African Gap Year

Luke Thomas, recent Marling School leaver is currently trekking from coast to coast in Africa and volunteering as an aid worker.

Luke has packed his OMA tie and has said that it will "become the most cultured and well-travelled Old Marlingtonian tie ever!"

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This is set to be a long post, so prepare yourself.

I seem to be incapable of updating this blog unless I’m wedged into a bus on a day of non-stop bum-numbing inter-country travelling. Although my mum may not appreciate the silence, I see it as a good thing. It’s a sign of how little spare time I have on my hands, which I suppose suggests I’m making the most of my swiftly passing time in Africa.

It’s been over two months since my last blog, ‘Karibu’. If you hadn’t already heard, ‘Karibu’ went down a storm – my three favourite reviews being; “alright to read when you’re really bored”, “didn’t understand what Karibu meant so stopped reading” and “soppy save the world bull”. All of which is true – my friends were spot on. Yet here I am once more with another written form of a sleeping pill.

The first blog went some way to outlining my intentions for this African Gap Year, and I was expecting each subsequent blog update to be just that – an update on what I’ve been up to. As I said to begin with, I only tend to have sufficient spare time for blogging when travelling between countries. I also possess an irrepressible tendency to spend the majority of my bus journeys engaged in broken English/French/Kiswahili conversation with elderly passengers. These conversations leave me stranded with ever littler spare time, hence why this is only my second blog post. Rather than bore you with every intricate detail of what I’ve been up to over the last three months, I’m instead going to use this blog as an outlet for venting my thoughts on different issues playing on my mind since I’ve been out here. Nevertheless, I do know between two and three people who may be interested in what I’ve been up to, so I’ll quickly rattle through an abridged list.

So far I have; run one marathon, attended one Tanzanian wedding, learned to ride (and crash) one motorbike, climbed two mountains, lived in two slums, headlined two Kenyan poetry events, volunteered at three orphanages, befriended three buffalo, grown to love three Jay-Z albums, volunteered at four schools, entered five countries, written five poems, learned how to cook six dishes, won seven games of pool at Rwanda’s best nightclub, scored the winning goal in an 8-7 thriller of a football match, fallen madly in lust with chai tea nine times, watched ten Chelsea matches, lost 25lbs, taught fifty school lessons, made one hundred babies cry, made one thousand kids smile, and visited a genocide memorial for one million deaths.

I should admit, I have also had three rest days – one after climbing the world’s highest free standing mountain, and the other two spent squatting over a Nairobi ‘toilet’ attempting to rid my body of some chronic diarrhoea. Feel free to picture that thought. If you find yourself especially keen to have a detailed account for each and every aspect of my journey so far, you can find hundreds of photos on my Facebook profile – just search ‘Luke Thomas Cheltenham’ and select the top result.

There have been three main issues on my mind from the inception of my journey. One of these is development in impoverished communities. This is the topic for today.

Two weeks into my journey I cried for the first and last time. Along with Wens Temba, manager of the Moshi Christian Children’s Centre, I headed out on one of the many home visitations the orphanage conducts. It’s a financially limited organisation, relying solely on permanently fluctuating donations from U.K based supporters. As such, the Centre does not have sufficient funds to take in all orphaned or otherwise needy children in Moshi. As and when a little spare money becomes available, it is invariably used to provide basic food and clothing to the families whose children would be taken in by the orphanage had the orphanage sufficient funds to do so. On this particular Wednesday morning, Wens and I visited Rose and her three-year-old daughter, Petrolina.

Perhaps it was the heat. Perhaps it was knowingly meeting an HIV positive person for the first time. Perhaps it was being told her dad is dead, her mum is in a coma, all her five siblings are HIV carriers, and her only guardian is a frail grandmother balancing on the precipice of death. Whatever it was, my eyes welled up and for 48 hours all that mattered to me was improving her life. The devastation transgressed into infuriation when Wens told me it would only cost £5 per month to pay for Petrolina’s meals and school fees. £5 per month to save a life. Anybody living in England can afford to give away £5 per month. Anybody. Everybody. Even Upper Clapton’s most luckless of homeless and non-benefits scrounging job seekers makes more than £5 per day by begging with cap in hand. Not for one second have I allowed my travels to turn me into one of those ‘the West doesn’t have real poverty’ types, but it’s stupidly stubborn to deny that £5 goes a lot further out here than it does back home. 

It may sound surprising then, that I haven’t sponsored Petrolina and don’t plan to. Instead, I used her as a caricature of emotional porn to write a new poem (you can find the YouTube link below). I should stress that I am overcome with shameful guilt whenever the image of Petrolina’s vacuous face pops into my mind. Just emotionless. As if, fortunately, she was entirely ignorant to the horror of her world. Every time an Oxfam advert clutches at your humanistic moral fibres, the chances are you’ll have forgotten all about it by the time the break finishes and Game of Thrones is back on. But seeing these harrowing images directly through your eyes without the intermediary of a TV screen leaves you compelled to help. You need to have a pretty good reason for refusing to save a life. Mine is this: I am certain that if you give me one hour, I can turn £5 into £10. No David Blaine trickery involved, I’d just head to the nearest supermarket, buy a few multipacks of Pepsi cans, and flog them to my mates for a profit. Now I can spare £10 and save two lives each month. If you give me 10 years, I could have graduated from one of the world’s premier universities, and walked into a Silicon Valley job earning a crazy wage packet. Now I can spare not just £120 per year, but £10,000. I hope you’re getting my drift. I said earlier on that it’s stupidly stubborn to deny £5 goes a lot further out here than it does back home. That’s true in the short term – with £5 you could safeguard a child’s well-being for a month, which simply wouldn’t be possible in the U.K. In the long term however, £5 can go a lot further in the West. Anyone who has studied Economics or can use Google will understand the ‘multiplier effect’, and its consequences are much more dramatic in a nation boasting good access to education and healthcare. So if you try hard enough and you stay motivated enough, you can donate more money and save more lives by first investing your time and money in yourself. So you’re left with one question; would you rather improve a few lives now or many lives later? I’m not convinced there is any correct answer. It seems implausible for anybody with some kind of moral conscience to wholly and purposefully neglect the current generation of impoverishment. Equally, whilst it is ostensibly less morally repugnant, it’s entirely short-sighted and narrow-minded to negate any long term wider beneficial impact by focusing entirely on the here and now.

