There comes a time in one’s life when everything seems to be going well, and I’ve been lucky enough to find myself in this position of late.
As a result, I’ve been in search of a new challenge – an exciting project where I could use my skills and life experience to give something back.
And in the autumn of 2021, I experienced a life-changing journey that started in my own town and took me just under four thousand miles away – volunteering in West Africa.
Charity Begins at Home
For the past three years, I’ve been involved with URBOND, a not-for-profit charity that is based in Portsmouth, UK. We play volleyball on a regular basis, as part of a community-boosting initiative organised by the charity.
It was through these games that I first met Ousmane Drame, URBOND’s founder, who originally hails from Guinea.
Now, there’s just something about Drame that struck a chord with me. He’s one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met, and it wasn’t long before his passion for helping communities at home and abroad began to rub off. Seeing the amount of work he puts into helping others has been inspirational, and it has made me realise I can – and should – do more myself.
In the summer of 2021, a plan was beginning to form.
The Work of URBOND
Founded in 2013, URBOND has multiple goals, but its primary mission is to advance diversity within communities, simultaneously improving youth access to education. It is particularly concerned with the empowerment and education of women.
A dedicated team assists in creating workshops, social events, youth development programs, and more, right here in Portsmouth, UK as well as fundraising and volunteering to help impoverished communities in Guinea, Africa.
As luck would have it, Drame was in the midst of organising a trip to the tiny West African nation to help build a school in a district that otherwise had none.
And schools need computers, don’t they?
The IT Crowd
With my background in computing, and currently working as a software engineer, I felt this was a calling to help Drame and URBOND with their next project. I wanted to use my skill set and work contacts to source used laptops, still in fully working condition, re-install up-to-date software, and put them to good use.
Drame was as enthusiastic about the idea as I was, and so the task of building a library suddenly became building an IT library, with computer access for hundreds of kids who had never even seen one.
Guinea is a struggling country, and one of the poorest in the world. More than half the population lives below the poverty line, and a high percentage of children don’t have access to education, period – let alone any IT facilities. It’s part of URBOND’s mission to change that, and I had the opportunity to help by installing IT equipment, and training children and staff on how to use it.
The Fundraising Begins
The next step was to set up a Just Giving page to help raise funds for the project. All the money goes directly to the school, and the volunteers have to cover their own expenses. But then the real hard work began. By hook or by crook, I had to source as many laptops as I could lay my hands on, so I began asking friends, colleagues and my work contacts. If you had an old beater stashed in a drawer somewhere – I wanted it. And for the most part, I was bowled over by people’s generosity.
But with travel to Guinea fast approaching, I felt I might have bitten off more than I could chew. My living room looked like a bomb had gone off in a laptop store, and you’d be amazed at just how long it takes to install an updated Windows French version onto 25 machines, as well as games, antivirus software, and painting and typing programs.
C’est un travail difficile!
Prior to departure, I was joined by the rest of the volunteers, and together we made an eleven-strong unit, each from a different background. As well as my own IT section, we had expert builders on board to help construct and paint the school, health professionals to promote medical facilities and care, and social-media wizards to give the project an online presence – including my close friend Agness, who runs the popular Etramping travel blog along with my cousin, Cez.
But although most of us had never met each other, we were an instant team in our matching T-Shirts. We must have looked a funny sight going through customs, not least because I had asked everyone to stash two laptops in their carry-on luggage!
Touchdown in Guinea
On October 10th, 2021, we landed in Conakry – the capital of Guinea. And what a culture shock it was. It was blisteringly hot, a far cry from Portsmouth in autumn, and immensely overcrowded. Our team was also shaken (literally) by the condition of the roads – with more holes than Swiss cheese – and a driving experience similar to that of being on an overly aggressive rollercoaster.
Guinea is much more expensive than any of us expected. As an example, a bunch of bananas is around the same price as they are in the UK, and the overall cost of living is similar to that of a developed European country. And yet, in spite of the lack of infrastructure and poverty, we never felt unsafe – even walking around at night. Again, something that we didn’t expect. Still, it will always be good to take precautions and bring a trusty backpack to carry your valuables and shopping.
Even in the face of hardship, the Guineans are such fine people.
A School in Dubreka
The school we were assisting is located in a suburb of the capital, called Dubreka. In a poor city, it’s arguably the poorest area, and many children have to walk a long way to find educational facilities on a daily basis. And what does exist in bricks and mortar is the very bare bones of anything that could be called a school – something that we’re here to help change.
The team wasted no time in getting stuck in, finishing and painting the buildings, putting together furniture, setting up health clinics, and – yours truly – installing the new laptops and IT classroom. There was a delay thanks to the school not actually being on the electric grid, and power outages are common. In this environment, desktop computers would never have worked, and batteries can be lifesavers. Even in darkness, the learning can continue.
