Students in the Jungle, Part II

(Read Part I of this two-part series here.)

I have to keep on riding?what else can I do? In one village I stop for gas. Five elders and a few women are sitting under a thatched kitchen shelter on a bench made from the dried stems of palm branches. One of them is the Chairman of Refugees in that village.

?Bonjour, ├ža fait plaisir,? I say to him. I’ve been using my French a lot out here, much more than I ever did in Canada; many of the Ivorian refugees do not speak English.

But the language is where the cultural similarities stop.

During May, my first month in-country, I helped with the distribution of water tablets, buckets, and other items. The team was comprised of 10 Liberians and me, the only North American. We had been driving truckloads of supplies from a main warehouse in the town of Saclepea. The operation was constantly grinding to a halt due to vehicle breakdowns and fuel shortages; one problem with working in such rural areas is keeping a steady stream of supply and maintenance. At one point a woman came up to me near the village of Zwedru, saying her baby was sick. There was a clinic nearby that we had just resupplied, I told her. Dozens of other people came to me with questions. There were unregistered refugees in this-or-that town, when was help coming to them? It was surreal to be the 20-year-old that everyone was hanging onto for reassurance.

Aid work is very hard. No matter where you are, Africa, Asia, or the Middle East, you will be thrown into a myriad of cultural differences. In many places even the local language and village culture will be different if you drive two hours down the road. There is danger of malaria and other diseases. Very often you won’t see the benefits of the work immediately, though when you do, it is incredible. Gratitude is evident in the smiles of kids and elders who might not even speak your language. Working with the youth in a community?everyone’s back running with sweat as you dig or build in the hot sun?or meeting with local leaders to discuss projects is a life-enriching experience to which there are few equals. Then there is the matter of all the interesting food you will sample!

Working with an aid organization is a great way to achieve a wide world view, not to mention a different perspective for the next time you watch a 10-minute infomercial on giving surgery money to the adorable, teary-eyed child who has a cleft palate.

Margaret Fryer, 26, is the newly arrived Project Administrator for EQUIP. After graduating with a BA in linguistics from the University of Victoria and spending a year with a home-stay family in Yemen, she heard about the EQUIP position through a well-connected friend and knew instantly that it was right for her. ?I’ve always been interested in NGO operations and seeing the effects of aid work first-hand,? she says. ?This is a great chance for young people to take on responsibilities that they might not get the chance to in a Western context, since so many other people are also competing for those positions. You are thrown into things and you get to know your limits.?

For those who don’t have friends with connections like Margaret, websites like Idealist, NGOabroad, and uVolunteer are all great starting points for finding the organization that is best suited to your interests and areas of expertise or experience.

Once you’ve settled on an organization, how best to prepare yourself for the tough-but-rewarding volunteer experience? First, read up on the country You’re going to?and do it thoroughly. What is the social/economic situation (and what is the likelihood of a war breaking out while You’re there)? It is also a good idea try to get a grasp of some of the local language. This can be difficult on a continent like Africa, where many of the languages are spoken by only a small demographic and have not been put into written form. You may just have to learn when you arrive, so go with a very open mind.

It is also crucial to find out what medicines or vaccines you need?just as important as bringing a swimsuit, a strong work ethic, and a positive attitude. Finally, pack light, don’t take yourself too seriously, and invest in a good travel insurance plan. You’ll be just as thankful as I was when my hotel got broken into and everything except my toothbrush disappeared into the African night.

So how did I find my way out of the jungle? I asked for more directions, of course. Even Africa can feel like good old Canada once or twice a year. After riding around hopelessly for six hours I gave up on finding the work crew. Instead I asked for directions to Toweh’s Town, a name that doesn’t rhyme with 12 others in the same 20-kilometre radius. Most importantly, from Toweh Town I knew how to get out of the bush?and back onto the main road.