Numerically, the answer is simple. If you can save one life now, but ten in the future, opt for the future. Unfortunately though, even the most dedicated humanitarians are bound by their moralistic manacles. One would hope that’s why they’re doing what they do. It’s cliqueic, but it’s true; their greatest strength is their greatest weakness. The very part of these humanitarians which motivates them to pursue their work, is the very same part which renders them unable to ignore the depravity of the present. You encounter microscopic versions of this every time you walk down your local shopping high street. Big Issue sellers wave a magazine in your peripheral vision and you feel a tad sympathetic for a split second before blissfully continuing your day as planned.

Of course though, there are people who dedicate their lives, careers, and vast sums of money to researching how best to better develop the developing world. I know next to nothing compared to any of these individuals or think tanks, so you can take the points I raise with a pinch of salt. For instance, I haven’t even mentioned how improving the living standards of one impoverished person in the present (the £5 per month approach) has its own multiplier effect. Due to your donations, that one person can then graduate from school with good qualifications, attend university, make a good living, and consequently provide a good life for their children, who can repeat the cycle.

You could reasonably suggest that so long as one acts with good intentions, that’s enough. Who are we to chastise an Oxfam worker for driving an ostentatious 4×4 and staying in luxury hotels? Even if they’re approach is flawed, at least they’re trying – which is more than can be said for the average person who considers ‘doing their bit’ to be chucking two quid in the seasonal charity collection tin. But then, can you really blame the average person for not showing an inclination towards aiding global development? Weighing up how best to individually impact for the greater good all seems astonishingly futile when you scroll through the annual profits of each Fortune 500 company. They could solve extreme poverty in an instant, either single-handedly or collectively. If one company decided to donate its annual gross profit to eradicating extreme poverty, it would be eradicated. The same can be said for all 500 companies donating just 1% of their respective gross profits. So yeah, it’s hard to blame someone for saying “what’s the point?”.

The point for me is that working to improve the lives of underrepresented, misrepresented and impoverished people is what makes me happy, so I’ll continue to do it. Playing football with mates and listening to John Forte’s music also make me happy (not necessarily all at once). But improving lives reaches a level of profound content way beyond transient hedonism. The method for achieving my humanitarian goals is constantly developing. With a greater understanding of the realities of extreme poverty, comes a greater understanding of potential solutions and their (in)effectiveness. Six months ago, if you’d asked me my career plan, I’d have said it’s to make as much money as possible before I die, and then bequeath it all to charitable causes. That kind of mindset overlooks any positive impact one’s actions can have. Donating money and assets to good charities upon dying is great. But it’s a depressing thought to think your life earnings could be matched in one minute by Exxon Mobil. So the thought then turns to what we can offer through life in addition to death. This is the point I’m stuck at right now. I want to make as great a positive change to as many lives as possible. Which occupation will most enable me to achieve that goal? Can I do more as a charity worker, politician, lawyer, actor, poet or entrepreneur? As a charity worker I could be improving lives on a daily basis at a grassroots level. As a politician I could be creating legislation to eradicate extreme poverties and inequalities. As a lawyer I could be upholding basic human rights for anyone challenged by oppressive injustices. As an actor I could reach a level of fame where just making one statement in an interview could encourage a thousand youngsters to lead humanitarian lives. As a poet I could deliver a message of oneness, acceptance, and equality to my audience. Or, as an entrepreneur, I could found a business committed to an ethical redistribution of profits. I’m unsure whether my time would be better spent inspiring change or creating it. I suppose if you make it to the top of any profession you have the potential to be a momentous force for good, but it’s nigh-on impossible to be the best in your field if you’re simultaneously pursuing a multitude of fields. I’m struggling to think of any leading human rights lawyers who spend their spare time starring in Hollywood blockbusters. For those who doubt the effectiveness of a showbiz career in aiding global development, take a look at Gary Barlow. As a result of the fame he amassed through his artistic work, he’s been able to support more noble charity work than your average Red Cross worker could ever hope to. And he’s made some cracking tunes in the process.

It’s daunting to think the career decision I make over the next five years or so will be instrumental in determining how successful I am in achieving my utilitarian objective. So daunting that for now, I think I’ll just continue to delay deciding for as long as possible.

My bus journey is just about to come to an end, so that’s all I have to say for this blog. If you fancy making a donation to the Moshi Christian Children Centre (MCCC) you can find the link to their website below. They’re also looking for volunteers to teach basic English and Maths for around six months. They provide accommodation and meals, all you need to pay for is flights and any leisure time while you’re out there (Moshi has a pretty good social life). If you’re a current Year 13 student thinking of taking a gap year, definitely give it a go at the MCCC. You won’t regret it.


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