International Volunteering Day: Sean's experience in Kenya

Rita Pereira
October 18, 2023
9 min read
 min read

International Volunteering Day it’s celebrated on December 5th. This is a day that recognises the solidarity and the crucial work volunteers do in their communities and across the globe to help blurring inequalities.

To highlight this day, we invited Sean Diacono, our Data Scientist, to tell us a bit of his most recent adventure: a one month volunteering experience with the Right2Smile organisation, in the village of Olasiti, in Kenya.

Hi Sean! First of all, how are you?

I’m great, thank you.

We know you just came back to Malta after a one-month volunteering experience in Kenya. How did you have this idea of doing a volunteering experience?

I’ve been wanting to do this experience for quite a while, so I’ve been thinking about it since I started university, back in 2018. I was waiting until I finished it to actually go on this experience and then the pandemic happened so I couldn’t go.

At the beginning of this year, I saw that the organisation Right2Smile in Malta opened applications again so as soon as I saw it, I went for it. Even my mom, she was always motivating me to go on an experience like this, and even my cousin had been on a similar experience. And since I was recommended to go, I knew it would be a really really great experience. So when I saw the opportunity, I took it because if I don’t do it now then I never know when I’ll have another chance to do it. So I just took it.

Sean (on the left) with the Right2Smile group of volunteers

What motivated you in the volunteering experience itself? What were the reasons that made you want to have this experience?

I’m quite a curious person and I love travelling in general, and going somewhere like Kenya where the culture was so different was something very interesting to me.

To learn about their culture, about the way they live, and also learn and understand how different our life is compared to theirs; understand how lucky I am where I am. I was just very curious about it. That’s why for me, personally, I chose to go.

How was the whole process of application for Right2Smile?

It’s quite simple. They sent an email to everyone who was part of their newsletter — because I had signed up years ago just waiting for news — and then basically it’s just filling out an online form.

Through the online form, you list your skills and your motivation for why you want to go. Once they do that, they select people, and based on those people, you have some training sessions in person. In Malta, we had a few sessions where they brief you on the culture there, and what you can expect. For example, not to judge people: the culture is so different, they might have very different views of the world compared to yours, so it’s important not to be judgemental. After those sessions, we were ready to go.

Did you choose Kenya or did they attribute it to you?

Right2Smile, the organisation, has a number of projects in different countries — in Kenya, Cambodja, India, and Malta as well. All their projects are around giving the children their right to smile; that’s why the organisation is named that. Most of the projects are centred around schools and young children and for example in Kenya, the aim of the project is to give children their school lunch. So one of the things the organisation provides is that they pay for the school’s food and for the chef there to make sure all children are guaranteed to have lunch during the week every day.

Also, they pay some of the teacher’s salaries so they keep the school running and it’s also through the volunteers’ donations that they help the community to develop — with that money, they can buy better equipment, stationary, and they can renovate the school. And yeah, why did I choose Kenya? It was because, at the time, it was the only country with opened applications, and also Africa was on my top places to visit, so it was a perfect match for me.

Now about volunteering itself! How did you feel when you got to the place you were going to volunteer?

The community we stayed with is called Olasiti. It’s named after a big, famous tree that’s grown over there. It’s a very big and nice tree, very old: people normally sit under it and they tell stories. As far as I know, there are only three in the county!

Olasiti villagers under the tree Sean told us about

We were a group of eight, split into pairs, all from Malta. First, they dropped us there and we met our host family. They took us to their house and showed us where we were going to stay during the volunteering experience.

On the first day, I felt it was quite challenging when I saw where I was going to live — I confess I was a bit shocked and scared. From the second day on, I felt like I was home. The people were super welcoming and really really nice. They make you feel at home and they give you everything you need. Then, you start feeling comfortable.

In the beginning, you’re kind of all experiencing the same discomfort, so when that is shared, you get through it much easier. So, yeah after the first day, the whole group got used to it super quick and from the second day onwards we all enjoyed it very much.

