Volunteering with children overseas – an unforgettable year

In 2006 my husband and 2 children, aged 4 and 9, packed up and rented our house in Bondi, Australia and moved first to Hyderabad, India and then 6 months later, to Moshi, Tanzania. It was an unforgettable year of challenges, new experiences and adventure.

Living in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney we felt that we were living in a (lovely) bubble. A small pocket of privilege which wasn’t a reflection of the ‘real’ world. We wanted our children to experience other ways of living and to make a difference in the lives of people less fortunate than us. We looked at the children’s ages and schooling and decided that if we were to go away for a year it would be least disruptive to their formal education to leave while they were of primary school age. So when Lily was 4 and Jesse was 9 we decided the time was right and dove in feet first into a year of volunteering.

We approached Operation Eyesight – an organisation dedicated to eradicating preventable blindness, who offered my husband work as a management consultant for their projects in India and East Africa. Before we left I tried to immerse the children in Indian culture via books, movies and local Indian festivals to prepare them for life in India. We flew to Mumbai, India making a short stop in Cambodia to attend my brothers wedding.

A Cambodian Wedding

The wedding was a 3 day extravaganza. Everyone in the family had a role. My then 4 year old daughter Lily was in girly seventh heaven as flower girl. She was dressed in traditional khmer outfit, including makeup, clip-on curls, faux bejewelled earrings reminiscent of Princess Diana. My son Jesse bravely put on his golden outfit but really the highlight for him was arriving at the wedding on the back of a motorbike. Husband Tony was decked out in various best-man outfits but had forgotten to bring decent shoes and wore his TEVA sandals which kind of ruined the effect. My father took to his bed with diarrhea and vomiting and missed most of the ceremony. Mum submitted herself to the hairdresser who gave her what we described as an “Elvis” bouffant and some heavy pancake make-up. I was deemed by the bride at first glance to be “too big” to fit into the bridesmaids outfits designed for tiny Cambodian women so spent most of the wedding feeling a bit miffed and acted as default photographer.

Jesse and Lily in full regalia

Jesse and Lily in full wedding regalia

Cambodian wedding

The groom’s family arrive

Mumbai, India

We flew on to Mumbai which was chaos. Our nine year son was initially shell shocked. He had been very happy to go away for a year but that weekend in Mumbai was an initiation by fire. The impact of the smells, traffic and the volume of people made him quickly rethink his decision. We visited some slums where Operation Eyesight was doing some amazing community development and spent many hours in traffic and arranging a train ticket to Hyderabad.

Mumbai children performing for the visitors

Mumbai children performing for the visitors

Hyderabad, India

A 17 hour sleeper train took us to Hyderabad. It is a wonderful way to travel – chatting with the very friendly local Indians and buying biryiani for dinner, chai and chichi (peanuts set in toffee). The children were adopted by a family in the next carriage and were given gifts of colouring books and crayons.

We eventually worked out how to live in India but it took us all some time. Lily drew much attention wherever we went and quickly learned to slap her hands over her cheeks when approached by well meaning, cheek-pinching Indians murmuring “so sweeeeeeet”. She was highly insulted when they affectionately called her “baby” and told them she was already four and not a baby thank you very much. She made friends with some of the female Optometry students who loved to take her to their dorm room, dress her up in bangles and bindis and danced together to Bollywood music at top volume.

Lily on the run from some well meaning cheek-pinchers at Golconda Fort, Hyderabad

Lily on the run from some well meaning cheek-pinchers at Golconda Fort, Hyderabad

We were allocated a Telegu speaking driver, Giri, who knew very little English. We drew up a list of schools and after much mime, confusion and getting lost in the Hyderabad traffic with hopelessly outdated maps and no street signs, we visited a couple of Indian private schools. Our light haired children were viewed with much curiosity and Jesse recoiled in horror when he visited the lunch canteen with spicy vegetarian curries and rice as standard menu items. I had envisioned that the children would attend local Indian schools to really soak up the Indian experience but we quickly realized that was too heavy handed. The Indian curriculum places a lot of emphasis on formal education, hours of homework, regular tests and very little in the way of sport. We eventually enrolled them at International School of Hyderabad at much expense where many expats sent their children and the environment and food was much more familiar to Jesse and Lily. They marched off bravely on their first day and quickly made friends whose families were incredibly helpful to me to help navigate the Hyderabad shops, paperwork and traffic.

Moshi, Tanzania

Six months later we flew from Delhi to Moshi, Tanzania and the contrast between Hyderabad couldn’t have been starker. From living in a flat in a bustling, hot, noisy Indian city to a little house in a quiet, rural Tanzanian town with dirt roads with the odd unaccompanied goat and barefoot child wandering along. We had views of Mount Kilimanjaro from our backyard, a huge garden and wonderful staff to help me, a mother who was used to every modern convenience, to navigate life in Africa. The lovely Mary taught me so much and I wrote about her in my first ever blog post.

We enrolled the children at the International School, Moshi and we spent some fantastic times visiting the Tanzanian National Parks on safari in a borrowed 4WD. We visited Zanzibar and the mainland coast of Tanzania and after being landlocked for so many months we gratefully immersed ourselves in the Indian Ocean. Time spent in Moshi proved to be not without its challenges. Power cuts were frequent and long and we had no transport so we all got bicycles and I became adept at hitch-hiking into town to do the daily shopping.

Riding bikes to school, Moshi, Tanzania

Riding bikes to school, Moshi, Tanzania

In many ways Moshi is an ideal place to bring up children. Jesse became fascinated with the spiders, lizards and snakes which could be found and acquired a pet chameleon which required fresh flies or crickets to be caught each day. He also discovered that the gravel used as the driveway at a local little shop was full of semiprecious stone chips and many hours were spend chipping away at the driveway, especially after the rains. He bargained for a bow and arrow at the Moshi market and practiced archery on trees in the yard. Many happy hours were spent burning off the rubbish in the rubbish pit in the backyard and one day he dug himself a hippo pool in the vegetable garden and immersed himself in there. “Great for the skin” he told me.

The hippo pool

The hippo pool

A year flew by and we regretted our initial decision to spend only 1 year away. In retrospect we would go to one place for 2 years. It took us all about 6 months to really settle into where we were living and then it was time to move on. Jesse suffered from homesickness for a period of about 2 weeks in India and it was awful to see him so miserable, but once he’d worked through it he did come to an important realisation about how great his life in Australia is and he values that to this day. We learned a lot about ourselves and that we can get through difficult situations together. We met some truly inspiring people and made friends from all over the world. We visited some beautiful places and some terrible places. We ate well and we ate badly. We learned how to survive on less money, less food and to live slowly and simply. My advice to anyone considering volunteering overseas with a family is to do it. There are always reasons that it’s not the right time or it’s too hard but if you put the energy and will towards it, it will work itself out and it’s an experience you will never forget.


15 thoughts on “Volunteering with children overseas – an unforgettable year

  1. longtooth77 says:

    “When you take the small roads you see the life that goes on there, and this makes your own life larger.”
    ― Elizabeth Berg

    Beautifully written and inspiring post, Sue Ann. Your son in his hippo pool just made me laugh and I’m still smiling 🙂 What a great post to start my day with. Thanks and hugs.

  2. Enjoy reading the wonderful adventure! Beautiful photo of Jesse and Lily. It must be a long last memory for them.Thank you so much for sharing the story, Sueann!

  3. dearmolly says:

    Sueann what an amazing journey and a wonderful experience for you and your family! I understand so much of what you have said, especially the cheek pinching!! Do we have a friend in common or how did you come across my blog? Obviously we have India! Lx

    • I think I was googling block printing or Indian fabrics & your blog came up. I had a vague idea about making kids pyjamas from block printed fabric as a small business idea (but I’m probably not going to pursue it.) xS

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