Call back

22 11 2007

The last week and half have been fairly busy. Just over a week ago (Thurs 8th Nov – Fri 9th) I attended the second part of VSO’s “in country training”. This was largely an excuse for the 30 volunteers who arrived in September to sit around and share stories with a bit of moaning at VSO and Ghana thrown in. It was held on my home turf of Tamale, so I had the pleasure of showing off Tamale to my colleagues – and for many of them further north than me Tamale now constitutes a fast paced, high powered, hectic metropolis. For the visitors from Accra it’s a quaint rural backwater.

It was fun to see my friends and I for those who are struggling I hope it was helpful to at least feel they weren’t alone in their struggles. The problems people faced in their first few weeks ranged from the practical (I wasn’t the only one struggling to open a bank account or having water issues) through lack of a clear role at work to more personal issues. Work problems seemed the most common and the most striking thing were the range of attitudes people had to these problems, and the impact attitude had on people’s experience and ability to cope. Two people going into identical situations with the same organisation and meeting the same response can seem to have totally different experiences, one deciding to find a way to make it work and the other becoming overwhelmed by “their not wanting us here”.

Quite a few people are finding that their jobs don’t match the descriptions originally given. In one case a volunteer has yet to meet his Ghanaian colleagues, 6 weeks into the job. Another is a web designer/IT trainer who hasn’t even been given a desk, much less a computer. Other people are finding that they are given trivial tasks below their skill level and most (except some of the teachers) are working at a much lower rate to that which they are used to. The teachers seem to be the busiest, with large class sizes and fairly full timetables, but even they aren’t as stretched as they would be in the UK.

The most positive volunteers are creating their own jobs, or taking time to learn, observe and make contacts. The frustration was there, but the volunteers generally understand that these are early days, and that a degree of changing expectations and work culture is needed.

Call back was possibly most useful in the evenings and between sessions when we got to chat to each other informally and explore some of the issues. Obviously a certain amount of drinking was done and one group even discovered a nightclub where they danced Friday night away. Safe to say I remain ignorant of its location.

I was asked a few weeks ago in a comment by Dr Nick what the make up of the demographic make up of the volunteers was and this seems as good a point as any to talk about it. In my group the majority are white middle class English, but there is a reasonable contingent of Filipinos (6 or 7) a couple of Irish, a Dutch couple, two Kenyans, a Canadian, an Italian and a Finn – so a fairly international bunch. All are middle class (as you would expect given the skills VSO ask for) and most are politically to the left of me. This is an unusual experience for me, as you might expect most of my colleagues at HSBC were politically to my right. Whilst a fair few are religious, none are aggressively so and there is a good smattering of atheists amongst us. The age range is quite marked, with one or two 25 year olds and one or two in their sixties, and I think every decade in between is represented. They are almost universally pleasant, sociable and well adapted – which is probably a tribute to VSO’s selection process. It is probably a more interesting bunch of people than average – which is to be expected in a group of people who have chosen to give up the comforts of the developed world to try to make a difference. I’m really pleased and honoured to have met and worked with them.

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