Wednesday, 29 June 2011

looking back

I can't quite believe I've been home for 6 months, it is definitely time I wrote this entry and there is so much I want to say.

Blogging, whilst doing a VSO placement is fraught with danger. You never know who is going to read your blog and working for VSO mostly involves trying to build relationships with people; there is lots of censoring to be done. I write the blog so friends and family get a sense of what I'm doing and how I'm feeling. However I mostly have to avoid writing about what I'm doing and how I'm feeling. I tried the 'hopefully they'll be able to read between the lines' approach. I think for the people who know me, it worked okay.

Coming home after living in a developing country is an intense experience. We return to our little bubble and either live comfortably within that, or it bursts, so to speak. One of the things I've found the hardest to deal with, is that people are generally don't care about and aren't interested in what I've been doing. Most ask if I enjoyed it, but they never go further than that. The answer is no. I definitely didn't enjoy it, but I had an incredible experience and learned so much. There are lots of superficial reasons I can give for not enjoying it, but overall, for me it has to be the lack of achievement. VSO prepare you for this and recommend the longer 2-year placement for precisely this reason - but it wasn't for me. You need to be very good at building relationships with people and aiming for slow steps towards change. Now it's not to say I can't build relationships, but I found it very hard to deal with that slow pace of change. I guess it depends very much on your placement and the people you are working with, but it was my experience that I wasn't particularly valued as a professional, but rather viewed as a glorified work experience person who comes with a budget attached.
I like to have some control and privacy in my life and I massively struggled to cope with the lack of both. Some volunteers develop amazing relationships with the people in their communities and fully immerse themselves in the lifestyle. I never really adjusted. Having no control over when and I what I ate was an issue for me. Food bowl laden with palm oil disagreed with me, yet it is not okay to refuse a meal and people would be offended. I found this hard. Gambian people are used to living in close proximity to each other and gain much enjoyment from sitting around with friends and family - the continual greeting and regular contact with people is to be admired. It didn't sit well with the antisocial aspect of my personality.

The idea of neo-colonialism comes up regularly amongst volunteers, both pre-departure and during placement. There are real struggles to go through deciding if the 'volunteering' route is right or not. It's very easy to argue both sides of that argument and not so easy to come to any conclusion. You can only assure yourself that what you are doing is in good faith and go from there. There are some placements that I think are incredibly valuable and the expertise of volunteers is much needed. Others, less so, but not always for the reasons that people may expect. Prior to the recent change in government, much of VSO's funding came from DFID (Department for International Development), therefore VSO's programme objectives were somewhat influenced by the donor. It is some of these bigger objectives that I fundamentally disagreed with for The Gambia. When you realise the size of the steps towards progress that are taken on the ground, you can see that some of those objectives are just too vast and unachievable in the near future. Policy makers need a better idea of the situation on the ground. It is not reasonable to expect the bigwigs to spend the time seeing the situation for themselves, there are systems and reports that give them that information. It is those systems that don't work and those reports that are not accurate. If you start to actually care about the work you are trying to do, you can't help but become embroiled in politics and I don't have the stomach for it. Everything is part of a much bigger problem and nothing is straightforward. I have vast amounts of respect for people who devote their lives to working in development, it is an uphill battle. Everyone has an opinion but very few people have any idea of the complexity of the issues involved. I learnt a lot during my placement, but that little bit of knowledge is nothing but an insight into all the things I don't know.

I have returned home frustrated at people and my relationships with them. I met some incredible people during this experience, not necessarily flawless or any more knowledgable than me, but people who are prepared to question things and are intereseted in something more than the mundane routine of everyday life. Every aspect of my life is very unsettled at the moment, and I have no real idea of what I want to do or where I want to be. What I do know, is that I'm happy with who I am and I need to be a little more selfish about things. I hate it when people underestimate me or offer unwanted advice. I try very hard not to be rude to, or hurt people; it's not necessary. However, I have spent years not saying anything when those people upset me. It puts me in mind of that phase of childhood when I wondered if everyone else in the world was there to be the supporting cast to my life. I know differently now of course, but somewhere along the way the balance has tipped too far in the other direction and I find myself supporting, way more than I'm supported. Having the time and distance to look at life is a privilege, but having the strength of mind to make necessary changes isn't that easy!

