Volunteer interviews

Josie Orr

Why did you decide to volunteer overseas? Who or what influenced you to volunteer?
Basically I was looking for something to do after I finished my degree, (BA in Human Geography) that was related to what I had studied, so it just came at the right time really. Also was interested in traveling but wanted to do more than just go as a tourist. Growing up with both parents having done volunteer assignment made me aware of what an awesome experience it is!

jorr4How did you hear about the volunteer programme?
Through Otago uni, and a talk where VSA came and talked about it (but obviously heard of VSA, and knew about it well- (mum and dad use to hold VSA branch meetings at home when I was growing up.)

Who did you work for and what kind of work did you do?
I worked for an organisation in Port Villa, Vanuatu, called Wan Smolbag Theatre, a not for profit organisation, set up by two expats 21 years ago. They started off with just 15 voluntary actors, and now hire 100 full and part time staff. The organisation uses drama to inform, raise awareness and encourage public discussion on a range of contemporary health, lifestyle, environment and governance issues.

Five years ago they opened their youth centre, where I worked. The youth centre was established to provide out-of-school and unemployed youth who basically who had nothing to do with informal classes, workshops, and activities e.g. hip hop dance, nutrition, playing guitar, sewing, agriculture and sports. Enrolment wasn’t just for youth, with the youngest enrolled member 3 years old and the oldest 53! So activities catered for all ages.

I worked as a literacy teacher for the pikininis (children that couldn’t afford school would attend the centre), although I also helped out with other activities run by the youth, helping planning, setting up and running activities. Also helped run the kids sport programme, taught English, taught computer skills, helped out in the office, writing reports, organising field trips for the kids, basically an all round helper for whatever was needed which meant every day was different!

What were the biggest issues facing the young people you were working with over in Vanuatu? How did you work with them and the other volunteers/locals to deal with these problems?
Unemployment is a major problem for Port Vila, as many youth from the outer islands and rural areas move to Port Vila in the hope to get paid work, but with such high demand and very little jobs available, many find themselves unemployed with nothing to do, which leads to petty crime and youth turning to drugs etc. which are both becoming big issues. STIs along with teenage pregnancy is another major concern.

Basically through the activities the centre runs we were directly responding to the needs of the youth, giving children, youth and adults a chance to gain new skills, gain experience and participate in new activities. A lot of the activities would involve sexual health awareness activities, along with specific workshops held on such topics. We also provided English lessons, and helped out youth with job applications etc.josie-orr_portrait1

School fees are really high (especially as many families live a subsistence lifestyle) and hence the need to provide informal education to provide these kids with a chance to get at least some education and the steeping stones needed in life!

What is the most important lesson you learnt from volunteering?
That no matter who we are, where we live, or our backgrounds, culture or language, we really are all the same, we all experience the same situations in our lives and we can all learn from one another! Friendship is one of the most important things you can give to someone, and receive especially when you are living in another country away from those you know!

What were some of the biggest benefits to you? What did you get out of the programme?
Best experience of my life! Living in an amazingly beautiful country, and learning things I never could have really understood without having lived in Vanuatu for a year or make friendships with people who have lived there all their life!

Do you intend to volunteer again? Why? When? For how long?
Yes I hope to volunteer again – hopefully in the next two years! Ideally for 6months or more. I believe volunteering is the best way to travel. You get a real feel for the country you are visiting/living in and getting to know the locals means you get see the ‘real’ life of where you are, more so than just visiting as a tourist. As well as being able to give back and contribute (if only in a small way) to the lives of the locals.

What would you say to those who are thinking about or planning to go on an overseas volunteer experience?
Go for it! Just make sure you are doing it for the right reasons, and that you yourself are ready for it – it can definitely be challenging at times but if you go with the right attitude, an open mind, prepared to be flexible and patient, go with the flow and expect the unexpected, it really will be an unforgettable experience. And make sure you go with a reputable organisation that will look out for you if need be.

Kathy Impey

Why did you decide to volunteer overseas? Who or what influenced you to volunteer?
I had a long standing interest in Africa generally but especially South Africa (SA), my parents had lived in SA before I was born and left at the peak of apartheid when it became too problematic for them to stay (my father was teaching at a ‘black’ township school at a time when it was made illegal for white people to enter the townships) so I grew up attending anti-apartheid marches and surrounded by stories and photos of SA. On finishing high school I studied human geography and social work at university with the intention of gaining skills and knowledge that would enable me to travel to Africa.

