The highs and lows of volunteering in Luanda, Angola
Today it’s exactly 20 months since I first landed in Luanda. It’s almost like yesterday. How excited and anxious I was. This was the first time, I was moving to a country of which I had no clue. In my “we shall cross the bridge when it comes” attitude, I didn’t even read a lot about living in Angola or what am I going to do in Angola. I was just excited to be in Africa.
It took about a month to get a place and get a basic set up going in terms of a home and then whoever I met, I asked if they knew some place I could volunteer in. I knew it that if I want to call Angola home (even if it is just for 3 years) I have to go out and be a part of it. It was easy to get comfortable in the warm and welcoming expat circles, which I am grateful for, but working with children is what I love and I had to find a way.
In February I started volunteering with a local non-profit, Fundação arte e cultura. They have a lot of projects, but I primarily volunteer in the children’s centre. I love spending time with the kids, designing and taking new sessions and just being there for them. It’s been a beautiful journey last 16 months, not without it’s ups and downs. Till now, this has been my longest, continuous full time volunteering project and there is so much I have learned, particularly while volunteering in Luanda.
Language was the first thing I was hesitant about before coming to Angola. I knew just about 5 basic phrases when I started volunteering with children. It’s amazing how much you can converse simply by gestures and body language. But more than that it was amazing how quick I was able to learn the language with them. They were not shy of laughing at me when I spoke something utterly wrong in grammar. Moreover they weren’t shy of correcting me. Most adults would try and understand what I was trying to say and didn’t feel the need to correct but thank God, children are not spoiled by our false sense of etiquettes.
I followed my husband to Angola. As soon as we reached we immediately had a circle of engineers (and their families) working in the same field. Angola is portrayed as a very unsafe place and so avenues of meeting people outside of his field were limited. But when I started volunteering, I saw a whole new side of Luanda and Angola. I came across so many creative people – artists, musicians, writers and dancers. With them I explored the city and its culture. Volunteering helped me be more me than just an expat wife. With them I found inspiration to create something myself.
I met local heroes in small communities outside the city who are running schools in their backyards and musicians teaching music to children on the streets. And I found new purpose for my skills.
Volunteering allows a lot of freedom. It allowed me to work on my schedule and do activities I like. However more than that, I knew I had an avenue, in the organisation I was volunteering with, to try different ideas. When I came, the children’s centre did really have a lot going on, so I was told I have all the freedom to bring new sessions. But with freedom also came the responsibility of the children. I loved that responsibility. It motivated me to try harder, to not give up if one way of teaching didn’t work. And to see the children slowly blossoming has been the biggest reward.
Teaching is a 2 way street! I am not just talking of the children teaching me the language but in order to teach them, I would look up newer activities and practice and learn them before teaching them. The one thing that really concerned me was the lack of recycling and instead of complaining about it, I decided to do more and more recycling activities with the children. My strongest belief is that if a message has to go in the society, the children of the society have to take it. If they understand that things that are apparent waste can be turned into beautiful objects, they are less likely to throw it in the garbage or let their elders do so. I never thought I would ever know how to weave a basket with newspapers or how to create a wall mosaic with toilet paper rolls.
We are all learning together here.
On the outside, Luanda currently looks like a picture of development. There are the latest models of everything and high rises coming up everywhere in the town. But the country went through a civil war that lasted 30 years and got over just 12 years back. 30 years is more than one generation. A very small section of higher middle class and upper class Angolans were able to escape at that time and come back later to claim all the big jobs. Because of my volunteering I work with and meet people who witnessed and lived the war. A girl who was taken in as a slave when she was a child and it was only after 8 years that she could escape. Another who lived in a forest for almost a year when her family fled the war. I feel I get a better sense of the societal fabric, because of a better understanding of where it comes from. And that gives me a sense of belonging.
But it is not all rosy. There are days I suffer bouts of helplessness, frustration and losing hope. When I started building a database of all the children who come to the centre, I saw in a month, more than 100 different children come to the centre but not one of them comes regularly. A child who came today, may come the day after, the week after, the month after or not come at all. I try to understand but at times its difficult to accept that a 10 year old has to stay back home because she/ he needs to cook food for the family; or because her mom has gone for work and she has to look after the baby or it rained so hard the day before that they have to spend the entire day removing water from their home one bucket after another.
Sometimes there are kids that have been abandoned by their families. A priest who runs an orphanage of abandoned children was telling how the children go through a completely different trauma because they know they have their parents and still can’t see them or be with them. Why?
Sometimes they do an artwork that leaves you bewildered. One child painted a high heel sandal stamping on a heart with blood coming out of the heart and a crying rose. What was it all about? She never came back and we could not find her home.
Volunteering has been a mixed bag of emotions for me. I have experienced happiness, love, pride, joy, disappointment, fear, hope, faith and freedom. And it is these experiences that have helped me integrate myself into the everyday life of Angola. It is these experiences that help me be more me. Everyday that I volunteer, everyday that I go out and serve I learn something new about the city and its soul and I feel I am no outsider.
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