A few people have asked me what I think of VSO as an organisation. I know that many people who read these blogs are considering volunteering and I really have to take this opportunity to say a few things. VSO is an incredible organisation that tries very hard to get things right. The whole way through this experience VSO UK have been amazing. They believe in what they are trying to do, they acknowledge that it is hard and they really value their volunteers. The returned volunteers weekend was a valuable opportunity for us to compare our experiences. It would be fair to say that our opinions of the in-countryVSO Program Offices didn't always compare to our experiences with VSO UK, but you also have to appreciate that if things were perfect in-country, there wouldn't be any need for support. The situation in every country is different and organisational changes, understandably, take a few years to come to fruition. However I can not fault them for trying. We were asked for feedback at every step of the way and it is listened to and acted upon. I have never worked for an organisation that makes you feel as valued as VSO. They also give you the space to let off steam but more importantly don't judge you for it. Because the majority of VSO staff are previous volunteers, they understand what you are going through. They will talk freely with you about the difficulties, both big and small and happily admit that we don't always know what's the right thing to do. No-one was ever pious or condescending and I am not surprised that once people have volunteered they stay involved with VSO for life.
Volunteering is not easy and you can't return from your experience and have it nicely packaged into something you've done and can move on from. It is not for everyone but if it is something you want to do, then go for it. I would recommend VSO as an organisation to anyone who is interested in volunteering. Go for it, but don't expect the people around you to really understand what you go through. Accept this and expect this beforehand, then make the experience everything you want it to be.

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

hello and welcome...

to pupils reading from Inverness Royal Academy who will be heading out to The Gambia soon. Have a wicked time! x

final days

My final couple of weeks in The Gambia were lovely. I said goodbye to some incredible friends, to people who went out of their way to make me feel at home and deal with situations and people that weren't always easy. Time and time again I am overwhelmed by the generous and caring nature of people in this country; whatever little there is will be shared.

Our favourite cluster monitor Seedy came to say goodbye

and gave me a Gambian outfit, a traditional leaving gift.

The secretary, cleaner and cook from work.

The people I'll miss the most

I had learned a few months before the end of my stay that my Dad would be coming to visit for my final week. I left Soma to return to the Kombos 3-weeks before I left the country, so unfortunately Dad would not get to see where I had been living and working, or get a ride on my beloved motorbike! We were booked into the Kairaba Beach Hotel and I was really looking forward to a little bit of luxury.

Chaos descended on flights leaving Europe with an unusually early dump of snow, so it was with some uncertainty that I waited for him to arrive. Thankfully, with only a slight delay, and the help of out wonderful taxi driver Lamin, I was able to collect Dad from the airport safe and sound. We checked into the hotel, where I enjoyed my first hot shower in months, then headed into town for the VSO christmas party!

It is surprising how quickly you get used to things in The Gambia.... I was a little disappointed that Dad would only experience the relative luxury of the Kombos, but seeing things through a fresh pair of eyes, I realised that what had become luxury to me was still a developing country. We had a wonderful week and two of the highlights for me were the monkey park (where we managed to see Red Colobus and Green Vervet monkeys and an enormous Monitor Lizard!) and seeing the fish market in Bakau.

me relaxing on the beach!

Red Colobus Monkey

Example of how jungle-like the monkey park was, I stamped my way along to scare off snakes!

Bakau Fish Market

My Dad!

Women in traditional dress.

Mini Monitor - not lile the one in the monkey park which must have 2 metres long!

Not shy!

After plentiful delays, Dad's flight back to the UK eventually left and I checked into Hibiscus House Hotel for my final 2 nights in the country. This hotel is my most favourite place. A little oasis of calm, away from the madness of Senegambia, the hotel is set in lovely gardens in the small town of Brufut. I believe there is a lovely beach nearby, but both times I have stayed here I haven't wanted to leave the hotel!

