Eleanor Johnston graduated from LSE in July 2012 with a BA in Geography. She has been volunteering since 2004 with children and young people. Whilst in her final year at LSE Eleanor was proud to be short-listed for the LSE Volunteer of the Year award for her work mentoring a young female refugee. Since graduating, Eleanor has been living in Rwanda and volunteering for Strive Foundation, a Rwandan NGO. Now that her time in Africa is coming to an end, we caught up with Eleanor to hear her reflect on the 9 months she has spent volunteering abroad:
I have spent the last 9 months volunteering for Strive Foundation Rwanda, a Rwandan NGO, whilst living the good life in Kigali. The obvious question is why? Well, on graduating from LSE in 2012, it seemed that any real job prospects in International Development required voluntary experience abroad in the sector, and lots of it. Thus, I went overseas – partly for my CV and future job prospects and partly to avoid real life for a year!
Having travelled extensively in East and Southern Africa before, I knew Rwanda was somewhere I wanted to get to know more. And I believe you can only really get to know anywhere properly by living there for some time. So Rwanda it was. A bonus is that Rwanda doesn’t have the hideous traffic of Nairobi or the intense heat of Dar Es Salaam. Overall, it seemed like a great place to start!
Strive Foundation Rwanda is an NGO that runs programmes revolving around a basic vision of “sustainable social welfare for vulnerable groups”. Thus Strive is an NGO that does a little bit of everything – health, education, women’s economic empowerment, social protection, child protection and environmental protection. It is a relatively large and well-known NGO in Rwanda – it has run projects for USAID/EDC, Human Help Network, Care International, Handicap International (and the EU), the Global Fund, UN Women, and so on.
My role at SFR was “Project Support and Fundraising”. In fact, the title of my position was irrelevant – I did anything and everything that could be useful. My tasks have ranged from designing a brochure, to policy and proposal writing, to teaching SFR administrative staff how to use the statistical software package SPSS (yes, my Geography degree came in handy!). The experience I have gained has been phenomenal and the exposure to the donor community and ‘international development world’ has been more than I could have hoped for. From enforced group prayer time, to communal shoulder massaging (both at international NGOs) I have been there, done it and got the t-shirt! It’s been a marvelous experience!
If I am honest, I expected my role as a volunteer to have been more structured – and after 3 years of LSE found it difficult having nothing to do for mornings at a time. But everyone assured me that this is the nature of NGO work. Yes, I may have completed several hundred games of solitaire during my time here, but this was outweighed by the infinite number of new skills I learned during the busy times. Before I came to Rwanda, I never thought I would have been able to design, research, write and budget for a $500,000 project, but I did do it and it felt great.
Living in Kigali has been amazing. I am going to miss my little rented house, with the tiny terrace and my Rwandese neighbours. I am leaving next week, and it is definitely emotional. I have made some incredible friends– both at work and outside of work. I will miss going for chips with my supervisor, Fatuma on a Friday and having beers with our neighbours on the weekend. Before I got to Rwanda I decided against renting a room in a large expat house and I’m so glad I made this decision. Living in a Rwandese neighbourhood is so much better. I have had the best time and overall, I wouldn’t have planned it any other way!
For those who might be interested in volunteering abroad, here’s how I organised my trip. I contacted 2way Development, a UK-based social enterprise, which matches skillsets of volunteers to the needs of NGOs in countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America – for an £800 fee. Is it worth the money? Well, I think that depends. For me, I would say my match with Strive Foundation Rwanda could not have been better! But there is no guarantee. Based on my experiences alone I would say 2Way is an affordable option for finding meaningful and interesting work with a fully vetted charity abroad.
In total a year in Rwanda cost me £4000 for living expenses (living pretty well), £600 for flights, £120 for insurance and £800 2Way fee. This is less than my rent for a room in London last year and all it required was working full time in a bar for 4 months before I went out there. Easy!
So if you are wondering if you should volunteer abroad, I would say YES, go for it. You will enjoy it, you will learn so much and you will have some of the most extraordinary experiences of your life during your time away. DO IT.
See the LSE Volunteer Centre website for more information and resources on overseas volunteering.