“One time, galing kami sa isang school, a two-hour motorcycle ride on very rough roads, umulan pa. Gutom at pagod na pagod ako, pagdating ko sa bahay nakita ko yung rice cooker ko which is the only luxury I have, and then I just started crying. I remember the first time I learn how to cook rice, tinuruan ako ng mom ko. Then I called her and I said, I want to go home, I don’t want to stay here anymore!”

Homesickness became Jessica’s best friend during her first few weeks in Rwanda, a small country in East Africa where she decided to do full-time volunteer work as an educator. Rwanda as it is usually unheard of is also a 24-hour flight away from Manila.

“My mom said, remember when you moved to another school, I think I was around 2nd grade, she told me na you’re new in the school so you need to make friends, you really need to go out of your way to get to know other people.”

Jessica took her mom’s advice for the second time and began looking for English-speaking expatriates on Facebook. Anyone interested to hike, she asked. Luckily, a Canadian who lives in the same area messaged her up, and together, they explored Rwanda on weekends.

Before leaving the Philippines, Jessica was a teacher in a prestigious private school in Manila. She enjoys her relationship with family, good time with friends, and the honor of teaching bright young minds. Volunteering never came to mind until a heartbreak – a ten-year relationship went straight to the drain.

“I felt really lost at that time. I felt that everything I built on, a decade of my life gone. Syempre, you need to try to find ways to just forget and move on. Try ko kayang magvolunteer, I said to myself. I googled volunteering and I saw Project Pearls, and then I said, okay I will try it. I went to Tondo, near the port area and I’d go there every Saturday, teaching students, feeding children and I became part of that community.”

There must be something more I can do as a teacher, she said to herself one day. Incidentally, a holiday in Bukidnon became an avenue to volunteer to a Jesuit-ran school. From then on, she would invite her colleagues to join her for a mission in these small community schools in Bukidnon and Culion Island during summertime.

After 18 years of teaching in the academe with the last four years of it volunteering part-time, Jessica made a leap to do development work full-time.

“It wasn’t a decision that I took lightly. If you look at it from an outsider point of view, hindi sya practical, kasi hindi ka nga kikita. The only money I get is VSO provides the volunteers a monthly stipend just so you can pay for your food and utilities, ganon lang, but the rest if you want to travel, you have to source from your own money. Hindi nga sya practical, but I felt that it something that I want to do and if I don’t take this chance, I might miss it.

What I get from the organization is really enough for me to survive and I’m happy just the same. Kasi dito walang fast food, walang McDonalds, walang Burger King, walang Starbucks, hindi uso dito yun. I am forced to live like a local, kung ano kinakain nila, yun din kinakain ko kasi yun lang kaya kong bilhin. Pag merong potato and beans, masaya na sila dyan, e tayo kailangan may manok, kailangan may pork, e dito ang pork is very expensive, you only get it in good restaurants.

One thing that volunteering has taught me is that you don’t need a lot to be happy and to survive.”

Volunteering thousands of miles away from home, homesickness was apparently not the only challenge for Jessica.

“I am still learning the local language. Ang mother tongue dito ay Kinyarwanda, and they speak French also but my French is really bad, so di rin pwede. I’m learning the language, pero the way I use it is more functional, hindi sya conversational. I cannot carry a conversation with a local using their mother tongue. But that’s what is our project is about, to help the country move towards a more English-speaking country.

My main role is to train the national volunteers when it comes to teaching English and Math in the lower grades, lower primary. I work along with other national volunteers who are Rwandans. If I need to go to communities and nobody speaks English, the national volunteers help me, they translate. They are also the ones who mentor the teachers.

Siguro another challenge is how you do volunteer work in a pandemic. Volunteering is hard enough pero when you are in a middle of a pandemic, there’s no written guidelines how to do it. When we had our first case of coronavirus in the first week of march, we were asked if we want to go home. VSO asked me, do you want to be repatriated. Problema noon, sarado lahat ng borders, there’s no outbound flights. I can’t go home even if I say I want to, but they said, if a special flight can be arranged, would you be willing to go home?

I spoke to my parents and they said, well it’s not also going great in the Philippines. Kung uuwi ka to feel safer, it’s not an assurance. They advise me, why not finish it until September, finish your contract, and then come home. That’s what I did.

During the lockdown, kasi the heart of our project is to go the schools and mentor the teachers. How are you going to do that if the schools are closed? We have to move to remote support which proved to be very difficult kasi yung mga teachers sa Rwanda, hindi naman sila gumagamit ng smart phone, walang network connection kasi nakatira sila sa rural areas, so hindi kami pwedeng mag zoom meeting kasi wala naman silang devices to download zoom, or messenger.

With the help of the national volunteers, we did some assessment on what type of technology can teachers access. It turned out they have the small pones, so pwede naming silang tawagan, nag-group conference calls kami to support them. Kahit naka lockdown, we continue with their professional development activities.

