A great insight into the volunteering experience

Cheryl Malloy / Australian Volunteers International/Volunteer/Vanuatu

The Global Volunteer, parts 1, 2 & 3. Cheryl Malloy takes us through her volunteering experience in Vanuatu, from preparing to go to getting the work done. A great insight into the volunteering experience.

The Global Volunteer, Part 1 - Pre-Departure

Many governments in developed nations send volunteers to developing communities in countries that used to be known as "third world". The terminology used by these governments and the international development community changes from time to time, but the work of overseas volunteers continues to be a huge contributor through programs such as the American Peace Corps, Australian Volunteers International, Canada's CUSO and Britain's VSO, among others.

Volunteers are drawn from across a range of ages and professional backgrounds and most volunteers will tell you the experience has been life altering.

Once the decision has been made to become a volunteer there can be a huge gap between that decision and actually finding yourself in the field. That gap is really all about preparing for the experience and confirming your decision.

My husband, Ron and I became volunteers in our early 50's. Disillusioned with living the rat race and having realised the Australian dream of home ownership and a family, we decided to pack it all in and throw our hat in the ring for Australian Volunteers International (AVI). Our children thought we were fabulously adventurous and our friends commenced wondering about our sanity. Many people asked us what we would do "if it didn't work out". Clearly we had a streak of madness and would surely be jeopardising our retirement and our professional lives! We just didn't see it from this perspective. For us it was about throwing caution to the wind for the sake of an adventure and we were energised by the decision and once made couldn't wait for it all to happen.

We applied for a number of postings and a few weeks later we were both contacted and offered positions in 2 different countries - Oh dear! Now that would have been too big an adventure and so we had to make a decision which position and which country to accept. Vanuatu or Papua new Guinea? An idyllic Pacific island or a troubled country with many security concerns. The decision was an easy one in the end and I gave up my posting to a University in PNG in favour of my husband's posting to a secondary school in Vanuatu.

Decisions have ramifications! There were aging parents to consider, children who although adult were still very much dependent on us for support and encouragement and friendships that had been forged over many years that are precious at any stage in life. There was a business to be wound up, resignation from a 35 year career, a house and a dog that needed care. Our financial position, although far from rocky, was certainly not so firm that we could throw all caution to the wind.

Ron's Mum sadly passed away before we could deliver the news, which we believe she may have had some difficulty coping with. My Mum surprised us all by saying "Mad if you don't do it! Go on off you go and have fun. Send me postcards and don't forget to ring or email". The children said they would follow us for holidays if they could and provided their blessing as well. We are in debt to them all for their generosity of spirit and the release they provided us to take this path. Our friends had a variety of reactions from "Oh, My God - you must be joking" to "I don't get it - why would you want to do this at this stage in your life/careers!" to "Make sure you have an extra bed - we will be there to visit!"

AVI has a very professional process and we headed off to Melbourne for our Orientation and Induction program about 6 weeks before we were to step on the plane to Vanuatu, giving us plenty of time to back out and AVI some time to replace us, if need be. I have to say by this stage we were beginning to doubt our own sanity. On meeting the other volunteers who had signed up in the group being mobilized with us we once again took heart at the decision we had made. There were about 80 people being sent to all parts of the Pacific, Africa and the South East Asian region. Seven of these made our group to travel to Port Vila in Vanuatu. We formed a very tight and supportive friendship group in the months to come, but more about that later, perhaps in another article.

The following six weeks flew by and the date for leaving was looming large through all our preparations. One of the children, our third son, and his wife agreed to move into the house. We gifted our second car to our eldest son, loaned our newcar to our daughter to support her to be able to continue her studies, gifted our second son with some furniture that was no longer needed and eventually closed down the house and the business. Our son who was moving into the house would not entertain the idea of moving the dog on so she stayed with them and they loved her and cared for her very well!

