Volunteering beyond any other experience: my AIESEC exchange programme.

“We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” Mother Theresa

I arrived Cairo ecstatic of my motive for embarking on this long planned trip. I had made up my mind the year before to travel to another country to volunteer in a global community development programme. I had volunteered and participated in community development projects back in Nigeria, but none came close in sacrificial grandeur as this. The closest however was when I was obligated under the Nigerian Law, as a university graduate, to participate in a community development service. I was attached to the Road Safety Corps. If I and my colleagues were not controlling the traffic at some busy junctions under the hot sun in Nigeria’s busy capital Abuja, we were at some primary school teaching brilliant kids about road safety ethics. You know, the look left, right and left again before you cross. Or look to your right, left and right again as the case may be. For the former task of being a traffic warden, I did dare not do it in Cairo. I thought Nairobi Matatus where the most reckless drivers, not until I met people who drive in the City of Cairo. Freaking crazy. Gladly, my volunteer work in Cairo was totally different from the ones in Nigeria. Resala, which is an Arabic word which stands for message, is the name of the NGO I volunteered with. It is the biggest NGO in Egypt, with over 27 branches across the country and some present in other Middle Eastern countries. The NGO coordinates community projects dealing with orphanages, donation of food items, selling of second hand clothes, recycling work and teaching primary school education in its schools. They have a lot of native volunteers. Some have been volunteering for the past 5 years, while others less than that. I felt a lot of admiration for those people who had volunteered for such a long time. I saw the compassion and kindness in these people who had given up their holidays to a service they gain no material benefits from. It is true that volunteers aren’t paid, not because they are worthless, but because they are priceless. It was an inspiring act that made me question so many times I spent doing really nothing substantial to my life, when I could have actually added value to my life and somebody’s also. But seeing and hearing from these long term volunteers made a permanent impression on my mind. Group photo in front of Resala

Group photo in front of Resala branch office at El Hegaz Street, Cairo.

Behind, L-R: Ahmed, Amr, Ameriki, Ahmed.

Front: Myself and Abu Bakr on my left.

I started working with Resala with my forgotten understanding of Arabic Language. The little I learnt in Islamic Schools bac then I later came to understand was, Fusha, the classical Arabic of the Holy Qur’an, the Holy Book of Muslims. Unfortunately, not spoken but understood in Egypt. Theirs, was very much casual. Even with that, I had forgotten most of what I learnt, because of lack of practice. I felt so dumb in Cairo because I could not relate the way I wanted. At Resala, not all could speak English fluently, even with their basic understanding of it but prefer to speak to me via a kind human translator, Abu Bakr. Whenever the sign language or our poor Arabic and English failed to make any sense to both of us, we go looking for Abu Bakr. A very kind gentleman who really made me feel at home at Resala. Most of my work was in the clothing section. People normally donate their unwanted clothes, shoes, bags, etc. When the items reach Resala, it is the job of the volunteers to first of all screen the donated clothes, whether still useable or not. Those not suited for reuse are thrown away. Thereafter, they are sorted into sections for different ages, sex and times of usage (summer or winter). It was exciting to me.

preparing for opening

Volunteers about to start putting the clothes on display. Front: Ameriki

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Selling clothes to Um Salam and Um Sabr (both in black)

When all the sorting is done, on a scheduled day, we travel to a poor location of Cairo. There, we put the clothes on display, you know, like how they do in shopping malls. All designers could be available. From used Marks and Spencers to Dolce and Gabbanas. The first people who enter the ‘mall’ to buy the clothes presumably choose the best clothes. The idea of selling the clothes to the poor people was elaborated to me by the kind translator, my namesake. He said, the poor feel more valuable and maintain a higher self-esteem when they purchase the clothes, even though at peanuts prices. The costliest items cost 7 Egyptian Pounds (LE). However, some could go up to 10 LE, because of how new and genuine they are, especially ladies’ hand bags. I accepted and denied bids for certain clothes. It was really an exciting experience as I sold items after items to many people. I could have earned some bonuses if I was working in Sales department of Tuskys or Nakumatt I thought, due to the cash in-flow I brought. I felt a great sense of accomplishment as I left Cairo for Dubai late that evening. Resala was home to me during that short period. It was a great opportunity to work with kind-hearted people like those, whose only mission is to help others. Volunteering for community services or development projects should be a hobby to everyone, especially in Africa, where it is needed the most. It not only gives you a sense of accomplishment, but also makes your life more valuable. pose

Final pose with the volunteer team of the day.