Beaming Smiles and Volleyball!
I don’t think there are enough superlatives to describe the welcome our team received – most notably from the children themselves. They were elated that we had chosen to help their community, eternally grateful that a group of unrelated foreigners had come together to create something specifically for them. Everywhere we went we were greeted with beaming smiles, laughter, dancing, and music.
We made sure to play as hard as we worked, and it was a joy to meet and challenge local volleyball teams to some games on a daily basis. As I’m the captain of our team back in Portsmouth, I was highly respected by the Guinean players, but soon absolutely annihilated on the court! Many of them play for their national team, and it was a humbling experience for our group of amateurs.
We donated our volleyball jerseys, but they still need more equipment and funds to improve facilities. Along with the IT, this is something that is particularly dear to my heart, and I will continue to support Guinean grassroots volleyball – and other community sporting initiatives in the future.
For future youth development, sports are so important, and a healthy kid is a happy kid, after all.
My First Class
My first ever IT class was probably the most memorable and exhausting two hours of my life – in equal measure! 25 eager students sat at 25 laptops, with others curiously peered in through the windows awaiting their turn with the tech. Teaching children (who have never seen a computer – remember) to use a keyboard and a mouse for the first time – that’s not something I’m going to forget in a hurry! We take it so much for granted in developed countries.
They were enthralled at the simple act of saving your name in a document, closing it, and then reopening to find their name was still there. As if by magic! I then appealed to their creative side when I challenged them all to draw my portrait in a paint program. It certainly was a steep learning curve – for me and the children – but I could see some budding future artists here. Eat your heart out, Picasso!
As I wasn’t always going to be on hand to guide the children with their new tech, I realised that setting up this computer room wasn’t enough, and the school would need a professional to help when the gremlins inevitably strike. Some of our funds went to hiring a local IT teacher, and I trained him in our laptop setup. And although I was soon to step off these shores, I will endeavour to stay in contact with the school, and help make sure the kids remain plugged in.
The British Embassy and A Grand Opening
Although I originally come from Poland, I am naturalized British, living and working in England for the past 15 years. I felt a pang of pride for the country that has adopted me, as the UK consulate showed a great deal of interest in our project – including the ambassador himself – Mr David Mcllroy. Our team was invited to the Conakry British Embassy for a day to learn about his work, and listen to his fascinating stories, as well as his own charity involvement in Guinea.
And embassy representatives were present at the school’s grand opening, attended by a large percentage of the Dubreka community, hundreds of children, and our team. TV crews were on hand to cover the historic event, and a loud cheer rang out when Emma Davis, the Deputy Head of Mission to Guinea, cut the ribbon. It was a fitting end to our collective efforts, and I will always be immensely proud of what we achieved here.
But little can we rest on our laurels…
Although our volunteering trip to Guinea is over, the hard work continues. There’s still so much that needs to be done – particularly when it comes to women’s education. Gender disparity is of significant concern in Guinea, and it has a huge problem getting girls into school – and keeping them there. A pattern emerges, as the vast majority of them drop out after their first menstruation, and kids either work or become pregnant (or both) rather than stay in education.
Female genital mutilation is another issue, a barbaric practice that still goes on in many parts of the country as a rite of passage.
URBOND wants to put these archaic cycles in the rearview mirror for the young women of Guinea – but it needs help. There is a plan in the pipeline to build a new school – this time with accommodation – so kids don’t have to travel so far to receive a decent education, and youngsters can get off the streets. We created a flag of support to help promote staying in school, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a long way to go, yet.
And the work at home doesn’t stop either, as URBOND is essential for the continuing growth and development of communities in Portsmouth, particularly when it comes to promoting diversity, equality, and integration.
For more information, and if you want to get involved, please, check out the URBOND website.
A Big Thanks
This life-changing experience (for myself, fellow volunteers, the children, and community of Dubreka) would not have been possible without the generosity of everyone who donated to the cause.
I would like to convey a deeply heartfelt thanks to everyone who contributed funds, gave laptops, and offered their time and skills to this worthy project.
A big thank you goes to my close friend who has also taken part in the trip, Agness from Etramping, who has played an important role in preparation for the trip and in delivering the project. Agness being a marketing expert helped me immensely in fundraising and project exposure on social media! She has recently posted her story on her blog which I strongly recommend to you! Check out Agness Volunteering In West Africa post.
A special thank you to the URBOND team – both in the UK and Guinea – it has been a pleasure working with you all.
And finally, an extra special thanks to the children of Dubreka. It was an honour to meet you, and an eye-opening experience that has taught many of us to be truly thankful for what we have. Perhaps you will read this on your new computers, and know how much you all mean to me. To quote the great Maya Angelou – “I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn.”
And one from Nelson Mandela – “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
I hope we all continue to do just that.