In October 2015 I volunteered with ActionAid on a First Hand Experience in Mozambique. The project was simple. On the grounds of a local hospital, and working alongside local people, we helped build a centre for victims of violence that would offer legal, health, police and support services. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

Meeting a girl from the local Marracuene community during my time in Mozambique.
Meeting a girl from the local Marracuene community during my time in Mozambique.

I became a supporter of ActionAid in 2003, a few years after finishing my studies at Bradford University. I felt then, as I feel now, a responsibility to give something back. I started by sponsoring a child, which is incredibly rewarding, and this year I wanted to get more involved.

I knew about the valuable work ActionAid does helping women and girls, but I wanted to understand it for myself. The chance to build this centre for victims of violence seemed like an amazing opportunity. I also had a personal connection to Mozambique - as this is where my sponsored child, Carla, lives, who ActionAid said they could arrange for me to meet during my stay.

I was in.

The beginning of an adventure

After an overnight flight to Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, we started work the following day. Each morning we woke early and were on site before 9.00am. When we first arrived, the ground was completely bare, but over the next few days, we would transform it. Working with local builders, we marked out the foundations, dug the trenches, mixed the concrete and mortar, and slowly a new building began to take shape.

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I found this work immensely rewarding. Resting up after a hard day's graft is very satisfying, and considering why you are doing it makes it even more so. For people suffering abuse, instead of them having to make numerous visits to different locations, the centre we were building would soon house all the necessary support under one roof.

Alan digging foundations

In the evening the group would share a meal together, and it is during this time that you have the chance to appreciate making connections with the rest of the team.

Visiting local ActionAid projects

An important part of the trip was visiting other projects supported by ActionAid. On our third day we travelled to a small village where local women were attending classes in reading, writing and basic arithmetic. Providing access to education in these remote areas is important, as it gives these women a voice, and improves their understanding of what help is available to them.

The amenities were very simple. A blackboard, some mats on the ground, all taking place under the shade of a tree. A local teacher was taking the lesson, and everyone was thoroughly engaged. We felt very privileged to be allowed to sit in on one of their lessons. 

Sitting in on a women's literacy lesson in a small village near where we were working. Learning to read and write is vital to help women be independent and support themselves.

We then met another group who would directly benefit from the new support centre and who wanted to share their experiences with us, many of whom were women. They showed incredible strength as they recalled moments of great pain and hardship. With the new centre beginning to take shape, they will soon have access to vital services, like counselling and group workshops to help them cope with what they've been through, as well as policing services and awareness raising, to increase the number of incidences reported and ensure perpetrators are punished.

On hearing the women's stories many of us were reduced to tears. The women asked us not to repeat them - but by talking to us their burden was shared.

Women singing us a traditional song of farewell

After many hugs and handshakes we said goodbye and they started to sing a traditional song of farewell. This single moment encapsulated the first hand experience for me. I cannot recall any moment when I felt such joy, or such sadness, about having to leave. It's a moment I will never forget.

The importance of human connections

Our last day was filled with great memories. We all participated in bricklaying, and some of the group planted trees and plants for the new garden. We finished off the remaining work, and then we were treated to a local group of dancing and drums. A few of us joined in, and although enthusiastic, I don’t think anyone was invited to join the group permanently! We challenged our new friends to a game of football to end our visit. The quality of football from the away team can best be described as Sunday league. However, the home team took pity on us and the 2-2 draw was a satisfactory result.

Group photos and many hugs and handshakes later, we left the site for the last time. Looking back at the time spent in Mozambique I remember why I volunteered in the first place. It was the connection. Our modern lives make strangers out of people who live next door. Busy streets are full of people seemingly uninterested in anything except their own world. Visiting Mozambique and spending time with the local people, reminds you of what is really important in life.

Group shot of our whole team on the last day.

All through the week, a speech by John F. Kennedy persistently popped up in my mind. Although out of context, I still think it sums up, for me, why 24 strangers travelled thousands of miles to help build a centre for people they will never meet: "For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal."

Is 2016 the year for your life-changing experience? ActionAid’s next trip is in Cambodia this November and I cannot recommend it enough. I'm going. Perhaps I'll see you there!

Join ActionAid for a First Hand Experience in Cambodia