My room at Hibiscus House - much, much nicer than any of the hotels in Senegambia.... luxury.
Small but perfectly formed.

After topping up my tan, making up for missed white wine and saying a sad goodbye to my VSO friends, I eventually got a flight (after a tearful few hours when no planes appeared to be leaving Brussels and I feared I wouldn't make it back for christmas) back home. The snow was a shock to the system as we descended into Manchester, but it was great to be back and needing a blanket!

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

travelling tales

I am now in my final month in The Gambia and one of the things I will certianly not miss is the journey between the Kombo and Soma. Before I left the UK, one of my many concerns was what the transport would be like. I'm not the best passenger and have had many a hair-raising journey abroad biting back the tears - but I was pleasantly surprised by The Gambia. The state of the taxis and the constant tooting of horns can be somewhat misleading, in fact I'd been here at least 7 months before I got into a car that didn't have a cracked windscreen. Often doorhandles are replaced by bits of string and it is quite common to have the one communal handle for the windows which can be obtained from the driver on request. However, on the whole the taxis here drive quite slowly, pavements are fair game but they will give you very audible warnings. The biggest danger is the unpredictability of cars suddenly pulling on and off the road in front of each other, but *touch wood* I haven't yet seen any collide.
Travelling up-country is a different matter altogether. I absolutely hate it and couldn't have been more relieved when I completed my last gelli journey on Friday. Vans begin their life somewhere else and serve someone well, spacious interior for transporting things, wheels that stay attached, inflated and turn, all the usual things you look for in a reliable vehicle. After a long and useful life, they are passed on to someone else who just needs a run-around for transporting crap, they can be maintained at home by someone who knows a thing or two about mechanics, or likes to think they do, and will pass their MOT if a twenty is left discreetly under the sun visor. A few years later when a good woman gets tired of the broken down heap of junk sitting in her drive way and even the scrap-metal yard doesn't think it's worth pulling apart, it somehow makes it's way accross the water to a gelli park somewhere near me.
When you read documents about health & safety abroad, they often include a section on transport. The advice is usually along the lines of 'don't travel at night' and 'if you don't think the vehicle looks road-worthy, don't use it'. Well it's very easy to say that, but if that is the only vehicle that is going where you are and your other transport options are non-existant, you're options are slightly limited. Needless to say, about fifty percent of the time I have travelled up (or down) country by gelli, we have broken down. The breakdowns vary in nature. Sometimes things fall off; windows, fan-belts, steering wheels... Sometimes there are very perculiar noises and we just grind to a halt, but there's always something.
Even on the best of journeys, it's an experience. Gambians are very touchy-feely people and have none of the 'personal space' issues we suffer with. You can be squashed up against someone who will have their arm around you to give themselves more room, whilst being jabbed in the back of the neck by the elbows of the person behind who is sleeping against the back of your chair. Babies are often passed around to sit on whichever lap is available. The person next to you may turn around to talk to someone behind, apparently unconcerned that they're pinning you to the window. It's fairly common for someone to lean accross you to spit out of the window.
I'm always my most relaxed and tolerant on these journeys.
The last time I travelled back to Soma with Marcus, we had a spectacularly bad journey involving 4 separate gellies to get home. The running theme of the day appearing to be wheels falling off. After it was decided there was no hope left for one vehicle, we managed to flag down a passing empty gelli. The consensus seemed to be that the driver of the first vehicle should pay our fare, he didn't seem too keen. He is in the middle of the crowd of people pictured below, not getting away with it lightly!

I stole this photo from Marcus' blog - perfectly summarising many things; Gambians love a drama, nothing is done quietly and everyone gets involved. People are often restrained, sometimes punches are thrown, but minutes later everyone is laughing and joking. This isn't the first time I've walked away form a situation in despair.

