It’s not all about Me – by Helen May


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I love holidays. I love meeting new people. I love experiencing new cultures. I love trying out new activities. I love traveling to new places. I love seeing new sights. All great stuff. Except … sometimes I get the feeling there’s too much “I” in all this.

So I decided to look into having a holiday where someone else can get something out of it… Something out of me. As I looked around, asking friends and colleagues, trawling the web, I realised finding the right holiday was not going to be easy:

• I can’t give up months of work. So I wanted an activity that I could see an achievement in a couple of weeks.
• I still want to spend my holiday doing the things I love: experiencing new cultures, traveling to new places. I want to help out where the opportunities are not the same as here in the UK.
• I want to get away from work and, hey, what two week charity opportunities are there for managing software development?
• I want to help people. There are opportunities for volunteering with orphan elephants, dolphins, orang-utans… But I wanted to give something to other people.
• I know my limitations and, whilst I want to push myself, I know working with children would challenge too many of my limitations.

And so…

After, literally, months of searching, I came across Habitat for Humanity. They “work around the world with volunteers from all backgrounds, races and religions to build homes together with families in need.” They ticked most of my boxes and, although I’m not a builder or carpenter or plasterer, as I discovered for two weeks in Ghana, I can carry bricks, I can lay bricks, I can render walls, I can help put up a roof and I’m not afraid to learn.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First I should explain the set up. Twelve of us set off from the UK. Apart from a mother and daughter, no one had met until we turned up at the airport. After a day of traveling, we met our host village who we would work with to build two houses. The charity pays for a head builder for each house who manages the build with as many mates as they want to share the fees with. In addition, the new owners must contribute time to the building. So we were not working alone: we were also working with a group of local guys. And children. There were children everywhere. They were intrigued: they had not seen many white people so we were a novelty they wanted to befriend.

The two houses had been started when we arrived: there were foundations and a couple of rows of bricks. Completing the houses was up to our team and by the time we’d finished traveling and greeting, we had 10 days before the handover ceremony.

We stayed in a very basic guest house in a small town 20 minutes drive from the village and were bussed in each morning. We were greeted by the children who took whatever we had in our hands – from water bottles to back packs – and carried them to the building site on their heads. It was hard work and it was hot. But it was fun. And, if we needed a rest, we could stop whenever we wanted, usually, to play with the children.

Toys were simple. Something we could carry with us that was light and didn’t take up much space. So whenever we had a break, we blew up another balloon. At first we had to show the children what to do with these strange light objects that floated in the air. Then, as they got the hang of hitting it from person to person and chasing it round the village, the balloon would catch on something and burst. Once they got used to the bangs, they had something to treasure: yep a burst balloon was a treasure amongst the children in that village. By the end of our time there, they were typical children playing together, then a bit of fighting and then asking for a new toy.

As I said, at the end there was a handover ceremony. There was music from the villagers, dancing, speeches from the village elders and finally, the whole village watched as the new tenants entered their new homes for the first time. Finally, any remaining balloons were handed out to the whole village.

Just like my other holidays, I loved meeting new people (and working with them), I loved experiencing new cultures (closer then ever before), I loved trying out new activities (on the most basic scaffolding you could imagine), I loved traveling to new places (even if those places had no hot water for the two weeks I was there) and I loved seeing new sights (such as the house that I had just help build).

The local people had so little compared to what we are used to. I have no idea if any of them had diabetes: it’s a tough place to live without any illness and I know diabetes adds further challenges to any environment. But there was a very strong sense of community: they needed fit healthy people to grow their crops, build their houses, and survive. So if anyone did have diabetes, I think they’d work together as a village to ensure the diabetes did not get in the way of all their lives. From my experience, I know if you have access to insulin, diabetes is not a hindrance to building a house in Ghana.

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