Angie Chung On-yee used one summer to travel to Kenya through AIESEC, the world's largest student organisation, and spent three months experiencing the dynamics of this African nation as a volunteer in a rural orphanage, and working at schools in the slum areas of Nairobi, the capital.
The Year One PCLL student says for many people, Africa is often synonymous with poverty and famine. After her three-month stay, during which she also visited Uganda and Rwanda, she prefers to use the word "diverse".
"In Kenya alone, there are regions that are fully westernised and developed, while other areas remain rural and backward," she says.
"The orphanage that I volunteered to work in was located in one such rural area. It was an entirely different living condition to what I was used to - there were no basic facilities such as running water, and only limited electricity. Cows and chickens roamed around the home freely and the children played within the natural environment, rather than with electronic games. Although life there might seem backward, I found it very solid and valuably simple. People focus on things that are important to them, the necessities of their lives, and are not distracted by the trappings of modernity."
Angie's main tasks were participating in the daily management of the orphanage, including taking care of the children, bringing sick kids to the hospital, fetching supplies, fundraising and so on. Occasionally she also went to a school nearby to teach English and introduce China to the students.
Experiencing this lifestyle provided Angie with a new perspective to take home with her. "While people in developing countries yearn for modernisation, something that people from the city are indifferent to, they cannot see the beauty of their own simple life, which in turn seems so valuable in the eyes of those who live in the city," she says. "People tend to turn a blind eye to the beauty of things they possess and admire things they do not have. I realised that I was luckier in the sense that I was able to experience and compare the two different lifestyles, while people from the rural area I visited might never have the chance to do the same. This seems to be an unfairness in life, as people like us who are born in the developed world are inherently in a better position than others."
There are many NGOs and other entities that are committed to assisting development in Africa, but after seeing both rural and city slum areas with her own eyes, Angie has her own view on development.
"While monetary assistance is highly treasured, it is not sufficient to just provide funds," she says. Although millions in funding has been poured into Africa, much of it has vanished through corruption. It is important to ensure the money is used properly. There have been many cases where small-scale NGOs are actually corrupted and misuse their funding.
"Just how Africa should be developed is also debatable. I was shocked to see that most people in Kenya fantasised about the idea of westernisation, yet their traditional African culture was diminishing during the process of development.
Moreover, the helping hand offered by developed countries seems to encourage Africans' dependency on others to help them. The children in the orphanage think that it is perfectly normal to ask volunteers for whatever they want, and depend heavily on volunteers to supply their lives."
Societies that grow dependent on giving can quickly lose respect for the giver, and Angie says her experience taught her that it is important to look for the best method in helping. "When I went to Africa, I brought with me a bag of coloured pencils and sweets, thinking that it was what the children might want. But after being in the orphanage, I realised it would have been more practical to bring medicines, bandages, nutrients and pens for the kids. I realised that it might be a merit to offer help, but it is also important to know how to help and with what in order to have a positive impact."
Angie Chung On-yee
(LLB 2009; PCLL Year 1)