“Long time” is a greeting I used to hear frequently in the Gambia, and was employed even if it was only 48 hours since I had seen the person who was greeting me. In this case however it really is a long time since I wrote anything here.
When I started this blog it was intended principally to reassure friends and family at home that I was still alive and well and to tell them a little about my new life in a country which was totally different to their own, and as a result it seemed pointless to write about sitting in an office working on a manual of crop husbandry notes to help educate Gambian farmers. Instead I tried to write about alien customs and culture, and how my new friends and neighbours lived their everyday lives as I thought this might be more interesting to someone who had never been outside the UK and whose only idea of Africa had probably been formed by television programmes. When I returned to the UK six months ago, I thought as I settled back into life in rural North Yorkshire that I no longer had anything interesting to write about, but perhaps a few words about the return and resettlement process would be appropriate.
In July I spent two days in London at the Head Office of VSO for a “Returned Volunteers” weekend. As the name implies it was attended by some of the volunteers (about 45 in all, including one who had been with me in the Gambia and two who had been on pre-departure training courses with me) who had recently returned from placements abroad, together with a team of staff from VSO including the Director of VSO UK, and three members of the Volunteer Liaison Group – former volunteers who currently (and voluntarily) draw together the views of current and returned volunteers and represent them to VSO.
For the first session, after the usual introductions we were each invited to share “Just One Thing” from our experience overseas, and in many cases the volunteer had something concrete to show the rest of us – a bangle or piece of cloth for example, or a picture of an important moment. One enterprising volunteer who had travelled round her placement by motorcycle had used a camera on the handlebars to document in a series of still photographs the route to work, and had then edited them into a film of the journey. As for myself I could not decide for some time what single thing could represent something of such significance to my stay in The Gambia until it struck me. So blindingly obvious! Tapilapa! (Those of you who know me will have heard me before praising the taste of tapilapa ad infinitum. For those who don’t I should explain that it is a local bread, rather like a baguette, and that it formed a major part of my diet in Gambia. I adored it and probably ate far too much of it but it sustained me well on a daily basis and must have been the cause of my trim waistline while I was there as it is only since I returned to the UK that my girth has increased!)
We then received a presentation by Angela Salt (UK Director) on current developments within VSO followed by group sessions to discuss the volunteer journey, and to give feedback on our experiences both positive and negative, and to come up with comments, suggestions, and questions to put to Angela and her staff in the last formal session of the day. This provoked some lively discussion and is used to update on areas where the volunteers feel praise is due, or improvements needed. After each RV weekend, any new points are added to the existing Volunteer Feedback document, (and if country specific, also shared with the Country Office), and some time later the details of any action taken as a result are also added before circulation to the participants. In addition to this general forum discussion there was also opportunity to have one to one discussions with a member of the staff team if any volunteers wished for a personal debrief.
By now it was 6pm and we departed with our bags en masse to book into overnight accommodation at the local Travelodge before returning to the offices for dinner and a pub style quiz followed by some of the more hardy adjourning to the pub next door, a large empty space with few customers, much improved by a group of thirsty volunteers.
The second day began with a series of small discussion groups sharing reflections on the experience of returning home, and it was reassuring to find that I was not alone in feeling rather unsettled at first as we talked about the various challenges faced when coming back to the UK. These ranged from the practical tasks of finding somewhere to live, (I was fortunate in that my tenant had moved out before I returned so I was able to move straight back into my own home) to looking for a job. Others included dealing with the feelings of loss sometimes experienced at the end of pltacement, and the process of adapting to everyday life in a totally different environment. It was interesting to hear volunteers talk of expecting uncomprehending friends and relatives to show more interest in their experiences abroad than was the case and of finding a bewildering range of goods in the shops on their return home. It seems that resettling often takes some time and we were given useful practical advice and some tips distilled from the many volunteers who had returned over the years before us. Finding purpose and structure when coming back is often a problem, and for the first few months I found that was my own experience. I found it hard to feel a sense of purpose but as time passed I began to look forward to the harvest season and have spent much of the last ten weeks sitting on a tractor or engaged in other agricultural activities which occupied me daily and gave me much satisfaction. Now however, next year’s crop has been sown, and apart from some gardening and domestic tasks I am again at a loose end. I am still in touch with friends from the Gambia and had more or less decided to return there if I could and continue with the work I was doing despite the frustrations which I had encountered. There have been various staff changes in the Department of Agriculture since I left including the promotion of my former boss Ousman Jammeh to the top job as Director General which could be a step forward if his political masters allow him a free hand and give him the tools to do the job. He is a very able and hard working man, but I hear that the DoA is still starved of resources and that political in-fighting and jealousy persists.
Meanwhile VSO have announced that they are soon to close down their operations in the Gambia, so that avenue is no longer open to me. Reasons for their decision have not been made public, but could be because they have been there over forty years and may feel that much has been achieved already and that as a result their impact is rather less now than it was previously. In common with other Non Governmental Organisations in the development community they are having to fight ever harder for funding in a very competitive market at a time when the pot is shrinking, and it may be easier to show the reach and impact of their operations in “newer” countries. Donors may therefore be more amenable to supporting programmes in Myanmar for example where VSO have recently established a presence and where results can perhaps be more easily be demonstrated to those providing the funding. Certainly there are quite a number of vacant posts advertised for Myanmar at present, but as many of them are for those with medical or educational expertise they fall outside my skills. If however you are a nurse/midwife/literacy and numeracy advisor/teacher trainer or similar thinking of volunteering there are opportunities for you now at http://www.vso.org.uk/volunteer. As for me, when harvest and seed time was over I registered once again to volunteer next year in a more general role, probably assisting with small business development or similar. I am now waiting to see if my application is accepted and if so, what suitable placements are available to me, and where.
Who knows? Perhaps next year we will meet overseas!