Opinion: When Volunteering Is A Way Of Life – By Azuka Onwuka
Western countries like Canada, United States, United Kingdom, etc, place a lot of value on volunteering. No matter how busy employees are, they are expected to carve out some hours of their time (preferably one or two hours a week) to offer their services for free to some organizations like not-for-profit, schools, museums, libraries, hospitals, orphanages, etc. Volunteering raises the “social responsibility index” of an individual.
Organizations give individuals reference letters after volunteering for up to three months. This increases the chances of a candidate being employed.
In many countries in Africa, volunteering does not contribute much to someone’s chances of being employed by an organization. In fact, people start volunteering from their childhood without calling it volunteering. Unlike in the West, where volunteering is calculated by hours, volunteering in Africa is not calculated by hours. People volunteer to execute communal, religious, and organizational projects.
Tracing my history of volunteering, I would say that I started to volunteer when I was about eight years old. Our mother assigned us to sweep the street in front of our house. Periodically we would use hoes and machetes to cut the grass on the two sides of the road. If potholes appeared on the road, we would use our wheelbarrow and shovels to get sand and broken blocks into such depressed parts. If erosion was washing away parts of the road, we would keep sandbags on specific spots on the street.
When I got to Primary 4, our class teacher assigned two pupils to a ridge of about 50 metres long. We would till the soil, plant yams and maize on it, dig compost to apply to the ridge, weed the ridge, stake the yams and watch over them and the maize until they were ripe. Then we would harvest them and present to our class teacher. Those with the biggest tubers were commended. I think the yam tubers were sold. I don’t remember what the money was used for. That exercise was used to teach us how to farm. It did not matter that we started to farm for our family right from when we were about seven years old.
By the time we were in Primary 5 and registered for confirmation class, the volunteering continued in another form. We were told to join some societies in the church like the choir, Boys and Girls Brigade, etc. I chose the choir. I sang in the choir all through my primary school, secondary school, university and post-university days. I would finish from the office by 5pm and then use my money to pay for bus fare to take me about 10 kilometres to my church for choir practice. This happened twice a week. After choir practice by 9pm, we had to stay back most times for executive meetings. I was the choir secretary. I would get home after 11pmand start to prepare my supper.
In our secondary school, we started the building of our school chapel in our first year and completed it just before we left school. We supplied virtually all the sand and water used to build the Chapel of Holy Spirit of Okongwu Memorial Grammar School, Nnewi.
In the university, I became the secretary of the National Association of Students of English Language and Literature (NASELL) as well as the editor of The Crest magazine published by the association. Since NASELL had no funds, we printed letters and went to meet companies and individuals to donate money for the hosting of the national conference and printing of the magazine and calendar. As the editor, I had an editorial board to help edit the materials submitted for publication, but when the Academic Staff Union of Universities went on strike that lasted some months, I had to travel from home to the university to solely edit the magazine.
When we were doing our one-year compulsory National Youths Service Corps scheme, we were chosen to be members of the editorial board to produce the magazine of the Lagos NYSC called Eko Kopa.
When I started working, I joined different community associations. The executive committee of the Umudim Nnewi Development Association, Lagos Branch decided to give scholarship support to bright students in the community. I was appointed a member of the scholarship committee to screen the candidates. For over ten years, we did the work of screening candidates and choosing the five to give the award. We spent our money and time to do it. Before the scholarship committee could get the money to disburse, the money had to be raised. We were appointed into the planning committee. We met every week for several months, planning it and meeting those who would donate money to the project.
In the church, I served as a member of the Guild of Stewards, offering services during church services. An incident remains indelible in my mind. Around 2014 when the Boko Haram bomb attacks on churches were at their peak in Nigeria, a church member whispered to me to check out “a new face” who sat beside him with a bag. Without any knowledge of IEDs, I went like a sheep to the slaughter to meet the person. We both went outside with the bag. I asked him questions and he said he came into town and decided to worship in our church. He opened the bag and showed me the contents. I pleaded with him to keep the bag somewhere else while the service was on, as worshippers were not comfortable with such a bag near them. Imagine if it was a bomb inside that bag!
Similarly, I was appointed the editor-in-chief of the church magazine, Good Tidings. We wrote articles, reviewed articles and edited articles. We also had to source for adverts to ensure that the printing cost was defrayed. We also ensured that the magazine copies were bought by church members afterwards. In 2019 I travelled to the South-East and decided to drive back to meet up with the meeting of the editorial board but had an accident with my car that could have cost me my life if not for God.
When my street in Lagos became bad and unmotorable, I took it upon myself to meet some residents to raise money to buy trucks of rubble to pour on the bad spots. When I noticed that my street in Nnewi needed to have street numbers to increase the ease of doing business, I got the materials and took my children, nephews, nieces and dog to number the street. On many occasions, I have turned myself into an ad-hoc traffic warden. I have taught children how to play volleyball, table tennis, football or how to write and speak better.
There are many of such volunteering acts. Not long ago, a foreign agency asked me how many hours I had volunteered and I was at a loss what to write. If I decide to use 100 hours per year, and decide to use the past 30 years, that should come to 3,000 hours. Such a figure may sound outlandish, but if calculated well, 3,000 hours is very conservative.
For an African, volunteering is not quantified in hours. It is not recorded. It is not used to get a job. It is a way of life. You do it for your community without thinking about it as anything special. You don’t even know that it is volunteering.