I first heard about Education Partnerships Africa from my brother in early December 2012 – he mentioned it in passing, and I promptly forgot all about it. It wasn’t until he texted me a few hours before the charity’s deadline for applications, telling me that I really should just trust him and apply, that I gave it any real attention at all. Coming to the end of what had been a pretty difficult first term in London, and catching me in a “why not?” kind of mood, I didn’t take much persuading, and duly submitted the form at two minutes to midnight.
With a still decidedly hazy understanding of what it was I’d applied for, I called my brother the next day. Luke explained that EPAfrica sought to provide struggling rural East African secondary schools with sustainable educational resources – basic things like books that you need to ‘make school happen’. To do this, the charity recruited students from Oxford, Cambridge and London, who fundraised money during the academic year, then travelled to East Africa to directly manage the investment of the funds, working in close partnership with the schools’ management teams. I told him it sounded half decent and I’d do the interview. Fast forward through six months of fundraising and training, and there we were in Western Kenya, on the road from Kisumu to Kakamega, where one of the charity’s three groups would be based.
Along with another first year student from UCL, Chris, I worked with Esokone Secondary School. In their third year with EPAfrica, the school knew what to expect and was hugely welcoming. The headteacher, Henry Angaya, had a mobile phone full of useful contacts, and together we made some excellent improvements. The textbook:student ratio was improved to 1:2 across all subjects; we bought the school its first computer, and linked it to a photocopier that would save hours of time and pots of money; we kitted the science lab out with enough equipment to allow the students to do the practicals required for their exams; we bought new tables and chairs, so that new students didn’t have to pay a large extra fee when they arrived. Most importantly, we got extra funding from the charity to get a borehole and pump system constructed, providing the school with its own source of clean water.
The experience didn’t completely change my life, and I didn’t ‘find myself’ or anything like that. As we’d been promised, it was mainly just really hard work; being completely responsible for the management of the funds and the progression of the projects we initiated was enormously stressful, and required a lot of careful planning and strategic thinking, all whilst living day-to-day in a rural village. However, seeing the changes was hugely rewarding, while the glimpse we had of the area and its culture was humbling and inspiring in equal measure. Upon returning to London, I continued volunteering as the London universities’ fundraising officer, and am now two thirds of my way through a year as joint-president of the London committee.
Why do I still volunteer with EPAfrica? I basically agree with the idea that a programme with clear, achievable, limited aims is a lot better than one which sees student volunteers teach in struggling schools, then leave at the end of the summer. Crucially, the charity doesn’t shy away from the fact that its model is imperfect, but works slowly towards improving what it can. Further, EPAfrica openly states that one of its two aims is offering meaningful personal development opportunities to UK students, and a big part of my current role is facilitating that opportunity for new volunteers.
There’s also a clear understanding that the money wouldn’t be there without the students receiving something (albeit something less tangible) in return. For me, this benefit has presented itself in interviews I’ve had since returning, particularly for competency-style questions that need you to demonstrate this or that personal quality, in the context of an interesting thing you’ve done. It’s obviously not the only reason people volunteer, but my work with EPAfrica undoubtedly helped me get a paid internship last summer and a place on a PGCE course for September 2015.
My brother and I wrote a blog at the time, which gives a lot more detail about the project, as well as a general picture of Kakamega as we found it. Also have a look at @EPAfrica on Twitter, or the EPAfrica London page on Facebook. Applications for the 2015 project have now closed, but if you’re interested drop me an email as there’ll be a mailing list for 2016 recruitment.
Jo Austen is a third (final) year undergraduate student studying BA History at UCL.