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Concordia Volunteer Abroad

by Archives September 4, 2007

The tasks were numerous and the time was limited for Concordia students in Africa this summer, but the experience opened their eyes and changed their perceptions of the world. From February to August, three groups of Concordia students traveled to Eastern Africa to work on a variety of sustainable development projects in the war-torn region of Gulu in Northern Uganda.
One of the new initiatives that Concordia Volunteer Abroad Program (CVAP) volunteers undertook this summer was an HIV/AIDS awareness program. Led by Siena Anstis, Audrey Depault and Joanne Shinder, and in partnership with a local non-governmental organization, Health Alert, the program was an attempt to raise awareness of the virus within the community. “[The HIV/AIDS awareness campaign] was created in an attempt to sensitize and test local residents for the disease, while also finding a way to get individuals to pick up their results,” said Shinder.
In 2005, Peter Schiefke and Awel Uwihanganye partnered to form CVAP, “a non-profit organization that seeks to combine student volunteer work with a direct investment into a suffering economy, done in collaboration with the [local] residents.”
Schiefke believes that what makes this organization unique from other larger N.G.O.s (Non-Governmental Organisations), who undertake projects with “unrealistic goals”, is that CVAP presents the community directly with suggestions on what they’d like to do. The community then either agrees with the projects or suggests what they believe is most important for their people.
The process to begin each student-initiated project is extensive. Every project passes through a joint management committee and a community advisor committee comprised of N.G.O., clergy members and community leaders. “The way CVAP helps is by catering to the needs of the people, not just by throwing money at problems,” said Shiefke. Joanne Shinder said the main challenge with the HIV/AIDS awareness program was breaking down the stigma associated with the disease in the region. She states that often those who test positive for the disease are ostracized from the community and left to fend for themselves. Many people are hesitant to get tested and fear reprimand from their community. For example, women, who have the highest infection rate, often avoid getting tested because a positive result can mean losing their husbands, the primary earners of most families.
Shinder said getting tested is only the first step. “[People] are often too scared to return and get their results and can therefore spread [AIDS] without even knowing that they are carriers.” However, Shinder said the campaign proved successful as they tested over five hundred people, more than twice as many as they had expected.
Raising community awareness on HIV/AIDS was one of many projects, but can become repetitive for the participants. In an attempt to make this educational process fun, the organizers decided to organize a soccer gala revolving around the HIV/AIDS theme. The soccer gala, organized by each of the three groups of students that spent two months in Uganda, was created to bring the community together around the important issue.
Saskia von Lignau, one of the organizers of the final gala, found the process of organizing the event frustrating at first. “If it would normally take 30 minutes here in Canada, it will take a day in Gulu,” said Lignau, who quickly became familiar with the group’s saying of ‘ T.I.A’ or ‘This is Africa’ whenever progress was impeded by red tape.
But, Lignau said the satisfaction of bringing a community together and mixing pleasure with awareness was more than enough to appease her frustration. “At the end of the gala, the winning team was ecstatic. They cried, then the started running around the field with the trophy. These teams had never participated in a tournament like this one and none of them had ever won trophies or medals, so when the tournament was over, I felt like I achieved something good for once in my life,” said Lignau.
Despite being a new N.G.O. in a region whose inhabitants are already aided by the United Nations and the World Food Programme, Schiefke believes that CVAP has made a direct impact on the lives of the Gulu residents. He believes it has demonstrated to the world that Concordia students have the global conscience needed to make programs like these a success, wherever they may develop.
Along with the initiatives they undertake within the community, CVAP volunteers also contribute to the region’s economy through the purchase of clothing, foods and other goods: “If there are 100 students there, and each of them spends $200 of their money, that’s $20,000 into an economy where the average salary is about 300 bucks,” said Shiefke.
CVAP is accepting applications as of September 1st: www.concordiavolunteers.org/

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