How did you hear about the volunteer programme?
In my second year at university I had cornered the head of development studies and asked him “How can geography get me to Africa?” and he told me about the UNIVOL programme which at the time was only just being negotiated, then I had to be patient for another year until I had the chance to apply.

kathy-impey_portrait1In the articles I read about your overseas experience you said that you helped out with an activities centre in Mdantsane. Who ran the activities centre and what kind of work did you do for it? Was all your work based around organising activities?
I did a huge range of work, much of it not what I had expected to do, and most of it was just a case of getting involved and doing whatever needed doing. Officially I was a junior programmes advisor, so I worked with a team of local youth volunteers and a small core of local staff to plan, co-ordinate and run after school activities including like soccer, setting up a girls self-defence programme (I have a black belt in TKD and a sports coaching back-ground), swimming, netball, rugby, games and physical activity sessions for the elderly womens’ group, the local community run pre-school, and primary school aged children. I also facilitated coaching workshops and youth training, and occasionally got up at 5am to pump up 137 soccer balls (essential workshop preparations).

The non-sports side of the job ranged from making 500 luncheon sandwiches for children’s sport festivals, teaching basic computer skills, building a shack style kitchen out of sheets of corrugated steel, compiling training manuals, helping local youth put together CVs and job applications, and acting as a mentor and role model.

What was your biggest reservation/fear going into the volunteer programme?
That I wouldn’t actually have much to offer by way of skills or knowledge, I felt very inexperienced and worried that I might seem arrogant as a young outsider arriving there and expecting that I knew enough to be able to help. As it was my fears were silly, I had very supportive colleagues who were so accepting and positive from day one, although there were inevitably some misunderstandings, they let me learn from my own mistakes and I learnt to be guided, but also to speak up when I felt I could contribute. It was a combination of learning to watch and follow, and also when to step forward and take initiative. Most of all when a job needed doing it was important to just get in there and do it.

How did the reality of your experience differ from your initial expectations?
My expectations were fairly accurate having studied SA a lot and traveled there as a child, the last time was about 2 years after the end of apartheid. Going back I was surprised how extreme the racial segregation remained, and how much your skin still defined how you were perceived and what was expected of you. I had perhaps been a bit naïve, but being a white foreigner (and young, female, blonde etc) meant that I was very conspicuous in the townships and when I traveled. I got used to being stared at and questioned about my life, for many people it was the first time they had been spoken to as equals by a white person, so there was a lot of curiosity and attention.

Breaking down racial barriers and making human connections was one of the most rewarding aspects of being there, watching the kids in the preschool move from being initially scared of me, to climbing all over me and treating me as a huge novelty, then by the end of the year, just giving me a hug, saying hello and carrying on as normal – that transition to seeing me as just another person was a huge shift.

What is one of your fondest memories of the experience?kimpeysa1
Working with the young children was amazing, their interest and warmth was very genuine and often after a training session we would all sit down on the dusty field and just talk, the girls in particular would ask all about my life, if I had a boyfriend? Did I miss my family? What was NZ like?

On one very hot day after a soccer session I was huddled in the back of the ute with about 13 of the girls and they were singing songs in Xhosa which is the local click based language. It was incredibly hot and crowded, but we couldn’t open the windows or all the clouds of red dust would come in. Every time the car hit a bump we’d have to put our hands over our heads so we didn’t hit the ceiling too hard. As we drove the girls next to me (the two who spoke the most English) were telling me stories about the places we went past, where the church used to be, where their uncle lived etc. In the middle of all this one of the girls leaned over and hugged me and said something to the other girls that made them laugh a lot. So I asked her “U thini?” (What did you say?) and she explained that she had just told them “this white girl, she’s just like us”, in that moment the acceptance of those girls and seeing them realise that we were far more alike than we were different was extremely touching.

What sort of relationships did you develop while on the programme? Do you still maintain those relationships?

I have remained in touch with some of my colleagues and friends in SA. In five weeks time I will be going back to the same area for 3 months to do research for my Masters thesis. More than anything I can’t wait to go and visit and see everyone, I have been back in NZ for almost 1 ½ years, but I still miss SA every day.

One thing that is quite important to me is that here in NZ often people hear only about the bad things in SA, the crime, the poverty etc, those things are true in some ways, but hearing about the positive side of SA is something that happens a lot less, and I try to draw on my UNIVOL experience and speaking opportunities/interviews to get the message across that despite its problems and bad press, SA also has a very positive story to tell, and I hope this comes through in my answers to your questions.

Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply