The first two months were spent as a volunteer in a home just outside Warsaw in Poland for women and children with rheumatoid arthritis. It was an enormous shock to the system living in Poland: on the third day I had my naivete almost slapped out of me by leaving my camera and Walkman out in full view and having them stolen. The main thing that made an indelible mark on me was the fact that at the end of my time, the ladies, who all had virtually nothing financially, had somehow managed to club together and buy me a Walkman. I remember feeling very embarrassed.
The rest of the year was spent teaching a variety of subjects in a rural primary school in eastern Zimbabwe with another girl. It happened to be the year of the Southern African drought, which seriously affected countries that were not regarded as Third World countries and changed our time out there drastically. The children that I taught came from the poorest backgrounds. Most would walk between one and seven miles each way to school in the morning, often without having had breakfast and without any lunch. In the evenings they would eat sadza, which was made from maize meal and had virtually no nutritional value.
A lot of the children had protruding pot bellies and were showing the signs of malnutrition; they would be sick in lessons, were very lethargic and had a number of sores on their bodies. I remember a boy called Stephen who was quite bright and was one of the worst looking, who I would not let do sports because he always looked as though he was going to collapse. On going out there, we thought we would be simply helping some children learn English who otherwise wouldn't have the chance, and experiencing life in another culture. But we were also confronted with malnourished children in our classes (some of whom would never recover), severe drought and poverty.
We were lucky enough to be in a position to help, but we wanted to do something that was lasting. Money was raised through friends at home and I remember being totally daunted by the prospect of helping on such a large scale - I felt I was too young. Yet with invaluable advice from local farmers, we managed to design and install an irrigation system and vegetable garden that the children would benefit from and work on.
The Zimbabweans are such an honest and frank people - it was refreshing to find people who said what they meant, didn't have hidden agendas or who were sarcastic or cynical. It was a time when I gave something that they valued and I received so much in return. If I hadn't experienced what I did that year, I know I wouldn't have gone on to do the things I am doing now.
I returned to Zimbabwe after that year and while there by chance met an incredible couple who run a project in eastern Zimbabwe for orphans and destitute children. It cares for 130 children from one to 19 years old in foster families and has a school on site and a weekly health clinic. This couple had given up everything to look after the poorest of the poor and their whole lives revolved around this devotion. They were in the process of trying to set up a similar project in western Mozambique and took me across to see the country and the beginnings of the project. The desolation and poverty that I saw made me realise that I had to do something; they were desperate for funds to help establish the project.
Thus I returned in the summer of 1995 and set up a small charity called Vila Maninga, which is also the name of the project and means a Village of Places of Refuge in the local language. My aim is to fundraise for the project: so far just over pounds 23,000 has been raised through events mainly with young people and children and it takes up nearly all of my time. I travel out there each summer to teach in the school and to see how things are progressing (and wonder why I don't go out and live there) while sampling the delights of the African way of life. Without my gap year, none of this would have begunn
Donations to the Vila Maninga charity may be sent to Elizabeth Clifton, The Rectory, Orford, Woodbridge, Suffolk IP12 2NNReuse content