Life changing?

13 05 2009

In response to an earlier blog post my sister asked: “How do you think you have changed over the past couple of years as a result of your experiences?” VSO is often described as a “Life changing experience” so to what extent my life has changed is a reasonable question. Unfortunately it’s a rather difficult question to answer, partly because it’s easier to see change from the outside and partly because my life before VSO seems so distant. Also I can’t be sure which changes are permanent, which temporary and which ones are only imagined.

One thing being here in Ghana brought home to me is how lucky I’ve been with the opportunities I’ve been given in life, and how little I’ve done with them. Seeing people struggling to survive and not given any chances I realise that I’ve been cruising most of my life, not really making an effort and taking for granted the easiness of my life. In some ways I’ve been waiting for my life to start properly, while playing around at stuff – dipping into this and trying a bit of that. Perhaps it’s time to find something to take seriously.

I do feel that I’m more self confident, more willing to take challenges on, to take the initiative and to stand up and speak. I feel happier about myself generally and more willing to believe that people like me. I feel I’ve coped with a challenge that many don’t even attempt and some who do fail at. I arrived into a big, empty house on the edge of Tamale which didn’t have running water most of the time. I was in a foreign country, I knew one other person in town, and I’d only met her two weeks previously. The market scared me, the town scared me, the job scared me, there wasn’t a lot to entertain me apart from a pack of cards, my teach yourself the tin whistle book (and whistle), a handful of books and my laptop with a few movies. I learnt how to catch taxis and how to shop in the market, I made friends, I learnt to wake up to see whether water was flowing so I could collect it, I learnt to cook on 3 rings and with new ingredients. I settled in. I survived. I didn’t give up or go home. I’m proud of that.

I’ve learned to let go and go with the flow, not to fight the unalterable. I hope I’m a bit more patient. I’ve also learned about myself. I’m not as tolerant as I thought, but I’m happy with the fact that there are people I actually dislike. I don’t need to like everyone, and it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong with the other person.

Other things? For a while at least I’m going to be more careful with water, and more appreciative of the other services we assume in Britain. A twenty minute delay on the northern line will seem like nothing after waiting an hour in burning sun for a tro-tro to fill. I’ll be glad that I can rely on the electricity and phone networks. I’ll be pleased that the police can generally be trusted and will marvel at the smoothness of the roads. I may need to be extracted from bookshops.

For a while I’ll also notice the sterility, the safety, the paranoia. I’ll see that our lives, like our food, are hermetically sealed, beautifully presented but lacking real flavour. I’ll miss the life, the chaos and the vibrancy of Ghana. The colours, smells and sounds that scream for your attention without subtlety or the gloss of marketing. But slowly that will fade, as will my righteous anger.

Would I do something like this again? Not immediately, but a friend sent me details of an organisation looking for volunteers to teach IT to children affected by the war in Uganda. I’m not sure how serious he was but for a short while I was seriously tempted, and I’m still tempted to do something like that once I’m a bit better qualified, and once my family and friends have had a chance to get bored of me. The happiest times of my life have been when I’ve lived outside Britain.

A more obvious change, 15kg lighter:
Before and After

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5 responses

13 05 2009
Life changing? VSO as an experience « Adventuring with Fi

[…] Posted by Fi McKenzie under Interesting Stuff, VSO No Comments  Tim Little has written a fascinating post on how the VSO experience has changed him. It’s an insight into some of the things you learn, and ways you grow as a volunteer, and […]

13 05 2009
Tim Little

Another VSO’s ideas on the same subject:
http://ourmanincameroon.com/2009/05/13/how-vso-changes-you/

16 05 2009
Jason

Tim, good summary. I would certainly echo most of that. The notion that we in western society have had it too easy is something that motivated me to join VSO from the beginning. I felt that I needed to face some adversity to further grow as an individual. In the U.S. (and possibly in the U.K.) it is very easy to become self-adsorbed and oblivious to the world beyond our borders. We certainly cannot depend on the media to inform us. We also cannot expect much from our two week holidays to the developing world. The VSO experience provides at least a opportunity to scratch the surface of life in these places. Congratulations on completing your service in Ghana. I am happy to hear that you have found it has valuable as I did.
-Jason
…still longing for a ice cold Gulder

18 05 2009
Ellen Cranton

Thank you for a wonderful insight into your experiences and the way you feel they have changed you. Thank you also for this blog – it’s brought laughter and tears over the past couple of years but more importantly it has kept you in our home! Your family are really looking forward to your return and I know that you’ll have to wait a very long time before they get bored of you!

19 05 2009
Tim Little

Thanks Jason and Ellen

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