Traveling to Egypt to volunteer for a kind cause is one of the most important decisions I am glad I have taken in my life. I had the opportunity to volunteer in the beautiful charity works conducted by the largest NGO in Egypt, Resala. The work increased my understanding of what kindness is. As smile is a universal language, so is kindness. I was also privileged to meet other beautiful people both from Egypt and around the world, which has added depth to my perception of living in multicultural environments. We have made compassionate and inseparable bonds while living together for a short period of time. Furthermore, being in the historic Land of the Pharaohs increased my love for history, especially when I visited the Pyramids of Giza, passed through the Suez Canal and ascended Mount Sinai, the purported mountain where Prophet Moses (A.S) spoke to God. The journey has been fantastic so far. Special thanks to AIESEC AAST in Cairo, Resala and everyone who was part of it.

This volunteer work was facilitated by an international student body, AIESEC JKUAT (in Kenya) and AIESEC AAST in CAIRO (Egypt). If you want to volunteer in any international projects and have no clue how to secure them, feel free to contact me for suggestions.


Creating Regional Innovation in Japan: Part 2

“We cannot teach people anything; we can only help them discover it within themselves.” Galilei Galileo

When the workshops and assimilation of how to create regional innovation was completed in Tokyo, it was time to go and put what we learnt into action. We will travel to Tohoku region, an area hit by the tsunami (3.11) caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake of March, 2011. There, a group of 24 brilliant High School students will await us to learn how to use the regional resources in their city to create innovation. In anticipation, I wondered how I could relate and teach High School students how to create regional innovation considering I learnt it a few days ago. Saturday morning, and everyone treaded down to the local train stations that conveyed us to the bullet train station. The bullet train, Shinkansen (in Japanese) travels at a ground speed of about 325 km/h. After about 3 hours of travel time, we dragged our feet out of the train station and headed for the buses waiting to convey us to Otsuchi town.

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Otsuchi town was almost decimated by the 3.11 tsunami. We stood with our faces painted with compassion as a tour guide narrated to us how it all happened. On the unfaithful day, some of the residents have wrongly gathered at the Mayor’s office when they felt the ground shook. A good disaster evacuation procedure preaches that you run to a higher ground when the tsunami is expected. Unfortunately, the tsunami walloped the entire people together with the mayor. The aftermath of the disaster left huge cracks about 20 mm wide on the wall. Much more than an anticipated tensional cracks structural engineers normally design against. Japan has been championing the design of earthquake resistant structures for long. However, no one saw that coming. There is an interesting story about how 99.8% of some Elementary and Junior High School students in Kamaishi City evaded the danger and helped other villagers along. This story is now known as the Miracle of Kamaishi. We left Otsuchi town for Tono City.

After 2 days in Tono City, our sole aim of being there was about to start. We were assigned 5 students to teach how to create regional innovation. We sat round a small table with Mai (Japanese), Neysa (Indonesian), Naka Chan (Japanese) and Professor Alex (British) discussing how to accomplish our goal. We were stuck on what best innovation teaching method we should employ to teach the students. It became more difficult as we envisioned that the High School students might not comprehend all what we will teach them. As we thought. We need to take it slowly with them. And the phrase “do not underestimate High School students” was born within us. We joked with the phrase constantly in order to reinforce our belief in the students. Thereafter, we simply concluded they are smart and will perform duly. And we were right. All the 24 students wowed all the university participants with their creativity. They came up with many different innovative ideas that harnesses the resources of Tono City. I was more than impressed and captivated by their creativity, elocutionary skills (they spoke in Japanese though) and their emotional individual reflection and farewell speech to us.

Group photo with the High School students Behind, L-R: Professor Alex, Naka Chan, Akihiro, myself, Gonzalo.

Front, L-R:: Neysa, Ryo, Rey, Mayu, Kanami, Kana, Mai.

The quote by the famous Italian Philosopher, Engineer, Physicist etc. mentioned at the beginning of this piece signifies what I took out most from my Innovation Camp in Japan. In my own words, it helped me realize the great potential for innovation lying both in my hands and existing in my environment. It is truly unlocking hidden potentials.

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Sadiq Gulma.

Creating Regional Innovation in Japan: Part 1

When the news reached my email that I made the 7% out of 300 applicants as the only African participant to attend a Summer Innovation Camp with the University of Tokyo in Japan, I was eager for July 29th to clock. I joined other 29 international colleagues who made the 7% and undertake their studies in high ranking universities of the world such as University of California (UCB), Oxford, Cambridge to mention but a few. Nationalities at the programme rang from USA, UK, France, China, Switzerland, Slovenia, Finland, Hong Kong, Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia, Pakistan, Spain, Bangladesh, Germany and a few I might have missed. We were to be joined by 30 other Japanese participants from the University of Tokyo and a single lucky participant like me, from Chiba University in Japan. The main goal of the innovation workshop is to teach us how to create regional innovation. Regional innovation is innovation for solving challenges of local regions. From the foregoing, the need for regional innovations cannot be overemphasized.

