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The story of 5 months’ volunteering in Congo, the land of contrasts

When Eszter saw the ad about volunteering in Congo, she could not quench her lust for adventure. Back then, she had no idea how much the country would teach her about life, about herself and about different cultural values.

Initially, I was planning to go to the United States. I had always dreamt of a scholarship to New York and I was pretty confident about my chances when I applied for one. I cannot say that I was not disappointed when I received the notification that I was not successful, but I did not get upset: I knew that it meant that something better was waiting for me. And I was right! – starts Eszter smiling. I can see that once the topic of Congo comes up, it is impossible to stop her.


„I had always dream of achieving something big. Something that would make others say: Wow, you are amazing! It was mostly my lust for adventure that made me apply and I tried not to overthink things. It was pointless to try to delve into the study of the place anyway, not even the pre-departure training could prepare us for what was waiting for us in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo. I can clearly remember that on the first day we felt like we were inside a film: we did not even know where to look, because everywhere we looked we saw scenes that we thought unimaginable before. Massive piles of rubbish to start with, people without limbs and stalls selling the heads of animals in the streets.

But all this is nothing compared to what was waiting for us in our everyday lives. I was teaching English in the local school and I had thought that with a degree and years of experience in teaching English, nothing could surprise me. I was wrong: education in Congo reflects European standards from 200 years ago. The whole methodology is based on repetition, therefore by the time kids are 14, they can count from 1 to 20, but if you ask them to translate the number 4 into English, they have no idea. We thought that the best way to contribute to the improvement of the standards of education was by giving teachers a course in methodology, which they found extremely useful. Besides, I feel that the most important way in which we contributed to the development of the country was through organising the youth club. It was a place where the more intelligent and ambitious kids could come together and discuss the big questions of life, including cultural differences.”

I am becoming more and more curious to know how these cultural differences manifested themselves in everyday life and I can see that Eszter does not know where to start, there are too many of them to mention. „The basic mentality is that it was white people that took everything from them and destroyed their country, therefore it is the white people who must make amends. Accordingly, they sit back and wait for others to solve their issues. Punctuality as such does not exist: every morning we were supposed to be picked up by a driver whose task was to take us to school. He normally arrived 1 or 2 hours late – that’s if he came at all. Safety is non-existent: in Congo, it gets dark at around 6 and after dark we were forbidden to leave the house on our own. A girl broke the rule and she was mugged right away.


Although we had to tackle a lot of difficult situations, the worst part was not the fact that the hygiene is horrible and that most of the time we did not have running water or electricity and that four out of the five of us got infected by malaria, but the fact that each and every day we were confronted by human suffering. Suffering caused by illnesses for which we have the antidote, only it does not reach Congo. For some time, I was volunteering in a leprosy hospital, you have to be extremely strong there! But I do not want to complain, we had lots of good things happening to us as well! For example, the beauty of the nature of the country cannot be compared to anything: one of the most wonderful days of my life was when I visited the Zongo waterfalls! Besides the excursions, I had plenty of tiny moments that I will always remember with fond memories: some spontaneous improvisations of street music or when the kids were so excited to see us coming that they were shouting ’White people!’ from far away."


When I ask Eszter to say a few words to those where are just pondering the idea of applying for an EVS position, she responds right away: „Of course they should apply! Everybody has doubts, that is natural, but one should not overthink everything, because then they end up doing nothing! The right approach is not that of planning to go on holiday for half a year, because it is going to be a tough time, especially emotionally, but one returns with such values and knowledge that even the top courses of the best universities would not be able to provide them with. During my EVS, I learnt a lot about myself and how to deal with conflicts. If this had not happened, we would have got on one another’s nerves in the tiny house that the five of us shared. I learnt a lot about life in a place where death in a part of everyday existence. The lessons that locals taught me will stay with me for the rest of my life: lessons about how to be happy with the little things in life and that all in all, it does not matter what kind of objects you own or what kind of career you have built, the only thing that really matters is whom you surround youself with."


Judit Molnár

Veröffentlicht: Sa, 02/11/2013 - 13:51

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