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‘I saw I could live without things’

by
14 January 2009

Platform2, launched in the UK last year, gives young people from deprived areas the chance to work abroad with poor communities. Amanda Burney interviews the first participants, just back from Gambia

Khalid Mahmood (above), 21, lives in a deprived district of Birming­ham with his family. He is in his final year of a degree in journalism and English at the University of Bradford

I MOVED TO Sparkbrook from Pakistan when I was 12. Sparkbrook contains a mixture of communities, and people are close; they know each other. But it’s also a poor place, quite deprived. People don’t go to school, which leads to poverty. A few years ago, I think Sparkbrook was named as one of the worst places to live in the UK.

I saw the trip to Ghana as a challenge: could I stay away from the luxuries we have in England for ten weeks? It was also an opportun­ity to meet people.

It was a life-changing trip. People worked hard, and had pride in what they did. I talked to some farmers who weren’t at all interested in money. Their lives were really basic, and they just wanted enough to eat — I don’t think they were eager to be rich.

In Ghana, the area around the nature reserve where we worked was beautiful, with mountains, water­falls, and caves, as well as coconut, palm, and cotton trees. One of the best things we did was to use a Global Positioning System to help make a map for tourists coming to the reserve.

I loved everybody in the group. No one had any grudges against anyone else, and if someone was feeling down, everyone helped them out. We were quite different people, though. Now I miss their company, and I hope I’ll stay in touch with some of them.

In Ghana, the area around the nature reserve where we worked was beautiful, with mountains, water­falls, and caves, as well as coconut, palm, and cotton trees. One of the best things we did was to use a Global Positioning System to help make a map for tourists coming to the reserve.

I loved everybody in the group. No one had any grudges against anyone else, and if someone was feeling down, everyone helped them out. We were quite different people, though. Now I miss their company, and I hope I’ll stay in touch with some of them.

The people showed us great hospitality, and the kids were awesome. Some of us organised a fun day for the villagers of Gbledi Chebi — where we stayed — with football games, egg-and-spoon races, a snake charmer, musicians, and food stalls, which was great.

The trip was partly about getting on with other people and learning to manage in situations where there are no clear guidelines. It was a great experience. But I wasn’t too keen on the food. I couldn’t eat the meat, because I’m a Muslim, and so I had to eat a lot of eggs — some­times ten in one day.

Zina Lewis (above), 23, has a sociology degree and is a youth-project worker at the Humanities Education Centre in east London

Zina Lewis (above), 23, has a sociology degree and is a youth-project worker at the Humanities Education Centre in east London

I’M FROM Poplar, Tower Hamlets, which is quite a poor borough. It was a cool place to grow up, with many different cultures. But most adults are living on benefits, or they are unemployed, and there are a lot of single-parent families. It’s quite easy for kids to lose their way unless they keep focused on education, or a hobby or a goal.

In London, if I walked around saying “Good morning” to people I didn’t know, they’d look at me in a strange way. But in Ghana, the people were lovely: very welcoming, hospitable, and friendly. We were greeted with a smile by strangers, as well as people we knew.

There were eight volunteers in my Platform2 group, and we all connected on the first day we met. I can’t believe that we managed to get on so well, so quickly, and we never argued during the trip. We were very surprised when we arrived, because we were told to expect the worst. But, actually, our living conditions were really good.

The wildlife reserve where we worked included Mount Afadjato, the highest peak in Ghana. We did a lot of landscaping around the reserve, because they’re trying to make it more of a tourist attraction, which will provide more jobs for local people. We also helped set up a cocoa-tree nursery, repair a mountain trail, and teach school­children about sustainable farming methods.

At first, the work was tough because it was so hot, and we had only simple tools to work with. But we learned how to use things like pickaxes and cutlasses, which was brilliant. Another difficult thing was dealing with people’s belief that everyone in the West is rich, and can have anything they want. When we went on trips out of the village, they would ask us what we had brought for them.

