My volunteering experience in Nigeria: a life changing journey

Northumbria Sociology Student Elias Elia speaks about his recent experience of volunteering abroad

Elias 3

This experience was something totally different from any other.  The aim of this blog is to try and uncover some of the realities that exist somewhere on our planet, try to give a tiny taste of how amazing and special this journey was as well as try to inspire “just one” person to do the same.

On the 7th of June 2018, I travelled to Nigeria with international development organisation VSO as part of the UK International Citizen Service programme, where I spent 11 weeks working alongside young volunteers from Nigeria and the UK on a project aiming to improve the quality of education in the schools that we were allocated.

Being part of this team and this journey has been an unimaginable experience.

I wasn’t living in a luxury five stars hotel with a spa and jacuzzi but instead I was living with a local host family so that I was fully immersed into the community and was able to gain a better understanding of the challenges people face there.  As Richard Dowden states in his book ‘Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles’, “the best way to find out is to go, not as a tourist in a bubble of Western Luxury and safety, but as a traveller to meet people and engage with them” (2009, 9). Regardless of the different, difficult and challenging life conditions, I had an incredible and unique time in Nigeria, and I really felt that our project was making a difference in the community and the schools that we were working.

During our first days at the school we had observed the situation and concluded that there were some things, such as around teaching methods, discipline, and school infrastructure, that we could provide some input on. What was also very hard to dismiss was the inequality amongst the two genders that was taking place in the school and in the whole of Nigeria in general. From a very young age boys are socialized in a way that makes them superior to the girls. For example, during break times at the school, boys were allowed immediately to go and play football or do anything else they like. Girls had first to tidy up and clean the classrooms and then go for break time.  This observation can be backed up by Meyer’s and Milestone’s (2012) argument about gender presentation that men are presented in a way for aiming for goals or for example playing football. After doing a session to the kids on gender equality I realized that most of the gender roles and divisions in the Nigerian society are so imbedded and part of people’s everyday lives that many do not even see gender inequality as a problem. We also organised some teacher training workshops to help give the teachers skills and make our impact here sustainable. Topics ranged from teacher motivation to different student learning styles. In the end, it is great to think that teachers took seriously what we had to give them and that will help these kids get better quality of education. Also, through fundraising we managed to collect a specific amount of money which gave us the ability to transform an empty room of the school into a beautiful and functional library with all the practical work done by volunteers (book sorting, cleaning, painting etc).

Working on the field of education in Nigeria, it is easy to observe that many young people often miss out on a quality education because the education system suffers from wider inequalities as well as from corruption. Some people do not have any education at all. This means many young people do not have the basic knowledge around various sensitive issues which has a big knock on effect on their employment and life opportunities. As Fiyin Durojaiye argue, “corruption is everywhere in Nigeria and it is the major cause of poverty” (The Sun Nigeria, 2017).

With the team, we also ran a number of Community Action Days (CADs) to raise awareness on sensitive issues amongst the people in the community. For example, drug abuse, litter and environment, gender abuse, sanitation and hygiene as well as diet and nutrition.  This gave us the opportunity to take our message regarding sensitive issues out to reach a wider range of people of varying ages, sexes and backgrounds.

Being part of this team and this journey has been an unimaginable experience. The diversity of backgrounds, cultures and personalities within the team was an asset. Our diversity allowed us to see life’s challenges not as stumbling blocks, but rather, as stepping stones to the solutions.  We were a group of people from various different religions, countries, cultures, races, ethnicities and gender.  Also, the fact that I lived and was part of a local community for so long, gave me the chance to experience a whole new culture and make some new friends for life; and what I kept from that, is that people there are still humans, humanity is still alive. Whereas us in the West, amid our wasteful wealth and time-pressed lives we have lost some basic human values like for example happiness, truth and love that still abound in Nigeria.

…the fact that I lived and was part of a local community for so long, gave me the chance to experience a whole new culture and make some new friends for life

I think it’s important that young people, including other sociology students, get involved in projects like this, as it can give them a clear understanding of the inequalities around the world and help them gain a better understanding of how society as a whole, functions, so they can take actions. More than half the world’s population is under 25 and we are the generation of tomorrow, so we’re the ones with the power to change things! I’d really encourage others to think about applying for programs similar to this.

In the classroom

Finally, I want to sum up with a noun that exists within Filipino vocabulary and perfectly describes the outcome of my whole journey as a volunteer in Nigeria.  I am referring to “Volunesia” which means “that moment when you forget you’re volunteering to help change lives, because it’s changing yours”.

To find out more about ICS or to apply, visit