You hear so much about African countries that have exciting things on offer: Morocco for the maze in the medina and its snake charmers, Egypt for the Pyramids and sand dunes, or Tanzania for the jeep safaris and paradise islands; to name but a few. Zimbabwe on the other hand – what would be your number one reason to go?

I personally had no desire to visit; in fact, I had been told it was a dangerous country drowned in poverty and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Those things might (unfortunately) be true, but I found out that Zimbabwe has a lot more on offer. When I was accepted for a volunteer project by International Citizen Service (ICS) and offered a placement in the north-western corner of Zimbabwe, I decided it was an opportunity impossible it say no to.

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What is International Citizen Service (ICS)?

In a nutshell, ICS is a government-funded programme in the UK designed to motivate young people to volunteer for some time with sustainable projects that help local communities around the world. Depending on your chosen charity and the kind of work you’d like to get involved in, it could take you to South America, Asia or Africa. Get involved and you could help people access better healthcare, raise awareness of climate change and work with farmers on sustainable development.

To take part you need to be 18-25 and have a UK address – but you don’t necessarily need to be a UK citizen! Find out more about the criteria here.

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My Time in Zimbabwe

After a successful selection weekend, a fantastic fundraising scheme (of £800 to show commitment) and a few months of worrying, I was off to begin my volunteer placement; 10 weeks spending educating about HIV/AIDS in local schools and communities.

Working alongside a local charity, the Basilwizi Trust, myself and the other volunteers worked as a team to put together our ideas and implement our plans. During our time we set out to visit local primary and secondary schools to talk about HIV, coming up with interactive ways of getting the children involved. We held big events – the most successful being a talent show which all of the nearby villages attended to witness some incredible local talent. We raised money to provide prizes and issued important information throughout the day, not forgetting free HIV testing for over 100 people. Some of our smaller projects included tree planting, English lessons and sports events, all with an aim of getting young people socializing and focusing on their interests.

I gained a huge amount of confidence through this placement and learnt a lot about my strengths – it turns out that despite my initial fear, I am actually very good at public speaking! Most of all, I got to know Zimbabwe and its people intimately, seeing a side not many would see if they were to pass through and I became a part of a brand new culture and lifestyle, being accepted all the while.

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What to Expect

  • Volunteers will be both national and international which is great – you get to work alongside like-minded people of a similar age range and learn a lot about their culture at the same time!
  • A shared living space with others will become a safe environment where ideas, laughs and problems can be shared. The volunteers form a little community.
  • Your eyes will be opened to real life problems that are happening every day. It might be difficult at first to swallow, but immerse yourself and you will grow from the experience.
  • You can expect to make a difference, however big or small. Just being a part of a project such as this is supporting a positive change for people and their lives – talking to them, exchanging ideas, working together and implementing small change is a big step. To make these actions sustainable, as ICS aims to do, is the only way to inject positivity and improve on poverty issues.

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It was hard to digest the reality of the country’s problems. Yes Zimbabwe, along with many other African countries, is severely suffering from HIV/AIDS, but it doesn’t mean the people are not trying their best to stop it. Children are highly educated, citizens are getting tested and most importantly, the people are determined to make a change.

Not once did I feel threatened or in danger. In fact, despite the lack of resources, the struggle for clean water and the disease pandemic, the Zimbabwean people have to be the kindest, happiest souls I have ever met. Their children crave education and their communities are strong.

The Downsides of Volunteering

One question the was always on my mind was “am I actually helping?”. I couldn’t help it – at times I felt I was that English girl who had entered the country to preach what I thought was right. To “force” my and possibly the UK’s views and opinions on to them. In reality, the Zimbabwean people who I met are fully aware of the issues and have their own ways of going about change. Who are we to say this what is right or wrong?

Instead of going in with the intention to ‘help’, I think it is important to apply for a volunteering role in order to learn. Education is the key and this can be achieved by spreading the word to help open people’s eyes to the issues and exchange coping methods.

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For more information on how to get involved with International Citizen Service, please visit their website.

This is a guest post by Kelly Diggle who blogs over at Blue Eyed View.
All photos by Kelly Diggle.