Volunteering and travel have long gone hand-in-hand, and it can be a wonderful way of seeing the world, and experiencing other cultures, all while giving something back. So, when the chance presented me with the opportunity, I took it with both hands.
In October 2021, I embarked upon what I hoped would be a mutually beneficial journey, and one of the most rewarding and memorable experiences of my life.
Volunteering in Guinea – West Africa.
While I’m sure many of our readers will have some volunteering experience, up until this moment, it was something entirely new to me. As luck would have it, Cez’s cousin and one of my closest friends, Mikey – happens to be an active member of URBOND, a UK-based charity dedicated to improving poverty-stricken communities in Guinea.
After I donated to Mikey’s fundraising page, he informed me there was still an available place on their next visit to Africa. Over a conference call on a sunny evening sometime back in July, I met Drame – the URBOND chairman, and less than 24-hours later, I decided to accept this opportunity. Shortly after, I set up my own fundraising page, and the ball had begun to roll. It never ceases to amaze me where life’s roads may lead!
Who Are URBOND?
Based out of the coastal town of Portsmouth in the UK. URBOND is not for profit organization founded in 2013 at the back of local integration issues and the need for stronger community collaboration and members wanted to take an active role in supporting those in need both at home and overseas. Fast-forward 8 years, over 30k people from 76 different nationalities have benefited from the community integration activities and events.
In Portsmouth, the community integration activities and events include Mental Health Workshops, Community Fitness Activities, Charity Social Events, Women’s Empowerment Workshops, and an expanding Youth Development Programme.
In the Republic of Guinea URBOND is working to improve access to primary education for children in areas where there are shortfalls. The region has well-documented issues with gender disparity in child education, with nearly a third of the female population at primary age not attending school whatsoever, nearly double the number of males at the same age. Cultural attitudes along with widespread poverty are significant barriers to girls’ education with instances of child labour, forced early marriages, and child prostitution sadly commonplace in the region. Education is a fundamental key to unlocking the cycle of poverty. Working to improve primary education and eliminate gender disparities in education will help meaningfully increase both the status and capabilities of people in African society.
URBOND works closely with the community in order to fully understand their needs – rather than simply running a program of no real benefit to anyone but the people who organize it. If you are considering volunteer work abroad – particularly in Africa – make sure you do your research, and go with a legitimate, established charity, like URBOND. During the two years, they’ve been implementing their child education program, pass rates have risen from 44% to 79%, which is an astounding achievement – not least from the children, themselves.
I was to be joined by nine other volunteers, and while we were all from different countries with unique cultural backgrounds, we shared the same passion for helping others, and a desire to make a difference in one of the poorest regions of the world. They left Heathrow in the early hours of Sunday, October 10th, and I joined them at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. Just over six hours later, wheels were down in Conakry – the capital and largest city in Guinea.
Guinea – A Poverty-Stricken Country
Officially known as the Republic of Guinea, this small coastal country is located in West Africa, gaining its independence from France in 1958. It has suffered a tumultuous history, and as of the most recent survey, as many as 55% of Guineans live below the national poverty line, within a population of 13.6 million. It is estimated that around 63% of the rural community live in poverty, with poor healthcare and education being of particular concern.
There’s an almost perfect storm of factors (including natural disasters) that lead to these alarming figures, and why the country is in dire need of outside assistance.
The group’s aim was twofold – first, to help build a library and a computer room in Dubreka, a small town in the northern part of Conakry, which will be used by over 700 local children each year.
Second, a team of health specialists will be running workshops and seminars to sensitize locals on the need for girls’ education. The opportunity for young women to obtain a school education remains a significant issue of concern in Africa, and one that is in urgent need of addressing.
Arrival in Guinea
Upon arrival in the capital, one of the first eye-opening experiences was noticing just how crowded it was. Even late on a Sunday night, the city was teeming with life, and Conakry is known to be one of the most densely populated regions in the world, bursting with an estimated one-sixth of the country’s total population.
Not only that, but they also had some of the worst roads any of us had ever seen! I will never complain about driving over potholes in Europe again!