The founder of the programme and Director of Centre for Knowledge Structuring at The University of Tokyo, Professor Hideyuki Horii, narrated to me how he veered from the technical practice of civil engineering to focus solely technology for social innovation. He, along with his team had started i.school in 2009 in order to teach students how to think creatively and to give them confidence to be innovative. This year, they teamed up with another innovation school, Royal College of Arts (RCA), from the UK to organize two different innovation workshops for us. The workshop from RCA was mind blowing, funny and crazy in terms of ideas created by participants.

with horiiProfessor Horii on my right and the Vice President of The University of Tokyo at the Farewell Party in Tokyo

Horii Sensei started his innovation workshop of i.school by asking the 60 participants to write down as many ideas as we can in 3 minutes. A Japanese student acknowledged writing up to 15, the highest. One third of that is what I did. He again asked the same question, however, restricting our thinking to ideas that only create new services in a shopping mall. I came up with 2. No one had more than 5. It was harder to think that way. And that was the main lesson. To think while making reference to an analogy. It is an ideation method that makes taylor-made proposals based on a certain service or scenario. With analogic thinking, a challenge is put by thinking about how to improve a certain service or product while making reference to another and better analogy. The i.school workshop lasted for two days.

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group work Group work by participants

On the second day, all participants have mused about new ideas to attract people to the 2020 Olympic Games. It was showtime as a member of the design committee of 2020 Olympics will be present to give his remarks on the proposed ideas. Japan has won the hosting rights of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. One of the most, if not the best city to live in the world. You cannot miss a valuable item like stockings and don’t have it returned or mailed to you as someone enjoyed after having forgotten her stockings in a hotel room. Cleanliness, orderliness, hospitality, security and you can go on mentioning. Cases of bag or phone snatching are not heard. Yes, you can leave your bag unattended at a train station and ‘Tokyo 911’ and City TV won’t show up. People do not know terrorism in this part of the world.

ppt1Professor Horii facilitating i.school workshop

Thinking method proposed by RCA was the opposite of that in i.school workshop. While they also centered the workshop around a theme-Washi which is a traditional Japanese paper, however, they did not limit the extent of ways you can use Washi. The idea was to think outside the box with just a single piece of paper at your mercy. Interesting, exciting, mind-blowing and crazy ideas were proposed by different groups either through a skit or a narration. The main goal of the workshop was to think extreme. To break all borders of limitation and assume you can create anything you like with a resource you possess. Many participants liked it because of the freedom and no-limit obligation.


A group makes a skit of their idea of a face mask made out of Washi paper that clears your face from any illness or ugliness in a few minutes. Instant makeover. This shuld sell anywhere.

While we have assimilated all these knowledge passed to us by two innovation schools, we moved into a less popular region of Japan, Tonou City, somewhere close to where the great 3.11 tsunami decimated. We mingled with High School Students and taught them how to create regional innovation. The ideas the kids presented were impressive. Post 2 of this blog will detail our interaction with the beautiful High School students. It is with such enthusiasm and results I witnessed at Tonou City, that I feel the need for regional innovation is universal. Every particular region has its set of resources that needs to be harnessed in certain ways not only by rich entrepreneurs, capitalists and multinationals, but also by the common man who will feel the impact more than anyone.

And our programmes caught the eyes of an Asian Newspaper Nikkei in Tokyo and Iwate Local Newspaper in Tonou City. In case you cannot read the Japanese script, you can watch the video here.

And for a summary of all our workshops in Tokyo City, please watch this video here made voluntarily by an amazing student staff, Demeturie.

Have any questions about the Innovation workshop, the work we did with High School Students, please do not hesitate to ask.

