Advice for new volunteers

17 05 2009

In the unlikely event I got asked I’ve been thinking about what advice I’d give to a prospective volunteer. Here is my distilled wisdom

1)Don’t take any advice too seriously, come with an open mind and make your own judgements

2)”Flexible and Adaptable” – VSO weren’t kidding, these really are crucial attributes

3)It’s all about people. This probably should be #1, I can’t stress it enough

4)Don’t be negative, look for the positive. Negative thoughts and people drag you down. Avoid both

5)When you’re frustrated with inefficiency, incompetence, lack of resources or infrastructure remember that that is rather the point for your being there. Switzerland doesn’t need too many volunteers

6)Remember you made the decision to go. It’s your responsibility so you need to make it work

7)There will be rotten times. There will be great times. There will be dull, mundane times. Ratios vary.

8)You will (almost certainly) get ill, but over 2 years it’s unlikely you’d have never got ill if you’d stayed at home

9) Be willing to ask for help

10)Have fun, enjoy yourself, explore your host country

Anything other VSOs would like to add?




12 responses

17 05 2009

All great – would just add that people should be realistic about what they can and cannot do when accepting a posting.

The other thing is don’t rush into anything once your arrive…really get to know the culture and the organisation first.

17 05 2009
Tim Little

I forgot the don’t rush in one – it is really hard not to when you first arrive, you feel the need to be doing something. Great point.

17 05 2009

Maybe you should add that volunteers should be responsible in their decisions, such as don’t do what you ain’t going to do at home, like harming the enviroment, etc etc.

17 05 2009
John Pelley

Very good adv ice. Another idea is to stay out of the politics of the organization. Regular employees will try to drag you into their petty squabbles. Don’t fall for it.

18 05 2009
Tim Little

Anathema – very true, also don’t take risks you wouldn’t take in your home country

John – Thanks, fortunately I’ve not suffered from this but it can be a problem, made even harder when the politicing is happening in a language you don’t understand

19 05 2009
Tim Little

One crucial piece of advice I forgot – don’t put aerosol cans in the rubbish you’re burning

19 05 2009

thank you all for your advice – i’m currently going through the selection process and have my assessment day in ottawa this week. these are all great suggestions and its nice to read something from the perspective of those who are actually in the situation.

19 05 2009

Check out a fun quiz that tests your humanitarian brain power! Thought you might enjoy it.


19 05 2009
Tim Little

Good luck Kay

23 05 2009
Damien Moran

Very good idea for a post Tim. I am a little less succint when it comes to forming a list, so pardon the length.

Don’t walk too much in the sun in the middle of the day – you’re no good to your project if you’re tired all the time.

Avoid the risk of getting sick as much as possible by using a mosquito net (pack one when you go to the coast); use anti-mosquito repellent; eat freshly prepared street food at peak times of the day or make your own; drink lots of fluids – generally take care of your health! You’re no good to anybody if you’re sick.
So many younger volunteers I’ve met here spend huge amounts of time down and out from simple neglect of their health.

Learn as much of the local language prior to arrival. The Foreign Service Institute has freely downloadable booklet/audio programmes of most languages, including Twi. When you get here try to organise one your fellow workers to give you Twi lessons. A skills exchange might work (computer/music/English lessons for Twi/Ga, etc.). I’ve found learning to communicate in basic Twi in most situations a brilliant icebreaker and a key way to get to know people beyond the surface.

Try to avoid cynicism. This can be hard. There are bound to be a long history to the difficult situations you face in your project. Keep your ears open and mouth shut as much as possible for the first few months until you’ve earned people’s respect by hard work and an ability to listen.

Whether you are male or female, respect the fact that if the accomodation you have been provided with is onsite of the project (school/orphanage) then it is basic manners to inform management, your host that you would like to invite a guest over to visit or stay. Avoid liberally giving out your workplace address to people you have just met, especially if you are young and female, as more than likely the guys will turn up asking for you. This has happened at least 10 times at the project I work in and leads to unnecessary rumours amongst staff, students, etc. as well as the fact that you may have somehow encouraged a complete stranger to visit a project where there are vulnerable children, teens, adults.

Have a good sense of humour like Tim ;-)

Share your good and bad experiences constructively for others to learn from.

Haggle for better prices on the market. Creating conditions for inflation and reinforcing perceptions that white people have lots of money will not earn you respect. Ghanaians are almost always willing to give you a fair price, just don’t be a pushover. Buy local products when possible, which it almost always is – fruit juices, chocolate, staple foods, batik, etc.

Smile lots, be patient, keep your tongue tied as much as possible when you lost the cool, give yourself little treats now and again, and keep in touch with those at home regularly as reintegrating or sharing your experiences over a few hours in a pub can always be a difficult process.

26 05 2009
Tim Little

Thanks for those Damien. I’ll admit shamefacedly that I never bother with a bed net (and so far avoided malaria after 20 months).

While I agree with you in general about avoiding creating local inflation my experience in Tamale is that the price for fruit & veg etc is fixed and the same for locals and foreigners so haggling doesn’t work. If you get to know a seller sometimes they’ll “dash” you a fw extra tomatoes or whatever. Perhaps Tamale is just more honest than Kumasi, the north is better generally the you southerners in Kumasi.

Last point – DON’T learn Twi if you’re coming to the 3 northern regions. It isn’t welcome here

13 08 2016
After a Year | The Fat Worm

[…] was going through my old Ghana blog and found a post that might be useful to people becoming expats for the first […]

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