Paul O’Callaghan is a volunteer with VMM (Volunteer Missionary Movement). He is currently teaching mathematics and English in a school for AIDS-affected orphans in Kibera slum – the largest slum in Africa.
What made you decide to be a volunteer?
After travelling extensively in my twenties I quickly realised just how blessed I was in the opportunities in life I’d received and I suppose I had a desire to pass on some of the skills I’d acquired to those who needed it most. I chose Africa because I’d always had a fascination with the people, the politics and the practices of the forgotten continent and as a qualified teacher I felt I had a readily transferrable skill that could be of service there.
Describe your placement role?
Although teaching was what I came to Kenya to do, I soon discovered that I was of more use coaching athletics, assisting student journalists get published in the daily Kenyan papers, supporting a 6-month student volunteer scheme in the slum, overseeing student business ventures and facilitating reflection days. These ex-curricular activities consume most of my time and most importantly no Kenyan has lost out on a job on my account.
Was it hard to settle in to your placement and new environment?
I was fortunate to have already lived in Tanzania for a year before coming to Kenya and so when I landed in the school, I had passable Swahili and had lived with East Africans for over a year. I found the staff incredibly welcoming and the students were friendly and curious about the new ‘mzungu’ (white person) with a surname similar to their own tribal names.
What has been your biggest challenge?
The roofs of the school are corrugated iron and when the noon-day sun is overhead you feel like a boiled prune marinating in your own body juices. The walls are also sheet-iron so it’s like conducting a class in a sardine tin with a 10,000 watt bulb overhead. Many classrooms don’t have adequate lighting and some don’t have windows. To get from the top campus to the bottom one, you jump from rock to rock and pray you don’t lose your balance and land in the open sewers that dribble down the centre of the narrow alleyways. When the long rainy season comes, you need to ditch your dignity and teach in wellies.
What did you most enjoy about your volunteer placement?
Despite the horrendous conditions of the slum, the enthusiasm and joyfulness of students is contagious. During the rainy season, when the mud is up to 6 inches in places you never hear anyone complain. Instead, everyone thanks God for the rain because with the rain the crops grow and there will be no famine that year. This really put things into perspective for me and I began to see the monsoon-like soakings differently after that.
Describe life outside of your placement role.
Nairobi holds the illustrious honours of newest, highest, wealthiest and most developed city in East Africa. You can sip a latte, slurp a hot chocolate or sink your teeth into a thick, slice of Black Forest gateaux in swanky cafes dotted around the city. Supermarkets carry everything you could want from home. Yet, cheek-to-jowl with the opulence is grinding poverty. Most of the students we teach live on less than $1/day.