In August 2010, Athena travelled to Zambia to participate in a volunteer program of the United Church of Zambia Mission Partners, a project that provides shelter, food, education and health care to the most disadvantaged people in the community. The program, run by Paula and Dan Van Zyl has been serving the people of Mwandi since 2005.
I was fortunate to have Athena share her volunteer experience with me in an interview.
You’ve travelled extensively around the world and worked in various parts of Indonesia, Northern Territory in Australia, Belgrade, Spain and Greece. What has inspired you to go to Africa on a volunteer program?
Volunteer work is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and Africa has always called to me, especially the children. With the high rate of HIV/AIDS affecting the young population, I wanted to reach out and give something back. On a personal level, I wanted to leave behind the modern way of life and experience the rawness, the culture and the heart of the continent.
What does the volunteer program entail?
The 3 week program consists of building mud houses, helping out at the Outpatients Clinic, Kandiana the old people’s home, schools, the Orphanage and Vulnerable Children Centre and a 4 day safari in Botswana.
Tell us a little about your involvement in the volunteer program.
I was mainly involved in the building of mud houses in the village of Mwandi. The village is 150 km west of Livingstone along the Zambezi River and has a population of around 10,000 people.
(L) Building the structure (R) Volunteers mixing the mud
The work involves various phases. First, we build the structure of the house by digging holes in the ground then placing poles into them. Then we bind the wood with string and fill up with termite mud over several days. Once it has dried out, we install windows and doors which have been made by some of the volunteers and add metal sheeting for the roof.
(L) Anastasia putting the last finishes on her mud house (R) Door installed in mud house
At Kandiana, the old people’s home, we took turns in cleaning their rooms and washing clothes and blankets by hand.
At Kandiana (old people’s home)
What was the accommodation like at the base camp?
We were 12 volunteers and slept in large tents which had beds and electricity.
(L) Volunteer tent (R) Inside the tent
The showers were out in the open with hot and cold running water from a cistern made of oil barrels with coal and firewood. The no-flush toilets were 50 metres deep and had a toilet seat.
(L) Hot water cistern (R) Kitchen at base camp
Accommodation was comfortable and safe. We had three local ladies cooking our meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There was safe drinking water that was pumped from the bore hole daily. A night guard from 6 pm to 6 am looked after the grounds.
What were the highlights of the volunteer program?
Definitely being around the children and connecting with them. Their smiles, their sense of humour, and their giving nature touched me in many ways. Being welcomed into the village life was another defining moment.
Children of Mwandi
And the satisfaction of providing a family a roof over their heads was a key moment.
Anastasia and her sons outside their new home
What have you learnt from the African people you’ve met?
To be content and accepting of whatever you have. To laugh at life and have a smile in the face of misfortune. The people I met had very little material possessions but their open-heartedness and hospitable nature was their greatest gift.
What was the best part of the safari trip?
The volunteer program included a 4 day Safari trip in Botswana staying at two safari lodges and one night in a bush camp 55 km north of Nata. It included game drives and a boat trip over the river into Chobe National Park.
Apart from the first sighting of giraffes, elephants and buffalos, being out in the bush camp in the open and feeling vulnerable to nature was exhilarating and frightening at the same time. Learning about the animal tracks and the different sounds of the birds and wild animals from our guide made it an unforgettable experience.
Elephants in Botswana
What would you do differently if you were to return?
Pack lighter. Contact the people running the volunteer program directly and ask what I need to bring depending on the time of the year. I would also extend my stay after the program has finished to experience more of village life, mix with the locals and have the chance to see more of the sights.
Who do you recommend the program for?
Anyone who is interested in volunteering and would like to help African communities in need. Age is no barrier to the program. There were volunteers between the ages of 18 and 70. No special skills are required, just a willingness to help and the desire to give something back.
More information on the UCZ Mwandi Mission Partners program is available from the website.
All photographs courtesy and copyright of Athena © All rights reserved.
Paula and Dan Van Zyl
Orphanage and Vulnerable Children Centre
UCZ Mwandi Mission Partners
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