The total number of people living with disabilities in Rwanda is unknown, but is estimated to be higher than most other countries as a result of the trauma of the 1994 genocide. The stigma of having a disability in Rwanda often means no access to education and limited social and economic opportunity.
What made you decide to volunteer?
I wanted to experience living in another country and to work with people who I could both learn from and share my skills with. I initially thought about volunteering with VSO whilst teaching at university where I was increasingly interested in international social work. In 2002 the university granted me a sabbatical so that I could do a one-year volunteer placement in Bulgaria and then return to share what I had learned about how social work is taught and practised elsewhere. In 2006, I volunteered with VSO for two years in Mongolia, followed by a year in Vietnam! Most recently I spent two years in Rwanda. Each time I have volunteered I have gained something professionally and personally
What did your role in Rwanda involve?
As a District Disability Advisor I worked alongside district authorities helping to ensure that the needs and rights of people with disabilities are properly met. I worked with my Rwandan colleagues to help integrate people with disabilities into all aspects of life – in education, sport, economics, etc. There is still a lot of predjudice about disability in the country because some people believe that it is a type of curse. However, I have witnessed how this is changing. There is much better public awareness, and even the Rwandan government is keen to be inclusive. People are more accepting – though there is a long way to go.
What was the highlight of your last placement?
I think it has to be building relationships with people with people who have disabilities and seeing them become more independent, productive and active in their communities What was it like to work with VSO in Rwanda? It’s like a big family; we work together and exchange views and training. I shared a house with a volunteer who specialises in education so we were able to work together and do some joint training on disability and education. Volunteers are connected and support each other emotionally. There are days when you can feel pretty far from home so it’s nice to know others who understand.
What did you gain from volunteering?
I think when you live in a country where you are culturally challenged you learn your limits. I’ve learned I can cope in difficult situations and I’ve learned what it’s like to look different to everyone else. I feel I am stronger too – I can be on my own without feeling lonely or scared. I’ve also learned I can make a home anywhere. I appreciate the small things now, like running water or sitting in the garden watching the birds. I wouldn’t have done that before, but now it has become a pleasure. I have also gained a lot of expertise volunteering and so it has been a real positive for my professional development.
What advice would you give to others thinking of volunteering with VSO?
I would say think carefully about what you want to volunteer, what you could give and what this means in terms of your career and relationships at home. Once you’ve made your decision give it your full focus and expect the best from it!