’t get done today will be done tomorrow. The result, they note, is that though locals may struggle for even tomorrow’s food on the table, may lack running water and other amenities that we take for granted and even as necessary, they appear to be unstressed; happy; and living and appreciating the now.

Both also found the Kenyan people to be very warm and welcoming, interested in their nutrition, health and well-being and open to the new concepts. They also found them to be very humorous and fond of a joke, seeing the funny side of things and Noel and Eileen very much enjoyed their interactions with the community.

VMM Volunteering: Sharing Who You Are, Not Just What You Have

Volunteers Noel, Eileen and local fun runners                                                                                                                      

On their evening walks Noel and Eileen were routinely greeted with, “Hello mzungu! How are you?” and very soon the locals learned their names. They also attended church and were delighted by the lively service with lots of singing, dancing and drums and it was definitely “something different”; a vibrant celebration of faith.

Noel, a keen runner, would venture out for an evening run and was often joined by locals who would eagerly accompany him in relay for a mile or two. On one occasion he was challenged to a race, which he accepted and which brought people out of their houses; a scene generating a lot of sweat and also much laughter. Encouraged and fully embracing his volunteering experience, in the VMM mission of “sharing who we are, not just what we have”, Noel has now organised a 5k run, the first in Oyugis, as an opportunity to promote fitness, bring the community together and also to give that little bit more to his new community, leaving a little bit of himself behind in Kenya.

Short Term Volunteering: The Best Thing We’ve Ever Done

VMM and short term volunteers, Noel and Eileen Ryall

VMM send off short term volunteers, Noel and Eileen Ryall, in Nairobi

Both Noel and Eileen thoroughly enjoyed their time with JAM, saying that this volunteering experience with VMM is the best thing they have ever done; and that it won’t be their last. They will be back. Indeed, at VMM we have found this to be a recurring reaction from our short term volunteers. They get the bug, of living and sharing with, and learning from, what come to be their new and welcoming community, overseas. If Noel and Eileen’s story has intrigued you, click the links to read other volunteers’ experiences of living and sharing within VMM’s partner communities overseas or, to find out more about our short term volunteering programme.

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