Gap Year Volunteering

Taking a gap year is a great opportunity to take a break, indulge in some hedonism and see some of the world. It can also be a chance to give something back through volunteering or an opportunity to get a head-start in your career when you get home.

One way to combine all three is to take a specially designed Gap programme which offers the chance to visit another country, immerse yourself in the cultures of the developing world, help other people and learn some valuable skills.

I spoke to my sister-in-law, Abigail, who recently returned from a placement with Gap Medics – an organisation which offers hospital work-experience placements for anyone looking to pursue a medical career.

At 28 and as a wife and a mother of two young sons, travelling to Africa to take part in a pre-midwifery placement in Tanzania was a scary prospect but, ultimately, a heart-warming adventure.

Sara Hardman Gap Medics

Abigail Hardman holding a baby she delivered in Africa

Why did you sign up to take part in Gap Medics?
I was applying to midwifery degrees and anyone who has been in this position, or knows someone who has, will know it’s extremely competitive and you need something on your personal statement to make you stand out. I googled ‘volunteer opportunities for midwifery’ and Gap Medics came up. Universities seem to want you to know everything about midwifery before you take a degree in it! It’s very difficult to get hands-on experience in the UK and the chances of getting into a maternity suite seemed near impossible.

Travelling alone can be scary, does the programme help you to connect with other Gap Medics before you arrive in Tanzania?
Gap Medics actually encourages you to interact with others that might be travelling at the same time or to the same place as you. They send you a Gap Medics t-shirt and encourage you to wear it travelling so you spot others more easily and they have a Facebook page which allows you to seek out others going to the same place you are.

Do you need any prior medical knowledge to take part?
None whatsoever.

Having said goodbye to your family at the airport,  what was going through your mind on the flight to Africa?
It was my first time travelling alone which was daunting especially without my husband who usually takes the lead whenever we travel. I also had to change in Nairobi and I feared I’d lose my way in an unfamiliar country and airport. I also felt very exposed as a woman travelling alone, fearing someone might see a white, female westerner and take advantage.

Which part of Tanzania did you work in?
Iringa, between a seven and nine hour coach ride from Dar es Salaam (depending on traffic!).

What was a typical day like?
I spent most of my time at the more rural of the two hospitals ‘Tosamaganga’. We were picked up quite early from the house by minibus which took us on around a half an hour ride to the hospital. Half of this journey was on road through Iringa and half was on an extremely bumpy dust track where the surroundings became more rural and underdeveloped. If going to the suburban ‘Iringa Regional hospital’ it was a matter of walking unless you personally made alternative arrangements.

Sara Hardman Gap Year Volunteering

Life in rural Tanzania

Those on medical courses went to their departments e.g. internal medicine or surgery and myself and one other on the midwifery placement went to the labour ward. Here we spent the morning shadowing midwives, taking notes, pictures, videos and assisting where able. We also spent time in theatre and the outpatient and antenatal departments. We were picked up around two and driven back to the accommodation.

Many people taking part in the programme are Gap Year students. As a mother of two children,  do you think the experience was different for you?
I was expecting to be older than everyone else and I was! There were some who were there for only two weeks like me but others who were there for numerous weeks. For me that would never be an option because I could never be away from my husband and two sons for too long. The other participants didn’t have these struggles. I think because of having more life experience and experience of labour and birth I was less shocked by what I saw than others.

Did you help to deliver any babies?
I assisted some and delivered two myself, with verbal instruction.

How did the hospital experience differ from maternity wards in the UK?
My experience of maternity wards in the UK are of when I had Charlie and Teddy rather than working within the environment but there are some very big differences. I’m sure the UK lacks certain resources but it will be nothing compared to what they lack in Tanzania. I shadowed in a rural as well as an urban hospital and whilst the town one seemed slightly more polished it still was a world away from the UK. The labour ward was very basic with hard plastic tables as beds and the women lay naked with sheets they’d brought from home. Fathers or birthing partners were never present. The women didn’t have visitors. I don’t think I ever saw pain relief offered. The culture shock was how midwives and nurses spoke to the women, often loudly and slapping their thighs as way of encouragement through labour. But these were good, hard-working women and having babies was seen as ‘their duty’.

Sara Hardman Gap Year Medics

Enjoying play time

Did the expectant mothers welcome you at the hospital?
The pregnant women were never asked permission for us to witness anything or even carry out any procedures but I remember being told of a patient who seemed panicked when some Gap Medic students were with another patient instead of her because she felt safer with ‘white doctors’.

You must have taken a lot of pleasure in being able to help them through the fear and apprehension in labour.
I think seeing westerners gave patients comfort and I never felt that I was unwelcome. After I had witnessed my first delivery the woman thanked me over and over when all I had done was hold her hand and given words of comfort. It was an incredible feeling and quite emotional.

What was the accommodation like?
The accommodation consisted of a large communal area with a kitchen, dining and living area. You helped yourself to food and drink whenever you wished but breakfast and dinner was prepared and laid out for you. The rooms were usually split between four to six people and there was a spacious terrace which provided a vast and uninterrupted beautiful view over the town and valley.

Sara Hardman Gap Year Medics

An African sunset on the terrace

How did you relax in your free time?
Once a week the staff took any willing participants on a short walk to a gigantic rock formation where they could climb then admire and capture the view. They also offered informal lessons to newcomers on important and well-used Swahili words and phrases to help within the hospital environment and whilst out and about.

Once a week they also offered a trip to an orphanage. There was also a town which was around a twenty five minute walk from the accommodation which provided a change of scene, a chance to barter for a bargain for souvenirs and maybe to grab a bite out.

When you book your Gap Medics experience you are given the opportunity to pay extra for either a one-day or a weekend safari. Outside of this, most people seemed to mingle around the communal accommodation, listened to music, socialising, discussing and reflecting on the day’s events and once a week there was a BBQ and a chance to dress up and hit the town. I also kept a diary of my experience to keep a written record and to look back on.

Sara Hardman Gap Year Medics

On safari

If you could do the experience again, what would you change?
The first few days I focussed perhaps too much on how much I missed my family and I worried that I wasn’t seeing as much as I wanted. If I did it again I would relax a bit more and remember I would see my boys in a short time and to savour and take in any and every experience that was sent my way.

What was the best part of the experience?
I saw and assisted in more than I ever could in Britain and I’m thankful for that and to have the experience whilst staying in lovely accommodation surrounded by friendly staff was a plus.

Do you have any advice for people thinking about taking part in Gap Medics?
Not to hesitate and to just do it. I couldn’t imagine being away from my family for two whole weeks but despite missing them everyday I got through it and surprised myself when I felt some sadness when I left.

  • Have you had a great gap year? Let me know what you did and what you’d recommend.

One thought on “Gap Year Volunteering

  1. Congratulations on being brave enough to go. Travelling alone can seem daunting and that puts people off but I have never been on a trip and ended up alone. Travel is all about shared experiences and meeting like minded people. This looks like a great way to Gap and I expect you met some friends for life in Tanzania. I’m sure the mother’s that you helped will never forget you either 🙂

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