I’ve just got back from Uganda. I’m not showing off – well, not much anyway – I’m just letting you know where I’ve been for a month or so.
I was leading an expedition of sixth form students (17 and 18 year olds to everyone outside the UK) who had spent eighteen months planning, fund-raising and preparing for this trip. They were in charge and ran the expedition whilst I and two link teachers were there to provide moral support and to stop them from getting into serious trouble. Which we did I’m pleased to say.
These sort of personal development adventures are hugely popular now in the UK and elsewhere around the world and have, in some cases, become a rite of passage. I’m in favour of them not least because they provide me with employment but also because of the enormous benefits this sort of responsibility can bring for young people.
But I do have reservations. One element of these trips that has always given me some cause for concern has been the service element. Each trip generally has a social project which the students undertake in a local community of the country they’re visiting. They volunteer to help out with construction work, decoration or education or some such. In Uganda this year we were helping the local community to build latrines and rubbish pits.
My issue is not with the students’ volunteering: I think that inducting young people in to the idea of service, of helping other folks out, can only be a good thing. No, my issue is with what is done for these communities. Do British (or American or Australian) students bring any skills to a construction site that can’t be sourced locally? If the answer is no, what are they doing there, helping the community or assuaging a latent, developed-world guilt?
In our case, this year in Uganda, I was pleased to be informed by a local social worker that our mere presence in a village where white people had never spent the night, was a galvanising influence that motivated the village to rally around the idea of building latrines. All well and good and we appear to have done something positive but what if we had been the fifth group to stay in that village, or the 10th or the 25th? How galvanising would we have been then?
My thoughts have therefore, run to this question,
What skills do British students have that can’t be found locally and might be of use to a community in the developing world?
You may not, if you have read any of my work before, be surprised to hear me say that I had considered first aid.
No sooner was I back in the land of internet than I read this heart-warming story about three lads on an expedition to teach first aid in Tanzania. Not only were they providing a genuine service to Tanzanian communities but they actually saved a girl’s life when she was in danger of drowning and then taught the bystanders some first aid.
As a form of social project for expeditions of this sort, I believe that first aid has real legs. It is something that students from developed countries can learn relatively easily and learn to teach and it is something that can provide real benefit to villages and other communities within developing countries. And if the story of the three heroes from Middlesborough teaches us anything, it’s that countries like Tanzania are crying out for people with first aid sills.