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Obon Festival in Japan

Saku City, Nagano Prefecture,
Between 13th and 15th of July or August every year, depending on the region, Japanese people usually celebrate a festival called Obon (called Bon at times, addition of the letter o before a word in Japanese Language means an added respect to the word). Obon Festival is a time in which Japanese people go back to their different hometowns and honour their ancestral spirits together with their families. On the night of August the 14th, I got on a bus with my Japanese Language Sensei (teacher in Japanese Language) and friend Ikkan, in Tokyo and headed for his hometown, Saku City to celebrate the Obon with his family. The journey was memorable to me as that was my first and longest journey by bus during my short stay in Japan.
At the beginning of the 3 hour journey, Ikkan was fast asleep. He had not slept much last night because he spent the night performing a Karaoke at some place in Tokyo. I placed my laptop on my laps and continued making some minor corrections to my masters’ thesis, which was supposedly due for submission the next day. Halfway through the journey, we started to chat about the time he came to Kenya last summer. His pleasurable experience and how he looked forward to going back someday. Three hours passed, and the luxurious bus we sat in glided on the best highway I have ever travelled on. There were no potholes nor security road blocks, as it was the case of highways in my country, Nigeria. The bus pulled over at around 11.00 pm and we walked down the aisle and exited the bus. It took us a while of trekking before we arrived home, to his waiting kind parents, who had already bought a Yukata for me.
Yukata is a light traditional Japanese cloth that is also used during the Obon Festival because of the summer heat. Before I wore mine, Otousan (a respectful way of calling someone’s dad in Japanese Language) had said he did not know I was this ‘tall’. Okaasan (a respectful way of calling someone’s mum in Japanese Language) and Otousan were amused because my Yukata stopped mid-way between my knee and ankle, instead of covering my whole legs. Well, even if they did know my exact height, I believe it will take them a long time to find my size considering am taller than an average Japanese person. Otousan is a very kind old gentle man, who waited till midnight the day I arrived to have dinner with me. Octopus Sushi was the main meal on the table. He had told us by 12.45 am to wake up by 5.00 am the next day and go to his farm for some corns.
Japan is popularly called the land of the rising sun, asahi. By 4.00 am, the sun is already up. A challenging location for a Muslim person like me, who will have to fast for 19 hours before he/she starts to eat or drink. I did not sleep till around 1.00 am, 3 hours before the sun comes up. I barely managed to wake up some minutes before 4.00 am to say my morning prayers, then I prayed that Otousan abandons his plan of taking us to his farm for toumorokoshi. Around 6.00 am, in my sleep, I overheard Otousan trying to get Ikkan up. Thank God it was unsuccessful. We did not wake up till 10.00 am, Obon’s day. The day the monk will come and pray together with the family.
And he did come, around evening. And I did join the prayers, as an onlooker though. After the rites, through Ikkan’s translation, he told me about the practice. In the room where they prayed, there were pictures of Ikkan’s great grandparents, who they believe their spirits will come back, in the name of Okagesama to protect them. In the room lies a big box, where the spirits normally reside in, but today, being Obon, they will move to a smaller one just for that day, because of the sacrifice to be made. In my short stay in Japan, I have visited for more than 5 temples and shrines, in short, I have condensed a lot of knowledge about their religious beliefs. He left and we had dinner.

Ancestral home
Ancestral home

The sacred place used for Obon prayers in Ikkan’s home. The black door on the right is the box that normally houses their ancestral spirits.

The smaller temporary ancestral home
The smaller temporary ancestral home

The small box middle from both left and right with vertical writings is the smaller box the ancestral spirits will move in to honour the Obon sacrifice.

Considering the large number of people coming back home for the Obon, the Hanabi community had organized a Hanabi show at a place just overlooking the river, made just for Hanabi. Hanabi is a Japanese word for fireworks. It was raining cats and dogs, and we had thought Hanabi will be cancelled that night. Suddenly, the loud bangs of the fireworks reached our ears. And off we went to the scene, been driven by Okaasan. Within two seconds of normal time, she changes transmission. Such an aged woman with excellent driving skills. One hand always on the gear and the other on the steering wheel ofcourse. She swings her body slowly from left to right as she navigates the roads of Saku City.

With my basic understanding of Japanese, I was able to tell her how I exciting the Hanabi was, when she drove back to pick us up. The Obon Festival will be completed the next day, with a type of slow dance called Obon Odori. Will they also dance in the rain? We shall know in some few hours.





The African Union Commission is sponsoring students who come from Africa to study in four new different institutes located in four African countries that are in four different regions of the continent. The new initiative is the brains of African Heads of State and Government of the African Union. The four institutes cover these thematic areas; Basic Sciences, Technology and Innovation (Kenya, East Africa), Water and Sciences including climate change (Algeria, North Africa), Life and Earth Sciences including Agriculture and Health (Nigeria, West Africa) and Governance, Humanities and Social Sciences (Cameroon, Central Africa). All the institutes are referred to as Pan African University, followed by the respective thematic area to differentiate them. This scholarship, which I am amongst the pioneer winners, would give you the opportunity to partake in a truly multicultural class of only African descent. In addition, a joint certificate will be awarded to you as all the institutes are hosted in established universities in the host countries. The scholarship is a juicy one as all expenses from your first flight to the country of your institute, tuition fees and monthly stipends throughout your programme will be sponsored. Application forms and details can be downloaded at www.pau-au.org/call. The closing date for the receipt of applications is 15th March, 2014.