We were basically in the savannah, in a massive open space and then everyone has a house that is spread out across the place. The houses are not very close to each other — they are spread out. Every house has its own animals, goats because that’s the way they try to make resources.

The family we stayed with was Kenyan — they live in that community so the children in our family go to the school we were helping in. As volunteers, we give a donation to each family we stay with, so our donation goes directly to the family, and then they can use that donation to buy whatever they need.

In that month, we try to help out as much as we can. What we did was just a small thing: it’s very difficult to actually change something but over time, their lives will keep getting better and better.

How is the day of a volunteer? Which were the everyday tasks you helped with?

An average day would be: we’d wake up at around 6 am and have breakfast with the family. Then, we would walk for 15 minutes to the school, which we reached at around 8 AM. From there, we would go to the classroom. Every day we would be assigned to a different classroom in the school so every day you’re introduced to the teacher and the students in our class. There were different grades: the youngest kids were 4 years old and then it goes up to 15/16 years old.

Once we were in the classroom, we would help the teacher in every way we could. For example, we would correct the homework the children had to do the day before. We would help to teach maths, English, science… Basically, we would just give easy, basic lessons and also help the children with their classwork. In between classes, we would have a break and sometimes we would play football with the children and some games I’d never played before.

Usually, when school was over, the children had lunch there: the youngest ones went home and the eldest remained and would play games in the afternoon. And yeah, we would either play with them or sometimes we would have some specific activities. For example, one of the days we discussed with the women of the community how they live, and what they go through in their daily lives.

After those activities, we would go home at around 5 pm, have dinner with the family, and after dinner we would have long conversations until quite late at night with the family. Then we would go to bed.

What were the biggest surprises you experienced in Kenya?

One of them must be how friendly the children and, overall, people were.

The children were super super enthusiastic and happy when we arrived and they remembered your name straight away. From the second day you go to school, everyone is shouting your name and calling you to come out and play with them. They still remember other volunteers and also some remember some Maltese songs and phrases they taught them — they have a really good memory!

Also how much children enjoy school. I feel like back home, we’d be kind of sad because it’s another day at school, the weekend’s over… For them it is the opposite: they love going to school, and they love meeting friends and meeting the volunteers as well. For them it is a really fun thing — that surprised me as well.

Sean playing Football with the children

Why do you think that happens?

I think that happens probably because they don’t have as much else to do back home; entertainment back home as we do, so for them, school is a really fun thing. That’s why I thought they enjoyed them that much. When they’re at home, they’re helping their parents around the house, making sure the animals are ok, going to fetch water — being at home is kind of like work, you don’t have a lot of free time, especially the eldest children. The youngest play around but the older, 10–12 years old, help the family a lot. That also surprised me — how much the children helped their parents and don’t complain at all. At home, if my parents told me to clean the floor or do something I’d be complaining and not want to do it. But in their case, they obey their parents and help out straight away.

What impact did this experience have on your life?

It made me super grateful for all the comfort I have at home and over here. I feel lucky. I also realised some of the problems we face aren’t as bad as we think they are. It’s good to take a step back and realise we are quite lucky and we don’t have much to worry about. Of course, we have some worries but they are not super impactful in our lives. If you take a step back you are gonna realise that we are super lucky to be in the position we are.

Sometimes I start feeling frustrated at something or angry in traffic and annoyed — but then I remember: I’m even lucky to be stuck in traffic! Things like this. Your whole perspective is changed.

What advice would you give to someone who would also like to volunteer?

I would say you need to be quite open to experiencing anything. And like I said in the beginning, not to be judgemental of the way they live or their culture. Be ready to experience discomfort but I’d say that even though you may feel some discomfort at the beginning, the lessons you learn by the end are much bigger. It’s completely worth the experience. Once you’re there, you’ll adapt super quickly. Just go with an open heart and an open mind and just experience everything.

Right2Smile is a Maltese non-governmental organisation that brings together responsible volunteering with community development projects all over the world. Their ultimate aim is to empower locals with the skills, belief, and facilities to become self-sustainable. Find out more about their project here.

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