International Citizen Service (ICS) provides overseas volunteer placements for 18-25 year olds. It is a direct way to make a difference to the lives of others. My decision to join ICS was fuelled by a desire for something different. Realising that my career goals were all around charity and voluntary work, ICS seemed to be a perfect way to gain experience and more knowledge of global voluntary work. I have always part-taken in voluntary work, being a young leader at both my local Brownie and Scout groups, and charity fundraising from a young age, from Race For Life, to trekking Hadrian’s Wall, carrying everything on my back. But I had a desire to take a step out of my comfort zone and be part of the global impact that voluntary service have. ICS seemed to be a great opportunity for that, and it proved itself to be more than I’d imagined or hoped for. After a friendly and encouraging application and interview process I was put on a placement in Machakos, Kenya with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). VSO is an international development charity with a vision for a “world without poverty”.
October comes and I’m off; a very tearful goodbye to my family at the airport and I join a group of 69 other nervous but excited people all going to Kenya. Applying for ICS, I was aware that it may be difficult at times, but I was confident that I would find the experience fairly easy. On arrival in Machakos, I realised that I was very wrong. I struggled at first to settle in; turns out being halfway across the world with a bunch of strangers (who at the time I didn’t think would become some of the best friends I could have made), navigating our way around a completely unknown place and hearing ‘MZUNGU’, which basically means ‘white person’, multiple times a day is actually quite a lot to get used to. Being pushed out of my comfort zone was something that I was adamant I wanted. The start of my ICS journey was difficult; I could not comprehend how I would be there for 10 weeks. But now, writing about this experience, reminiscing on all the memories made, thinking about our volunteering team and my amazing host family makes me SO emotional. I found a family in Machakos and for that I am incredibly grateful and I wouldn’t change any of it for the world. Although I had a bumpy start, I adapted to a new culture well. Machakos became my home.
We were a team of 23 in Machakos; half of us were from the UK and the other half were Kenyan nationals. Our team quickly became one big, unconventional family. We loved each other, we fought, we cried and we laughed. We were the family we all needed in our new home. We still keep in touch now and are planning our first reunion!
We all lived in host homes in the community with another volunteer. I lived with the AMAZING Mama Grace, who we called Mama Adrian or Mama Fabian, because in Kenya you call mama by the name of her children. I was also with another UK volunteer, my counterpart, who I absolutely love. It’s a strange but wonderful kind of bond when you live literally on top of each other for 10 weeks – we went from strangers to sisters! My host family were nothing short of wonderful. I loved having 2 younger brothers to play with every day and to get annoyed about when I just wanted some peace! I wouldn’t have had it any other way; they will always be my second family. One of the best things for me was when Adrian, one of our brothers, called us ‘sister’ – which he shouted excitedly down the street every time he saw us! Coming home every evening to them was such a magical thing; I never thought I’d have a brother but now I have 2! The house was so often full of children, and although it was sometimes a bit manic, I absolutely loved that the children in our block and down our street always wanted to play with us; Adrian often brought them all home to sing ‘heads shoulders knees and toes’, play hide and seek or skipping. There was never a quiet moment! I didn’t think on arriving that I would refer to the strange new place as home, but it really is. I couldn’t imagine my experience in a different home – it wouldn’t have been the same. We got really lucky with our host home – it really was so full of love, laughter and happiness.
Whilst in Machakos I volunteered in 2 places: a technical school called CAPYEI for 18-25 year olds and Kenya Red Cross. At CAPYEI, I was in a team of three. 2 UK volunteers and one Kenyan volunteer – we worked together to plan and teach lessons to the students. These lessons were anything from CV writing, interview skills and business skills to life skills, sex education and internet safety. Our team worked so well together, building on our strengths and working on our weaknesses together. We were dancing and singing almost every day – mainly because of the students’ love for dancing; they were OBSESSED with the Macarena and the Cha Cha Slide, always asking to dance it before and after lessons and teaching us new types of dances that I am fairly certain we looked ridiculous trying to do – it was great fun! We could see first-hand the effect that we had on the students at CAPYEI. We clearly saw the difference that the sessions we facilitated with them made. Most significantly the lessons we covered on sexual health, focusing on STIs, HIV and contraception, but also healthy/unhealthy relationships and abuse.
At Kenya Red Cross we gave health talks in local schools with the other Red Cross volunteers. This was an amazing experience and we could so clearly see the difference we were making – even a simple lesson on hand washing to a group of primary school children will benefit them for the rest of their lives. We also visited children’s homes and did activities with the children there.
These placements, the work we completed and the topics covered made me realise that the work that ICS does makes a huge difference in sustainable development. It is something I am now passionate about, and something that I am interested in developing further, which I would never had known if it wasn’t for ICS.
It wasn’t all work though. We had social days and even went for a weekend away at Lake Naivasha and camped next to (and I mean next to) hippos! I couldn’t possibly pick out ONE favourite memory from a 10 week, life-changing experience. There are too many good times, and wonderful memories; our team really are like one big family. However, one of my favourite memories has to be from a social to Mwania River, even though I fell over LOADS and ended up stuck in the water at one point. This was a great day where we all scrambled down the lake across rocks, to a big one at the end – where we sat, chatted and sang songs. I will never forget singing ‘Lean on Me’ with another volunteer and the rest of the team joining in – it was such a lovely moment. There was a lot of laughter that day. It was just one of the wonderful memories made, many laughs, smiles and hugs which were shared throughout the 10 weeks. I miss my Machakos family more than I ever imagined I would.
ICS helped me develop a huge amount. I really enjoyed my placements, and can feel the difference we made as a team. I feel proud of the work that we completed. As a team we all learnt that 10 weeks is actually a very short amount of time. Development is a marathon not a sprint. It is not about the change I personally made, or the individual effort, but collective, long term progress.
During ICS, I grew as a person. I have a newfound attitude for life. There is so much of the world to see and so much sustainable development that can be done. I am empowered to make more of a difference and I feel that after ICS, I am much more prepared to go into this field of work. I have much more knowledge (but I’m also aware that there is so much more to learn!) – every day I am learning. I became so much more confident in my personal abilities, and stopped questioning myself as much, something that I have always struggled with. I have improved on my ability to speak frankly with others on issues (work or personal) and I became more open from that. My communication skills certainly developed.
ICS made me much more resilient, it taught me that no matter how difficult a situation may be; there is always a solution and a way forward. That is something I will take with me in the future. It put a lot into perspective for me, and I left Machakos a happier, more relaxed person. I really feel that I am becoming a better version of myself. If someone handed me a plane ticket today I’d go back in a heartbeat!
ICS gave me so much more than I expected. It has confirmed to me that I want to pursue a career in charity and volunteering, and the need and benefit of sustainable global development. I have irreversibly changed as a person, and I am much more confident in myself and my abilities. I will always class ICS as a crucial part of my life, fundamental to my future. I will ALWAYS encourage anyone to do this; if you want to make a difference, find a home on the other side of the world, and create new friendships and families and have experiences that otherwise would never happen then all I can say is apply for International Citizen Service, you will not regret it!
Written by Former SVC Student Bethany Peryer
All images courtesy of Bethany Peryer