Although tired from travel, and in spite of the bumpy ride, our group’s excitement was palpable, and we were champing at the bit to get started, excited to face the challenges ahead.
Day two was memorable as our first visit to the Dubreka school we would be working with, which was a chance to meet the local children, teachers, and families.
I’ll honestly never forget the sea of smiling faces and a welcome second to none. One of our tasks was to paint the school itself, and this was an opportunity to learn how we were able to make a difference during our short, but important stay.
UK Ambassador Visit
With URBOND being a British-based charity, we had a very special guest visit on day three. Mr David McIIroy – the UK’s ambassador to Guinea – joined us for breakfast. Both he and his wife showed a passionate enthusiasm for the charity’s accomplishments, and a genuine interest in each volunteer. It was the perfect moment for everyone to get to know each other, and understand why they had felt the call to become part of this program.
Mr McIIroy was very appreciative of the efforts of everyone involved – highlighting that such aid is needed now more than ever. The UK ambassador has a background in extensive charity work himself, and over the course of our visit, we learned about his fascinating role in Guinea and close involvement with helping local communities find their collective feet.
When the group visited the school in the afternoon, we were greeted by beaming smiles, music, and dancing!
The Hard Work Begins
Up until now, we’d had a small taste of the work we were here to do, but it was soon to begin in earnest. Projects were divided into four distinct categories:
Dr Zenon and pharmacist Ifi headed to the hospital to assist local medical staff with their work, sharing their experience, and helping to receive patients.
Also, there were workshops organized on the need for young girls’ education. A total number of 47 local parents, 17 children, 5 primary school teachers, and 7 volunteers from the UK attended the session. We all discussed issues that prevent young girls’ education such as menstruation, lack of clean toilet facilities, bullying, lack of income, classes being overcrowded, etc. The outcome of the workshop was incredible, we were able to present great cases to encourage parents to send their girls to school. With issues with the sanitary facility, URBOND have put a contingency plan in place that allows young girls to use the new toilet facility built inside the library and the computer room until a new sanitary facility is built for the school.
Education is a fundamental key to unlocking the cycle of poverty, working to eliminate gender disparities in education will help meaningfully increase both the status and capabilities of women in African society. The country representative Mr Mac Amara Bangoura and URBOND dedicated volunteers in the Republic of Guinea will carry on running the workshops for the best interest of young girls in Dubreka and surrounding areas.
IT and Tech
Two of our members began the long process of installing software on 20+ laptops that had been kindly donated to the children. Mikey, Cez’s cousin, was involved directly with this aspect, and this is his fundraising page.
Once the laptops were installed, Mikey taught children how to use computers. For all students gathered in the computer class, it was the very first time to see and touch a computer. They had never seen anything like this before. Therefore, Mikey’s job was to explain to them what the computer is used for, how to turn it on and off.
During this process, he was very patient and as he was pleased with their progress, he decided to teach them more stuff such as how to use Paint and Word. This was truly a fascinating experience for both the students and volunteers who helped Mikey lead the class!
Building and Preparing the Library and Computer Room
The remainder of the team – including yours truly – went to commence painting and preparing the library and computer room. It was a messy job – but someone had to do it!
Social Media and Filmmaking
Aside from the manual graft, myself and Clara – a fellow volunteer – were assigned to keep on top of the URBOND social media presence, as well as make a documentary film about the project.
Over the course of several days, our team assisted with building cement floors and curbs for the classrooms, a second full coat of paint was added to the school’s exterior walls, and donated books, computers, desks, and other items were unpacked. Electricity was set up, free health clinics were provided for the elderly, and we all pitched in to clean and prepare the school for the grand opening day.
It was the very definition of rewarding hard work – particularly when you consider it was accomplished in soaring temperatures!
Towards the end of our experience, a touching moment greeted the workers, when every team member was invited to add their handprint and signature to a freshly-painted wall in the library.
It was a lovely gesture of thanks to the 2021 volunteers, and many more prints will surely be added in the years to come. I hope to return one day to see how the school and community are doing, and put my hand back on the walls I was privileged to help paint.
