Are you considering volunteering with Hands at Work? Have you ever wondered what it feels like to jump into a completely new cultural experience? Adam Bedford, a 22-year-old university graduate from the UK, shares about his experience of the six-week Hands at Work orientation programme for new volunteers. He lives at the Hands 'village' in South Africa.
I first touched down on African soil in April 2010 in beautiful rural Zambia. At the time I was halfway through my studies and the thought of visiting Africa, let alone moving there, was little more than a romantic dream for the distant future. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, a free ticket to Zambia landed in my lap.
The church that my parents were leading had come across an organisation/charity/family - I wasn’t sure what it was back then - called Hands at Work. In the hope of identifying a community they could support they decided to send a small group of five to Africa and asked if I would consider being a part of the team. I don’t remember having to think about it for long.
The two weeks spent in Zambia left an impression on my heart that would leave me restless for a long time. I had stumbled upon God’s heart for the world’s most vulnerable people and discovered this wild group of Christians committed to transforming Africa in His name.
Another year at university passed before God stirred me afresh and I committed to spend a year volunteering alongside this radical family, utterly sold out for God’s vision for Africa. And now, here I am. It feels a little strange being here at last; I’m not sure what I expected.
New volunteers are told to come with no expectations, but of course that’s not easily achieved. The orientation process itself, which entails six weeks of integration into Hands life, was somewhat of a mystery before I arrived. I think I had envisioned something like a tamed SAS training programme in which we would be put through our paces, tested for strengths and weaknesses, emotionally pummelled and, at the end, handed an envelope with our designated assignment in. (Actually, that doesn’t seem too far from reality… Only joking!)
These first two weeks of orientation have involved a number of things: First, getting to know an amazing group of fellow ‘newbies’. We are all so different: American, Canadian, British and Australian. Young and old(er). Student and taxpayer. We’re a whole rabble of people with one common thread that pulls us together like nothing else could: We are, all of us, walking in the plans and promises of God. This is, for now at very least, just where He wants us to be.
An amazing thing about these first two weeks of orientation is that we are spending just about every day in the communities in which Hands serve. We are spending every day with the most vulnerable people. We’re immersed in their lives, exposed to their experiences and invaded by their stories.
At first it was a little difficult; none of us were too sure how to interact with kids and care workers whose language we didn’t speak. The very first day I decided to show off my Siswati (a local language spoken in the communities) and so when it was my time to introduce myself to the care workers I stood up and said a wholehearted Siswati greeting. I took their laughter as affirmation that they were impressed. I later learned that I had used the wrong word entirely. But everybody here has outstanding grace. So much of what they involve us in they could do better and with less hassle without us.
One day they let me ‘help’ them weed. That day I learnt that a cauliflower is, in fact, not a weed. Like I said, they could do it better without us. But here in Africa, that’s not the point. The point, the whole point, is to build relationships. In Hands-life that ethos is powerfully evident.
I’m learning what it looks like to be plunged into a brand new culture, a way of life, an ethos and a value system that I felt altogether unprepared for. Yet the community of which I have become a part is far more a family than a charity, far more an organism than an organisation. We are walking together with one vision, one purpose and one passion.
It takes some time to believe that you could possibly bring anything to this wonderful work, but every day I’m reminded of the promise of God whispering: “You didn’t choose me, I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.” For now, I’m just setting down my roots.