Mid-February marks five months since I returned from my ICS placement abroad. My team and I stayed and worked in Mutare, Zimbabwe, and the surrounding towns, from July to September 2015. 

Looking back over the last few months has allowed me to appreciate and digest the experience and, from this retrospective place of awe and love, I have created my ‘Five things, five months on’ list… 

1. Perspective

2015 provided me with perspective by the truckload, but these almost three months specifically, helped to really solidify what is important to me in life.

Being someone who is constantly curious and wondering about the world and its inhabitants is simultaneously a good and bad thing. For me, it means sometimes forgetting to turn off and live in the moment. As cliché as it may seem, it’s true. Due to the relaxed pace of Zimbabwe life and the people I had around me, this placement allowed me to focus on every day individually and live whole-heartedly. By fate, it arrived at the perfect time for me to truly practise the idea of slowing down, experiencing and reflecting on what I was doing and where I was going. 

A few months before leaving for this volunteering experience, I began to evaluate and downsize the physical around me. This is something I do a few times a year, but this time it was different - it was a bigger and more important start to a process I am still getting through. Downsizing my wardrobe, bookshelf, and DVD collection was all well and good, but 2015 was the year to take it one step further, and 2016 is proving to be just as significant in this. Forcing myself to challenge the way I see things, from belongings to experiences and people, has and continues to give me encouragement and belief in something I have been trying to teach myself for years. 'Trust the timing of your life. Trust your journey.'

So, with new and reinforced perspective, I continue to downsize. Downsize the physical clutter, and multiply the internal valuables. Downsize the negative space, and multiply the good energy. 

2. Friendships

As much as I pride myself on being someone who can articulate feelings into words quite well, this is where I undoubtedly fall short. 

Everyone I met and made friends with through this placement contributed to how much of a wonderful time I had out there. From all the Progressio ICS volunteers, to my UK and Zimbabwean team, to my host family, and all the incredible, warm people I met along the way. One group of people in particular are the farmers and workers at Kentucky Farm, Dora - the image of them laughing, dancing and teaching us songs in Shona, will forever hold a special place in my heart. 

Spending every day, evening, and night with people who were complete strangers to one another just a few weeks before heading out on this placement, meant there was no time for small-talk or awkward introductions! I feel so grateful to have been surrounded by so many generous, kind and hilarious people. I firmly believe one of the greatest feelings in the world is looking around a room mid belly-laugh, content and genuinely happy, and realising you have new people in your life to call friends and family. 

Knowing that I have made life-long, true friendships with people from both the UK and Zimbabwe, from different backgrounds and walks of life, is a blessing in itself. 

3: Lasting change

One of the main reasons I chose to apply for the ICS programme was the knowledge that I could make a lasting change in someone’s life. My team and I worked with roughly 180-200 beneficiaries in Kentucky Farm. We planned, organised, and conducted regular training sessions in marketing and internal savings and loan schemes, in order to strengthen the skills and confidence of these people who work extremely hard every day to try and provide for their families and communities. We also held classes on HIV and AIDS health, as well as domestic violence and gender equality. These are sessions the beneficiaries themselves requested we conduct. Taking this on board was essential for us at Progressio as the main principle of the organisation is to provide resources, time, and support in the areas people themselves communicate to us. We do not assume what is best for people or what should be done in a community, nor do we aim to change a situation over night; instead we work alongside people to put structures and support in place to better their conditions with sustainable, efficient, and trustworthy means of living.

At the end of each session we gave the beneficiaries a chance to provide feedback, both verbally and in writing, and took this on board when planning and preparing future sessions. To see the progress and gratitude the people of Kentucky had for the time and effort our team put in was humbling, and the ultimate reward. In the last week of the placement, we (the team) looked over the feedback notes and messages the beneficiaries left us. Myself and our national Team Leader Kamo came across a note which read, “We love you guys, we thank you for ever.” That was amazing. 

Leaving behind a project and group of people, who are dedicated to improvement and equality, and knowing there was a cycle of volunteers ready to continue the process on our departure, meant the last few days with the beneficiaries were both bittersweet and reassuring. 

4: Skills

A placement like this means you are regularly meeting new people, organising and planning, and managing events, whilst being thrown into new situations that may need you to make a decision or change directions within a minute or two. If you are anything like me and live for a challenge, volunteering is the perfect opportunity to test yourself and increase your skills. 

A month before we left for Zimbabwe, all 60 something volunteers attended a pre-departure training weekend where the notion of ‘personal development goals’ was introduced. Over the course of the 10 weeks, we regularly discussed and reflected on how well we were progressing with our individual goals. Many volunteers had personal development goals which were similar to one another, from events organising and public speaking, to inner-confidence and making fun memories. 

As the weeks went on, I became more and more aware of the fact that I was fulfilling my personal goals, and speaking to other volunteers around me who felt the same was brilliant. This placement has directly and indirectly strengthened a few skills in particular, which I genuinely feel and know are helping to mould me as a person. 

5: Motivation for more

There are countless stories and moments from this placement that have amplified my want to travel more, meet new people and continue to work with sometimes overlooked, but hugely deserving communities. That want has become a need, and I am completely motivated to do more, and live more.

Everyone around me has heard me say the phrase “Pre-Zim and Post-Zim” so many times, I’m sure they’re sick of it, but when you are applying for something like this, you get told it will ‘change your life’, then sitting through interviews and discussions and pre-departure trainings you are told again, this will ‘change your life’. You can accept it, but you can’t quite grasp it at that stage… You will believe it when you experience it for yourself. 

Challenge yourself to change the world because, change starts with you.

Written by ICS Alumni Thalaya Darr (July - September 2015 cycle)