Photo: University of St Andrews
Photo: University of St Andrews

If you want this summer break to be a busy and fulfilling one, look no further than Volunteer Zambia. This project is a partnership between the University of St Andrews and the Zambian Non-Government Organisation, Sport in Action, and provides a fantastic opportunity for students to push themselves out of their comfort zones. The project itself lasts six weeks each summer, with University staff and students living in a rural Zambian village and working together to help improve literacy skills at the local school and in the wider village community.

The project boasts life-changing opportunities in teaching, fundraising, international development and healthcare, journalism and project management. However, after speaking with three students who worked on the project last year, it is clear that one of the main reasons why Volunteer Zambia is so special is that it offers the chance to do something unique. Volunteer Johanna Ojamae explains how, in her Third year, she began to feel the pressure of finding summer internships: “It was October and everyone already knew, or at least had an idea of their summer plans”, she says “Even when I was applying, I was really excited because I thought it would be a great way to do something completely different, and not just sit in an office.” Ojas Sharma agrees with her, explaining, “It was a good combination of teaching as well as going to Africa.”

After arriving in Zambia, the volunteers were surprised to find how welcoming the locals were, with both Ms Ojamae and Ms Sharma describing how the children of the village were eager to help them carry their grocery bags. The volunteer team of Summer 2016 were the first academic group to work on this project; before then, the volunteers came to teach sports, through the charity Sports in Action, or music through yet another initiative with the University. According to Ms Sharma, the teachers at the local school were “very happy to know that we wanted to help teach subjects other than P.E. or Music.”

Very quickly, the team settled into a routine. “We got our timetable, and we talked to the teachers about what they wanted us to do, and how we can help them and they can help us,” says Johanna. Flora Kuo, another volunteer, explains how in the afternoons, clubs were set up to help the children with weaker English-speaking abilities: “We would play games and had other after-school clubs like computer club, English club and reading club.” While the older children were better at English, simply because they had more practice, it is clear that some members of the team were expecting the children, on the whole, to have better English-speaking abilities: “After seeing the curriculum and looking at their exam papers, I was shocked at how they were supposed to answer such difficult questions with their limited speaking abilities,” says Ms Ojamae. “You can really see the kids whose parents are teachers. They obviously have good English and do great in their class, and the other kids who come from underprivileged families. It’s so obvious, because they cannot devote time to studying that much, and hence they lack in their work,” explains Ms Kuo.

A typical day meant waking up at 6:30 am, for a 7:30 am start at school. The school was structured into two halves, with the senior school having classes in the morning, followed by the junior school in the afternoon. Ms Sharma explains that after lunch the volunteers were “generally doing lots of games and activities, there wasn’t a lot of teaching.” Flora adds, “It was actually quite hard, thinking of games constantly!” For the younger children, there was a lot of music, with the volunteers teaching them popular songs from artists like Shakira and Justin Bieber. A game that worked very well in entertaining the little ones was filling plastic bottles with stones. “We got water bottles and filled them with stones to use them like instruments, and they loved that,” says Ms Ojamae.

While the aim of the project was mostly working with the school and the local community to build English-speaking skills, the volunteers also had a lot of free time to spend exploring. During the weekends there were no classes and the volunteers would go for long walks to a river nearby. However, they were very quickly joined by their students. “They liked to show us all these exotic fruits they have,” says Ms Kuo, “You also had a lot of time to yourself too.” Time to think, to read, and to enjoy your peaceful surroundings.

Before leaving for Zambia, the University requires all students accepted onto the project to raise approximately £2,000. This was mostly done through bake sales and working at the Sitara cloakroom, although the team did have an innovative idea of organising a Valentine’s Day truffle and roses sale. It was through fundraising that the three girls got to know each other very well. “If there hadn’t been the fundraising, we wouldn’t have interacted with each other,” says Ms Sharma. With such hectic schedules in St Andrews, it’s not hard to imagine how difficult it must have been to meet up and plan their trip.

The best memory of the entire project, according to the girls, was the concert put on by the Zambian students on the last day of Volunteer Zambia. “The entire school was packed into this one classroom, and they all took turns in performing. Two kids I had taught recorder to played the Zambian national anthem on the recorder,” says Ms Ojamae, “And there was dancing, which was the greatest part!” Ms Kuo explains how she thinks the videos of the dancing should be up on the website, “I think that alone would motivate people to go!”

While the girls hope they had a lasting impact on the Zambian children, it is clear the project had an impact on them. Living and working together for six weeks clearly brought the volunteers closer together, but it also taught them about appreciating the smaller things in life. “It’s cliché, I know, but it’s true,” says Ms Ojamae. “Standing under a hot shower now is an amazing thing to me,” explains Ms Kuo, which only goes to highlight the important effect Volunteer Zambia had on its team members.

Applications for Volunteer Zambia are open until 5 pm on Friday 4 November 2016.

Visit https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/projectzambia/ for more information.

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