Volunteers find spirit of co-operation in Africa

Volunteers from Midcounties Co-operative have recently returned from refurbishing a school in a village outside Magara, at the base of the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania. Here, the...

Volunteers from Midcounties Co-operative have recently returned from refurbishing a school in a village outside Magara, at the base of the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania. Here, the society’s Colleague Member of the Year, Gordon Monahan writes about his experience . . .

Inspirational. Thought-provoking. Humbling. That’s how I’d describe our volunteer trip to East Africa which I undertook with six others to bring a run down classroom in a remote village up to standard.

The village was Magara at the base of the Rift Valley in Tanzania, a small matter of 4,700 miles from the Midcounties supermarket at Old Town, Swindon, where I can usually be found. With me were fellow winners of the society’s first Member of the Year Awards, organised to recognise previously unsung heroes who, by their community work or support for the environment or ethical trading, embody the ideals of the Co-operative Movement.

Having flown to Mount Kilimanjaro Airport, taking care beforehand that the carbon produced was offset, we travelled overland for three hours to Magara, well way from any tourist trails. There the next four days would be focused on painting walls, mixing cement and repairing floors and steps. And the four nights would be spent in a glade under canvas, although in the relative comfort of two people to each four-man tent.

It was a picturesque spot on an escarpment by a dry river bed and a spectacular waterfall in the near distance. Above us in the trees were monkeys. They didn’t bother us and we didn’t disturb them. But we were less keen on the snakes hanging from branches overhead!

My travelling companions included society member Julia Starczewski; Alison Crane, our ‘Green’ Member of the Year and Ross Harrison, at 20 our Young Member of the Year. Ross produced a video of the trip:

There are 600 pupils at Magara Primary School. All seem willing to learn but it’s not easy when some of your classrooms have no roofs, no desks or chairs and are generally in an appalling state of repair.

The people are poor, although being a previously volcanic area it is a relatively fertile area and with subsistence farming they are reasonably well nourished.

The school has no money, but it does have an inspirational headmistress, who looks for ways the community can help itself. Or, in our case, ways to help us help them.

So the task was laid before us, to bring one of the classrooms that did have a roof to a reasonable standard.

We worked in 32 degrees of dry heat, a bit hotter than expected, under the guidance of our ground handler Clive Ward and, on most days, the watchful gaze of 30 to 40 fascinated schoolchildren.

It was enriching to be able to interact with them, using a mix of English and Swahili. In less busy moments we introduced them to the concept of Frisbee and ‘Hands, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’. And, of course, the international language of football!

The children can’t have food on the premises so they eat before leaving home, walk five kilometres to school, have nothing all day then walk five kilometres back again. They are remarkably well educated given the barriers they have to overcome, including learning on an empty stomach.

Magara is not a co-operative school but the principle of self-help, particularly with outside support, is a tangible demonstration of co-operation. That we were there giving our time in a far distant country seemed particularly pertinent during this United Nations designated International Year of Co-operatives.

A visit to Africa wouldn’t be complete without the opportunity to encounter its wildlife. Day five saw us transfer for an overnight stay at the Tloma Lodge, and a proper bed, overlooking a coffee plantation on the edge of the world famous Ngorongoro Crater.

We visited the Crater the next day and during a ‘mini-safari’ saw everything from rhino to zebras, wildebeest, buffalo, elephants and a lion. Simply awe-inspiring!

We all wish we could have stayed in Magara longer and done a lot more for the village. But we feel we achieved a lot while we were there. And certainly, the experience and memories will stay with all the volunteers for a lifetime. 

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