People volunteer with VSO for different reasons. Some people have experienced a change of circumstances in life -bereavement, divorce, break up, early retirement, job loss- which allows them to entertain ideas that hitherto fore seemed impossible. Some people are bored and want a new challenge. Some people are looking for love, imagine! Others for opportunities and adventures. And others have a passion to do something about poverty in the world.
Truthfully, I think I can tick most of the above boxes. On the threshold of permanency in my workplace, I found this served as both a tremendous comfort to me and the crucial push factor in my decision to leave. With this looming “contract of indefinite duration” came the figurative road-map for the rest of my life; permanency at 25, retirement at 65 and forty years of teaching in between. In the economic climate of Ireland today, I should have been glad of the job (I was, immensely) but there was another internal discourse which proved just as powerful.
Forty years, I thought, spouting the same facts from the same Geography text book about other countries and poverty and trade and women and water and colonialism and social justice, speaking as an authority on the subject, as if I knew something, as if I knew anything, still trying to convince the students of things I myself had no practical, embedded experience of; a fraud. When will my time come to put my money where my mouth is?
Motivated by these sentiments and others besides, I started to seriously consider an option that I had left on the shelf to gather dust after college: Voluntary Service Overseas.
It’s almost two years later now and I’m writing this blog from a new University in Northern Ethiopia. Challenge is a word that is often bandied about, mostly as a euphemism for problem, but now I can say that I understand the real meaning of the word challenge. I’ve been challenged by so many things; I’ve come up short and been left wanting a lot of the time even though I’ve had some successes too. Now that I am here I see it is not as simple as I hoped it would be to make my little contribution every day and go home at night and sleep righteously. Sometimes, the issues I am engaged in seem so complex I despair that I can even understand them fully let alone affect change.
Inevitably, this is a common feeling amongst volunteers. Earlier this year, my family attended the 10 year anniversary celebrations of VSO Ireland in Dublin where Justin Kilcullen of Trócaire spoke honestly about his own experience as an overseas volunteer. It was with some relief that I received the news that he felt his placement could be seen in some ways as a failure. (Not just me then, phew!) In other ways though, he explained, it was the single most important experience in his own life; like a door opening into another world and he understood that his part in the fight for social justice had only just begun. His real work had only just begun.
Undeniably he is right, whatever I have done here in the spirit of voluntarism, I am, myself, the greatest ultimate beneficiary of work here. My former Woldia site-mate Dave once jokingly said of VSO’s motto, “sharing skills, changing lives”, that the life of the volunteer is the one most changed. In some ways, that is very true and the praise which is at intervals heaped upon me by friends here or at home feels awkward and ill-gotten especially when I reflect that I may be the main beneficiary of my work here. Volunteering you see is its own reward. I am just about to come out the other side of that experience, hopefully as a better person with an enhanced awareness of my obligations to others, living a life of such privilege, an obligation to engage with the world however complex it may be, starting from my own community.
Those of you who read the blog will know that Sabina Higgins and the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, recently made a state visit to Ethiopia. Among other engagements while here, they paid a visit to “Lucy” the human race’s oldest known ancestor in the National Museum in Addis Ababa and later the President gave a key-note speech to the UNECA in Africa Hall, Addis Ababa. His speech titled “Independence and inter-dependence in Africa”, concluded with this rather elegant thought;
“In the very long term, in the multi-secular temporal horizon which is that of Lucy, we are all but migrants in time and space – transient travellers who must do our best to pass on to the next generations a hospitable ground on which they can flourish.”
We are the custodians of this earth and we have a mutual responsibility for each other and even those yet to come.
Happy 10th birthday to VSO Ireland and happy International Volunteer’s Day to all my friends in volunteering, be they scouts, buskers, singers, campaigners, teachers, doctors, or others. You might feel like one person has relatively little power in the world, but we all have our own personal power as individuals and that is a powerful thing indeed, especially if we exercise it together.
Do something to help one another today, whatever that may mean in your context, your community.
More power to ye!