I think the magnitude of what we were doing only hit me when I was at the airport, ticket in hand, 2 suitcases to set up in a new country, a large grin on my face and tears in my eyes with all the children saying goodbye.  Finally I came to the conclusion that we may indeed be slightly insane - but also insanely happy and ready for the adventure. We strode onto that plane with confidence we didn't really feel and a new group of friends for life.

The Global Volunteer, Part 2 - Arriving In-Country

As we stepped into Bauerfield Airport in Port Vila at midnight on a Saturday we were greeted by a four piece string band. I defy anyone on 2 legs to actually stand still and ignore a string band! So the sight of all the passengers of the 737 swinging and bopping along in the arrivals hall was quite amusing. At this particular airport there is always a string band playing island music to greet newcomers and returnees. It really diverts you from the fact that there are only 2 desks to handle immigration cards and 2 customs officials to deal with incoming cargo! Who cares how long it takes if you can bop along to a string band?

From the airport we hop a cab (which would never meet Australia's roadworthiness certification) to our accommodation at one of the local hotels. Now I am not talking the Sofitel or the Rotana here - this was a really basic motel style resort that you would find in one of the tourist villages down a dirt track on the coast of Australia. Probably built in the 50's, refurbished in the 70's and left to cope with the tropical elements since then. The manager had stayed up till 1.30am to greet us and the staff were all lined up and waiting to take us to our rooms. They were curious about us and very interested in welcoming us and making us feel right at home. We had our first introduction to the local language, Bislama, a sort of pidgin English/French and local language mixture.

The people of Vanuatu were voted the happiest people on Earth the year we arrived there and I have to say they were just lovely - welcoming, smiling, gracious and understated, shy people. After escorting us to our rooms they disappeared into the night and we settled to sleep. Ah, but sleeping was not part of the plan in Vila that night. You see the French had been playing the Italians in the final of the World Cup and the town had taken sides. The Francophone community naturally aligning with France and everyone else in town including Australians, Americans, Germans and who knows else, were backing anyone to beat the French. When the Italians beat the French 5-3 the town exploded and there were convoys of young men driving around town hooting their horns and loudly celebrating the defeat of the French, who it appears are becoming less and less popular in the town!

I guess the youths drank themselves into oblivion by about 3 am and we slept soundly till 7.30. We were to be picked up at 9 am for a tour of the town and surroundings. The day progressed with Visa formalities and meeting and greeting. In fact the days of that first week all melted into sleep and wakefulness and busyness. We had to find accommodation, get utilities connected, have visas approved and residency status granted - and we started on Bislama lessons! There were very few wakeful moments for reflection and feeling homesick and every moment was taken up with new interesting and exciting things to do, see and experience.

And then we had to start our work. Ron went off to Malapoa College, Vanuatu's premier high school, to mentor the Principal and take over the Maths faculty. I arrived on the steps of the office of Youth Challenge Vanuatu to provide support to their new Director and review the agency's policy, procedures and management practices, institute a staff training program and mentor the project manager! Both jobs were huge - far bigger than we had imagined. And that story is for the next article!

It takes some time to settle into a new environment and we had been warned about culture shock. In the first few weeks you are trying so hard to get to know the people and the places; learn where to get your supplies and meet your friends (the watering holes); settle into strange accommodation; learn about what is a realistic expectation of yourself and others, that you actually spend little time focusing on the differences and more trying to make things have a certain sameness about home so as to feel comfortable. WOW! Doesn't that set you up for a great fall! We had been told there would be a cycle of emotional adjustment that included large periods of not feeling useful, comfortable and (in fact) verging on depression.  That is what culture shock is about - adjusting to the new environment and not having expectations that this new environment will have anything in it that is familiar. We had to learn to go with the flow, and that flow was so much slower, more bureaucratic, more time spent in discussion, much lower expectations and great leaps in small outcomes.