The wildlife reserve where we worked included Mount Afadjato, the highest peak in Ghana. We did a lot of landscaping around the reserve, because they’re trying to make it more of a tourist attraction, which will provide more jobs for local people. We also helped set up a cocoa-tree nursery, repair a mountain trail, and teach school­children about sustainable farming methods.

At first, the work was tough because it was so hot, and we had only simple tools to work with. But we learned how to use things like pickaxes and cutlasses, which was brilliant. Another difficult thing was dealing with people’s belief that everyone in the West is rich, and can have anything they want. When we went on trips out of the village, they would ask us what we had brought for them.

The whole point of Platform2 is to allow people who are not rich to go to developing countries. It made me realise that I could live without a lot of things. People in Ghana seemed quite content with what they had. Young people there are very disciplined: they go to school, and afterwards the girls cook for their families. Then, at weekends, young people do farming work.

Now I am back, I hope to tap into some local youth organisations and give them presentations about Platform2, the countries you can go to, and my experiences. It’s a life-changing experience, and a chance to do something that broadens your horizons.

I was going to become a teacher, but now I’m considering whether to raise money so that I can return to work in an orphanage in another part of Ghana.

Now I am back, I hope to tap into some local youth organisations and give them presentations about Platform2, the countries you can go to, and my experiences. It’s a life-changing experience, and a chance to do something that broadens your horizons.

I was going to become a teacher, but now I’m considering whether to raise money so that I can return to work in an orphanage in another part of Ghana.

Kerri McGroarthy (above), 18, is training to be a nurse

Kerri McGroarthy (above), 18, is training to be a nurse

I GREW UP on a small council estate in Pennilee, Glasgow. When I was young, there was a lot of crime. The tenement blocks have been knocked down and new homes have been built, but there are still gangs, with members as young as 11. They stand on corners, cause trouble, drink, smoke, and take drugs. There is still crime, too. But I feel safe, because I have grown up here.

I’ve always wanted to travel, but I couldn’t afford it. I’ve been to the United States, paid for by my uncle. But I’d never been to a developing country.

In Accra, the capital of Ghana, the heat just hit me. The poverty wasn’t as terrible as I’d expected, but I was still shocked by how people lived: I saw people selling things like chewing gum on the side of the main road, all day long.

The night we got to the village where we were staying, a thunder­storm had cut off the electricity; so we sat there with candles. I was excited just to be there.

The village was small, and I loved it because it was so friendly. We learned a bit of the local language — Ewe — and some people could speak English; so we could have conversations.

I most enjoyed meeting the other volunteers in my group: we got on brilliantly. I also enjoyed being with the children in the village: they don’t have toys, but they are so happy. I had never sat around with six- and seven-year-olds before, but there we were singing songs and playing games.

We worked at the Afadjato Agumatasa Project from about 8.30 a.m. until noon, then we had a two-hour break because it was so hot. We started again from 2 p.m. until 4.30 p.m. While we were there, we did some painting, GPS map­ping, bagging up soil for the tree nursery, and repairing the mountain trail. Sometimes it was boring, but we all had a laugh.

We had our meals at the wildlife centre — a lot of yam, plantain, rice, noodles, and spaghetti. I wasn’t a great fan of the food, and some­times I was hungry, but I could always go to the shop in the village and buy bread and biscuits.

I thought it would be hard to adjust — not having hair straight­eners, for instance. But I enjoyed not having to care about that. I haven’t straightened my hair since I got back.

We had our meals at the wildlife centre — a lot of yam, plantain, rice, noodles, and spaghetti. I wasn’t a great fan of the food, and some­times I was hungry, but I could always go to the shop in the village and buy bread and biscuits.

I thought it would be hard to adjust — not having hair straight­eners, for instance. But I enjoyed not having to care about that. I haven’t straightened my hair since I got back.

I expected to be homesick, but I wasn’t. The trip has changed me. Now I’m back, I don’t really want to be here: I just want to travel. It has been one of the best experiences of my life.

Platform2 is fully funded by DfID and run by Christian Aid, Islamic Relief, and BUNAC. It offers young people from deprived parts of the UK the chance to do voluntary work in Ghana, South Africa, Peru, or India.

www.myplatform2.com

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