In the summer of 1990, healthcare worker Elaine Bhate left the UK with a midwifery qualification and a desire to use her skills in the majority world.
In 2018 – almost three decades after her own placement – her daughter Ria, 19, followed in her footsteps. On International Day of Families, we caught up with the mother and daughter duo to understand how volunteering overseas changed their lives.
Healthcare forces you to adapt – and fast
Elaine’s two-year VSO placement as a midwife in the rural village of Sanconha in the south of Guinea Bissau went beyond simply caring for mothers and babies, as she found herself supporting the busy local clinic with vaccination drives and health campaigns.
“I was meant to be responsible for running antenatal clinics in the local community, as well as travelling to remote villages to support mothers and their new borns,” Elaine explained.“But what I realised very quickly was that the scope of my work was much more than just midwifery. Very soon, I was involved with running health campaigns, vaccinations drives’ and health clinics. Anyone coming in with malaria or infections – that all came under my remit.”
"I often felt isolated from what I knew"
As the only English speaker in the village, Elaine initially worried that the language barrier would be too challenging. In Guinea Bissau, Portuguese creole is widely spoken, but in the small West African country of 1.8m people, there are almost two dozen local dialects.
“I often felt isolated and cut off from what I knew, but I lived alongside local nurses. We all had our own house, beside one another. They welcomed me into their lives, we often cooked together and socialised in the evenings. They really helped me understand their culture and way of life.
“It’s amazing how you learn to get by despite the communication barriers. It’s an eye-opener, especially working in healthcare you have no choice but to learn to adapt and work things out.”
My host mama kept us right
It’s a different story to her daughter Ria, who lived with a host family during her three-month youth employability placement in the town of Machakos, 60 miles southeast of Nairobi.
“It’s strange hearing mum talk of feeling isolated,” said Ria. “I never experienced that. There was always someone to talk to – whether that was my host mother, Mama Helen, her friend or even her children! Finding family on ICS was really important to me, as I come from a very tight family at home.”
“But what I can really identity with is the sense of community. Our Mama would keep us right. She taught us about Kenyan culture, showed us how to cook traditional food, and helped us integrate into the community.”
30 years apart – but not that different
“When people ask why I was driven to volunteer overseas, my instant response is that my mum did it.”
“But it’s more than that. I wanted to engage in on a cultural exchange. Growing up in a mixed-race family, I’ve always been integrated into two cultures. But I also wanted to have a sustainable impact. Voluntourism isn’t what I wanted – and it’s not what I got through ICS.”
Ria spent her mornings working in a local technical college, where her group of volunteers provided sessions to the young students on entrepreneurship and employability. In the afternoon, she volunteered with the Kenya Red Cross on healthcare projects.
Our work ended up having similarities
“It’s funny. Our work was similar to my mum’s. We’d be working with our team of Kenyan volunteers to distribute condoms, raise awareness of good sexual health practices and organise blood and vaccination drives to support local hospitals,” she added.
From her professional training in the UK, and whilst volunteering with VSO Elaine had experienced first-hand the power of working with national volunteers – but as an all-youth team of volunteers speaking two languages, Ria was able to discover how making connections with local partners enabled her to volunteer in a responsible way.
I’ve learnt that I should follow my interests
“Volunteering hugely impacted my future and my current work as a mental health counsellor,” said Elaine. “It’s given me an understanding about myself.
"I wish I’d volunteered abroad again, but it’s difficult when you come back and settle. Now the opportunity for young people to volunteer on shorter placements is great. In three months, you really have the enthusiasm and drive needed to make a positive impact in the wider world like Ria did. I’d really encourage more young people to volunteer while the opportunity is there.”
And for Ria, her experience on ICS hasn’t just shaped her career but also her connection to her mum.
“Volunteering has given me the opportunity to see into another culture. Before ICS I never appreciated that I could follow my interests. I’ve now gained a whole new perspective. I’m going to study anthropology at University this year, and throughout this I'm going to take my mum’s advice – and not stop volunteering.”