If there is one thing a new volunteer needs to take to their placement in an international setting it is practical information on culture shock. It is not healthy to have a cavalier approach and ignore just how important this is. Of course the other tools are: a sense of humour; a willingness to listen; an acceptance that the local ways will need to be worked alongside, not challenged too much. Having said that be willing to learn a new language, be authentic and maintain a balanced approach to looking after yourself and your friends.

And in the next episode you will hear how a 53 year old woman won the hearts of teenagers and worked alongside them to deliver great projects across the island communities and within the town of Port Vila. She is now an honorary grandmother to 2 Ni-Vanuatu babies and has lifelong friends in the native population of the islands.

The Global Volunteer, Part 3 - Getting the work done.

"How hard could this gig be! A South Pacific Island that has the happiest people on Earth, located in a tropical paradise, sun, surf, sand,…..anyone could do this!" And that is probably true, to a certain extent. The environment in Vanuatu is spectacular. It is reputed to have the best diving in the world; the snorkeling could only be described as unsurpassable; the weather for nine months of the year is ideal (the other 3 are hot, hot, hot and high humidity); the island communities are picturesque and welcoming, and the people are gorgeous. This is one of the best honeymoon and holiday places you could find on the planet. It is modern enough to feel comfortable, particularly in Port Vila (the capital), Luganville on the island of Santo and Lenakel on Tanna. And yet it is still possible to find remote and untouched communities where life has been going on the same way for centuries.

Vanuatu is a developing nation in terms of its economy, health, education and government. The French and the British administered the islands jointly under a condominium government until July 1980 when the Ni-Vanuatu (that's the name for the locals) claimed their independence as the Republic of Vanuatu. It was previously the New Hebrides. The Ni-Vanuatu are now totally responsible for government and to assist them to make this huge transition to independence and being a nation of the 21st Century there is a lot of aid work that is supported by governments and corporations from around the world. I am not about to debate the pros and cons of this system, we were caught up in It as Australian volunteers and we went there to do a job.

My job was to work with Youth Challenge Vanuatu as a mentor to the Project Manager, a support to the new Program Director and the meaty stuff was to review all current policies and procedures, write a staff handbook and implement a staff training program. - HA! EASY! Well it would have been IF we had computers that worked, staff that had a western work ethic, an office that was not a drop in centre and a program that never experienced a hitch!  The reality was far from the ideal and contributed greatly to the building of strong relationships and mutual respect.

We delivered about twelve projects while I was there. They ranged from building health clinics, aid posts and water tanks to conducting Youth Skills Summits and Women's Conferences on remote islands. More often than not there was no air transport to the islands so our volunteers went out on cargo ships. Inevitably, in the tropics, newcomers are plagued with the effects of insect bites, cuts and scratches, exposure to new bacteria and malaria. New and different foods caused stomach upsets and food preparation was accomplished in island kitchens amidst the cats, the dogs and the children. All of this needed to be supported across the islands without the benefit of mobile phones or internet communication. Often the only phone would be in the next village and could be an hour's walk away. Youth Challenge staff did a magnificent job of supporting these projects and I am very proud of the work we did in that time.

What was more important to me personally was the relationships I developed with the staff of the agency. I was easily 20 years older than any other member of staff and perhaps 30 years older than the volunteers who were drawn from the community and overseas to complete the project work. Age was no barrier. I was just one of the gang and they accepted, welcomed and respected me. Work was fun and I have to say there is nothing that will keep you young as much as working with enthusiastic and committed young people. I engaged with and grew to love the Ni-Vanuatu youth I worked with. There will always be those that were very special and for me that gets down to about 10-12 people. I now have a lifelong friendship with them. Some of them have now gone on to have children and I am the "Aussie Grandma". I keep in touch with them and our relationships are growing.

Since leaving Vanuatu I have spent two years in the United Arab Emirates and I now live in China. I have returned to Vanuatu this year to meet the 'grandchildren' and I will go back again periodically. After all if it has the Happiest People on Earth I would be crazy not to want to be there.
Photos ©Debra Plueckhahn

Courtesy of Australian Volunteers International www.australianvolunteers.com