They also have access to radios, so what our project did was to produce content materials for English and Math and then the government of Rwanda, the Ministry of Education uses the material and broadcast it nationwide for pupils to follow.

Ito yung naging challenge ng pandemic, lahat ng mga bagay na dati naming ginagawa, hindi na pwede, kailangan, rewrite everything. We need to find a way to reach out to the teachers kasi if not, the project will be closed down, the donors will pull out. Siguro in a matter of one month we were able to resume operations, although remotely nga lang.

Now that the restrictions have been lifted, we get to visit the teachers, we meet them in the schools. I think as a volunteer, I kind of fear this risk that you’ll never know who you will be encountering. Pero ganyan talaga ang buhay, you need to live with the virus.

With volunteering, it’s very humbling to see na hindi lahat ng bagay na alam ko ganito na lang ang gagawin. Volunteer ka, you learn the context of the people and they tell you what they need, you don’t tell them what they need. Volunteering is not about the volunteer, it’s about the community.”

It might look like full-time volunteering takes away a lot of comfort from a person – the regular paycheck, small luxuries such as getting your hair done in a salon, or the simple wandering in malls in one’s spare time. Jessica, however, was amazed at how things turned out for her despite the sacrifices.

“What’s surprising is when you let go, other things will come. Parang you need to empty your glass for it to be filled again. Say for example yung coffee, I didn’t know that Rwanda produces one of the best coffee beans in the world. Dito you go to the grocery, ang daming choices of coffee beans. Kahit di ako makapunta ng Starbucks, I still have that coffee fix at a lesser amount.

Lahat ng mga bagay na I’m used to having, they were replaced with something else. But the key there is you have to let go of it. Hindi pwede yung, bakit ganon I cannot find the brand of shampoo that I like, I can’t find the cheese that I like.

I remember nung naubos na yung dala kong shampoo, kasi you could only bring so much. Pumunta ako sa isang shop, sabi ko I want to buy some shampoo. Ibinibigay nila sakin yung may picture syempre ng African, yung hair kulot kulot. I was like, hhhhhmm will this work? I tried it and it was okay. Kailangan talaga maging open ka. Sa Pilipinas, nagpaparelax pa ako ng buhok kasi nga wavy ang buhok ko, dito suklayin ko lang buhok ko, masaya na ako.”

When Jessica was still teaching in Manila, she would usually spend four hours in traffic in her daily commute. Now that those wasted times got freed up, she gets to spend time meaningfully.

“I learned how to cook here. I don’t cook when I was in the Philippines, my mom always cooks for me even if I live on my own. She would cook adobo or other foods, put it in Tupperware, then she’ll go to my apartment and put it in my fridge. Dito walang magluluto para sa’yo. When I arrived here, ang alam ko lang lutuin kanin at saka itlog. Then I realized two months into it, I cannot go on like this, araw araw na lang itlog! Now I can make chicken curry, I can make adobo, I can make my own spaghetti Bolognese.

Also, because Rwanda is a very small country, I don’t live in the city. I don’t have access to nice baked goods e I have sweet tooth, minsan gusto ko ng cake. Bibili ako ng cake, hindi masarap, sobrang dry. Then I realized, may rice cooker ako so baka pwede kong i-steam ang cake. I learned how to bake and now I bought my own oven.

Another one is I’m more engaged with my own community. Back home, hindi ba you have your neighbors pero minsan you don’t even know the person who lives next to you because ang tataas ng mga gates. In here, I know all my neighbors and there are lots of children here, naturally teacher ako by profession, I have that certain attachment to kids. I ask them, gusto nyo bang matutong mag-english? Minsan they’d come outside my house and we practice some English or some writing.

Rwanda has this tradition, they call it Umuganda. Every last Saturday of the month, the community gathers together at a certain place and they would do community work. You can go to your neighbor’s backyard and help plant potato or whatever vegetable they have there. Or you can clean your neighbor’s backyard. If you are a Rwandan, you are required to serve one member of your village. I get to participate in that.”

Although Jessica doesn’t mind not getting paid for her work, she can’t help but think that life has rewarded her in the simplest and sweetest things.

“Hindi ba I started volunteering with a broken heart? I came here and met somebody. He was also volunteering and was in a one-year sabbatical. He’s in Israel now but we’re together. It feels like things went into full circle.

Another reward is you really get to know yourself a lot better. Today, mas klaro sa’kin yung mga values ko.

When I had my interview for this role, one of the questions asked to me is what I will do once I get accepted. I said I’m going to quit my job. The interviewer followed that up with, are you sure that’s what you want to do, this is just a volunteering role?

I remember telling the interviewer this, I am sure that after volunteering, I will not be the same person again. And I don’t think I would want to go back to my old life. At the onset, I was sure that it is going to transform me… and it did.”

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