Sustainable volunteer work in Africa: What's it like?

At Cross-Cultural Solutions, we're proud of our model of sustainable volunteerism. Since the word sustainable gets thrown around a lot, it's important to really understand what it means in order to get a good idea of what your experience volunteering in Africa, Asia, or Latin American may feel like.

For this reason, I wanted to share a little slice of my own experience. This past December, I volunteered teaching English in Africa.

During my two weeks in Tanzania, I taught English to group of supremely lovable 10-13 year olds. I’ve never taught English before. So maybe you’re wondering if I just jumped in unsupervised, or if I had some guidance from the community. Or perhaps, you want to know who decided that these kids needed to learn English in the first place.

Who's in charge? A lovely Tanzania Mama - three of them actually! All of CCS' partner organizations are locally run. That means the community identifies a need, and CCS volunteers provide supplemental support. The new energy we bring to the classroom—not to mention our excellent English skills—makes school a more exciting and effective learning environment. We free up staff so that they can do the 1000 other daily tasks that go into running a school. While I’m in front of the classroom, staff do other things that support the school—like sewing bags that will be sold to raise money for supplies, or taking care of the administrative work that is necessary in order to rent the space in which the school operates.

Why English? In Tanzania, primary school is taught in Swahili. The students learn English casually; not dissimilar from the way I learned French during one period of instruction a few times a week when I was in high school. By no means did I become fluent. However, in order to move on to secondary school—which is taught exclusively in English—the students have to pass a test administered in English. So you can see how the community identified this need. A number of students need extra English help in order to continue their education. The idea of having to go through high school entirely in French makes me want to hide in a locker, so it makes sense to me. So, in short: Tanzania decided English was important. And since I speak English, I am useful.

During my time teaching English in Africa, two of my students passed the national secondary exam. This is a huge deal. Not all students pass. And as a result of passing their exam, these two young boys will get to continue their schooling. Most well paying jobs require English, and now, not only will these two students learn even more English, they will continue on to all of the other subjects that a high school education covers.

Of course, I was only there for two weeks. I won't pretend that I’m responsible for their success, but CCS' role is undeniable. My short commitment was just another incredibly important link in a very long chain of CCS commitment to the community. The students come to learn English, and it is primarily the presence of CCS that allows English to be taught, both from a literal standpoint (being around a constant stream of English speaking CCS volunteers) and a technical one (the school gets to flourish if the mamas can continue to create a source of income to support the school, which we free them up to do).

I was lucky enough to see the aggregation of tons of little moments add up as these boys passed this incredibly important exam. The more that CCS is present in a community, the more confident the students become. And the more volunteers choosing to participate in these efforts, the more individualized attention we can give. A welcoming and exciting school environment leads to increased student attendance. This has actually been repeatedly shown by the endless impact measurement studies and surveys conducted by Stephen Thompson, Director of Program Quality.

What does that feel like as a volunteer teaching English in Africa, Asia, or Latin America? Incredible. Each day is challenging and fun. Doing something as intimate as sharing your favorite Dr. Seuss book with a child who has never read it before may blur how connected you are to something much bigger than that moment. But that’s what CCS does. It allows each special moment you experience to tie into the next and create real change in community-identified problems.

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