instagram post volountourism volunteering abroad Credit: Glasgow Guardian / Kirsten Colligan


This is the "For" piece in a For and Against feature. Read the "Against" piece here.

For many, the arrival of your twenties can throw you into a crisis – you feel like you’re barely out of your school uniform and yet you’re expected to have some kind of “plan”.

Last year, this sense of uncertainty led me to the International Citizens Service (ICS), a government funded volunteering program for 18-25 year olds. The organisation places young people on projects where their skills, knowledge and passions will be most useful.

After a rapid application process, I was assigned to the Sirigu Women’s Organisation of Pottery and Arts (SWOPA) in Ghana. A daunting task was ahead of me: I had less than three months to fundraise, and little knowledge about the culture I would soon be living in.

An enriching part of the ICS experience is having the opportunity to live with local families in your community. Living and integrating with the Abaane family was by far the biggest learning opportunity I’d experienced. It was extremely humbling to be welcomed so warmly and cared for so generously by a family who had very little materially. They slept outside on reed mats, and most of our meals consisted of rice. Basic plumbing was also not a feature of the settlement I lived in. When going to the toilet you had the choice between a “long drop” (a small tin hut occupied with spiders and sometimes a lurking cockroach) – or going “free range”. The sanitary conditions and sleeping arrangements alone cast light on how fortunate people are in developed countries. Of course, I was aware of such realities before I went, but seeing it firsthand truly brought home just how easy it is to turn a blind eye to poverty when you only see it through a screen, and how diminished our sense of gratitude has become.

Working alongside the women in SWOPA was an amazing experience. My team was responsible for providing pottery training for poor women in the community, the aim being to teach them a skill that they could turn into a small business in order to help their families become more self-sufficient. As a project, I question whether we had a substantive impact, but it felt brilliant to be able to spend time with these women and hopefully help them develop businesses and friendships in their community. The most formative aspect for me was knowing that there was so much that these women and I could learn from each other and find common ground on, despite the fact that our lives were so different.

The motto for ICS is “challenge yourself to change your world”. I’m not naïve enough to think that my project had an enormous impact on the settlement of Sirigu, and it would be too easy for me to return to my life in Glasgow with a sense of self-accomplishment. Rather, the experience has profoundly changed how I see the world and my home city. Since returning to Glasgow, I have a greater appreciation for the opportunities that are available to me in this city; I no longer place such importance on material goods after I gained so much from a place and its people who have so little. In terms of the impact on people’s lives that organisations such as ICS make, their work ensures that everyone can truly offer something to people in deprived circumstances. From addressing healthcare inequalities to encouraging female empowerment, there is always something we can do. These are conversations that everyone can and should participate in, with the hope of inciting some positive action and reinforcing a sense of gratitude that I had personally lost touch with.

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