At the Daneford Trust
It is the thirty-first anniversary of the Daneford Trust. The office, located in a quiet cul-de-sac behind Tesco on Bethnal Green Rd, is as unassuming as the organisation. Nonetheless, over the years, it has enabled hundreds of local young people to volunteer in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean – irrevocably changing their lives and the lives of those they work with. Tony Stevens originally set up the Trust and continues to be its coordinator. He retells its history and, alongside some of its current members, explains why it remains such a vital project for those who have found their way to its doors.
“In 1968 I went to South Africa as a volunteer teacher and the impact that that had on me was immense. So, when I returned to London and took up a position as the sole music teacher at the then Daneford Boys School, I thought it would be wonderful to take some of the boys to Africa to give them an experience similar to mine. At the time, the boys, like the rest of East London were predominantly white, working-class, cockneys. The National Front was rampant in the area and some of the boys from my form would go “paki bashing” at weekends – if you talk to them about it now, they would be quite embarrassed. But I wanted them to see what a black-led country could be like, where there were black doctors, teachers and politicians. We could not go to South Africa because of apartheid, so we chose Botswana and Lesotho. As far as I know, this was the first state school exchange project of its kind.
We began planning in 1976. I gave a talk at assembly and there was some interest in the trip amongst the boys. Eventually, it whittled down to a group of ten who were serious about going. They would turn up to the meetings, did language training and helped with the fundraising. We held a jumble sale in the school hall, a sponsored walk and wrote letters to the London mayor, local companies and the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council. One day I received a phone call in the staff room from the CYEC. They were offering us two thousand pounds, a third of what we needed. I got off the phone and thought, ‘God, its happening. We are going. There is no going back now.’
We set off in 1977. You can imagine what a surprise southern Africa was for the boys. These were ordinary East Enders who had never been anywhere in their lives. They were fascinated by everything and everyone around them. When one of them saw a mud hut for the first time, a roundaval, he was so taken aback with the realisation that he was actually in Africa. We landed in Gabarone in Botswana. In those days, there was only ten miles of tarred road outside of the city, so getting around with ten boys, five members of staff and a massive amount of luggage, was a nightmare. But the boys stayed positive about everything. We visited schools where they talked to classes about life in London and listened to the youngsters there, we visited people’s homes and went to a coal mine. The boys played football and always lost against the homes teams. In the evenings, they would chat to local kids and make dinner together. Two weeks later, we flew from Gabarone to Lesotho in a tiny forty-seater plane and did more of the same. Few places had electricity in those days, something they were not used to.
Overall, the boys loved the experience, it was all very positive. They were keenly surprised by how different the places were from their imagination and their expectations. In particular, they realised how small their world in Tower Hamlets was in comparison to how big the the world is. It was an important lesson. It was some time later that we managed to get four Botswanan students to come over to London. I was really concerned about how they would be treated in the East End, but they were actually treated like stars. They came for three weeks and we took them to a city farm and to the Tower of London – Brick Lane wasn’t a place tourists wanted to see then.
In 1981, one of the original boys that I took to Botswana and Lesotho, Lee Toman, wanted to go back. I helped him go to Zambia for a year where he worked at a school besides Victoria Falls. He taught maths and helped to train the Zambian Olympic Judo team. Then I helped to send a second Daneford pupil to Zambia. By then I had been teaching for quite a while and I was getting bored of it so decided to go part-time at the school. We received our Charity Commission stamp in that year, opened up a bank account and got the head of the school and the local MP, Ian Mikardo to be on the board.
The Daneford Trust grew organically from that. Since then, we have sent over three hundred kids to fifteen different commonwealth countries. They work in all sorts of places, from street children’s projects to youth clubs, community centres, hospitals and old people’s groups. We have a no-rejection policy which means any young person can be part of the Trust. We currently have two young people working in Nepal, two in St. Lucia and one in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
There are now, of course, many private companies who do similar sorts of things, where they arrange overseas volunteer placements for gap students, but I think we continue to be different. Working-class kids have always remained excluded from such experiences and many continue to be. I wanted to provide opportunities for such kids to experience and learn about the world in order to come back and help to build the egalitarian, multi-cultural society that we all so want.”
“In 2009, I went to Dhaka, Bangladesh for a year to work for a street children’s project called Shishu Tori. They run classes on the largest railway station in the city, a public park as well as a market square. The children were all between four and fourteen years of age. Most of them lived in slum villages around the city or in make-shift tents made out of plastic and things they could scavenge. When they weren’t in class, they worked. Every day, they went with their sacks and picked up things to recycle: paper, plastic, cloth and metal, which they would then sell. Some of the kids were on drugs. I taught them English and did Art projects. You can’t help but get really attached to them. Before I went to Dhaka, I was a little lost and didn’t know what I was doing with my life. I wanted to see the world, to gain more experience of it. Since returning, I got back on track. I got myself a degree and now design my own jewellery.”
“In 2008, I went to St Vincent and the Grenadines. Before I left, I didn’t know a huge amount about the place, but I’ve always wanted to go to the Caribbean and this was my opportunity to do so. I worked at Liberty Lodge which is a boy’s home on the island for six-to-eighteen-year-olds. I taught English and literacy skills which for a lot of them was a new thing because they had not been in formal education. I would often Skype my mum to ask her for advice. I set up a reading group in a nearby school as well. The experience has made me want to take up teaching as a profession. I’m now preparing to go to Shanghai to work in a school next year which will be a dream realised.”
“In 2010, I went to Castries in St Lucia. Initially, I wanted to get a better understanding of my mother’s country of origin, but it became so much more. I was acting and did a BA in Theatre Studies but work was slow in coming. With Tony’s help, I ended up working at the Centre for Adolescent Renewal & Education which is a second-chance rehabilitation centre. The children are taught a trade such as electronics, plumbing or cooking, as well as literacy. I taught remedial English and Drama, helping the kids to put on a show. I loved the experience and would do it again if I could. I was there when a hurricane hit the island. I feel blessed to have had the experience of living and working there.”
“In 2005, I went to Karachi, Pakistan to work for a Non-Governmental Organisation that did work in sexual health. At the time, Pakistan did not have sexual health on its national educational curriculum. Medical universities didn’t even have one. I wanted to learn more about Pakistan, about its people, culture and history and I thought that living there would be one way to do so. Karachi is a massive city. For my first night, I booked myself into the Beach Luxury Hotel – which was nowhere near a beach nor luxurious. Things slowly got better but the place was hard. I received a huge amount of help with fundraising and organising the project from Tony. On my return, I wanted to stay involved with the Trust and I am now the head of Trustees, helping it to provide valuable placements to more young Londoners.”
Tony Stevens with pupils from Daneford School, Bethnal Green, prior to their trip to Botswana in 1977.
Pupils from Daneford School in Lesotho, 1977
Paul Duck, Fifth Year Daneford School at Phomolong Youth Hostel, Lesotho, 1977
Portraits copyright © Colin O’Brien