We want to change the world

Who says all undergraduates want to spend the summer on the beach? Each year, students from Edinburgh University give up their long vacation to help some of the poorest communities in Africa. Lucy Hodges reports

Nick Hamilton is studying French and Spanish at Edinburgh University, where he has completed his second year. But now he is in Swaziland, one of the poorest countries in Africa, helping to build a soup kitchen, and bouncing up and down every day to roots reggae.

"I can now well and truly call myself a brother," he e-mails his friends. "By week one, I had already been given a Swazi name, Mand'la Ndzimandze. The street kids I'm teaching in the evenings are wilfully getting me down in the art of body popping."

He is one of 70 Edinburgh students who chose to spend their summer vacations in a developing country helping local people with education, health and construction projects. Some students are really roughing it, like Sloane Grogan (see panel, right), living in grass huts, cooking on an open fire and collecting water from the river; others, like Hamilton, are living in relative luxury in brick buildings with hot showers.

Run by the university's students, Edinburgh Global Partnerships is thought to be the oldest international volunteer organisation in the university world, sending about 70 young adults to eight countries in Africa and Central America this year. Other universities engage in similar activities, but Edinburgh's is the grandaddy of them all, having started in 1990.

Normally, it also dispatches teams to Nepal and India. But the political instability in Nepal has shut down the project this year and the Indian project has been halted because it was thought the local community was becoming too dependent on the volunteers.

All students have to raise money for their projects before going. That is an essential component of the scheme and involves the teams putting on events to drum up the £4,000 to £6,000 needed for each project. The money is given to the local non-governmental organisation (NGO) to help with the work.

The students are a high-minded lot who express themselves diffidently. They don't spout politics. Indeed, they are not particularly interested in the conventional British parliamentary cut and thrust but they do want to make a difference in the world and they want to have fun, as well as to travel. "There is a tremendous desire to perform service among the current generation of students," says Time O'Shea, Edinburgh University's principal. "You see it in community projects in Edinburgh and in the strong aspirations to do service in the Third World, particularly in Africa. I find it personally inspiring to find that so many of our students are prepared to use their academic knowledge to help people in Edinburgh and at home."

Many of the EGP students trek around after their project finishes. That is the main reason why they have signed up to help out people at grass-roots level in developing countries. At the same time, they emphasise the importance of partnership with the local communities, and say they want to broaden the minds of everyone involved.

All the projects are run with NGOs. The Mexico City project is a partnership with a Latin-American charity called Casa Alianza, which gives food, shelter and education to young people living on the streets. That project shares some similarities with Hamilton's project in the industrial town of Manzini, Swaziland, which also provides support for homeless boys who would otherwise be roaming the streets.

Two years ago, Darryl Croft, 23, who graduated from Edinburgh this summer, was sent to Manzini and helped to put up a new residential block for the boys. By the end, he and the rest of his team had built the home up to what he calls "slab level". So, after six to eight weeks, they had something tangible to show for their efforts. In the evenings, their task was to make friends with boys in the homes by taking music to them - like Hamilton does - and chatting.

"I got an awful lot out of it," says Croft. "You become aware that that there is a lot that can be achieved by doing little things. You can change a few people's lives. You can make a real impact and have a lasting relationship with people who live miles away." He also came out of it feeling much more conscious of his place in the world. "You realise how lucky you are," he says.

Another combined education and construction project is the one that Grogan has joined in Nambo, Zambia - an incredibly remote village where volunteers are building a grinding mill and a house for the member of staff who will operate the machine. The mill will be used by the local people and others from neighbouring villages to grind maize, the staple food. The students will also have the chance to teach in the community school close to the mill.

A third project, combining education and construction, is at Boitumelong School in South Africa, where volunteers teach and look after children with special needs, taking them on outings, hosting "fun days" and painting murals. At the same time, they are helping to build a much-needed school hall to be used for assemblies and a dining area.

Other projects are entirely concerned with construction. For example, the Malawi project is to help build a secondary school in the remote village of Mazonda. At present, pupils have to walk 15km to the nearest secondary school. The hope is that soon they will have a school on the doorstep.

The Gambia project is concerned with helping farmers with forestry. The aim is to improve their production and profitability while promoting sustainable natural resource management. This year, the students will be establishing a small farm, 20 minutes by horse and cart from an agricultural training centre. They will be building a chicken coup and sheep area, and setting up a vegetable garden.

The Ugandan project is run with the NGO Straight Talk, and concentrates on raising awareness about Aids among adolescents. The students visit schools or clubs to talk to pupils about sexual health issues.

Freya Lock, 23, who has just graduated with a degree in philosophy, was on the Uganda project last year, having been on the Nepal project in 2003. She toured schools in Uganda, in or near the towns of Mbale and Iganga, spreading the message about safe sex. The school visits took two days. The volunteers would put on a play for the children on one of those days, as well as answer questions and chat to them; the next day they would throw themselves into practical work, planting trees or cleaning up the playground.

"We did feel we were able to make a difference," she says, "but we felt terribly sad about the cases where students were being forced into unsafe sex by their teachers. There wasn't very much we could do except urge upon them the importance of contraception."

Lock's life has been permanently changed by her experience. She has decided she wants to work for an NGO specialising in international development. "It has shaped what I want to do with my life," she says. "I spent my first summer in a financial company in the City and I couldn't go back there. I want to do something to make the world a better place."

'I collected water from the river three or four times a day'

American Sloane Grogan, who is a student in Edinburgh, is spending the summer in Nambo village in Zambia. She will live with the other Nambo villagers in grass huts, while working on a project to build a mill. Here are extracts from her e-mails

4 July

Hey guys! I'm in Lusaka! Later today I head for Serenje (the town where we train for two weeks, which has electricity).

I am told there will be no cheese in Nambo. We are hitting the shops to find flavouring for our nshima - the food we will be eating for the next two months. I was pretty excited about it until I had it for the first time last night. It's got a mashed potato consistency, but has no flavour, not to mention any healthy qualities. It's maize. And, if you roll it up in a ball, it could very well bounce.

From what I have seen, lots of people in Zambia live in grass huts - just like the one that we will be living in. I can't wait.

22 July

Nambo is so different to what I had imagined. I had envisioned miles upon miles of grass huts close to one another. This is not the case. Each family lives in a village that includes enough huts for their extended family, their children and their children's children. The houses are mud, or locally fired brick with grass roofs. There are 56 villages in Nambo and it can take 45 minutes to walk from one to another.

Because we are going to be staying in Nambo for two months, the Green Living Movement, which is the NGO running the project, thought it would be a good idea for each of us to live with different families for a week so that we could understand how the community works. I learnt more in that week than any other before.

I stayed with the family of Mr Hosking, who is part of the village development committee. He is polygamous and has two wives.

From what I gathered they are quite wealthy. They have 13 chickens, dogs and a pig. Nevertheless, all the children have nutrition problems. I ate everything I was given. However I do have my balance bars (thanks Mom).

We were five minutes from the river from which I would collect water every day, well actually, three times a day, or four if I wanted a bath (and yes, I carried it on my head).

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

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