Tania Tuzizila, aspiring midwife and a survivor of civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is fretting over which clothes to pack for her three-month volunteering stint in northern Cambodia.
“Because of the culture there we have to cover up, and I’m worried that I don’t have enough appropriate clothes,” she said. “I’ve got these long dresses, but now I’m being told that we should wear tops and trousers, so I’m not sure?”
Tuzizila, now 22, was 3 years old when she escaped war-torn DRC with her mother and five siblings. Displaced along with 2 million others, Tuzizila and her family resettled in public housing in South London where, she said, volunteers and charities helped look after her and eventually brought her along to give out food to London’s homeless.
Growing up “in a whole culture of giving,” Tuzizila said she always knew she wanted to be a volunteer. Now the 20,000th volunteer for the International Citizen Service, a project implemented by Voluntary Services Overseas and funded by the U.K. government, Tuzizila is training for her placement in a job training program that matches U.K. volunteers with local and regional volunteers.
Devex caught up with her the night before her departure, after a long day of training.
So how’s the training going?
The training has been amazing. You get to meet the other people that are going to be there with you, so it makes you feel like you’re all in it together. A lot of people were nervous about not being able to speak the native language, not being able to communicate. Other people — because we only get an allowance of 140 pounds a month ($197) — were worried it wouldn’t be enough. Our parents are allowed to send us a little money but not much.
The thing is, because we’re going to be with other volunteers from Cambodia, there may be some that can’t afford what we can, so it has to be fair, they don’t want us flashing what we’ve got or what we can afford. This way everyone has the same amount, which I think is really good.
What do you say to one of your peers who likes the idea of volunteering, but is on the fence about making the commitment?
I would say, 100 percent go for it. You might never get a chance to do it. You get to leave an imprint on other people’s lives, and to give back. At first, I was a bit worried people would laugh and point fingers, but I realized after people do that, they ask you how you did it, they want to get involved, too.
I haven’t even gone yet, and it’s already an amazing experience, just prepping for it.
What do your friends think about your decision to volunteer in Cambodia?
Their biggest concern was the history of Cambodia, with the war. They were also concerned about the length of time I’m going to be out there, they were like, “Oh my God, Tania, you’re going to come back with nothing!” and I’m like, “You may feel like I’m going to come back with nothing, but I’m alright, it’s worth it, I’ll have new skills and loads of memories, and something to put on my CV.”
They do want to [volunteer] as well, but a lot of my friends have kids so that makes it more difficult.
What did your parents say when you told them?
My dad, I only started speaking to him this year, he said, “You know what you’re doing; go for it.” My mom, at first when I told her, she didn’t say much. But when she saw me doing the visa and prepping she realized I was actually going. She told me to be respectful, and to remember our culture. Our cultures are the same in some ways, we have to cover up as well, and be really polite, after a certain time we’re not allowed to be on the phone, things like that.
And she said I should listen. If someone tells me how to do something or not to do something, they’re not belittling me, they’re telling me for a reason.
Other than your mandate as a volunteer, do you have any personal goals for your time there?
They basically told us we’re going to have to wake up at five in the morning to go to work, and we come back at around five when it gets dark, and then we can sort of chill out. But I’d like to organize my own activity with the community. I’d like to be able to say when I come back, “I arranged this, it was successful and this is how I got the whole community involved.”
Who would benefit the most from being a volunteer, in your opinion?
I feel like the most troubled youth could really use this experience. Kids that have a rough background, or grew up in low-income households could get something really special out of it. For [my siblings and I], we got a lot of help growing up from the Salvation Army and others. We used to have nuns looking after us, and every Christmas Day, they brought us presents because my mum couldn’t afford it and my dad wasn’t around.
That’s what made me me want to give back, the loads of people around the world who couldn’t get what we get, and now that I’m finally working and whatnot, I want to give back.
I remember talking to the ladies who used to help us and telling them, “I want to do what you’re doing,” and they would just laugh because I was so young. But every Saturday they would take us up to London Bridge to give out sandwiches and food to the homeless, so I think we were already used to giving. We were taught it young and grew up around it.
Molly is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in London, she covers U.K. foreign aid and trends in international development. She draws on her experience covering aid legislation and the USAID implementer community in Washington, D.C., as well as her time as a Fulbright Fellow and development practitioner in the Middle East to develop stories with insider analysis.
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