Alumni Spotlight: Anna Walker

Anna Walker, 26, volunteered in Kenya from January – May 2005. Originally from Bath, UK, she now works in Marketing + Events.

Why did you decide to volunteer with AV in Kenya?

Anna: When I decided to take a gap year between school and starting university I knew I wanted to go to East Africa. Having spoken to a number of family friends who had taken gap years and my school careers advisor I was recommended Africa & Asia Venture (AV). Everyone I spoke to about them was very positive about the projects they offered, the support they gave you and the overall experience. I looked at a few others but AV was the stand out choice. I wanted to spend a significant time in one place, getting to know the people and not just flying in and flying out again without having time to really get stuck in so the length of the project – 12 weeks was very appealing. You also travelled with a group of volunteers which was great as I wasn’t going to be doing this with a friend and would make a group of new friends. I also liked the fact that the group went together for the same length of time rather than people coming and going.

Their reputation for safety and support was fantastic and this was an important thing for both me and my parents. I didn’t want to be on a school trip where you were herded around and told what to do all the time with group leaders. I wanted to be in a remote community, getting fully involved and with independence but knowing that someone was always there if I needed them and would look after us – it was the perfect balance.

Describe your day to day activities as a volunteer.

Anna: Every day was always different from the one before! Each day started with assembly at 7:45am. I was assigned 2 geography classes in the 1st and 2nd years of the school and also year 1 English lessons. I was also given all the PE lessons to teach and after school sports clubs. The fellow volunteer in my school did many more English lessons and also ran a French club. One afternoon a week we did a joint dance club which was very funny – we would learn African dances and then teach the girls some dance routines to our music! We also helped with English and PE lessons in the primary school which added extra variety, it was incredibly basic and the kids were so excited when we arrived with proper footballs for PE lessons!

Anna was a volunteer teacher in Kenya with AV

In between lessons we might be chatting to other teachers who were free or back at our house, preparing lessons, writing our journals and doing housework. We also helped paint some murals in the bathrooms and did some other painting around the school to help out in our free time. It was amazing how much longer things took to do over there and how generally the pace of life was much slower. Washing your clothes by hand was a good mornings work; going to the local village, Lessos, to buy food was an hour’s walk if there was no taxi or bus passing along the road (this was the most remote of the schools the volunteers were placed in, most were nearer!), we’d also collect the school mail from there, post letters home and stop for a chapatti and soda in our favourite café where were got to know the owner and she gave us cooking lessons!

Our evening activities varied - we were sometimes invited over to teacher’s houses for dinner or had them to ours. We also met up with the other AV who were placed in schools nearby – this was a great chance to share stories and teaching ideas as well as plan where we might travel to on our free weekends. We visited Lake Boringo and Bogoria, Lake Victoria and Kisumu, the tea plantations in Kericho and the Kakemega rainforest. On Sunday afternoon we’d arrive back at Kapnyeberai and it really felt like we were walking back into our home, ready to start another week…

What made this volunteer experience unique and special?

Anna: I think the people were one of the key things, from the AV team who look after you before you go to the staff in country and in the schools – not to mention the fellow volunteers! It was the extra, personal touches that made AV special – they really took an interest and you felt like you were treated as an individual. From then on I relaxed and knew I was in safe hands.

The school had had AV volunteers before but there was still a need for more help, it felt like a good continuation of the work they did rather than doing exactly the same as what someone else had done before. We were able to make the time there unique and our own.

I also felt we had a good balance of the volunteer work and time socialising with other volunteers and travelling. AV included the option to stay for 4 weeks of independent travel time after the project work had finished so you had a chance to explore further but knew that you had other people to travel with. We all went to Uganda to go white water rafting, I climbed Mt Kenya, relaxed on the amazing beaches before going on Safari. With the experience of living in country and the help of the teachers we had become confident with using the local transport, eating local food and speaking some of the language – this meant I was much more confident went travelling and I feel it definitely helped me to travel further and also more cheaply than I might have done otherwise.

How has this experience helped you grow personally and professionally?

Anna: I think my experience had a big effect on me, I don’t think you can do something like that and not be affected by it. It wasn’t like a lightning bolt moment thing, I didn’t suddenly change into a new person, nor did it make me want to go into charity work or become a teacher (although I know people who did and it definitely helped them). I believe it did however give me a better understanding of life in a different country and of the issues that I now see of TV or read in the media and an interest and appreciation for different cultures and lifestyles. Before when I thought of Kenya I’d seen the glossy holiday brochures or the extreme poverty and aid appeals when there are problems, never the life in the middle because it’s not newsworthy or a tourist resort. This is the everyday life that you get to experience as a volunteer and it gives you a while different view.

I made some fantastic friends amongst the group of volunteers and had a lot of fun however some of the benefits weren’t necessarily apparent until a few months or years down the line. Looking back at university and applying for jobs I used it in so many different ways and did things which I might not have had the thought or confidence to do otherwise. I had a bigger appreciation of what a great opportunity I had in going to university, so I was keen to get stuck in and make the most of it. I was so much more confident than I had been when I left school. I wasn’t worried about being away from home and was much more outgoing which was great in those first few weeks when you’re in a new place and don’t know anybody. You didn’t get a choice as to who you were living with in halls but having got on a plane with 20+ strangers heading for Kenya I wasn’t fazed and soon made some great friends. My time in Kenya was a great ice breaker and talking point – people wanted to know more or had their own travel experiences to share too.

I wasn’t keen on public speaking before I went to Kenya but standing up and talking in front of a class of kids was a great way to build confidence. It’s a really great skill to have both for presentations at University and in the work place and I will now happily stand up and talk. I also learnt to budget my finances – both before my trip when saving the funds I was earning and budgeting what I spent when I was travelling to ensure that I didn’t run out of money before my flight home!

One of the biggest impacts the project had was when I came to apply for graduate jobs in my final year. I was really keen to go into sports marketing and sent off my CV to a few companies, filled out application forms and soon found myself in interviews. The jobs I had done to earn the money provided good experience for my CV but it was my time in Kenya that was picked up on most in interviews and that I used to answer the ‘life experience’ style questions which ask you about overcoming problems, taking on responsibility, managing people or budgets. Here I was able to use examples from my project in Kenya, these were different from the usual answers people had and because I loved talking about Kenya I relaxed and came across with real confidence and enthusiasm. Although not in an environment directly related to the job I was applying for I could show my transferable skills and show how they had been tried and tested in a challenging environment. I got the job starting the day after I finished university!

Overall my project with Africa & Asia Venture was an incredibly rewarding, fun and unforgettable experience.