Activities during the “Water for Life” Project in Passignano sul Trasimeno, Umbria, Italy. 

Rainwater harvesting 

In 2015, the World Economic Forum declared the water crises to be the top global risk facing the planet over the next decade. At the same time, the global leaders at the UN agreed that one of the Sustainable Development Goals as part of the 2030 agenda. It is to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water for all.

With water being at the core of sustainable development, the organisers from Associazione Kora on the La Buona Terra farm in Umbria developed a project called “Water for Life”, which aimed to educate youth about sustainable water management practices and the importance of individual choices. One of the first activities that I took part in as part of this project was delivering a presentation on a selected topic related to water. I designed and delivered a ten-minute presentation in front of 20+ international volunteers about the topic of mechanical pumps and how they could be applied in the context of La Buona Terra farm, as well as listened to the presentations of other volunteers and proactively asked questions. I enjoyed this experience as it allowed me to use my skills in delivering presentations and test my prior knowledge of water and sustainable development, which I studied at university.  

Presenting in front of other people allowed me to test my communication skills and boosted my confidence in public speaking. I also felt this workshop provided me with an opportunity to present and explore ideas and learn more about an important topic in a safe space. One of the themes that was heavily explored in the workshop was rainwater harvesting, one of the most sustainable sources of water supply. To put the knowledge into practice, I took part in the digging of water channels on the steep hills of the farmland. The goal was to create channels that would collect rainwater and let it flow until it reaches an artificially created pond, from which the water can be utilised for irrigation purposes. Initially, I feared this experience would involve long hours of heavy physical work, however, this was not the case, as the working hours were split constructively throughout the week and each volunteer took turns in performing tasks of various physical difficulty, for example, some people were working hard with the shovel, while others were building a wall out of stones to keep the structure of the water channels and prevent the water from overflowing. I noted how quickly volunteers realised the importance of teamwork and mutual support in boosting our performance and performing the task effectively. I felt that this task allowed for a healthy competition environment where volunteers could work hard albeit with respect to the efforts and abilities of other teammates. I was impressed by what we have accomplished in a short period. 

Another activity that I was actively involved in during the project was olive picking. The farm has ≈1500 trees on its land, each with its unique shape and character. Some of the trees were as old as 1000+ years. It was just the start of the olive harvesting season and the colours of the olives ranged from bright green to fading purple. I experienced and witnessed the whole process of olive collection and the production of extra virgin olive oil, in a strikingly green colour yet rich and delicious in taste.

I have never thought about how many people it takes to pick the olive tree prior to this experience, but I am confident to admit that it is not a single man’s work. What I appreciated the most about this experience is the harmonious teamwork that developed organically throughout the olive harvesting process. While some volunteers were using electric machines to pick the olives or brushing off the olives from the branches using the rake, others were moving boxes full of harvested olives up the steep hill towards the machine which others used for separating the olives from the twigs. I noted how helping others brought me instant gratification as well as how I became more empathetic to others by appreciating their situation and capabilities at a given time. As the olive harvesting process involved fun and silly games in the form of throwing olives at each other, I also noticed how this activity strengthened relationships between the volunteers.

The main lesson learnt: do not try eating olives straight from the trees and do not trust others when they say that this time they are ripe – you are guaranteed an intense taste of bitterness in your mouth. 

Among other activities that I was involved in on the farm were woodworks, painting, gardening, and picking of fruits and nuts. All these activities involved active collaboration with others, which encouraged group cohesiveness. I found that almost all activities put me in a relaxed and meditative space while at the same time nurtured my creativity and enhanced concentration and focus. Enjoying quiet moments and focusing on completing small tasks throughout the day allowed me to cultivate mindfulness and patience. That was particularly important in woodworks, which taught me how to use new tools. By working in the gardens, I restored my knowledge in organic farming, learnt new plant growing methods and techniques for managing weeds and insect pests. I realised that weeds and insects are vital components of the farmland and they allowed me to learn about a way of working with natural systems.

The diversity of activities on the farm allowed volunteers to get to know each other better. This was particularly supported by the organisation of regular passion nights where volunteers and organisers shared one random hobby or interest that they feel particularly passionate about. For instance, we had sessions on LGBT, women’s rights, beatboxing, and living on alternative meals, such as food powder. I realised that exploring common interests helped create bonds between the participants. Another activity that allowed me to build connections with others was cooking regular meals, including using farm produce and cooking traditional dishes from each volunteer’s country. This activity allowed me to experience international cuisine in-depth, learn new dishes, and appreciate other volunteers’ understanding of their own culture and traditions. 

I also took part in the creation of digital materials, such as two videos and the volunteer’s cookbook, for which I practiced my creativity and design skills. One of the videos was live-streamed on Facebook during the Erasmus+ day. I took part in the preparation of the setting and gave an interview live in front of the camera. For the second video, I had to record my voice. This experience boosted my confidence in communicating and presenting myself in front of the camera. I learnt the best practice for recording the audio and the best tools for engaging with the audience in the volunteering sector. Thanks to designing the cookbook, I practiced my software skills in Excel and the graphic design platform, Canva.

Overall experience

My past experience of volunteering abroad made me feel comfortable when meeting and communicating with new people from different countries. I managed to use my previous knowledge in bringing people together and managing misunderstandings to introduce bonding activities and foster a friendly group dynamic, for example, through drawing, singing, and doing yoga. Although this was far from my first experience living and working with international people, speaking with people whose English is not their main language always presents a little challenge, as I have to adapt my way of speaking to different kinds of situations. I had to learn about other people’s levels of English and their pace of understanding of language to communicate with them more clearly and concisely. In the process, I experimented with using appropriate syntax in English and learnt how to communicate with people from all over the world more effectively. This experience has enhanced my skills in adapting to new cultural and language situations. I also learnt new words and expressions from different languages and managed to establish similarities of other languages with my mother tongue. As I learnt French at school, I tried to communicate with people from France in their native language and saw an improvement in my French language skills. This inspired me to continue learning the language, and I am now determined to practice it in the professional work environment
and perfect it.

As the project ran amid the COVID-19 pandemic, I had to take extra precautions and adhere to country and project-specific rules and gained awareness about our responsibility as a group towards the pandemic. Living and volunteering on the remote farm in a community setting and working every day outdoors in fresh air allowed me to rest from a hectic life back in London and reconnect with nature in a meaningful way. The location of the farm is in a magnificent place surrounded by lush hills full of diverse trees and plants and a charming lake. Having an opportunity to hike, rest in hammocks, and enjoy spectacular sunsets reminded me regularly to be grateful and not to take this experience for granted. I feel that this experience allowed me to cultivate simplicity, which expressed itself in recognition of inner beauty in others and appreciating the small things.

Overall, I learnt a great deal about sustainable farming practices, and I believe this knowledge is invaluable for my future career, as I aspire to work for an organisation that focuses on building a sustainable future. I saw a significant improvement in my physical and mental wellbeing, and I am looking forward to utilising the acquired skills, knowledge, and energy in my future endeavours.

By Alice