“It’s a privilege to go there and live by their culture and really try not to bring in your own ideas from your culture and to enforce them in theirs.” – Abbie Dedinca, MUN HOPE president

In the past number of years, there has been a strong initiative on the part of students to volunteer abroad, visiting developing countries and not only contributing to but experiencing the culture as well. Through these volunteer efforts, there have been frontiers in education, infrastructure, and a general relief from poverty and natural disasters.

Through opportunities both on and off campus, students have been taking initiatives in these various fields. Student-run organizations such as MUN HOPE (Health Outreach, Promotion, and Education) and the MUN chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) have had strong success in sending students to developing countries in Africa.

While the different organizations have various purposes in their overseas efforts, one thing they have in common is their value in assessing the people’s needs before they go. Abbie Dedinca, current president of MUN HOPE, recently led a group of nine students to Mombasa, Kenya. They worked with youth and educated them about health issues relevant to their communities, including HIV/AIDS, gender equality, family planning, and birth control, through workshops.

“When we went there, we were able to communicate with the local youth in the Non-
Government Organization (NGO) and they knew what they needed for their communities,” said Dedinca. “What they needed most was education about HIV/AIDS.”

It has also been a great benefit for volunteers to include local communities in helping developing their own town. Maria Adey, current preseident of the MUN EWB chapter, recently travelled to Malawi to work with the government on developing systems for water sites in communities. There she found that the people there were often great contributors to the efforts of EWB.

“A lot of innovations that have come from the EWB have come from locals because they know what they need best. Sometimes as westerners, we believe that we know what they need best based on our society but they understand their culture and their country and they know what they need,” she said.

The people are often very strong leaders in their communities and can help volunteers in their efforts, such as the case of Paul, a farmer in northern Ghana. As Seth Bennett, another MUN student who has travelled with EWB, witnessed during a village placement, this man was responsible for helping agriculture in the community, building latrines for individual households, and he even volunteered as a teacher of young children, without holding a high school diploma himself.

“He’s an all-around amazing guy and a community leader, and someone I look up to,” said Bennett.

It is examples like this that enhance the importance of gaining knowledge of the people and culture that makes these volunteer efforts, as well as the overall experience, so successful. Jill Peddle, recent MUN Music graduate, has dedicated much of her time to traveling as a volunteer to areas such as the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico, and, most recently, Cambodia. In her experience, it’s taking risks that really lets you experience the culture.

“Sometimes this means eating something you never thought you would, while other times it means getting out of your comfort zone and talking to locals on the street.”

“While I was there to help with the local government, I feel that I learned so much more from the people that I interacted with on a daily basis,” said Adey about her time in Malawi. “They taught me so much more than I could have dreamed.”

Getting to know the people also opens up volunteers to the kindness that these people have to offer, as Dedinca experienced during her time in Kenya.

“We ended up being stuck in one of the rural villages because it had started to rain and it was too dangerous to drive out. We had people say things like ‘come over to our houses! We have enough food for everybody until you’re able to go back!’” recalled Dedinca. “We were there and we know that they don’t have as much food as we have here and they were just so willing to share with us.”

One of the biggest challenges in traveling overseas is realizing the misconceptions that have been portrayed of these areas. As discovered by many who travel there, many of the images that are seen on television are not necessarily an honest portrayal of the country and its people.

“Many people picture places in the third world as being dark and filled with despair,” said Peddle. “The people living in these conditions are among the happiest, most generous, and full-spirited people I have ever met.”

While in Africa, both Dedinca and Bennett discovered the misconceptions of poverty in the countries they had visited.

“You have the misconceptions that you go to Africa and everybody’s starving, and you go there and it’s not at all,” said Dedinca.

“They aren’t helpless people,” said Bennett of his experiences in Ghana. “I can’t speak for all of Africa because I was in a small area of one country, but the people I worked with were very motivated and hardworking. There’s no starving children dying in the street. The kids were running around and were generally happy.”

However, the efforts of volunteers are still greatly needed in these developing countries. What has been the most important to consider is the sustainable effects of these initiatives, as the goal is for these areas to continue their growth.

“Currently about 30 per cent of the wells are broken and there are quite a lot of people who don’t have access to these water points,” said Adey. “EWB is working on addressing the problems of why their broken and why they’re located where they are, and why these current infrastructures are failing to look for a more sustainable solution.”

Education efforts have also been successful in creating a sustainable system. The goal of MUN HOPE’s initiatives is to give youth the information they need to then go on and share with peers in their own communities as well as others.

“We’re promoting these workshops to youth in the community that are moreso leaders,” said Dedinca. “We have them there writing down every word we say so they have a copy of it and then they go out into their communities and they’re teaching other kids younger than them about the information we just gave them.”

While these workshops are generated with older youth in mind, there were efforts to educate younger children. However, the challenge was working within the boundaries of educational law in the country as sexual education is not permitted in school systems.

“We did have this one day that was focused on school kids and we have them involved in different event and playing games,” said Dedinca. “At the end of the day, we just had a general discussion about HIV and AIDS, just trying to get them to think about it while still trying to maintain the general boundaries of the laws there.”

From Peddle’s experience, it’s also important to consider the new perspective that these overseas efforts give volunteers and bring back with them.

“The majority of the world does not even have half of what we have everyday, and that is hard to envision in your mind until you’ve seen it personally. Statistics are no longer depressing facts, but they are faces of people you have met and shook hands with. There is no greater motivation then to see exactly what your efforts can do to change the life of a very deserving person.”

For those who are unable to travel themselves, there are opportunities to help from home; however, it is ideal to become self-educated about the organizations you support and what they do in these developing countries.

The people who travel as volunteers not only bring their efforts to these developing countries, but often take something away from the culture as well. The most important thing to remember in traveling to these areas is that going in with an open mind will in return give a rewarding experience.

“Really, it’s a privilege to go there and live by their culture and really try not to bring in your own ideas from your culture and to enforce them in theirs,” said Dedinca about her time in Africa. “It’s so much better going in open-minded just ready to accept and live by their culture.”