Working overseas: Volunteering in Africa

Joan Coleman reflects on what she gained from her six months as a volunteer childcare worker in west Africa

In 2004 I was the manager of a busy child and family assessment team in a local authority in Essex. I wanted a change and joined international development charity VSO as a volunteer social worker because it would give me experience of practising social work in a different culture.

I started a two-year placement, the first six months of which were spent in The Gambia working in the Department of Social Welfare (DSW) in the capital city Banjul.

My role was to assist child care social workers with training and implementing procedures. It was very similar to our system but not so sophisticated: for example, the children’s files were updated manually. While I was working in the DSW, The Gambia introduced a Children Act. I was involved in its implementation through delivering workshops and seminars with the DSW and other agencies. I was also part of a working party that introduced a social work course at the University of The Gambia.

One major difference between The Gambia and the UK is the lack of resources – you are the resource and you have to rely on your skills as a social worker. This would often mean patiently spending time in hospitals and schools. I loved negotiating with health and education professionals like this to achieve positive outcomes for children who had been identified as in need.

In The Gambia there is a strong feeling that the children are different from those in the West because African children have responsibilities to their parents and families. Our training programme gave the social work staff information about such issues and the chance to discuss them. We also learned to look at things from their perspective.

I feel proud to have been part of the introduction of a Children Act and believe my practice has improved. I am less judgemental, I listen more and value diversity.

Joan Coleman is a qualified social worker

Useful contacts for working overseas

• VSO tel: 020 8780 7500

• Prospects, the UK’s official graduate careers website tel: 0161 277 5200

• International Federation of Social Workers tel: 0041 31 382 6015 (Switzerland)

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