As with any volunteering experience, both home and abroad, it’s vitally important that you don’t lose sight of why you are there in the first place. There was never going to be a chance of that here, as we were always surrounded by the beautiful smiling faces of the children this project was going to help directly.
It was a joy to get to know them, and they were as interested in our culture as we were in theirs. They say that strangers are only friends you haven’t met yet, and the love these kids showed a group of people they didn’t know was remarkable. Indeed, we arrived as strangers from foreign lands and left as friends, and I will never forget it.
It wasn’t all about the work! While the most critical aspect of visiting these shores is obviously for the benefit of the school and the community, we also had a chance to see something of the country, to experience its culture, learn about the people, and see some of the sights.
During our downtime, the group visited two beautiful islands – Fotoba and Soro. The former is of particular importance, as the site of the first school in Guinea. We also enjoyed a tour of the capital, delicious local cuisine, mountain walks, fishing, and volleyball. Oh, how they love their volleyball!
The Opening Ceremony
On day 11, the moment we had all been working towards had arrived – the official ribbon-cutting ceremony for the school’s new library and computer room. And what a grand occasion it was, attended by the children and their families, all the volunteers, and UK embassy representatives. The smiles, laughter, tears, rhythmic music, and dancing on that day will live long in my memory.
So, too, when I witnessed the moment that the children saw a computer for the first time. Honestly, we don’t know how easy we have it sometimes, and it’s moments like this that genuinely hammer home what still needs to be done.
A Humbling Experience
My huge takeaway from this experience was just how much love was shared, both amongst the group and within the Guinean community. Everyone we met was friendly to a fault, with unforgettable warmth and welcoming hospitality that puts many privileged countries in the west to shame. A truly humbling experience.
My utmost gratitude and thanks to everyone I met on this journey, including all at the HB Hotel Dubreka, our guides, Mr David Mcllroy and his staff at the UK embassy, and the team at URBOND. But special thanks are reserved for the children and people of the Dubreka community, whose altruistic generosity and tenacious spirit shines through, even in the face of such poverty and hardship. When they have almost nothing, their smiles are worth everything.
On behalf of the entire URBOND volunteering team, I would also like to take this opportunity to thank all those who donated to this worthy cause, both via my own fundraising page and through other avenues. At the time of writing, I managed to achieve 93% of my $5000 target – which is a wonderful accomplishment, and I am eternally grateful for all the contributions, especially my close friends and colleagues at Poki.
Together with the other volunteers, I think we raised a pretty penny for the people of Dubreka, and rest assured it will go where it’s most needed.
Just because the volunteers have gone their separate ways (I’m back in Poland now) doesn’t mean the work has stopped. Just the opposite! While we all keep in touch and some of us keep sharing our Africa experience with others (check out Mikey’s blog post on Workoutcave), the charity keeps up the hard work.
URBOND currently delivers a program in the UK encompassing Women’s Empowerment and Youth Development via a combination of workshops and seminars specifically devised to tackle issues around inequality and provide guidance on topics such as career path etc. URBOND is therefore well placed to keep providing remote training to our dedicated volunteers to continue delivering a series of workshops and sessions designed to educate children, their parents, and teachers around gender discrimination and the importance of receiving an education. With the help of a specialist in the UK, the team in the Republic of Guinea led by the country representative Mr Mac Amara Bangoura are delivering content that specifically addresses issues around gender inequality and discrimination, such as sensitizing pupils around matters like female menstruation, and other issues which are currently significant barriers to girls’ education.
Prior to starting the workshops on the need for girls’ education, we conducted a research survey on the 8th of October 2021 to gauge the perceptions around gender equality within the participant audience. The answers we received indicated that there was no training being provided with these issues and it was normal and acceptable to many people in communities for young girls not to seek further education.
URBOND plan is for a minimum of 225 parents and 360 young children to receive gender equality educational workshops (by 31/03/2022). Minimum 50% increase in positive perceptions around gender equality across the 3 core audiences (children, teachers, and parents) demonstrated by survey results conducted over the course of the program and completed by 31/03/22.
The next volunteer trip is scheduled for October 2022 to build a play area for the children, build toilet facilities, help fence the school and provide clean drinking water.