Li Haibao was a senior in the foreign language department of BeijingForestryUniversity. On seeing a DAPP (Development Aid from People to People) recruitment video for volunteer work in Africa, a new door for adventure opened. "My major is foreign languages," Li says. "For me, one year in Europe and Africa was such an opportunity to learn, while helping others."
In April of 1998, Li applied for a one-year hiatus in school and flew to Denmark for volunteer training. In six months, he learned the necessary languages and got acquainted with Africa. In the winter of that year, Li finished the program and traveled from ice and snow-covered Denmark to burning Windhoek, capital city of Namibia. Two days later, he took a 10-hour bus from there to the DAPP's Namibian center 800 kilometers away. Li chose the children's aid project and initially worked as a kindergarten teacher.
"My first day's work was at the center kindergarten," he recalls. "I taught children the alphabet and a few simple words. Later they learned alphabet songs and the games I used to play as a child." The language barrier was overcome with the help of a local associate named Maria to whom Li spoke English which she translated into the local dialect for the children.
Within a short time, Li and his young classmates bonded. "They were shy when they first saw me," he says. "Whenever I wanted to get close to them, they would run away, but, after a while we became close friends and they would run to me, surrounding me and reaching for hands. I was deeply touched by their trust and affection for me and aware of my responsibility to them."
Li's stint at the kindergarten was only temporary. His main job was to inspect the 30 village kindergartens within 30 square kilometers around the center, and to train teachers and teach the children English.
As the children learn from Li, so he learned about his new home. "Namibia is spacious but its population is only 1.6 million," he says. "Villages there are very different from those in China, as they usually consist of only one or two families. Distances between villages range from a few to dozens of kilometers."
Getting to know the local culture and mindset was another broadening experience for Li. "One evening, I visited a village that had only two families. There was no electricity and the family I visited lit a candle to welcome me. Three of the children went to school, but with no light they could not read books at night, so I gave them an oil lamp. A couple of days later, I visited them again and found that they had not used it. They said it was too expensive to run! What a frugal family they were!"
The differences between China and Namibia didn't stop there. "I felt like a patrolman there, always carrying a water bottle and a hat," he says. "Only in Africa did I truly understand what burning heat really was. In the morning, it's fairly cool, but at the sky becomes cloudless, and the temperature reaches 40 degrees centigrade or more. I became so tanned that when I returned to China, people take me for a student from Africa."
Sadly, Li's experience had to end. "When my volunteer work was almost finished, and I was preparing to leave, the children in the center's kindergarten held a send-off party for me," he says. "They danced passionately to the pulsing rhythm of goatskin drums, and sang the English alphabet songs I had taught them. A teacher in a village kindergarten gave me a set of bow and arrows and Maria gave me a copper bracelet. These are gifts I will cherish forever."
Li says he will never forget Africa. "I often dream of the children from the kindergartens of Namibia, looking at me as clutched my fingers, asking, 'When will you be back again?' If I get a chance, I will go back to Africa to help them."