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How overseas voluntary work can develop your understanding of social care

How overseas voluntary work can develop your understanding of social care

Ernesto Martínez works in Cornwall as a MFL Assistant Teacher and a Health Care Assistant at a Nursing Home. Originally from Spain, he arrived in England in June 2013 after a six-month project in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This article is about his experience there, working in social development projects, and what he gained during his time there.

My name is Ernesto Martínez. I’m a Spanish Teacher currently settled in Truro, England. In 2013 I travelled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a volunteer Development Instructor for six months, joining social workers in their daily meetings. I have recently started a campaign called “DR Congo – 3 Projects, 1 Goal” to raise public awareness about the life conditions in the rural communities of DR Congo and find support to improve them. This is my story of what I saw and learned during this social development project.

Following my arrival in Kinshasha in 2013, I spent my first weeks visiting the slums. The organization I was working for initiated different community projects in the slums and I would join local social workers in their daily meetings there. We would meet with families to teach and discuss. Our aim was to help families to learn more about education opportunities; promote health and hygiene; talk about food security; and encourage community development.

Arriving fresh from an affluent western country into these slums was shocking. Poverty was everywhere. I felt overwhelmed. I clearly remember wondering what I could possibly change in a place where most of the people struggle to simply survive each day.

As we drove towards the city center, the gap between the wealthy minority and the poor majority became more evident. That too seemed unreal and impossible.

At a red light a child about 10 years old knocked on the window. He wore dirty rags that were so old and tattered you could see his body through them. He didn’t say anything. Instead, he put a hand on his belly and raised the other one towards me, begging.

There were lots of other children like him weaving between cars in the traffic jams. They are “enfants de la rue”. Of the estimated 20,000 children under the age of eighteen living on Kinshasa's streets, almost a quarter are beggars. The rest are street vendors or children who work in some kind of employment.

Enfants de la rue are the fallout from war, or have been abandoned following accusations of witchcraft, or simply victims of a poor and dysfunctional society.

Kinshasa was like no other place I have been before: dusty and ever busy roads, chaotic traffic, street sellers... smoke, mess, noise, high humidity and summer hot.

One of the main concerns is sanitation. During the rainy season the unpaved streets turn into muddy marshes full of trash, garbage, waste and scraps. At the slums, public services simply didn’t exist, and squalor piled up in any place.

In time, my initial frustration turned into anger. I felt guilty too. And so one day I found adjusted my own lifestyle. I set up home beside a generator, and used a bucket to shower, wash my clothes and flush the toilet. I drank treated water to prevent disease and slept under a mosquito net to avoid malaria but otherwise I wanted to experience the situation many of the families I was meeting were dealing with. My perception of what was necessary or important changed quickly.

Naturally, I came to appreciate the simple things: love, companionship - the thins that actually make us happy. I was also ready to accept that I couldn’t help everyone. I couldn’t change all that was wrong. But I could do my best to use the time I had and help as many people as possible. And, as I found out, just the fact that I had travelled there all the way from Europe to do that, meant a lot to them.

On January 2014, I left the capital city of Kinshasa and travelled south to Madimba, in Bas Congo, where I joined a project entitled “Farmers Club”. There, I had the opportunity to work in several villages with rural communities and continue to develop campaigns focused on health and education together with local doctors and teachers.

The initiative “DR Congo 3 Projects 1 Goal” was born to spread awareness about their living conditions and find the support to improve them.

I had come to Africa thinking that I was going to change the world. Now I see, I was the one who changed and have brought my experience to bear in my work as a care assistant back here in the UK at a nursing home.

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