In October 2015, I attended the Points of Light’s International Conference on Volunteering and Service, in Houston Texas. I was participating as a panelist in a session called “Lost in translation: Defining service across cultures”, organized by Atlas Corps. I have been asked to discuss the differences between the volunteer service in the US and my home country, Sudan. Since I am concerned about the volunteering movement in Sudan, I was very excited to share my personal perspective on that, however, the only challenge that I had is my need to learn more about volunteer services in the US, as I am new to the country and have yet to observe details about it. Fortunately, our discussion session was scheduled to be on the third day of the conference, and that gives me the chance to learn more about volunteer service in the U.S by attending the preceding sessions. Which they were incredible and support me to mine and organize the scattered ideas that I had in my mind around the topic.
Here I would like to share with you some about the volunteerism in Sudan and how it differs from the one in the United States. Wishing this simple review to be a seed to start a rich conversation around volunteering in other countries around the globe.
In Sudan, the volunteer work and collaboration are something that inherited in the Sudanese culture since long time ago, and you can witness that through the old songs which they tend to picture the one who is volunteering and responding to emergencies without even being asked as a real hero. When I was a kid I used to join my grandma when she is joining a call for “Nafeer” which is a Sudanese tradition that describes a certain types of public gathering (in neighborhood or community) that forms in no time for the purpose of performing a specific command to collectively help someone or a group of people whom in need.
The word “Nafeer” is originally an Arabic term means “horn” which describes the process of assembling a group of people to fight the enemy. Usually, the call for the “Nafeer” could be as large as responding to an unexpected emergency situation or a sudden disaster event, or it could be to build a house for someone or help each other’s during the harvest season.
The volunteer groups are completely community initiated or community-based, they run with monthly subscriptions/ or collecting donations from Philanthropists inside Sudan or the Sudanese expats all over the world. These groups are serving specific area or region and sometimes they are federal targeting all over the country.
As Sudan is a developing country, volunteering groups are formed with a purpose of filling a gap/shortage in a public service such working on Health, Educations, Foods & Water issues, they also work on increasing awareness and social change issues, like fighting early marriage or FGM (female genital mutilation). They offer essential services such as rebuilding public schools, purchasing medical equipment and sometimes adding emergency rooms to governmental hospitals.
Recently there is a huge movement of volunteering in Sudan, from only 20 groups in 1980, 100 in 1997 to 5000 registered societies or local NGOs in 2012. They are mainly youth groups as the youths in Sudan represents more than 40% of the total population which is about 39 million. This tremendous increase is due to the weak economic situation and the ongoing conflict in Sudan, that causes a huge internal displacement movement. Two (2) million out of more than Seven (7) million who are living in Khartoum State (the capital), are displaced population, mostly with no job or shelter. This increase overloads the existing facilities and increases the demand, which accordingly increases the needs for volunteering.
The motivation to volunteer is varying from religious faith to political activism and desire to make a change in the country (to light a candle is better than cursing the darkness), unlike here in the U.S, people do serving with a purpose of professional development and building their resume. Another aspect is that serving in the States is more organized and has defined procedures, in Sudan is more into an informal ad-hoc gathering that responses to a specific need. The fact that volunteering is not recognized as professional advancement makes its sustainability depending on individuals’ commitment and availability since volunteers use their extra spare time to participate in such activities.
Another interesting aspect is the way these groups communicate, due to the digital revolution and the youth empathy, the technology is heavily used and utilized in this purpose within volunteering groups. Most of these groups are started on Social Media, either through FaceBook pages or Whatsapp groups. They communicate needs and initiate causes through posting in social media, and also collect donations through mobile credit transfers.
When these groups start, the government forces them to register under the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs or Ministry of Culture based on the type of services they provide, which I personally consider like a monitoring tool, because the government is relying on these groups in filling the gap and shortage that it failed to fulfill. This misuse, in my opinion, won’t serve the change that we seek and in some cases I feel it’s better to advocate and ask for that service instead of trying to fill the gap, at the end the capacity of these groups are not large enough to sustain the services that they provided.
At the end, what I have learned despite those differences, is that the desire to help others is part of humanity, it may have lost in translation across different cultures, but the concept is similar and it is interesting to see how people perceive it differently according to their culture, socio-economic status, and the environment.
Let me know how is volunteering in your home country is done!
Rofaida, Daughter of the Nile.