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The greatest lesson I learned while volunteering

In 2000, Victoria Williamson started her volunteer journey with VSO. Now as a debut writer, she tells VSO how her placement inspired her to think about diversity in the stories she shares - and the things we all have in common. 

When I first volunteered with VSO in August 2000 I wore their t-shirt with the slogan ‘Sharing Skills, Changing Lives’ with pride. At the time I had no idea that in the four years I would spend teaching in Africa, my life would be changed by what I learned. As an aspiring children’s author, I was always looking for ideas for new stories, but what my time abroad taught me, was that who the stories were written about – who got to narrate and whose life experiences were reflected – was just as important as what the stories were about.

In my first post I worked as a secondary school teacher in a remote town in Cameroon. One of my duties was helping develop the small school library, stocked with donated books from the UK and the USA. During a reading lesson with a student who was struggling with literacy, I picked out The Ugly Duckling as a story with fairly easy language. After twenty minutes’ hard slog, we hadn’t got past the first paragraph. We had to keep stopping so I could explain what a duckling was. Then a pond. Then a swan... We gave up and tried other stories, but with no more success. After months of encouraging students to borrow books from the library, only to see their initial enthusiasm give way to apathy, I finally discovered the problem.

Finding the right words

Those western reading books, despite their bright covers and illustrations, held no relevance for the children. Their stories of ice cream, snowmen, fireworks, and Santa Claus might as well have been written in an alien language. They were not mirrors reflecting the children’s own experiences of growing up in a small West African village with limited access to electricity and an unreliable water supply, and they couldn’t act as doors to new worlds either, as the children lacked the information keys to unlock those worlds. It wasn’t until I sought out books written by West African writers which featured children growing up in villages like Nkambe, that the library really took off. Children flocked to borrow stories by Chinua Achebe, Mabel Segun and Kola Onadipe featuring characters just like themselves, and their reading abilities began to gradually improve.

That was my first lesson in the power of diverse books, and the need for all children to see a reflection of themselves in the stories that they read. Later, after training as a primary school teacher and working in the UK before returning to Africa with VSO for a further two years to train teachers in Malawi, I began to see that all children’s hopes and dreams were very similar, despite cultural and language differences. Having taught children born in the UK who were struggling with difficult family experiences, children arriving from other countries to seek asylum with their families, and children in East and West Africa, I began to write stories featuring their voices, with diverse characters who initially see themselves as very different, only to discover that they share far more in common than they could possibly have imagined.

The real lesson I leant 

My debut novel, The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, was inspired by my work teaching children abroad with VSO, and at home in the UK. The two main characters are a blend of these children’s voices. Caylin is a twelve year old Glaswegian school bully who is struggling as a young carer for her alcoholic mother. Reema is a Syrian Muslim refugee whose world has been turned upside down by war, and she’s trying to come to terms with leaving her home behind and settling in a strange new country. A shared secret brings the two girls together, and through their friendship they discover many of the important things they thought they’d lost forever.

That was the real lesson I learned from my time with VSO: that despite all the surfaces differences we first encounter when working abroad – culture, language, food, weather, living conditions – underneath we all share the same hopes and dreams, the same joys and sorrows, the same spontaneous laughter and special moments.  The power of this lesson in empathy should not be underestimated. It changed me as a writer – both in the stories that I write and the characters I represent in my children’s books. It has the potential to not just change lives, but to change the world.

That was the real lesson I learned from my time with VSO: that despite all the surfaces differences we first encounter when working abroad – culture, language, food, weather, living conditions – underneath we all share the same hopes and dreams, the same joys and sorrows, the same spontaneous laughter and special moments.