Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Dreams of Leaving

Now here’s a question for you:

Who do you have most sympathy for: someone who you think (by your standards) should be feeling sorry for themselves, or someone who just does feel sorry for themselves, whether you think they should or not?

This is a question that occurred to me during the VSO Leavers’ Forum which I attended this week. Yes folks – it’s almost time to leave Nigeria.

It was during one of the sessions about ‘reverse culture shock’ and the process of moving ‘home’ that this thought popped into my mind. VSOs are encouraged to embark on a process of Global Education, that is, to raise awareness about development issues. To be prepared to deal with and discuss different attitudes constructively.

Leavers’ Forum: eleven of us will be leaving in the next six months. It’s not easy to contemplate. Leaving our lives here and going back to lives – and hopefully jobs – back home.

I constantly struggle with the whole goal of ‘development’. So many development projects – invariably dictated by the ‘West’ - seem to be trying to achieve a brand of economic advancement that we have seen back at home. Infrastructure, material goods, health care (oops America), TV and the like. These are things that are valued in the west and therefore we feel that people who don’t have these things are somehow to be pitied and every effort made to give them those things.

So you see a mud hut, a half naked child covered in dust or a disintegrating wall and think ‘poor people’.

It would be impossible to think the people living in the house on the left are more in need of our sympathy and help than those in the house on the right...

But I think it’s such a pity that the west has got so tied up in material, physical value that it really has lost the value for the human things in life. How much is it worth that a four year old can walk a kilometre to school alone every morning (and back) without a care in the world? That goats, chickens and other assorted livestock can wander the streets unfettered without their owners fearing they may be taken (a public flogging is quite an effective deterrent for anyone caught stealing a goat as we discovered last week). That, in communities where poverty is extreme, people will regularly give the very small amounts that they have in order to help someone whose need they perceive to be greater than their own. That communities, families and children can amuse themselves perfectly well without books, TV, or Sony Playstations.

So which kids do you think are generally ‘happier’?

The UN’s Millennium Development Goals measure ‘poverty’ and under-development by how much money someone makes each day or whether they are ‘employed’.. Whether or not children ‘attend’ primary school and whether they can read. Whether there are the same number of women as men in ‘waged’ employment.

Why doesn’t the UN put more value on humanity? On family life, farms, learning about life. Are these things so worthless?

All life is valuable. And when you don’t have material things, the human side becomes so much richer. And what really should be more valuable to us humans?

Unfortunately the west has already done the damage. Countries like Nigeria have the worst of both worlds. Their wealth and materialism in the cities is reaping the same destruction on human values as they do back home and the urban influence is seeping back into the villages and undermining the precious ‘traditional values’.

I’m pretty sure it won’t take me long to settle back into a materialistic lifestyle: I’m already looking out for a good job (and if you think that’s a hint, it is) that will keep my car running and my gym subscription paid. But I’m not looking for a job in ‘development’.

Somehow I feel that by taking a job in the UK in ‘development,’- the agenda of which seems to be driven almost exclusively by the Millennium Development Goals - I’m somehow saying that my way of life is better than those of the communities we’re developing. That I should be feeling sorry for them because they don’t have what I do. And that I should therefore be working to give them what I have instead of placing a greater value on what they have.

Now don’t hit me for this – but let’s consider colonialism. That was (often but not always) bringing better education, healthcare, infrastructure and standard of living to colonies in order to benefit the colonialists. And frankly I think it worked (value for money-wise) a lot better than the billions that are pumped into development initiatives each year, ostensibly just to help less developed countries develop themselves.

Discussing colonialism with citizens of some former colonies. The difference in Canada was that the colonials never jumped ship and left the colony to itself. Look where it got poor Canada

Having said that though, ‘development’ is changing. Fantsuam is working on two DFID sponsored projects that use local participation to decide what communities want in terms of improved education and healthcare. Let’s hope the funders really listen and give the communities want they want: not what the funders think they should want or think they should need.

This is where VSO is so incredibly valuable. Its model as an international volunteer recruiting agency is pretty unique. Unlike the Peace Corps or equivalents, VSO volunteers come from all over the world. From India, East Africa, Philippines, North America and Northern Europe. Sure we’re bringing skills to partner NGOs across the world that need those skills but VSO isn’t really telling anyone what to do. It’s not saying my way is better than yours. And whose way would ‘mine’ be anyway? It’s not about sympathy. It’s not really even about ‘development’ in donor context.

As VSO themselves say – it’s about ‘Sharing skills and changing lives’. Sharing everyone’s skills and values and, in the process, changing everyone’s lives. I hope for the better.

(Right) 11 VSO volunteers from Kenya, Canada, Uganda, USA, India, Ireland and the UK get taken out for a ‘farewell’ dinner by the VSO Nigeria programme staff.

Now whether that all means that I’ll be feeling sorry for the international footballer who’s in rehab because he can’t take the pressure of money and fame... I’m not sure. What I can say is deep down inside, I’m sure he’s more troubled than many of my neighbours here in Kagoro. So – who deserves my sympathy more?

I’d suggest that footballer applies to VSO but he’d probably get rejected.

(Left) We felt it too as this Returned Volunteer fought back the tears as she described the feeling of leaving your placement, knowing there’s a good chance you’ll never see most of the people there again.

3 comments: said...

as an "also soon to be leaving volunteer" I completl concur with all of your comments, I have seen more happiness and contentment here than I have seen in my whole other life in the UK and I constantly find myself struggling with the western values I am expected to subscribe too... I really look forward to hopefully being able to catch up with you when i get back which is ominously close now... lovely to here you are still doing great work, all the best! hazel

dafanzy said...

Hi Cicely, I just came across your blog page now and I am completely fascinated about your experience in Nigeria. I'm from Nigeria, I live in West London now but I grew up in Lagos and I spent a year of my N.Y.S.C in Manchock close to Kagoro so I know almost all the experience you had on your trip.
I'm so happy to see someone from this very developed western environment take the time to research and experience life in some of those remote environments.
I particularly like your post "The dream of leaving" and the question you asked "Who do you have most sympathy for: someone who you think (by your standards) should be feeling sorry for themselves, or someone who just does feel sorry for themselves, whether you think they should or not?"
The world is such a small place, enjoy the best of your experience - dafanzy

Anonymous said...

Hi Cicely,
Really nice reading your articles. And I am glad you experienced so profoundly and with such enjoyment too. Keep up the good work. |Hope you got a good job when you went back to your country. Many blessings. Uzo