12 March 1999
by Gregory McDonald
I stepped into the Mwange Refugee Settlement in Mporokoso Zambia Saturday November 23rd 2003. From the moment I drove down the 2 km road leading to the entrance I felt like I was back where I belong. 9 months earlier, I had finished a volunteer position with Right To Play in Kasulu Tanzania. This first glimpse into a refugee camp changed my life.
Every minute I was back in my safe, lavished confines of Canada among friends and family inquiring about the many stories of my experiences in Kasulu, Tanzania I felt homesick from the new community I had left. I was constantly longing for the day I could return to this amazing continent which seemed strange as Canada had been my home for the last 24 years and but in my short 6 months in Africa it also became my home. It’s hard to explain how I have changed after being a Right To Play volunteer, except for rediscovering why I loved being a coach and helping others which I seemed to have lost in my busy life of University. The opportunity to start over again transferring the years of knowledge I have been taught through my experiences as a student, player, teammate and coach was almost as exciting as the first time.
From the first moment I saw the watoto, Swahili for children, I knew I was back where I could make a difference. The children are generally afraid of the Mazungo (Swahili for white foreigner), and to be a person that can gain their trust and have them jumping along beside you is one of the greatest moments you could ever experience. Trust, something most of the adults still have not given to any individual in the 3 years they have been living as refugees in the safe confines of Zambia. After one short week of being in the camp I could not drive or walk in the village without having kids saying ‘hello, good morning’ which was probably to only English they knew. These simple moments make me realize the how important this volunteer position is, as these children are the key to the community’s survival and will hopefully become the leaders of a peaceful reconstruction of their homeland, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Our car is here, our car is here! Each morning we enter the camp the children begin to chant to us. Most of them are not used to having a ‘Mazungo’ focusing on them. They all come running and start to cling onto us. It is quite hard to walk when you have 4 kids on each arm and a couple hanging onto your legs. The surrounding adults just laugh when they see the kids all over us. They know that we are here for their children, as well as the whole community.
It is always hard to leave the camp each day. Even though at times you are so exhausted you get home and are too tired to eat, you realize you have had the privilege to contribute to and witness the development of the children you are helping. There is nothing like having a 7-year old boy beating a group of adult teachers in the game of Memory. Every day there is something new; nothing is ever the same and each day that passes is another day of knowledge being transferred. It is a great feeling to pass on knowledge. It is the feeling that you are making a difference in people’s lives.
During my time in Mwange Refugee Settlement, I was called into a private meeting with the head refugee of the camp. This meeting was the surprise of my life. He started by telling me that he really appreciated everything that we are doing in the camp. We are promoting the idea of volunteerism, something that is totally foreign to many of his Congolese brothers. He said that the kids absolutely love us here as he looked at the 10 children peaking through the window. He spoke of how much Right To Play had made a difference in Mwange. He told me that I have shown other youths in that camp that age means nothing and that we were role models not only for the children but also the adults in the camp. At this time I was holding back my tears, then we let out the most profound statement I have ever hear:
I am an old Congolese and have seen many Mazungo’s in my country. Many have I seen, and they only come for our diamonds and gold. You have come to Mwange for OUR diamonds” he then slowly pointed his old finger to the children in the window. You are not a Mazungo. You are our Rafiki (friend in Kiswahili), you are my brother Gregoire.
Now every time I need a source of motivation, I think of the old Bwana and his words keep me focused end engerized. His words have become my mission statement our children, the Congolese Diamonds, a statement hard to argue with.
Working in refugee camps you hear or witness some of the most tragic and heartbreaking stories of people losing homes, family and a sense of community. Then a small child reaches up to hold your hand as you walk down the street, not saying a word but with the biggest smile on his face. This is what being a Right To Play volunteer is all about. I have the best job in the world! I do not know if anything will ever compare to this for the rest of my life. I only hope so