London Grilling with The Collective
Charlie Habershon is the brains behind The Collective, a volunteer programme in Sierra Leone. We wanted to find out more about this wonderful organisation, so we decided to do a London Grilling, Sierra Leone-style.
Charlie, tell us how and why you decided to start The Collective. Is your love affair with Sierra Leone a long term passion or something more spontaneous?
I first visited Sierra Leone in 2006 and fell in love with the place straight away. My girlfriend’s father was working out there and I had the chance to travel around the country. In 2009, I returned with my girlfriend to help set up NearFar, an ethical fashion label working with the people of Sierra Leone. I grew frustrated with the global misconception of the country and wanted to show as many people as possible what a beautiful place it was. I also saw huge potential in the country, but with the civil war many had missed their education, leaving a huge skills gap in the country. With so many skilled graduates and professionals in the UK either looking for work or frustrated with their jobs, I saw an opportunity. So I set up The Collective to try and fill the skills gap in the short term and train Sierra Leoneans to drive the country’s development in the future.
Due to its war-torn history, Sierra Leone is often in the news for all the wrong reasons. Can you give us an authentic interpretation of the country?
Stunning landscape, beautiful people and massive potential. But it still has a long way to go, with minimal infrastructure and huge unemployment. Everyone lives day-to-day, which makes development difficult, but it is a place where we always feel safe. Everyone is always looking out for one another and the sense of community is amazing.
What would you say to someone who is contemplating volunteer work on the African continent? What can people expect to get out of such an experience?
What are you waiting for? Three months in Sierra Leone will have an impact on the rest of your life, something that all of our volunteers would testify. But it is vital that you have the right motivations. Volunteering with The Collective will give your career a huge boost (the majority of our volunteers have gone on to secure jobs in the charity sector), but the most important part of our work is how we are improving the lives of Sierra Leoneans. I think that if people have the right motivations and a set of skills that do not already exist in Sierra Leone, they will have a successful placement and the rest will follow. The support and training we provide our volunteers has been the key to our success so far. The knowledge and understanding we bring to their work allows them to be clear in their goals and to have the biggest possible impact.
What differences have you seen in the local area as a result of your work thus far and what does the future hold for The Collective?
The work our volunteers have done has been astounding. Unlike many ex-pats in the country, they are living and working in the communities so can give organisations a clear picture of what is happening day-to-day. There are lots of examples, but a particular favourite was when one of our volunteers worked alongside a group to significantly increase the amount of people registering to vote for the up coming elections. He received a letter from the local council thanking him for his efforts.
The year ahead is going to be an exciting one. We have a number of projects in the pipeline and are seeing a steady increase in volunteer applications. Unlike many volunteer organisations however, we do not measure our success on how many volunteers we can get in-country but rather the quality of volunteer and the impact we can measure them having. That is where our real focus will be this year.
Can you give our readers an idea of just what life is like in Sierra Leone; we’re sure your daily routine is vastly incomparable to that of your average Londoner!
Well, every day is certainly different. When I first moved to Sierra Leone, I found the change of pace very difficult. Having taught in an inner-city school in White City, I was used to achieving a lot in a day and never really stopping. This was not the case in Freetown and I quickly learnt to celebrate every small achievement, whether is just be withdrawing money for the volunteers! However the daily frustrations quickly disappear with a walk down the city beach at sunset.
Community is at the heart of much that is good about London – apart from the obvious, what differences and similarities are there between London and Freetown?
Climate makes all the difference. Everyone spends all their time outside in the streets so people talk and everyone know everyone’s business! This of course can be a good and a bad thing. Freetown is so small compared to London. I can be stopped by someone on the other side of the city who will tell me they saw me at the beach the day before. With a minimal welfare system people are forced to look after one another in order to survive.
And finally, do you ever miss life in the UK?
Of course; it is where I grew up. I have been lucky to spend the last couple of months at home and when the sun is shining it is hard to beat an English summer.
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