SPOTLIGHT: Why do I Volunteer?

27 November 2018

Emmanuel Ndonga hated being in the water when he was young. Today he is one of the most successful swimmers of his cohort in East Africa, and one of the few to have maintained his career as a competitive athlete while completing his International Baccalaureate.

I encountered Ndonga while volunteering as a writer for the Aga Khan Education Service (AKES), a global organization that operates schools and educational programmes, including the high school I graduated from. Ndonga is an inspiration to me. I relate to his struggle. Because as a writer, I am equally terrified by the sight of a blank page. 

Ndonga’s success really boils down to his attitude. “Nothing excites me more than a challenge and the feeling of overcoming it,” he said. I’ve realized that the satisfaction of completing a piece would probably not be as sweet if it weren’t for the initial struggle with the blank page. I try to channel Ndonga’s positivity when I write.

The inspiration from Ndonga and many other stories have been gifts received where I set out to give my time and effort to an institution that has been pivotal to my upbringing. I welcomed the opportunity to contribute to AKES, but it’s impossible to give without getting back something equally or more valuable.

I’ve realized that it’s not the idea of “giving” that drives me to volunteer my time. It’s a habit picked up in my childhood.

I grew up in a small community of Ismaili Muslims in Dhaka, Bangladesh. We were some 500 members who would frequent our Jamatkhana. It was essentially an extended family. The proceedings at Jamatkhana—both ritual and community events—were dependent on volunteers.

In the beginning the duties weren’t strictly voluntary. Our parents “strongly encouraged” us to join the volunteer team. Meaning, we’d be in some serious trouble if we didn’t. We’d complain and find ways to dodge our duties.

Over the years, however, we learned the importance of service in the community. We came to appreciate our roles by observing how we complemented the roles played by our senior volunteers. If you plant one of us at a random community event, we would know instinctively where we can be of help. 

We also know that more satisfying than finding the perfect spot on the dinner table, is finding a role in serving the meal. I’ve long outgrown my volunteer uniform, but every Eid, when the community feasts together, I join the volunteers. The food is fantastic, and nothing can beat that Eid spread. 

But if I were to simply sit and enjoy the biriyani, it would be a very disappointing Eid. Eid is made beautiful by joining the team to serve—not as an act of sacrifice or charity, but to enjoy the feeling of being a contributing member of my community. 

Volunteering for AKES is part of that same urge. It’s a privilege to play a small part in an organization whose projects create educational opportunities for young people across the developing world. My work as a writer may not always have direct impact, but I am no less privileged to be part of it. Because volunteering is not about giving as it is about receiving. 

Humans have survived as social beings for thousands of years. The yearning to belong to society is part of our nature. Just the simple act of being part of a process or a ritual: that is what we yearn for.

That is why I volunteer.

Written by Naushad Ali Husein