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  • Writer's pictureJoanna


Updated: Jun 14, 2023

Anyone that knows me knows that I have never been particularly comfortable giving hugs. Unless it’s a special occasion, or I’ve had too much to drink, it’s just never been my... thing.

I’ve read this is attributed it to social anxiety, fear of letting go and/or a fear of people reaching out… I don’t know. I’m just not a hugger.. whatever the reason.

I never have been.

In the volunteer world, hugging is not really an option. It’s a vital part of the cultural pattern.

Many of the women I have encountered in the placement program rely on the power of the hug to get them through the day. Hugs release endorphins; reducing stress and lifting their mood when they feeling alone or upset. Hugs also give them a feeling of safety and security, which is often lacking in their lives.

No - it’s never been my approach… at all… but if it works to help someone feel more empowered, I have to be willing to temporarily change my style for the sake of positive reinforcement.

Each day, the women run towards us, arms open, eager to wrap us in their arms and welcome us. This true embrace has become ritual for arrival and departure. You can feel the love and admiration they have for us oozing through.

I can’t even imagine the thought of pushing them away, nor can I envision trying to explain that I would be comfortable with a fist pump or a high five. It’s not a thing. I have to let my insecurities and comfort zone take a back seat.

Now, of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be returning home with open arms…

But for the next couple of weeks… I am officially a hugger.

I have to make more of an effort to learn everyone’s names. It’s harder than one might imagine. Yes, there are easy names, like Jennifer, Tina, Joyce and Ester. But then they throw in Warda, Neema, Filgona, Halima, Rahma and Anshel, and life becomes increasingly more difficult.

One girl's name is Lightness.

I have been trying to be very careful with my money. It’s slightly terrifying watching the rapid disappearance of funds without any promise of replacement. Not soon, anyway. Although I am enjoying not having the routine responsibility of a job I don’t enjoy, I wish someone or something would replenish my bank account on a more regular basis. I’m still holding out for the “you’re a trust fund baby” conversation, but my days are ticking away…

Unfortunately I’m not the world’s best saver, nor am I particularly mindful when It comes to budgeting. Managing my finances has never been one of my strong suits and I’ve always been slightly ridiculous when it’s come to spending. I fall prey too quickly to frivolous things like massages, delicious food and glasses of sparkly all too easily… and too much. I like to splurge, without reason or richness.

... and I wonder why I’m broke and I can’t lose weight.

Life is tough.

It would be fairly easy to survive here on less than $5 per day. The food at Sawa Sawa is ok… and by ok, I mean meh. I’ve paid for it with my participation fee, so it costs me nothing additional to eat three means a day here. More often than not though, it’s a buffet of beans, rice, boiled kale, pineapple and watermelon.

And toast.

Always toast.

Funny enough, the toaster is plugged into one of only two electric outlets in the house. Imagine 30+ girls with smart phones, computers, iPods, iPads… etc etc… and only two electric outlets…

So far, my favourite meal is chapati with beans and avocado slices. As delicious as it sounds, it wreaks havoc with my insides. Every day is challenging enough, trying to differentiate between gas, farts, sharts and explosive diarrhea, without throwing that doozie of a feast into the mix.

When people ask me if I miss home.

The answer is no.

No. No. No.

When people ask me what I miss most about home?

Solid poo.

An afternoon of cheese Pringles, Orange Fanta and cashews does nothing to help me along.

Lanna and I finally moved rooms. We are now in a 4-bunk room near the back of the house. It is much quieter, although now we have to put up with something outside our window that sounds like a man heavy breathing.

Someone told us that it’s a frog… but I don’t believe them.

I suspect it’s a monster.

It most definitely is a monster.

Just as I got to know everyone in the house, they are all leaving. Regardless of the age difference, I absolutely adored some of the girls. Moving here was definitely the right choice to make

The day after I had moved out all of my things from homestay, I was walking to placement with Yana and she mentioned that Mama Liz had said to her, “Where’s the other one?”

The other one…

That’s all I was to her. It just served to solidify my decision.

The other one…

As if.

