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Meet the volunteers forging a friendship revolution

In our troubled times it can be all too easy to focus on what seem to be ‘differences’ between us. Around the world though, volunteers are showing us that we all have more in common than we might think.

Our evidence shows that well over 1/3 of volunteers are still supporting people they met during the experience. The proportion with enduring friendships is likely to be even greater.

So what’s the reason? Volunteering is a great leveller, bringing people from different backgrounds, ages and experiences together. By working together towards a common goal we get to enjoy the satisfaction of collaborating to achieve something that may have been impossible to do alone.

Four volunteers explain how their experience confirmed that a stranger really is just a friend you haven’t met:

"He named his son after me"

Odeni and David David Atherton

Odeni and David lived together in Malawi and have been friends ever since

Odeni adopted volunteer David into his family in Malawi – they’ve been inseparable since.

I shared a house with Odeni while training nurses as a VSO volunteer at a rural hospital near Zomba, Malawi. Every evening we cooked together, while Odeni taught me Chichewa, the local language. We also worked together to grow a field of maize, and had lots of time to learn from each other.

I quickly became part of Odeni’s family, and we would visit his rural home village together most weekends.

After I got back to the UK, I supported Odeni to get a visa so he could come to visit the UK for a few months so he could visit all the VSO volunteers he had made friends with in Malawi. I also bought him a minibus from Japan – a very stressful experience, but one that meant he could start a taxi business back in Blantyre, Malawi.

Odeni has since got married and had a baby boy. I couldn’t have been more flattered when he named his son after me. Just a couple of weeks ago I went back to meet baby David and the rest of what I consider my Malawian family in the village – and of course my best friend, Odeni.

A truly magical bond

Michael didn’t expect that volunteering would result in a best friend on the other side of the continent.

I’m from Kenya. I moved to Zambia in 2012 to volunteer with VSO for two years as a project management advisor with an organisation supporting orphans and other children threatened by HIV and AIDS.

I’m a man of faith so one of the first things I did was to find a church to join in Zambia. That’s where I met Rodney. He was an insurance broker and a cop. He was also a car dealer – and quickly became my ‘driver’!

In the evenings after work I would go to the gym, then Rodney would pick me up in his car and we would go driving around, talking and laughing. He also enabled me to explore Zambia; we travelled to so many beautiful places in his car. Rodney is so generous and genuine, it was truly a magical bond between us – and we are still in touch from opposite sides of our African continent.

The experience reinforced my faith in people. Wherever you go in the world, you find good-hearted people.

“We realised that we are all more similar than we are dissimilar”

VSO volunteers Gemma and Tosin

Jemma and Tosin made friends whilst running sessions together as youth volunteers in Nigeria

Laughter and determination in the face of a huge challenge taking part in VSO's ICS youth volunteering programme laid the foundation for Jemma and Tosin’s enduring friendship.

Tosin and I were friends right from our in-country orientation. He’s super intelligent and we would just debate things for hours. So I was really glad when we were selected to be counterparts.

Together we had a project working with a group of primary school aged children, teaching them basic English skills. It was really challenging! At first they were totally out of control, fighting and hitting each other.

Thankfully Tosin and I worked so well together. We laughed together more than we ever disagreed. We realised that it doesn’t matter where you are from, we are all more similar than we are dissimilar.

ICS is such an intense experience. You are living in this bubble for 12 weeks and it helps bring you closer. More than a year since I got back to the UK he got his next job in Nigeria, we still talk a couple of times a month.

I recently had to move over a 150 miles from home for a job, which was a tough time, but Tosin was really supportive and encouraging of me. He’s one of my very dearest friends now.

The bond of friendship kept us going

Riza and Sumeiya in Multan Pakistan | VSO

Sumeiya and Rija met volunteering in Multan, in the Southern Punjab region of Pakistan

Rija was a little nervous about volunteering in a culturally-different part of Pakistan with a reputation for inter-faith and ethnic tension. But the strong bond formed with her local host ‘sister’ showed her she had nothing to worry about.

At first it was difficult for me to adjust to living in Multan. But after only about a day I was mixing with my host family, especially with Sumeiya, who was a similar age to me, very jolly and loving. She also helped me to learn the local language, Seraiki, and taught me to cook chapatti in Tandoor (clay oven).

Together, Sumeiya and I developed a plan to spread messages of peace using theatre in local communities. We also wanted to highlight the role of women and girls in the development of our society. Young people of Pakistan want peace and harmony for our country.

It was the best experience I’ve ever had. I performed publicly for the very first time in my life. I can still hear the sound of applause as Sumeiya and I finished the last scene. The memories we made together are the most precious thing to me.