In a boost to my already massive ego I’ve been a ‘guest blogger’ for GetInvolved.ca. Woo.
You can find my drivel at: http://www.getinvolved.ca/2011/08/a-long-way-from-home/
Or read it here…
In March 2009, I was dropped off outside a busy casualty department of a developing-world hospital at two a.m. on a Saturday morning and was met with all the kinds of sights, sounds and smells you might imagine.
I’d quit my job and travelled thousands of miles to come here and do a voluntary job in international development.
Here was the small town of Opuwo, capital of the Kunene Region of the Republic of Namibia and home of the Himba tribe – one of the world’s most visually unique and oft-photographed tribes.
The job was to be an IT Specialist for the Ministry of Health and Social Services, a role with a two-paragraph explanation encompassing just about everything.
Everyone’s motivation for volunteering is different but honestly for me it was mainly selfish with a degree of altruism mixed in there somewhere. I wanted to travel, have new experiences, challenge myself and hopefully do something worthwhile along the way.
I spent quite a while “shopping around” the different opportunities for volunteer work abroad – everything from the “pay yourself” projects, to the build an elephant reserve or orphanage sites. In the end, I settled on applying to Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO).
VSO (CUSO-VSO in Canada) are a large charity that specialise in sending skilled professionals overseas anywhere from three months to two years in a variety of roles in many different countries.
In September 2009 I attended an assessment day in London and by some miracle was selected as a potential volunteer. Six months later I was standing at the casualty department wondering what the hell I was doing here and thinking I may have made the biggest mistake of my life.
But by the next morning it had become apparent I hadn’t made a mistake as I explored the dusty little town I now called home. Walking the streets was like being inside a National Geographic photo shoot: the sun was beaming down and the bustle on the pavements was interrupted only by the occasional wandering goat or donkey.
Working overseas is far different from travelling or touring. The level of exposure to different cultures and experiences are far beyond anything I could have experienced as a tourist. Working alongside the people gives you the opportunity to get to know them well, struggle through the same challenges, drink with them in the shebeens, celebrate their birthdays and weddings.
Professionally it’s been an eye-opener. Gone are the days of forming teams of various skilled individuals to solve a difficult technical problem. Now it’s just me with a paperclip, glue and some luck. If network cabling needs installed then I’m off in a heavily-loaded bakkie with a drill, cable and the willingness to get very dirty crawling through ceilings (or rather convincing colleagues to do the crawling).
And personally, it’s confirmed what I think I always knew (or hoped); people are people the world over and generally good. The less well off people are often the more generous they are and nearly everyone is keen for opportunities to better themselves or better their work.
I’ve been lucky enough to work and live alongside some really dedicated professionals. Opuwo may seem like an idyllic placement to me coming from the UK, but for many of my Namibian colleagues it is seen rightly as a difficult place to live and work. The sparsely populated vastness of the area and the rugged terrain give delivery of healthcare some very unique challenges.
One of VSO’s mottos for their volunteers is that they must be adaptable. Last week for instance, I was doing a network installation for one of our hospitals, this week I’m out driving around with a team doing polio immunisations and next week I’m giving a presentation to a group of Parliamentarians on ICT development in the Kunene Region.
Of course it’s not all been plain sailing. There have been nights in the summer where I think my brain is about to melt and run out of my ears, local and not-so-friendly bacteria take time to get used to (if you ever can) and getting stuck in sand in the middle of the Namib desert with only a few leaky water bottles on hand and not seening another car for 24 hours was worrisome to say the least.
But despite all that, I can confidently say that this decision has been the best of my life.
If I had one piece of advice to give to aspiring international volunteers it is this: you can’t expect the unexpected – so try and expect nothing, keep an open mind and see what happens.
The results, unpredictable as they are, may well astound you. They will certainly surprise you.
Anyway if you’re Canadian or whatever and fancy volunteering you should check them out.
I’m traveling at the moment (right now in Dar es Salaam) so blogging and email replying may be slower than ever.
Some posts are safely on a hard disc supposedly in a bag flying to Europe (if all went well). Others are just in my head.