My name is James and I have right-arm Erb’s Palsy. At home Erb’s doesn’t really have a big impact on my life. I have been able to drive, play the piano, paint and even fly an aircraft. Recently, I spent 10 weeks volunteering in Tanzania with the sustainable development charity Raleigh International.
I first heard about International Citizens Service (ICS) on the radio. ICS was different from other volunteering work I had been looking at. Their express focus is on the sustainability of their projects and the experience is supposed to be challenging, as opposed to a holiday. You are paired to one of three independent NGOs (Non-Government Organisation) each running projects across the globe.
I was paired with Raleigh International First, Raleigh invited me to an applicant day and then to a three-day training event in Doncaster. Here I met fellow volunteers and we participated in activities to help us understand what it’s like working interculturally and the aims of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Finally, you have to fundraise to help cover the costs of your travel. It also shows your dedication and motivation, as well as raising awareness for ICS. Although quite daunting, the fundraising actually turned out to be enjoyable. People are often generous when it’s for a good cause. For example, I held a charitable poker night amongst friends and had a car boot sale.
Once I achieved my target I was off to Tanzania. Our job was to teach entrepreneurial skills to the young adults in the rural village of Ihanzutwa. Don’t be put off if you think you lack the knowledge, most of the information we taught was basic. It is vital to those in rural areas however, as many haven’t been educated beyond primary school level
I rather enjoyed helping with the teaching. I definitely have to give credit to the Tanzanian volunteers though. Lessons were taught in Swahili meaning they had to do most of the talking. The UK volunteers used group activities and visual aids to get around the language barrier. This certainly made lessons challenging
An area of the project I didn’t expect to find so challenging was the day-to-day activities. Erb’s being a birth injury, I rarely consider it when involving myself in different situations at home. When I applied to ICS it never even crossed my mind. In the UK I have simply adapted to life with Erb’s. In Tanzania however, they have a different way of doing things, this meant a whole new set of situations for me to try to adapt to, and do you know what? It added to my experience.
Firstly, the chores. Within the village, each volunteer was split up to live with a host family. Me and two Tanzanian volunteers, Bony and Iddy, lived with a man named Jeremiah. We lived exactly as he would.
Things such as fetching water, sleeping, washing clothes and visiting the toilet were a world away from any of the modern comforts we share in the UK.
In the village there was no running water. This meant hauling a bucket on a rope, full to the brim, up a 20ft deep well. When I first tried it, my arms were in agony, especially my Erb’s arm. I thought I might drop the bucket back down the well. Both Iddy and Bony tried to help me draw water, but I told them that I wanted to improve. I like to think I got quite good at it. It must’ve been great exercise for my arm. You would have to repeat the task four times or more to fill up one jerrycan, which we used to store the drinking water.
Sleeping had the additional task of setting up a mosquito net. These needed to be hung from the ceiling with string and draped around the bed. Our bedroom was a bare concrete room with a mattress on the floor, the only place to hang was the roof beam. Together, Iddy and I, got the string around the beam and tied it up. I came in useful here, being over 6ft tall
Iddy would help me hand-wash my clothes too. Tanzanians have to learn this skill from a young age and I can see why. You really needed to beat the clothes hard with soap to get them clean. I couldn’t really get that power out of my arm. Left to my own devices I would often be scrubbing the clothes well into the night. Iddy on the other hand could complete a full batch of clothes in about an hour. So, we would work in tandem, with him washing and me fetching water, rinsing and hanging.
Before travelling out, I did receive a word of caution from my grandmother, who had lived in Tanzania during the 1960s, and that was some Tanzanians can be suspicious of people with disabilities. This was reinforced when, as a precaution, Raleigh contacted Jeremiah, before my arrival in the village, to check he understood I had a disability. In the UK this would be unheard of, but it can actually be problem in Tanzania. I wasn’t offended, in terms of development Tanzania still has some way to go. It is important to understand that the Tanzanian people will challenging these issues in their own way and it wasn’t our place to get involved. In fact, it could even do more harm than good as we have little understanding of the cultural barriers they have to overcome.
During my time out there however, I experienced no prejudice; apart from the awkward attempts at left-handed handshakes, but I have to put up with that in the UK too. Everyone I met was very understanding and would always offer to help.
I am now starting to reflect on the impacts this experience had on my life. The two biggest being: self-confidence and global awareness. Before embarking on ICS, I was often quite self-deprecating, especially when it came to public speaking. The programme showed me that I can undertake a project such as this and be successful. It helps tremendously when applying for jobs. You can build up a wealth of skills that employers love. By placing myself in such an alien environment I have shown what I can handle, both mentally and physically; that my Erb’s can present challenges to life but that these can be overcome. I encourage anyone aged between 18-25 (23-35 for team leaders) to make use of this amazing experience that would otherwise be very expensive for a young individual. In addition, you get to be part of something greater: sustainable world development. It gave me a better understanding of the UN’s 17 SDGs. I now see how these issues affect the UK too, just as much as Tanzania. Problems such as plastic wastage, poverty and inequality often incite big debates here in the UK.
It feels good to be and, know that other young people are, part of something moving towards a future where there is no poverty, environmental damage or inequality. Even if, achieving these is a long way away.
Erb’s palsy certainly didn’t stop me taking on this challenge and if I can complete ICS then anyone reading this can!
For further information please visit some of the links below:
Raleigh International – https://raleighinternational.org/
17 SDGs – https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/?menu=1300