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Forty years on: A former volunteer’s return to Nigeria

Ken Longden with his class in Nigeria 40 years ago

Volunteer teacher Ken with his class forty years ago

Ken Longden explains how his reluctant decision to join a social network led to inspiring reconnections with people touched by his contribution as a VSO volunteer teacher in Nigeria in the 1970s.

First job, lasting impressions

Forty years ago, I was recruited by VSO to teach Chemistry and Physics at a Community Secondary School in Ugep, Southern Nigeria. It was my first job, and I ended up staying for three years. 

Although not an ardent social networker, I eventually gave in to the many invitations to join LinkedIn. I’m very glad that I did, because in May 2013 I was contacted by one of my former students, then working for a health programme in Nigeria. This led to many exciting phone calls and emails with former students, bringing back wonderful memories. 

Ken met up with his old students

Ken with his former students

So many stories

Within a few months, I had heard from more than fifty former students. It was incredible to me to see that these men and women, now in their fifties, are active in all walks of life. From teachers and scientists, to engineers, journalists, politicians and business people. Some are working as doctors and nurses, some civil servants, and one is an environmental activist.

Having perhaps been one of the first of their families to go to university, many of their children are now following in their footsteps. Several have travelled beyond Nigeria - five are now working in the US, and one is a lawyer in London.

Just a few months after I first reconnected, my wife and I were able to visit Nigeria, with all expenses generously met by my former students. 

It was a week of celebrations and parties as well as receptions with community leaders, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Calabar, and the Governor of the State.  

Ken Longden with his class in nigeria 40 years ago

Ken with some of his old students

Changes amidst familiar faces

It was amazing to see how Ugep, once known as the largest village in West Africa, had been transformed into a modern town. The roads had been tarred and were now lined with trees. There were hardly any of the traditional thatched houses left. The last time I had crossed the river my motorbike had been placed in a canoe - now there was a pontoon. 

I was particularly pleased to see that the school itself had many new additions, including a new computer lab and a library. 

Volunteer Ken with his old students

Ken enjoyed finding out what his old students have been doing since they graduated

Volunteering really does change lives

I was interested to find out why the students felt they had gained so much from the teaching. They all mentioned three things:

  • Firstly, that I taught without having a book in front of me. By taking time to prepare the classes I was able to make them my own, and this helped the students to develop their own understanding.
  • Secondly, they felt that I had taken the time to get to know them as individuals.
  • Finally, they could see that I worked hard, providing additional lessons where necessary. 

In these days of questioning the effectiveness of volunteering and international development, it is encouraging to learn that an individual can make a difference. As well as witnessing the impact on my students, I can see the value in my own life; I have continued to work in Africa for three-quarters of my career, in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

It is at this level of personal connectedness that lives can be changed. And that, of course, is what VSO is all about – changing lives.

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