Volunteering abroad: Finding a personal goal against the odds

Georgina Benison –

Mohamed al Touqi is an energetic, inspired young Omani with a big vision. He gave up the possibility of a steady, well-paid job after graduating from USIU to follow his mission. Mohamed’s aim of helping communities in developing countries such as Tanzania, by volunteering has been long, arduous and not without its myriad of frustrations, not least with Omanis themselves. Yet now he is in a position to be proud of some stunning achievements – in Zanzibari schools and a community centre in Madale near Dar es Salam, Tanzania.

Mohamed joined Outward Bound Oman as a young graduate to learn leadership, organising groups of young people in outdoor adventures and to learn new, physical skills of pursuit and survival in unfamiliar territory.
Outward Bound blossomed in Oman under the inspiring patronage of HH Faisal bin Turki al Said along with the tireless campaigning of Mark Evans OBE. That became Mohamed’s ‘day-job’, but in his heart, he wanted to spread and share his knowledge with people less fortunate than those here in Oman.
He came to know that there are children in Zanzibar who don’t go to school, and if they do, they have no money for schoolbags, shoes or uniform, books or stationary, far less desks, computers or toilets. And so, he volunteered to work in these communities and one in south western Tanzania named Madale.
He met a truly inspirational African in Madale named Edward Busungu who had the ambition to build a Community Centre on land his father had owned, for educational projects, health and other community facilities to benefit people living 50 miles away from the nearest town.
They had to dig a borehole for water but to do this they needed manpower – young, willing volunteers!
Edward, with the help of his English fiancée Maria Hannis, was able to recruit able-bodied people from Europe, but Mohamed al Touqi wondered why young people from Oman should not also help and gain from the experience of global awareness – seeing how the other half lives, in short.
And thus began the long road to International Volunteers, Oman, or ‘IVOman.com’ and all the barriers and hurdles he met on his way.
IVO believes in gender equality – women’s empowerment and girls’ education, which includes a project to provide free sanitary products where needed.
Some schools in Oman do take their students on volunteering camps abroad, in Africa and Asia, and manage to cover their costs through parental contributions. But gap-year students or graduates are hesitant to volunteer, and certainly seem to want everything on a plate as they are used to at home.
Most of all they are unwilling – or unable – to pay for their own flights and upkeep in destinations in developing countries. Mohamed looked for sponsors in companies or private individuals for funding, and despite hundreds of emails and pleas, he met a brick wall. He became despondent and felt like giving up.
Then one day, out of the blue, the Sohar International School called him and offered him 500 nearly-new desks and chairs for use in Zanzibar – but he would have to collect them and arrange transportation himself. It was an offer too good to pass by, but when he approached every single logistics and shipping company he could think of he received not one offer of help. Not even a price cut. Again, Mohamed was lost in despair for three years and nearly lost the furniture, and when he reached rock-bottom he suddenly received a phone call from a small, unknown firm set up by Marcus McGuire named ‘Allied Logistics’ offering to transfer the cargo free of charge from Muscat to Zanzibar.
Mohamed just had to find the money for port fees in Zanzibar and transport the furniture himself. He was delighted and his spirit revived. Our Planet School in MQ offered 50 brand new school bags for children who have none on the island, and those were also distributed to schools such as Annabawiye Nursery and Matemwe Government School.
Mohamed al Touqi has teamed up with Best of Zanzibar for ongoing projects like medical help – and volunteers such as would-be medical students on their gap years – in Tanzania. In Oman, Mohamed was helped enormously by the huge input of Tariq al Barwani, founder of Knowledge Oman’s IVO first-of-its-kind enterprise, to inspire and encourage young people to break out of their comfort zones.
But Mohamed would still like more young people to join his projects and get a global perspective on the real world. Flights to Zanzibar can be as economical as 170omr when booked in advance, and medical check-ups and vaccinations are very affordable in clinics here. His Mission is “to provide opportunities for young Omanis to experience the satisfaction, pride, and accomplishment of making a difference to lives of less privileged individuals and communities in Africa and Asia”. And that includes learning that you CAN live without air-conditioning!