Volunteering with Medlife, Peru

19 March 2019

Tyffany joined Medlife for a service learning opportunity over the 2018 Easter break. Read how the experience in Peru has changed her life forever.

medlife construction
Tyffany Choi, Comparative Literature

Last Easter, I went on an internship program with MEDLIFE in Lima, Peru where I stayed for two weeks with 20 other university students from all over the UK. The reason for this recruitment is that the MEDLIFE movement is expanding to Europe from their immense success in North America, with around 200 university societies functioning to not only raise the bulk of MEDLIFE’s funds, but also bring thousands of students onto Service Learning Trips. Thus, the opportunity was a very educational on how the charity works on all the different levels, from the office work, to the constant groundwork, to the work of the students. 

We were taken to the local slum communities that were pushed out of the city due to overpopulation most of the days, with whom MEDLIFE continually work throughout the year. We saw local women carrying babies with a sashay on their back, scaling dusty and rocky terrain - slum houses made obviously from any material they could find, from metal sheets to plastic boards - children running around playing with nails they find on the ground. It was quite harrowing for us to stand atop the summits of these slum hills, spin around, and see that the poor conditions stretch out in every direction, further than the eyes can see. 

We witnessed entire processes of collaboration between MEDLIFE and these communities for the building of stairs and mobile clinics, which consisted of meetings between community leaders and MEDLIFE board members (who themselves came from these communities), to the logistical organisation of the projects, to the actual day of action. It was very touching to see how everyone from these communities were on very familiar and trusting terms with MEDLIFE, and were eager to collaborate with them, because instead of just charity, MEDLIFE operates in partnership with the communities, to help them do better for themselves. They listen to the narrative instead of dictating it. 

The wooden cast for the stairs, for example, had to be put in place by the locals first before we, the UK volunteers, came with the concrete and filled it in. It was a laborious day but with the most cheerful and enthusiastic atmosphere; we would sing under the Peruvian sun as we moved buckets upon buckets of concrete, chatting with all the locals who were so friendly in broken Spanish, while some of the women would pass us drinks and refreshments while we worked. It was the first time I’d ever felt as strongly in working towards a common goal unselfishly. Returning the next day to paint the staircase in cheerful red, and the inauguration ceremony where all the community would come out with their children and their dogs to celebrate the new staircase was a most fulfilling feeling. 

This is especially due to how MEDLIFE was so proactive in educating us about the theoretical aspect of this work; we learnt that the staircases were not only for physical safety, but would provide the necessary infrastructure in the community for them to apply for land title, which they were not yet eligible for due to dangerous living conditions. Having land title would mean they had addresses, with which they could then get water, electricity, sewage and loans from the bank. It had been the locals who informed MEDLIFE of this need. 

The mobile clinics were extremely effective as well. We took a bus to the rural community and would set up massive tents for the different stations, which included dental, ob-gyn, sexual education, meetings with doctors, a pharmacy, and a toothbrush station for children waiting for their parents. It was harrowing to see the extremely low standards of health and of the lack of knowledge surrounding these issues. MEDLIFE is careful not to create a parallel healthcare system, but acts as more of a bridge that fills in the gaps of the existing governmental healthcare. They exclusively hire local doctors to feed the money back into the community and because they are more knowledgeable of local issues than a foreign doctor would be. 

Being in Latin America exposed me to a whole new approach to life, of ‘pura vida’, and the people I met there taught me how one can be content and happy despite their surroundings. The food is impeccable and the natural landscapes in Latin America is incomparable. My MEDLIFE experience has changed my life forever; rather than simply exposing me to situations of extreme poverty, they educated me about the importance of carrying out this work in a sustainable way that is suitable for a particular culture and society, and that doesn’t ultimately cause more harm than good. It has inspired me to research more into the ethics of humanitarian work - it is a serious career path I am seriously considering. 

I highly recommend going on a Service Learning Trip with MEDLIFE, because their consistent local work means it cannot be voluntourism where volunteers just hop in and out according to their schedules. All of the fees for the trip goes towards the funding of the specific stairs you would build, towards the pay for the local doctors you meet on your mobile clinic days so that you can see exactly where the money you raised goes. Please feel free to contact the MEDLIFE team in UCL, or any of them posted all around the UK, if you have any questions. I dearly hope to see you on our next trip supporting a great cause.

To find out more about future opportunities with Medlife, you can contact the UCL MEDLIFE Society on Facebook (MEDLIFE UCL) or send them an e-mail at medlife.society.ucl@gmail.com.