Volunteer Review: International Development in Togo and Nutrition in South Africa – Miles B.
Having family links to West Africa and some knowledge of French, volunteering in Togo seemed like the perfect opportunity to work abroad. At the time, I had just retired from a career playing professional rugby and I wanted the challenge of doing something completely different.
After managing to lose my wallet at Heathrow Airport before taking off, I arrived in Lomé unsure about how the placement would go and whether I had made the right decision. The special experiences of the following two weeks assured me that I had.
My International Development placement in Togo
My placement was with a local NGO. The team welcomed me with open arms and didn't hesitate to get me actively involved in the program straight away. Day-to-day, the role involved shadowing and supporting the NGO’s nurse, Rabiou. The aim was to monitor the health of street children in Abodoukomé and Kodjoviakopé, and provide treatment and advice.
We cleaned wounds and changed dressings of the injured, recorded temperatures and bodyweights, and administered medications. The children were so full of joy and responded well to our work. At times, there was a language barrier. But, strangely, that often made building a relationship, through a smile, a kick of a football, or a laugh at my efforts to converse, that bit easier.
My main focus was preparing a talent show to raise money and awareness for the needs of children in the local areas. After inviting a stream of local sponsors, a heavy downpour on the day of “Le Spectacle des Enfants” threatened to spoil the big day. But, positive as always, no one gave up. All the staff of the NGO, and the young stars of the show themselves, pulled together to tidy up and get the show back on the road. The children performed brilliantly; singing, dancing and acting to a level that had all the spectators in awe and afraid to go anywhere near the stage ourselves.
There is a real issue around the health and safety of street children in Togo and raising awareness of this issue is so important. Being involved with an organization doing such valuable work was a huge privilege and, even in the short time I was there, I felt part of a team that was making a real difference. On my last evening, they presented me with a traditional Togolese shirt which often invites questions and a welcome chance to talk about Togo now I’m back in England. I really do miss the team and was sad to move on.
My overall experience in Togo
On top of my host family and the NGO staff, the Projects Abroad team felt like another family. Kevin, the Country Director, organized regular get-togethers with volunteers on the other projects in Togo. Together, we planned trips and dinners, and even sampled some of the Togolese nightlife, attempting and failing to perfect the popular ‘Gweta’ dance.
The highlight was a visit to Kpalimé. Our guide, Momo, crammed as many people as possible into the car and set about the two-hour drive north of Lomé. With his music playing along the way, it passed so easily that Toofan and other Togolese bands definitely now feature on my playlists back home. Kpalimé itself was beautiful. With vast forests, mountains and waterfalls, it revealed a completely different side of Togo to the hustle and bustle of Lomé that left me wanting to see even more of the country.
Arriving in South Africa
Looking to start a career in nutrition, I set off for the Nutrition Project in South Africa. So, after three flights across the continent to reach Cape Town, I arrived in a bit of a daze. Once introduced to my host family in the beachside suburb of Muizenberg, though, I immediately perked up. They greeted me with a feast and sent me on my way to the popular Long Street for a night out with some of the other volunteers. It was the perfect way to get settled in quickly!
My Nutrition placement in South Africa
As a retired professional rugby player looking to start a career in nutrition, I saw the Nutrition Project as a great opportunity to apply what knowledge I had, and to improve it, in a challenging environment. The office was only a five-minute walk from my host family and was shared with Projects Abroad’s Surfing Project. It was a vibrant place to work, with excited children coming in and out on their mission to conquer the waves.
Our job, twice a week, was to feed them at the end of a long day. By no means a qualified chef before starting the project, preparing food for around 20 children took some getting used to. As did trying to explain the reasons for them to eat the healthy meals we had prepared. Many of the children at the Surfing Project were malnourished and it was important to deliver the right foods. The cartoon character Popeye wasn’t as popular as I’d hoped, but the idea of becoming as strong as Cristiano Ronaldo or other famous footballers soon had them eating their vegetables.
While Muizenberg is quite wealthy, the majority of our work took place in the more underprivileged areas of Cape Town. In places such as Lavender Hill and Vrygrond, we aimed to improve people’s access to a healthier lifestyle. I was really struck by the disparity in living conditions and health between areas like these and those of wealthier parts of Cape Town. There is an opportunity and need to make a real difference to people’s quality of life through increased understanding of nutrition.
Our work with the care centers was varied. Activities included delivering ingredients for meals, maintaining vegetable gardens at early education centers, and monitoring the health status of children and adults at care centers, baby clinics, and schools. We did this by recording weight, height, blood pressure and blood sugar measurements. We also ran exercise sessions and gave educational presentations about how to use nutrition for the prevention and management of common health issues, such as diabetes and various vitamin deficiencies.
The Project Manager, Fahima, was a joy to work with, encouraging me to get out of my comfort zone and do as much as possible. Teaching big groups of different ages and awareness levels about the benefits of healthy eating was challenging. But I’d urge any volunteer to jump in with both feet. The staff at the different care centers were welcoming, and the classes keen and eager to learn.
With a background in sport, Fahima let me take the lead on the exercise sessions we carried out at the Lavender Hill Community Centre. Despite the groans at the time, the sessions went down well and it was great to see how much more confident the group became in exercising.
My host family
TThe time in South Africa wouldn’t have been the same without my host family. The head of the house, Ayshea, really looked after me. Whether it was helping to organize days out, sending clothes for washing, or having friends over for dinner, nothing was ever too much trouble. Her daughters would often join us for dinner and mealtimes were good fun. I still miss the delicious food (especially the must-try ‘Gatsby’ and her homemade doughnuts), if not getting teased for not being married yet! It was such an easy household to feel a part of and we are still in touch now.
My experience in South Africa
Cape Town is a special place which is hard to do justice to in words. In my four weeks there, I was very focused on being a part of the great work of the Nutrition Project. But I would advise planning some of the days off before getting out there to make the most of the city. There is so much to see and do! I managed to get to lots of the must-see places like Table Mountain and Robben Island. I really thank Projects Abroad and my host family for making sure I had a wide variety of experiences. Days out at Mzoli’s township barbecue and Cape Point, as well as nights at Signal Hill are truly unforgettable times. I can’t wait to return!
This is a personal account of one volunteer’s experience on the project and is a snapshot in time. Your experience may be different, as our projects are constantly adapting to local needs and building on accomplishments. Seasonal weather changes can also have a big impact. Find out more about what you can expect from this project, or speak to one of our friendly Program Advisors.