Life’s most urgent question: What are you doing for others?” I cannot think of a more appropriate time than today to resound those words spoken by Martin Luther King, as we commemorate International Volunteer Day. This year’s theme: ‘Volunteers Act First. Here.
Everywhere’ recognises the contributions of volunteers as responders in times of crisis. In the life of the person, who is in a particular situation, a crisis can be anything from lack of sanitary towels, a dormitory to sleep in, poor disposal of rubbish in their community, illiteracy, name it. It is, therefore, an honour to celebrate these individuals, especially now, with the crises in parts of the world.
International Volunteer Day gives volunteers and volunteer organisations an opportunity to raise awareness of the significant role they play in improving communities. It also presents a chance to celebrate their efforts and promote their work among their communities.
Millions of people across the globe dedicate their time and energy to help others. This support may be offered in form of skills or resources. As Africans, our culture is rich with examples of giving of ourselves to benefit others. The popular proverb: “It takes a whole village to raise a child,” sums up our collective participation in the lives of others. A neighbour’s toddler, who is wailing with no one to attend to them, is as much our responsibility as it is the mother’s. This involvement goes both ways (positive and negative) depending on which side you are on.
During your childhood, you or someone you know may have been a victim of a severe beating from a friend’s parents over naughty behaviour. As if that was not enough, you hurriedly went home to report this unjust act to your parent/guardian only to receive a tongue lashing if you were lucky; a second phase of beating if you weren’t. We are indeed our brother’s keepers.
Whereas there is limited literature about volunteering in Africa by Africans, people of different ages are working hard to transforming their communities. This poses a challenge to us to do a better job of documenting our stories. Not only will it benefit future generations, but it will also inspire them greatly.
For the past five years, I have been privileged to work in an organisation, which solely runs on the support of volunteers. This has put me in an excellent position to witness the good, bad and ugly of volunteerism. Like many things in life, I must confess that volunteering can be daunting and extremely challenging, especially if done frequently. Whether it is working with the elderly, terminally ill patients or children with disabilities, the experience alone can be traumatic.
Depending on the level of involvement, the emotional strain can take a toll and quickly lead to burn out. Nonetheless, volunteering for a cause (especially one that you believe in) is very rewarding. It gets one out of their comfort zone and gives an opportunity to effect positive change. It might not be easy but it is definitely worth it.
Having worked with more than 400 volunteers between the ages of 16 and 50, I can say it is never too early or too late to get involved in volunteer work. The raw energy that comes with youth is unparalleled. On the other hand, age comes with experience and wisdom. The combination can create magic.
Whether you are a student who has free time over the weekend or a parent looking to spice up your time with your children, I would highly recommend volunteering. Not only will it create an avenue where you can bond with your loved ones or the new people you encounter, it is also an opportunity to learn more about yourself in different situations. It will also broaden your world view. As a bonus, you get to witness the impact of your efforts first hand. It is a truly enriching experience.
Where do you start? You start right where you are and with what you have. Whether you drive a car, use boda bodas or walk, you see different areas of need daily on your route to work, school, supermarket, etc. ‘But I am just one person and I don’t have much to give.’ Well, you are in luck because your little is someone else’s excess. There are various organisations in need of extra hands.
Additionally, there are hospitals – both specialised and non-specialised, prisons, homes looking after teenage moms, empowering victims of HIV/AIDS or taking care of children with special needs. The list of people who need you is endless.
I encourage you to begin by looking around you. You can gather your colleagues, friends or even start on your own.
Ms Kalenzi is the founder and team leader
of 40 days over 40 smiles Foundation.