“It made me grow in heart and mind. It made me take decisions in my life that I would never have foreseen before,” said Hatem Kenawi, a DMC TV channel reporter and one of the many Egyptian young people now volunteering on the African continent.
It has taken some time for some to break the stereotypes they may have had in their minds about their own continent. When many Egyptians think about Africa, they may think about animal safaris and images of lions, zebras and elephants. They might also wonder about the beauty of nature and the magnificent greenery along the Nile down to Lake Victoria.
However, how much do many Egyptians really know about their own continent except during the African Cup of Nations football tournament, when they, like others worldwide, cheer on African football teams and become obsessed with players like Sadio Mane, Kalidou Koulibaly and Rais M’Bolhi?
Of course, Africa is about far more than beautiful scenery, animals and football players. And, contrary to what the mainstream media sometimes tells us, it is about far more than the problems of poverty and disease.
Africa is a hugely diverse continent of dozens of countries with a plethora of different cultures and heritages. It is full of dynamic and bustling cities, many of which are instituting cutting edge development programmes and educational and governmental reforms. It is a continent with stunning beaches, untouched wilderness and some of the kindest people one can ever meet.
Kenawi is one Egyptian young person who has started to explore his own continent. Dreaming of going to Africa since he was a young child, he finally achieved this ambition this year with the Have a Dream Organisation, an NGO in Cairo. Kenawi visited Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar through the organisation, and since then his life has changed dramatically.
He visited orphanages where he told African children about Egypt’s culture and learned about their own. “When I was at the orphanages, we learned from each other and sang and danced as if we were living a life without noise or trouble,” he said.
“I adopted a newly born elephant, which was a totally new experience for me. Now I send money to one of the orphanages annually so that they can take care of the elephant and provide her with all her food, drink and entertainment.”
“You go with a mission to help others, but you end up knowing that the others are the ones who have helped you,” he added.
Such youth volunteering in Africa does not only stem from the fact that Egypt is of course part of Africa, but also from the responsibility these young people feel towards the rest of the world. None of us live alone isolated from others.
Collecting dreams is one of the activities that the Have a Dream Organisation is keen to do in every place it visits. The children, organisers and volunteers are all encouraged to write and post their dreams on pieces of paper during workshops, with these then being collected up and read out to others.
Children, in particular, love to dream. “When we do this activity, we see how much the children love dreaming about their futures, as they cannot wait to achieve their dreams of becoming doctors, engineers, football players, and so on,” Kenawi said.
NOWING AFRICA: “What did I know about Zanzibar before I went there? Nothing,” said Mona Morshedi, an Egyptian English teacher and zumba instructor living in the UAE.
Before travelling to Zanzibar with Nomuhub, a volunteering agency, Morshedi collected as much information about the country she was visiting as she could, and when she got there, it turned out to be best expedition of her life.
The knowledge Morshedi gained was priceless in terms of visiting another culture, knowing about its people, gaining new skills and cultivating new abilities.
“Knowing that you are part of the world gives you much more confidence that you can actually help to change it. Small things you can do can help to make the world a better place. This is not only a matter of words, as I have experienced it myself,” she added, saying that next year she intends to go to Kenya on a similar expedition.
Morshedi said that the Zanzibar visit had brought home to her just how many privileges the UAE and even Egypt had, when compared to some other countries. “Even though in Egypt we have few resources for education, we still have electricity and water. I realised that this was not necessarily the case in some other countries, which lack the primary resources that we wish to develop.”
“However, the children in Tanzania, for example, are hungry for education despite their minimal resources, crammed classrooms and the scorching sun hitting the roofs of their schools,” Morshedi said.
“It is my life, not part of my life,” exclaimed Malek Mostafa, 25, when asked about volunteering in Africa. At the age of 15, Mostafa began visiting orphanages and poor villages on the outskirts of Alexandria. He then joined the Resala Association for Charity, an NGO, where he found himself taking part in serving larger number of people not only by providing food, clothes or shelter, but also via education and social activities.
From that time onwards, he has never stopped volunteering inside and outside of Egypt.
When he joined Have a Dream, he did not think he would be able to work on the things that he loved the most. But this in fact came true, as for Mostafa, his work, travel and volunteering are three indispensable things he cannot live without.
The connections and the rich human encounters volunteers in the countries they work in are vital for any volunteering experience. Most Egyptian volunteers in Africa have found that the environment leaves them with a new faith in human nature. “We have had encounters with people of many nationalities on each trip. Apart from the experience of the host country, there is also something in the air that makes everybody very helpful, supportive and express genuine hospitality,” he said.
Have A Dream is one of the first Egyptian youth organisations to offer rich travel experiences across the world. It was founded in 2014 by a group of young Egyptians who were inspired by the rich experiences they had had while travelling and had dreamed of giving the opportunity to others as well to explore the rest of the world.
The team was featured on the TV show “Maakum Mona Al-Shazli” (With Mona Al-Shazli) in January. The young people who participated, calling themselves “African ambassadors,” inspired many other young people to try the experience. They were motivated by the vibrant stories these young people told about the African continent and its hopes, challenges, joy and fun to also try to make a human impact and make a difference in the lives of others.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly