In August of 2012, I went on a volunteer trip to Cameroon with a small local NGO from Barcelona. We went to assist an educational project organized every summer by the parish of Ndu, a small village north of Kumbo in the English-speaking region of Cameroon. The preparation for the trip, however, had started months earlier at the beginning of the year. This included meeting with those of us who would be traveling together, planning the activities and the materials, attending the preparatory training session that the NGO organized and coordinating with the Cameroonian segment of the project. For many of us, this was our first international volunteering experience. We all had great expectations about learning and cultural exchange.
“The experience also caused us all to become more involved in different forms of activism on a local level.”
We weren’t disappointed with the result, as the month was just perfect. Roughly 80 boys and girls of different ages took part in the activities that we organized every day. We began the day with some classes: math, geography and natural sciences. We then continued by doing sports, playing games and singing songs. The exchange was mutual, as we learned their games and songs and, in turn, taught them ours. I even learned a bit of sign language from a local teacher who helped the deaf and mute boys and girls. In the evening we split up and lived with some of the families of the boys and girls that took part in the project. This space for more intimate interaction with the community enabled us to get to know them even better. Not only were we able to swap stories, talk about our families, our future projects, but we also able to laugh and relax from the day. Today, years later, many of us still remain in touch with our Cameroonian families to stay abreast of each other’s lives.
Back in Barcelona, all of us from the group thought that our volunteer experience couldn’t just be limited to what we had experienced during that month alone. We wanted to begin what we called “the third phase.” We had completed the first phase with the preparation and then the second one with the trip. Consequently, we took some time to reflect on what else we could do to make the personal experience of a group of ten people also have a transformative effect in our community, beyond our personal or individual experiences. This question reminded us of one of the documents that we had worked on during the training prior to the trip, the story by a Nigerian writer named Chimamanda Adichie called “The Danger of a Single Story.” In the story, the writer recounts the difficulties that she had as a child transcending the imaginary about Africa which she had heard and read about so many times. The fragment of the story that impacted me the most states the following:
“So I was an early reader, and what I read were British and American children’s books. I was also an early writer. And when I began to write, at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations […]; I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed. They played in the snow. They ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria, I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow; we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to. […] What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children.”—Chimamanda Adichie
There are similar stories to be found in our own community. What are the stories that we tell ourselves about societies that are different from our own? Inspired by this concept of dismantling the collective imaginary that often exists about African countries, we organized a small photography exhibit at a civic center in downtown Barcelona. The exhibition was called “En la tierra del Limbum, or In the Land of Limbum”, a reference to the local dialect of Ndu. We sought to enable our neighbors and fellow citizens to appreciate the unique features of a distant country and also to understand the common denominators that bring together all of communities of the world. There weren’t any photographs of amazing natural landscapes or stereotypes, just photographs that had been taken by different members of the group. These depicted the moments experienced, aspects of everyday life and the individuals we met. Later on, we also exhibited the same collection in other cities.
The experience also caused us all to become more involved in different forms of activism on a local level. Even within the NGO itself, many of us have continued taking part in the training of new volunteers for their first experience, as well as activism through social networks and the organization of local activities. The experience of volunteering in Cameroon also awakened an interest in me to learn more about Africa. This led me to seek more information beyond the news, and to read more about its history and anthropology. I even did a graduate degree in African Societies and Development organized by the Center for African and Intercultural Studies and Universidad Pomepeu Fabra.
“Today, years later, many of us still remain in touch with our Cameroonian families to stay abreast of each other’s lives.”
Every year there are many people of all ages who decide to dedicate some of their time, their summer vacation or their sabbatical year through different volunteer activities organized by international NGOs. All of these experiences assuredly have very significant value for individual and personal growth. However, through this short account of my own experience, I hope to convey the importance that I believe exists in continuing with the commitment that one acquires with international volunteer work through actions on a local level. I think that local activism in communities afford the opportunity to reflect on different aspects of reality and to create a grassroots social agenda. Consequently, in order to generate global changes there is a need to mobilize locally. As our slogan says, “We cannot create a different world with indifferent people.”
Xavier Bofill De Ros received his IB diploma from Bell-lloc del Pla in Girona, Spain. He continued his studies with a double degree at the University of Barcelona and a master’s at Pompeu Fabra University. During his PhD, he worked on engineering viral vectors for gene therapy. Currently, he is at the National Cancer Institute, understanding the role of miRNAs on gene regulation. On his free time, he likes reading from science to art and volunteering in a local NGO. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.
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