Gap-year mission a real eye opener

Most teenagers plan a bit of rest and relaxation before they head off for university. But a 19-year-old from Halesworth has just returned from a year helping in a school and at medical clinics for some of the poorest children in Namibia.

Most teenagers plan a bit of rest and relaxation before they head off for university.

But a 19-year-old from Halesworth has just returned from a year helping in a school and at medical clinics for some of the poorest children in Namibia.

Tom Sawkins, of London Road, says he has had his eyes opened by his year abroad. And he is even experiencing culture shock as he readjusts to life in England after his very different time in Africa.

He said: “I went there and I had culture shock at first, because it is a different country, different climate, different culture, and now I am back there is a culture shock again.


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“The area where I was has the most uneven distribution of wealth in the world. There are people with a lot of money and a lot of people with absolutely nothing. It was very shocking to see and very sad as well.”

Tom acted as a classroom assistant and ran after-school clubs at the Gquaina Primary School, a remote school with 300 pupils on the edge of the Kalahari desert, 90km from the nearest town.

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He said: “I did remedial teaching with the weaker learners, who previously had no extra help and were failing and had to transfer to another school. I worked closely with them and we really did notice an improvement in their grades, which was nice. I think I did make a difference.

“It was sad because they had their lockers in their room - it was a boarding school - and you looked in them and they had nothing, just a piece of soap and maybe one or two other items of clothing. Although the children there had nothing in terms of material things they were all very happy.

“I also worked in a clinic for the San people, who are at the bottom of the social scale in Namibia. The people there had nothing. They couldn't even afford to pay the 20p to have a medical check-up. There is a big problem with Aids and TB.”

In a few weeks' time Tom will be starting a course in paramedical practice at the University of Central Lancashire, and after graduating hopes to get some experience before returning to Africa to use his skills to help people.

His year abroad was organised by Project Trust, and involved a selection course in Scotland and raising £4000 before he went.

Although he missed his family and friends, he said he would recommend the experience and is grateful he had a chance to do it.

“In the UK I had such a narrow mind and narrow perspective on life and I never realised just how lucky I am. I hope that I won't take things for granted like I once did.”

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