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Siobhan Hughes, EIL, South Africa

Siobhan's portatit taken by a Friend

I have always had an interest in international development. My interest ignited in 2006 when I travelled to India with the Hope Foundation to see what their work entailed. When I completed my Leaving Certificate in 2008, I knew that development was my passion and so I began studying International Development and Food Policy in University College Cork.

This four year degree took me to places I never dreamed of, and in 2011 I spent six months living and working in Ethiopia. While in Ethiopia, I was free to conduct research in any area I pleased. Having taken the health modules in college I decided to look into knowledge and awareness surrounding HIV and AIDS in the nearby villages. From this I then went on to study for a Masters in Public Health.

As summer approached, I knew that I wouldn’t be satisfied unless I was involved with something that would give me a whole new experience and so I applied for EIL Intercultural Learning’s ‘Global Awareness Programme’ (GAP). EIL is an Irish not for profit organisation which provides intercultural learning experiences, to enrich lives and to inspire global citizenship.

The GAP is a programme in which you are placed within a community to work and learn about issues that these communities are faced with every day. Before leaving Ireland there are a series of workshops to prepare you for the departure. I was lucky to have been chosen for the HIV and AIDS GAP South Africa programme alongside Trinity College student Niamh Foley. Before we left for Cape Town, we had many trainings including pre-departure training in which we also met with past participants, HIV, Gender and Development and Campaigns and Advocacy training as well as an exposure visit to Open Heart House in Dublin. Open Heart House is a member – led organisation with a mission to empower and enhance the lives of people living with HIV and AIDS in Dublin. The idea of the Global Awareness Programme is to link your learning from overseas with your learning in Ireland, so the visit to Open Heart House gave us an insight into how an organisation in Ireland was responding to HIV and AIDS.

I have travelled abroad with volunteer organisations before (Hope Foundation and Haven Partnership) but have never felt as nervous as I did about this! I was travelling to South Africa to live with a host family with someone I had met just five or six times before that! It really was jumping into the unknown! I most definitely did not need to worry about anything. We lived with the Emmett family in Silvertown. Living with a host family was fantastic. Niamh and I became so close with our host family that we have now dropped the word ‘host’ and call them our family. It’s difficult to describe just how much we felt at home with the Emmett’s. Niamh quickly became my sister and to Mrs Emmett we were her two Irish daughters, to us she was our Mum.

 Every day we walked to ThembaCare, the project that we worked in for the two months of the Global Awareness Programme. ThembaCare provides hope for children who are admitted throughout the year as a result of opportunistic infections associated with HIV and AIDS, as well as other life threatening illnesses. Working at ThembaCare has given me an insight into the harsh reality of HIV and AIDS in South Africa where poverty and stigma are driving the disease.

 It is important to know that once someone has access to anti retro viral medication, they can live a relatively normal life, with normal life expectancy. However, as a result of severe stigma related to HIV, many refuse to disclose their status to their family and friends and therefore fail to receive their medication on time. In South Africa, those who are HIV positive and whose CD4 count falls below a certain number are eligible to receive a grant from the government. Due to the huge inequality and absolute poverty within South Africa, people are willingly becoming HIV positive in order to receive the grant to feed their children.

HIV and AIDS is a huge issue in South Africa, affecting the lives of almost everyone in some way. While it is dominant on South Africa’s agenda, it seems to have slipped off ours. One person per day in Ireland is diagnosed as HIV positive. It may not seem like a huge number, but in a country of just 4 million people, it is a significant amount and should not be overlooked.

 Volunteering with EIL has given me a comprehensive insight into HIV and AIDS from a global and local perspective. It is easy to forget that the issues existing in developing countries also exist here in Ireland. EIL’s Global Awareness Programme connects and interlinks these global issues to help you better understand and relate to the issues.

 The GAP is different from other volunteer abroad programmes as the experience does not end upon returning home to Ireland. Following a two day ‘Welcome Back Weekend’, GAP participants must set out for the most important aspect of the Global Awareness Programme – raising awareness, campaigning and educating!  As the theme of the Global Awareness Programme that I participated in was HIV and AIDS, I am now looking to create ‘action projects’ based on my experiences. I have recently taken part in Comhlamh’s ‘What Next?’ weekend course which was a great way to meet like – minded people who are also hoping to stay engaged with the work they have done overseas. Staying connected with your volunteer experience is something that I feel is extremely important and EIL have been (and are!) a huge support and encouragement throughout the experience.

If I were to give advice to anyone who is thinking about volunteering in the future, I would say; go with the flow! Volunteering isn’t about going overseas and ‘saving the world’! It’s an intercultural learning experience in which skills and stories are shared and friendships are made. It is about creating partnerships and standing in solidarity with individuals and communities around the world. Try not to go away with a specific idea in your head (e.g. you might be determined that you want to teach). Be open to any possibility that might come your way and embrace this opportunity to learn something new. To anyone who is considering volunteering overseas (or at home); What are you waiting for?!

Describing my experience in three words, I would say ‘Inspiring’, ‘Challenging’ and ‘Enlightening’

*Picture sent in by Siobhan, not part of Kate’s work*