As a Muslim growing up in a Muslim country, surrounded by Muslim countries, I’m not used to being a minority. Let alone being the only Muslim. It’s a lot to shoulder: the urge to be a model Muslim without seeming to preach.
I chose to go to Madagascar of all places to volunteer. My first two weeks were to be spent on a boat traveling to remote islands and delivering supplies to the local villagers, helping them with several jobs such as teaching, or repairing a leaky roof.
Or so I thought…
It turned out to be the equivalent of a booze cruise.
Let’s be clear. I knew what I was signing up for. I knew that I was going to be on a boat for 2 weeks. But, I thought it was going to be as advertised (false advertising much?). We were supposed to go and help people.
Turns out that this program was new and very disorganized, which meant that we had a lot of downtime. So, what do you do on a boat with so much free time as the only Muslim volunteer of the bunch? You rethink the negatives and the benefits you’ve faced during a disorganized volunteering adventure.
As a Muslim, the first thing I had to figure out is what direction to pray to on this boat? If you’ve never been on a boat, you should know this: even when it’s not moving, it’s moving. It’s always changing direction! So… Do I start facing Meccah and whatever happens, happens? Or do I figure out how the boat is reacting to the waves, calculate the movement so that when I say my salamu 3alaykum I am facing Meccah?
As I said, the trip was the equivalent of a booze cruise. And I wasn’t prepared for that. Now, I know we don’t drink. That much is clear. But growing up in a Muslim country, all I had to do to make it clear was shake my head and wave my hand violently. On a booze cruise, telling people I was a recovering alcoholic seemed to be the only solution, because plainly stating that I don’t drink got me the same reactions every time. I either get an amazed “Never?! Like you’ve never tried it?”, or a joking “How about a beer? I won’t tell if you won’t”. All my life I’ve been able to avoid such uncomfortable situations by leaving. But, on a boat? Not that simple.
Of course, I could go for a swim. You know, you’re on a boat. You eventually take the chance to hop off and cool down. A lot of times I needed it. And, I was prepared for this! I had special gear. Surf gear. Board shorts. Rash guard. A one-piece underneath, in case the shirt would ride up. Clearly, I was set. But, you can’t be wearing that gear all day long hoping to take a swim at a certain point. It’s not like a bikini that could double as normal clothing under your regular. I need a 15-minute warning. Let it also be known that I’m a lazy person. Most of the times I’d opt-out just because I couldn’t be bothered to go and change. Instead, I’d tell them I don’t want to get sunburned.
Then, there’s the food. The meat, to be precise. I am a carnivore. I love my BBQ. So, being a so-supposed vegetarian is not easy when there’s a grill on board while also having an amazing cook who wants to ensure you get your much-needed proteins. It’s safe to say I’m good on omelets for a while.
In all fairness, this volunteering trip wasn’t that bad as I make it seem. In fact, it actually was amazing! As with all things, yes, there were ups and downs. However, there isn’t much that I could have done differently. I believe that everything worked out just as it was meant to. My second two weeks were going to be spent on construction. To my advantage, the day I started construction they had just started on a new project: building a classroom for a school. There’s a reason for everything and I know there’s a reason why I had to be stuck on that boat for two weeks.
And, I loved the experience of spending my time on a boat. I saw many things that I never knew existed. I saw a beach strip being over taken be waves on both sides in Nosy Iranja. I saw bioluminescent plankton (they glow in the dark, but sadly I didn’t swim in them because I was lazy, remember…). I saw a turtle eating a tiny fish’s home and that same fish defending their home. I saw a school of dolphins casually swimming by, having what appeared to be a deep conversation. I saw Nemo’s dad coming in and out of its anemone home.
I saw beautiful sunrises and sunsets that no camera could ever capture properly (not that I hadn’t tried).
I saw how villagers work and live on tiny islands. I got to see their schools, their community. I was climbed by 3 adorable kids while we played made-up games. I learnt bits of Malagasy phrases. The smile you see on someone’s face when they hear you say mbolatsara (i.e. hello) or mistora (i.e. thank you) is priceless.
I met unforgettable people that were passionate about saving and changing the world, and they were doing something about it. I made friends and memories that will last me a lifetime.
If I were to volunteer in Madagascar again, or any place at all, I know now that no matter how much you prepare for things, you will never be prepared. Sometimes you just must let things, literally, go with the flow. As a Muslim volunteering in a non-Muslim country with a non-Muslim organization, you will always have to deal with things that for other people are second-nature, whether that be drinking, eating meat, or swimming at whim. And, that’s okay. Being different is okay. People may or may not understand your ways, but that shouldn’t matter.
Go for it with an open mind and an open heart.
You’ll be never ready for the challenges you’ll face – ever ready for how it will change you. Because it will change you in ways you won’t even notice.