Small change, big difference: Joanna Haworth in Sierra Leone

On the face of it, you might not think helping to establish a new university course would make much of a difference. But the work of VSO nurse trainer Joanna Haworth could have a far-reaching effect on healthcare provision in Sierra Leone, where life expectancy sits at an average of just 42 years.

Why VSO?

My dad was a VSO volunteer back in the 1960s when it first started and I've often thought about doing it myself, both to help others and for the personal experience. Then, after going along to a VSO health information day, I had one of those dawning moments. I was walking home from my job as a matron in the emergency department of a London hospital. It was cold and grey and I felt like I was walking on a hamsters’ wheel and if I didn't do something about it, this was going to be my life. It took another 18 months for me to get my mind in the right place to get on that plane.

And since you got on that plane?

For the majority of my time here I've really enjoyed it. Sierra Leone is a great place, the people are fantastic. But it's not been easy by any stretch of the imagination. Day to day living can be hard, there are issues with water and electricity. I had a rat living in my house. And I had typhoid, which isn't the most pleasant illness I've ever had. But getting to know a culture in more depth than a two-week holiday allows is a fantastic experience. Just walking down the street is like a sensory overload. Everything is so colourful, rich and vibrant.

So what about your placement?

I work at the Faculty of Nursing in central Freetown, which is part of the University of Sierra Leone. I've taken on a number of different tasks, from teaching BSc nursing students to helping administration staff set up filing systems. But my greatest achievement has been helping to establish a new course in nursing education.

Tell us more.

Before you can have qualified nurses, you need people who are qualified to train them.  When I arrived, all student nurse educators were sent to Nigeria to train but the NGO funding the training wanted the University to provide the course in Freetown. So we held a workshop to develop a curriculum pertinent to Sierra Leone. It took a lot of work, not only to write it, but also to get the course through the various committees, deans and university hierarchy for approval. We did it though. The course is up and running and Sierra Leoneans can now study for a diploma in nursing education in Freetown.

What difference will the new course make? 

I hope it will make a huge difference in the long term. The university can now train more than 10 nurse educators in Freetown for the same price as sending four students to Nigeria, making it more cost effective. It will also improve nurse training. There can be as many as 120 students per tutor on nursing courses. With more trained tutors, class sizes will reduce giving students a better quality of teaching. It's a major achievement for the country.

What challenges have you faced?

It has been hard. Being a VSO volunteer is about capacity building and taking people with you. There have been moments when I have felt like saying 'give me that and I'll do it' but that doesn't achieve anything and you have to hold back. Instead, I've pushed and dragged and pulled people along with me, and as a team, we've accomplished something significant.

How has your experience changed you?

I come from a working environment that is very focussed on targets and time. But that doesn't work here, and if you try to work in that way you achieve less. Instead I've had to learn a lot about being flexible and staying calm, particularly in situations beyond my control. If you're not, you'll go crazy.

On a more practical side, I've been able to develop my skills in a way I would never have been able to at home. Working in a different culture forces you to adapt and find new ways to communicate and teach to enable understanding on both sides.

What advice would you offer anyone who is considering becoming a VSO volunteer?

Being a VSO volunteer is not just about you sharing your skills, it's also about you having an experience so you have to be totally honest about your reasons for doing it and what you want to get out of it. And lower your expectations on what you hope to achieve - don't think you are going to change the world, because you won't. As they say in Sierra Leone, 'small small'.

How to apply

Interested in volunteering with VSO? Find out what you need to apply and begin your application process now.