Each Thursday, the THE team gather all of the volunteers together for Social Night, in which we all have dinner together and play some games.

Last week, we were broken into groups and given certain tasks to complete, like design a safari outfit out of toilet paper. We successfully turned one of the Chilean girls into an adorable little elephant and won the bragging rights for first place! This week’s game was a series of somewhat personal questions, to let the other volunteers get to know you better… and on a deeper level.

The final question of the evening was “What have you learned about yourself this week?”

It didn’t take me long to decide on my answer. In fact, it came to me almost immediately. When it finally came to my turn, I spoke confidently.

“I think I always knew this, but these last couple of weeks have certainly put me to the challenge. I think that I have discovered how young at heart I really am.”

I almost teared up saying it. I really do love some of these girls.

Alessia from Italy, Maddy from Chicago, the British girls… all such fun.

I have mentioned Lanna before. She is 21 and has become my bunk bestie. She has an enthusiastic spirit and a kind disposition. I will miss our evening chats... the world, travel, mosquito bites, love, Mercury Retrograde (whatever that is)… and will always be grateful for her friendship.

I never would have formed any of these connections had I stayed with Yana. I realize it is very stereotypical of me to say this... but she has all the characteristics of being German that do not necessarily mesh with my irritating North American traits.

My Perfect Vision 'women's empowerment' placement is going well.

The Fortune Tellers

For English classes, I try to come up with fun games to get them all participating and SPEAKING... which proves to be a bit of an arduous task each day, as I'm no teacher...

So far, the fan favourite has been the fortune teller. Otherwise knows as the coochie catcher, chatterbox, whirlybird... plus a few other assorted names. I reconnected with the simple origami of my elementary school days, and made up a few of these to serve as my day's lesson. On the outside, I wrote some simple words for the girls to say and spell... and inside were various numbers, revealing a motivational message behind each.

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step."

"Opportunities don't just happen. Sometimes you have to create them."

"Just one small positive thought in the morning can change your whole day."

That kind of stuff...

I think I'm killing it with my educational & empowerment chats, but at the end of the day, I feel I’ve exhausted my supply... and I'm back at square one as to what to discuss the next day. It's great experience for my aspiring Ted Talks career, but being inspirational is not as easy as it sounds.

Last week, we discussed goals and how to attain them, realistically. We asked them all to think about their goals... and write down where they hope to see themselves in one week, two weeks, one month and two months.

Realistically, being the operative word.

One of the young girls has a dream of a career in the fashion industry.

These were her aspirations...

In one week - she was going to find someone to teach her how to sew.

In two weeks - she would know how to sew.

In one month - she would have sold her first dress.

In two months - she would open her own store.


If nothing, she's ambitious and I'd definitely like to hitch my wagon to her star.

Probably best to focus my next class on "being realistic" and "attainable time lines."

I also covered The Power of Positivity and put much emphasis on the English expression of "fake it till you make it..."

"After all," I told them all, "I'm NOT a teacher... yet standing up here in front of you all every single day pretending like I am."

One of the subjects I touched on was body language and conversation interaction. I tried to show what to do and what not to do in any professional setting, by acting out various scenarios.

I went around the room, getting each girl to say something to me. In turn, I would respond with complete disinterest; almost to the point of downright rude and unprofessional. I rolled my eyes, crossed my arms, ignored some of them, fidgeted, walked out of the room, scrolled through my phone and started conversation with others while they were trying to speak to me.

When I had finished going around the room, I landed on the very last lady, Mama Neema.

For Mama Neema, I was going to give the final example of showing genuine interest. True professional enthusiasm.

I stared at her and she was quiet.

“Mama Neema,” I said, “Can you say something to me?”

She just sat there, awkwardly, desperately trying to find her English words.

I stood at the front of the class, big encouraging smile on my face... patiently awaiting her conversation starter so we could continue with the lesson plan.

Then she spoke...

“You is fat.”





I love my job…

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Jo! I love this journey that you are on and the honesty with which you recount your stories! Thank you for that and all of the laughs!

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