Sid Woolfrey went to Africa as a teacher, but soon realized he was the student
Sid Woolfrey helps a mother with one of her children during an 18-hour train ride in Africa. Comforting the child helped him deal with missing his own two grandchildren, he says. Submitted photo
Sid Woolfrey knows that adjusting to life in his home province after spending the past year teaching French at a teacher training college in Africa won't be easy.
"I went over there as a teacher, but I learned very quickly that I was really a student. These people taught me so much about life," Woolfrey says.
"I can't grumble anymore about four people being in front of me in a grocery store. We have a grocery store. I can't grumble because I have to line up for hours waiting for my blood work. I have a place to go for blood work."
Originally from the Lewisporte area, before he retired three years ago, Woolfrey taught French in the New World Island/Twillingate area for 30 years.
When he saw a CUSO-VSO advertisement looking for a French teacher for Africa, Woolfrey made a call to the organization about the job.
"That was last July - 27 days later, I was in Africa because they needed someone right away to go into their teacher training college in Kaele, Cameroon."
Woolfrey's adult students were training to be teachers in six local primary schools.
One of the first priorities he focused on was trying to help them encourage females from dropping out of school in the early grades.
"The female registration is great in what we consider primary, but by the time they get to the Grade 6 level, the girls are leaving to get married."
It's not uncommon for 12- and 13-year-olds to marry and have babies, Woolfrey says.
Woolfrey says the teachers in training were taught to involve girls as well as boys in school activities.
The teachers were also taught to teach without physical punishment in mind.
"They recently abolished (corporal) punishment. They're not sure what to put in its place," he says of observing the majority of his students carrying a stick or piece of rubber hose into their classrooms. "For the most part it was never used, but it was there as a threat," he says.
Woolfrey taught his students that earning respect should not be done through fear.
Offering small rewards for good behaviour rather than discipline for bad was key he says to helping the teachers.
New World Island United Church donated not only books for a library, but also pencils, erasers, markers crayons and other school supplies.
"Rather than getting angry with a child because they're not listening … we gave them (teachers) a bag of prizes to reward them for trying to answer, for just participating."
Woolfrey was hospitalized on two occasions during his time in Africa.
Because he ignored the early symptoms of malaria - a disease caused by insect bites, he ended up needing to be hospitalized for five days.
"There were no sheets on the beds, no doors to your room. No food. The family needed to bring all that."
Woolfrey had his own supply of needles.
Once set up with intravenous medication he drifted off to sleep.
"I woke up feeling something very close to me. I turned over and was face- to-face with a goat. There was a chicken next to the goat."
Woolfrey says he was overwhelmed by his African neighbours who came to the hospital with food and sheets.
The brought mats to sleep on, to stay with him for his hospital stay, he says.
On another occasion a severe and rare spider bite also saw him needing hospital care.
"There are hundreds of volunteers in that country. One of us got spider bites," he says.
While serious and concerning, Woolfrey says his hospital stay gave him first-hand experience of what it's like to live in an area where care depends on your pocketbook.
Surgery without pain medication was the norm, he says.
"The doctor was standing there with scissors in one hand and a razor blade in another. I asked him if he was going to use a local anesthetic or going to put me out. He told me that most people can't afford that and they just take the pain."
Woolfrey was told that once surgery begins, most people pass out from the pain and are unconscious during the operation.
"I told him I'd rather have anesthetic. I was lucky I had that choice. Most people don't have enough money, not even for surgery without anesthetic, so they die at home," he says.
Woolfrey says because he felt "a little like a wimp" during his first spider bite surgery, when a second operation was needed he was determined to get through it without pain medication.
"I knew they were only going to work on one bite. They were going to cut some flesh, but it was going to be a small surgery. I just felt I needed to feel something that these people feel," he says.
While he made sure a needle was ready if needed, Woolfrey went ahead without the medication.
"They cut away and I think you can still see the prints of my fingers in the table. It was incredibly painful. But these people do this every day," he says.
While Woolfrey's diet included grain, fresh fish, pork, goat, fruits and vegetables, he also ate termites and dog.
"People keep dogs like people keep goats. You'd be hard-pressed to tell one from the other," he says.
Trying unusual food was all part of experiencing the culture of the people, he says.
Looking back on his African experience, Woolfrey says one of the most powerful lessons he's learned is people are basically the same no matter where they live.
"I probably had a lot to learn from them about life. How to appreciate it. How to lower your expectations. I came back wondering about all this stuff around us that we just don't need."
CUSO and VSO Canada are development organizations that have merged to become the country's largest international co-operation agency which works through volunteers.
Woolfrey says his volunteer effort with CUSO-VSO is one that he'd recommend to anyone interested in experiencing another side of life - particularly retirees who still have much to give and gain from such an experience.
"My teachers became everyone from the seven-year-old next door to the elders in the area. They taught me that things are not right or wrong. They're just different."
CUSO-VSO public engagement officer Marian White says the average age of volunteers is 38.
The change from younger to older volunteers came, she says, when CUSO-VSO listened to the needs of its overseas partners who sought more experienced people.
"Baby Boomers" White says are open to learning from people in developing countries while at the same time sharing skills.
"Volunteers like Sid Woolfrey have a wealth of life skills on top of their professional skills so it is a win-win situation," White says.
For more information on CUSO-VSO visit the website at, www.cuso-vso.org, call 1-800-676-8411 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.