On Friday I made my last trip from Soma to Kombo. We did have an hour long break-down, but it was all made that much easier knowing I never have to do that journey again. Train fares have gone up again at home, there's been chaos caused by unusually early snow-fall. I can't wait.

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Ashley our visitor

Ash creating a map of the region and its schools in the office!

Me taking a few gin-assisted low vantage point shots

A dog ran in front of my motorbike, I slammed the brakes on, skidded in the sand and fell off. It hurt. These are the bruises one week later!
Cool dude.

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

how do you quantify success?

With my final days of work approaching I have started writing handover notes and packing up my house. It is hard to imagine the dark mornings and afternoons I'll be returning to. The temperature has cooled slightly here and I now sleep under a sheet. This whole experience has been interesting. Last week was a holiday for the Muslim Tobaski celebrations - rams are slaughtered and everyone enjoys a feast. So after a less than pleasant previous week at work, I escaped to the Kombo. On the day itself I managed to hide in Courtney's house and avoid all evidence of slaughtering, then joined the others for gin later on. Tobaski is a great example of what is good here. Richer families may give a ram to poorer families and everyone is included - even a houseful of alcohol drinking toubabs who have realtively more money than all the surrounding compounds, were brought foodbowl by two neighbouring families. With christmas approaching we will all begin moaning about commercialisation, but do we honestly look past the endless marketing and glitzy wrapping?

Although I don't feel like I have achieved much, I have learned a lot from this experience. VSO's pre-placement training is excellent and gives you a good grounding in the economic situation in developing countries, considers issues of power and control and looks initally at how corruption affects us at home before moving on to how it may affect you during your placement. You leave your home country with a very particular mindset, aware of the bigger picture and ready to work. I had certain expectations but found the situation on the ground very different and that is what you have to work with. Indeed The Gambia is more developed than I anticipated, in places. It is hard to generalise.
Teachers in the UK complain how excessive amount of paperwork leave no time to prepare lessons properly and it is true. Endless hours are spent assessing pupils so we can set targets we then spend the rest of the year harrasing them with. A child who needs a D-grade to get into college receives less attention than a child needing a C, it is equally important to their lives but makes no difference to our magic A*-C numbers. This shouldn't be what educaiton is about. The Gambia is steaming ahead of many places in terms of policy. Monitoring visits check that policies are in place, displayed and even created in a participatory manner. Weekly teacher and pupil attendance data is collected and submitted. Reports are generated left, right and centre. Even NGO's have to be able to justify their work; how many teachers have been trained, what percentage of lessons are child centred, what increase in the number of girls in education has there been? When there is so much focus on the quantifiable, we are in danger of creating a distorted picture and the qualitative judgements become overlooked. 100% of child centered lessons would be an amazing achievement and at least one of the education objectives would have been met and surpassed, but if we have a different understanding of what child centered means and children still fail their exams, where is the value?

Disregard for a moment trade sanctions, mineral depositis, the effetcs of global warming and what percentage of ministry positions are held by women. Above all it is people that make change happen, but they have to want to change.

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.

Monday, 8 November 2010

rather this than a tumbu fly...

The week before last I was somewhat unwell, but unable to put my finger on quite what was wrong. Incessant tiredness, no appetite, bit of a headache, strange stomach ache. I moaned my way through it and felt fine again towards the middle of the week. Friday arrived and we headed down to the Kombo for a flying visit – Ashley, our temporary resident teenager on his gap-year, needed to renew his visa at the immigration department, so we all went along for the hell of it, or maybe more for the good food and alcohol. Regardless, we checked into Mama’s Friday night, drank more than is healthy in the space of one meal then headed into Senegambia, to show Ashley the social highlights. As it turns out there were actual highlights to be had, a free bar in the Jewel of India to celebrate Divali.
Saturday morning we stumbled down for breakfast then went back to bed. As the day progressed I began to feel worse – the incredible humidity and lack of water supply in the Kombo didn’t help, unbearably hot but unable to even shower to cool down. In the evening we headed to Max’s for dinner and our usual musical endeavours. My thigh bones and knees had begun to hurt. I took some painkillers and avoided the beer. That night I could not sleep, racked with aches and pains and unable to cool down. I felt distinctly viral. Lucy was equally restless and the pair of us tossed and turned until morning.
Feeling no better the next morning and a little worried that this was a second bout of illness in the space of a few days, I called in at Afrimed for a malaria test to put my mind at rest before heading back up-country. It is a well-known fact that a volunteer is unable to leave Afrimed without being tested for everything under the sun and prescribed drugs for things you probably don’t have. I felt short-changed when my vitals were checked and my blood tested for malaria but nothing more. Having dosed myself up on paracetamol my temperature was normal and the malaria test was negative.

