Spilling the tea: why I swapped a gap year for a summer adventure


By Tearfund Go volunteer, Sophia Varley

Summer had arrived on my uni campus. I was going about my usual routine, scrolling through other people’s travel pictures on Instagram while I was meant to be taking notes in lectures. As my finger dragged down the screen I began to think about how I had always wanted to take a gap year. However, after I got my A-level results and realised I’d actually got in to university (don’t let anyone tell you the Lord doesn’t do miracles today), I somehow found myself unpacking my bags in Southampton instead. Sitting there in my lecture, distracted by the Instagram images, I was left wishing that I’d taken that year out to travel.

Having signed up for a four-year course, I did the maths and realised that I would effectively have a year of free time to work with over the length of my degree. Maybe I could take a kind of gap year after all. I began to research the options.

I’d heard about the damage of voluntourism, but when I found Tearfund Go’s website I had confidence in their approach to volunteering, working alongside local partners and communities. So, I began a number of fundraising ventures, which included taking a job at a service station and babysitting for the entirety of Guildford. Before I knew it, my bags were packed and I was off.

A new experience
I remember driving along the winding roads of Tanzania, looking out at the busy streets and bright orange ground speckled with sun-faded greenery. Our team were based between Musoma, a city sprawling along the east shore of Lake Victoria, and the small town of Bunda which was an hour drive away.

On our month long placement, the ten of us successfully worked our way through the standard challenges you might expect: homesickness, tiredness, actual sickness, and tears, which I took chief responsibility for. One afternoon, I retreated to the toilets to cry for about 20 minutes over spilling a cup of tea. It was a good day.

Fact to reality
Spilt tea aside, there were also real, deep challenges and profound moments of realisation.

Before I went on placement, I knew that three in ten people in the world lack access to clean and reliable drinking water. I knew this fact from a first year university seminar which touched on health issues around the world. I knew it, but I didn’t really understand it.

I was struck hard by the understanding of what that statistic really meant standing in a field at the end of the day with one of our hosts, David*. One of the main projects we were involved with during our time in Tanzania was helping to build water tanks for a local school and a Bible college. Standing by the water tanks on the college grounds where David and his family lived, he told us that two years ago the rains had been late. It was only by a couple of weeks, but, without anywhere to store water, the impact was huge.

Voice cracking with emotion, he explained how he’d had to spend a year’s worth of savings on bottled water to take care of his children. Due to contamination, the only other local source of water was as dangerous as dehydration. I looked across the field to where our team were enthusiastically mixing cement for the tank, watched by David’s two daughters playing on the porch with their pet dogs. One water tank wasn’t going to save the world, but it was really, genuinely, going to change at least three lives.

Quiet change
As I landed back at Heathrow, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t wildly transformed with a burning passion for social justice. My transformation was slower, quieter – but it was persistent. At the time, I mostly felt sad to be saying goodbye to my team and my new friends. However, I can honestly say that the friendships and experiences that were set in motion on placement have continued to shape, challenge and encourage me in the three years since.

What began as an 18-year old’s vague and naive interest in ‘going to help Africa’ has grown into a firmer understanding of how faith shapes our approach to justice. After seeing development in action in Tanzania, I went on to do a masters degree in Conflict and Development. And now I work in advocacy, campaigning for those living in poverty.

On placement I worked alongside Christians from different cultures, backgrounds and perspectives. I saw the beauty of God’s global church. My time in Tanzania inspired my passion to see the church join in unity, using its resources and voice to fight injustice and follow Jesus.

  • Praise God for the way he can use experiences like this summer placement to transform hearts and minds, and inspire people like Sophia to use their lives to pursue justice and serve others.
  • Pray for all those currently on overseas placements with Tearfund, and for the staff and communities they are working alongside. Pray for great relationships and life-changing experiences.

If you want to go on your own overseas adventure or find out more for someone else, take a look at Tearfund Go.

*Name changed to protect identities.