Volunteering a way of life in Africa

Published: 13 June 2002 0:00 CET

Rana Sidani

One year into her latest challenge, Esther Okwanga, the first and only African regional delegate for volunteering, says that the most important lesson she has learnt is that "volunteering represents a feeling of solidarity, renewed everyday across Africa." She says that it is, quite simply, "part of our culture and tradition".

Okwanga, a former secretary general of the Zimbabwe Red Cross, and Federation delegate in Eritrea and Kenya, has studied volunteering management best practices among Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies all around the world. Recently she has been sharing her knowledge with the Red Cross in western Europe, and exchanging knowledge with them on effective ways of encouraging the personal development of volunteers.

In the last twelve months Okwanga has made much progress in developing volunteer management in central and eastern Africa. She has also learnt a lot along the way. "We have sometimes gone into communities and given the impression that volunteering at the Red Cross is different from the spirit of volunteering practised daily in Africa," she says. "This is not true. Volunteering is in the African spirit and we must build on this and other traditional values which translate into good volunteering."

Many African Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies now understand this and are encouraging the traditional value of community spirit, consistent with the Red Cross and Red Crescent Fundamental Principles of humanity and voluntary service. In Eritrea they talk of wefera; in Ethiopia they speak of ider; in Madagascar Fihavanana, and wafir in Sudan. All told they are speaking of the same thing: helping those in need in their communities.

Following are some actions taken by central and east African Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers last month:
In Sao Tomé and Principe, volunteers were on hand to receive and help survivors after a boat sank on its way from Sao Tomé to Libreville in Gabon. The volunteers accompanied 40 survivors to hospitals providing psychological support and first-aid services.

Volunteers in Cameroon participated in the promotion of voluntary non-remunerated blood donation, including taking the lead in donating. In rural areas, volunteers rode their bicycles to remote communities to share their message of tolerance of those affected by HIV/AIDS. They also helped in purifying water wells and teaching on basic water hygiene.

Thirty volunteers from the Red Cross of the Democratic Republic of Congo participated in a hygiene sensitization programme in Kinshasa where they helped clean neighbourhoods and teach communities basic methods for reducing vulnerability to waterborne and other diseases, including the use of impregnated mosquito nets.

Volunteers from the Central African Republic Red Cross participated in the cleaning and garbage disposal and of several of the country's produce markets. They also conducted hygiene education campaigns in the markets and in schools.

The volunteers of the Ethiopian Red Cross continue to educate their communities on HIV/AIDS, including campaigning to reduce the stigma attached to the virus.

Volunteers of the Burundi Red Cross, with support from the Spanish Red Cross, manufactured and distributed insecticide impregnated bed nets to the people in high risk areas. They sprayed households with insecticide prior to the distribution and installation of the bed nets and informed communities about the spread of malaria.

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