Monday; I took more painkillers and tried not to think about how I was feeling as we made our way back to Soma. By early evening we were home, I had a very cold shower and went straight to bed. Not really managing to sleep or even lie still with the pain in my back, I got up and took my temperature; a balmy 38.1 – more paracetamol called for. I didn’t pay much attention to the slight nose bleed in the midst of things. Sleep eluded me; I finished a book and the paracetamol took precisely one hour to make any difference to my temperature. I couldn’t make it out of bed on Tuesday. By the time Wednesday came around my temperature was back to normal but I still ached and had developed a rash across my chest, stomach and back. I sent a text to the Doctor who told me to take an anti-malarial treatment dose. In all my studies of the malarial parasite I’d never heard of a rash being a symptom, but I did contemplate it for a while. I popped into work, sent some emails and discussed my symptoms with my mother over Skype. When I got home Lucy had returned, she too had developed a rash. We compared notes then went for a sleep. A few hours later we were covered head-to-toe, with Lucy beginning to suffer with the aches that had begun to recede for me. I trawled through the traveller’s health book and updated my mother on our symptoms.
The all round consensus was dengue fever:

  • Initial unspecified illness – check
  • Muscle and joint pain – check
  • Day 3-5 red rash may appear on trunk – check
  • Rash soon spreads to limbs and face – check
  • Possible minor nose-bleeds during early stages of fever (not symptomatic of hemorrhagic form) – check
Thursday morning; rash no better and my face was all puffy with my eyes feeling like I‘d spent the night sobbing, worsening throughout the day until they just plain hurt. Additional symptom later discovered on WHO website;

  •  Pain behind eyes – check

I updated the Doc via text, he told us to see a local doctor, so off we trotted to the local clinic – a sprawling plot of land with numerous random looking buildings, without no signs anywhere. We told a random person we wanted to see a doctor; he pointed us in the direction of what turned out to be the maternity ward. I asked if there was a reception we should go to and was met with a puzzled look. Someone gestured into a doorway “Cuban Doctors” so in we went to discover 3 doctors with a limited amount of English. We tried to explain our symptoms and the time-line of their development. The rashes spoke for themselves. I sat in a chair whilst one of them listened to my chest and took my blood-pressure. I can only imagine they were both fine. No-one took my temperature or looked at my throat or anything really. We were asked if we’d eaten anything different – we hadn’t. We were asked if we took any medication - we explained about the doxycycline we take daily, our anti-malarials. They looked horrified and told us to stop taking it straight away; you don’t need it – just use a bed net and spray and protect your house. They went down in my estimation and I viewed my scrawled prescription with scepticism. Diagnosis - skin reaction. Off we went home, not bothering to call into the pharmacy. Two different and contradictory pieces of medical advice in as many days and I didn’t trust either of them. Oh well as long as I’m in safe hands. I updated the Afrimed Doc via text and gave him my opinion; he asked me what I wanted to do. I didn’t think there was much you could do to treat a virus, so we agreed to just wait and see.

By evening, the pain behind the eyes aside, I was feeling much better. Lucy wasn’t.

Monday now and I feel as right as rain. Apparently we have to watch out for a post-recovery relapse, it is important we rest. We may also suffer months of tiredness.
Not sure anyone will be able to tell the difference.

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.