It’s October 2002, I’m 18 and finally heading to Sierra Leone. It’s taken me two years to raise £6,000 needed for my eight month gap year…I even gave up chocolate for a year! But finally, I’m living the dream, joining the Christian charity, Mercy Ships.
My motivation? I want to make a difference.
Arriving, I’m set to work in the boiling galley, preparing food for the 350 crew and numerous patients. Sweat is my new best friend. I work underneath a Sierra Leoneon chef, alongside galley staff from Togo, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Canada, Holland and the US. The only skill I really have is making roast potatoes, which comes as a welcome substitute to rice for some of the crew.
This is the start of my volunteering. Every day in the galley is hard work and every day I learn more about the people I’m working with and the country I’m in. I love it and although I’m only a ‘galley slave’ on a ship full of surgeons and engineers, as an 18-year-old it sparks in me a desire to make a difference, shaping the decisions I have made ever since.
And after graduating university, I know I have to go back – this time for 14 months in the communications team. After proving my capability to write and ability to connect with patients onboard, I begin my first experience of development journalism. The stories I write are distributed worldwide to raise awareness and funds for the medical work of Mercy Ships. The privilege is immense.
Since then I’ve had the opportunity to write for charities in Sierra Leone and Liberia, Belarus, and the UK. I recently won the Guardian International Development Journalism Competition for my piece, ‘War on hunger’ in Burkina Faso.
All of this was born out of my time working in the sweaty galley as a kitchen hand on the Anastasis. It subtly started shaping the rhythms in my life.
And that’s what I believe volunteering is all about. Every year at Tearfund, we send over 500 people on placements from two weeks to six months. They join our country partners, many of whom have been running their projects for years. They go to learn, to serve and to connect with the community. They learn that development work is long term and hard work – that working cross culturally can be a real struggle but also the most rewarding.
It’s nothing about superiority, in fact most of our return volunteers report that it’s the most humbling experience ever.
And they come back with a new awareness that starts to shape their everyday decisions. An awareness that leads individuals to get involved in campaigning, to make a noise about injustice, to love being generous, putting themselves and their stuff into perspective.
Johanna Peason is one such example, ‘My trip to South Africa was really difficult at times. It challenged everything I found comfortable and forced me to address my passive attitude towards poverty and injustice. It left me with a lasting and passionate desire to work out how to challenge the same issues in my community as well as the world at large. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to grow and see God challenge them.’
Who would not want a generation of gap year volunteers like this?!