WHEN you are faced with a group of Namibian schoolchildren who know only a few words of English, one thing is sure to break down the language barrier - the hokey cokey. It seems nothing brings people together quite like putting your left leg in and taking it out again.

"We couldn't speak with them much but it didn't really have an effect," says Suzie Palmer.

"We used to go to the school and play games. We taught them the hokey cokey, heads and shoulders, knees and toes and ring a ring a roses. The kids were great and they were fascinated by us, particularly our nails. They couldn't believe they were so white."

Suzie, from Wensley, near Leyburn, in North Yorkshire, was one of a group of 12 young people and two volunteer staff on a Raleigh International expedition to Namibia in south west Africa from July to September.

But playing with the children of Otjrute in the north of the country had to fit in between building a new school for the 60 youngsters. A previous group had completed the foundations and it was up to Suzie and her companions to finish the structure.

"Their previous school was made out of bamboo and there was just one room for 60 kids," she says. "They couldn't all fit in at once and it had holes in so snakes came in.

"The first day they taught us how to mix concrete in water and then we just got on with it. It was hard work but it was fantastic and by the end of the three weeks we had finished the structure. Another group completed the inside and we have all seen photos. It was an amazing feeling."

Building the school was the middle phase of three in the ten-week expedition, which started with three weeks creating stone seats and tables at a viewing area in the Waterberg Plateau Park, in central Namibia.

It finished with a 230km trek down the Huab and Abbahuab rivers, combined with a survey of the anaboom tree, a delicacy for elephants, and an ascent of the 2,500m Brandtberg mountain.

"We didn't use ropes but we had to clamber up rocks. It was tough and there were times it was scary and I wondered if I would make it to the top. But the sense of achievement was immense."

The group camped overnight in tents throughout the expedition, apart from three weeks sleeping under the stars at Otjrute. They took turns leading the group for a day, cleaning, carrying out camp chores and cooking.

Suzie, now 20 and a student at Salford University in Manchester, had to raise almost £3,000 to take part in the trek but has no doubt that it was worth it.

"About a week before I went I thought I just didn't understand what went through my head to make me want to do this," she says. "My friends were all a bit bemused and I started to see their side of things. But about two days before I went I realised exactly why I was going. I was packing my bag and I was so excited. I had my guidebook out and the pictures and I thought I just wanted to see this place.

"I wanted to find out what it was like to live in another country and it was a real opportunity to see the way another country works for the people who live there.

"When I came back I felt I had matured and was a lot more confident and happier about meeting people and challenges. You also learn about leading people, even though they are your friends and you are all equals, you are forced into making decisions on a day to day basis and that was really good for me."

Raleigh International evolved out of Operation Drake, launched by Prince Charles and Colonel John Blashford-Snell in 1984, to send young people around the world on tall ships.

As it moved to more land-based projects it changed its named to Operation Raleigh, becoming Raleigh International in 1992, and has so far seen more than 21,500 people sent on expeditions to 80 countries.

Volunteers are aged between 17 and 25 and have to raise £3,200 to take part but Raleigh International also takes volunteer staff, aged 25-plus, who have to raise just £895.

Applicants are invited to take part in an introductory weekend, testing leadership skills and their ability to work as a team, but more to see if they would enjoy it than to see if they qualify.

"Of those who choose to go on an expedition, about 95 per cent upwards stick with it and raise the money," according to Raleigh International spokesman Chris Dwyer.

"It is a challenge but we see it as part of the whole development process."

The charity has also launched an "at risk" programme, recruiting volunteers from disadvantaged backgrounds, who have to raise £595 to take part.

For Rohan Almond, taking part in a Raleigh expedition meant coming face to face with an adult cheetah, although it was tranquilised at the time.

"They had been caught in traps and we helped to examine them, taking their measurements and looking inside their mouth," he says.

"Their teeth are pretty big and pretty sharp and the tongue is really scaly. To be two inches from a cheetah's mouth when it is still breathing is amazing."

Rohan, now 19, spent three weeks working with the Cheetah Conservation Foundation in Namibia, building huts where local farmers could stay while they learned how to keep their livestock away from the predator, as well as looking after the foundation's pet cheetah, Chewbacca.

And the second phase saw another encounter with a big cat, on the Brandtberg Massif in western Namibia.

After completing the trek, Rohan, from Richmond and now a student at Edinburgh University, helped create a water tank for a school and then toured the area performing their specially devised 'Raleigh Rap', designed to teach the youngsters about hygiene.

"All in all it was very physical and hard work but it was very rewarding," he says. "I really wanted to meet different cultures and it was an incredible experience.

Information about Raleigh International is available on www.raleighinternational.org or by calling 0207 3718585.