When and where did you volunteer abroad?
Between March and May of 2008 I volunteered with a grassroots NGO based out of Kampala, Uganda, where I focused on professional development of the NGO as well as teaching English to refugees. During the three months in East Africa, I was able to travel around southern Uganda, through much of Rwanda, and I spent time in both South and North Kivu provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
What made you want to volunteer abroad?
I had traveled extensively with my work as a reservist in the Canadian Armed Forces (CF) in my early twenties and I spent over a year working as a NATO peacekeeper in Bosnia and Herzegovina. During my time in Bosnia I felt very cut off from the local community, so I when returned to Canada I knew wanted to travel and work in different places around the world and to be able to share knowledge with the people I encountered. I completed two undergraduate degrees in the sciences, but near the end of my program I was able to take several senior-level classes in community development and international studies; and I also took several graduate-level courses in public health and community development. In 2007, I was selected to do another military tour, this time in Afghanistan – but I knew that my heart was not in working in Afghanistan as a soldier. I was able to break my contract with the military and I soon was able to arrange for volunteer work with an NGO in Uganda. I wanted to further develop my skills and experiences in community development work, and to help refugee populations escape from conflict zones.
What was your biggest surprise about your volunteer experience abroad?
Working and living in a large metropolitan area in Eastern Africa posed a different set of challenges to what I’d predicted. Luxuries, such as electricity, internet connectivity, and (in some cases) indoor plumbing, were juxtaposed with struggles to prevent communicable diseases such as malaria, maintain hygiene, deal with food poisoning, and make it through frequent power brown-outs, occurrences of civil unrest, pollution, a lack of personal security and an overtaxed infrastructure. I learned very quickly that a person living in these circumstances has to be extremely flexible to deal with changing situations and different challenges whereby every day seemed fraught with another situation or event. I was generally surprised by the hospitality and generosity of many people I met, but was also humbled by many that were in dire need and struggled daily in order to acquire basic necessities.
How did you deal with the cultural divide?
Working with groups of people who have fled from their homeland to start anew in another country, I found that you have to be extremely humble and willing to listen and learn from their experiences. Many of the people I was living with and working with were refugees who had fled from the DRC. It can be difficult to explain to children that we do not have war in Canada and that people of different cultures and ethnicities co-exist without dominating one another. Another salient point I found was that language is extremely important in at least attempting to build a bridge across a cultural divide. Overall, many people that I encountered shared an ideal of reinventing themselves and working hard to build a better life for themselves and their families. I found that the willingness of people to share, to work hard, and to learn as much as possible, were shared values which allowed me to partially bridge the cultural divide.
Describe an experience that made a particularly strong impression on you?
One experience that stuck out in my mind was when I was in the city of Goma, North Kivu province of DRC. There was an extreme animosity towards the United Nations and anyone who represented a European or American power. I was only in this city for a few days but it was unsettling to require an escort everywhere I went. I was disturbed once again to see a city wracked by war and then, shortly thereafter, by an earthquake and volcanic eruption from nearby Mount Nyiragongo. The plight of this city and its people has left a permanent mark on me.
What was your return like?
I suffered a lot of reverse culture shock, since I’d been immersed in a community of refugees and had little interaction with expatriates in East Africa. I ensured that I scheduled a few days to “decompress” in the UK before heading back to my home in western Canada. The idea of decompressing was to get used to being back in the so-called “modern world” before having to interact with family members. I found that I felt a profound sense of injustice, given the amount of excess wealth is available in our society. So for a while I felt a certain sense of disgust and anger. But I wanted to avoid conveying such hostility onto my loved ones when I returned. Another way I was able to deal with my return was that I brought my work back with me – I worked through email to help develop several grant applications for the NGO I was working with. In this way, I was able to keep some sense of continuity with my previous experiences in East Africa.
What is your number one tip for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
I’d say that if you’re working in austere conditions and trying to do community development work in sub-Saharan Africa, you’ll need to have developed a variety of skills before you go. One can achieve this by working in middle income countries, developing language skills, building some medical knowledge in order to self-medicate, being formally trained in community development and having several years of volunteer or community development experience before you go – and most importantly a sense of humour to deal with both the ups and downs of living, working and traveling in sub-Saharan Africa. Overall, my biggest tip is to have a toolbox of skill-sets/experiences to allow you to deal with challenging circumstances.
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
I am now working for the Canadian federal government where I focus on public health and security. I am close to completing a master’s in Infrastructure Protection and International Security. After I returned from East Africa I completed another undergraduate degree in anthropology, and backpacked through South America for two months. I would like to study more anthropology in the near future and to travel more into the Middle East and South Asia.
- Building Towards a Career in International Development is an article written for those who are just starting out and who made a decisive choice to work in international development.
- International Development Career Resources lists a range of resources for those who want to build their careers in international development.
- RedR UK has an extensive list of training courses designed for those working on the front lines with refugees overseas and should be considered by anyone who is serious about working in this field.
- Refugees International (RI) is a US NGO with a great Web site, including lots of information, internship opportunities and a job board.
- DevelopmentAid is just one of a few job boards that focus on international development jobs. For a full list, see NGO Job Boards.