My preparations for leaving are now developing a life of their own, and I feel englufed in small whirlwind that is carrying me forwards too fast. My flight has been identified and is being booked. It will set my feet down at Heathrow at 5.30am on Sunday 23rd March. I will be home in time for two important events, my Mum’s 89th birthday, and the last conference and farewell party of one of my most important mentors, funders and fellow travellers of the second part of my working life. In amongst all this maybe job interviews. I will be rushing around the country, and I will have no car!
The first week or two will be a mad rush, and this is probably a good thing, as I don’t doubt I will be prone to reverse culture shock. My volunteer agency leave no stone unturned in preparing you for every aspect of the volunteer experience, and this includes leaving and returning home. I am working my way through their manual, and I am definitely on the excitement/anxiety stage. I am excited about surprising my Mum on her birthday, about seeing my young family and gorgeous Grandson, being reunited with my dog, and getting stuck in to my allotment.
I have no doubt I will pine for Ghana, for Africa and the volunteering experience. I have no doubt that being forced to see and listen to the Bullingdon bully boys (Cameron, Osbourne etc,) and their fellow travellers (Gove, Ian Duncan Smith etc.) will depress me horribly, as will the cultural tendencies of my people to be uptight, intolerant and miserable. Oh and traffic, rush, push, no time no time no time. Plus I will be homeless for a few weeks as my flat is let until mid May. Plus I have to get a job. Oh. Mixed feelings. I can feel my emotions churning just thinking about it all. Am I prepared? Sort of. Will I cry? Most definitely.
We have to complete various reports and have meetings and exit interviews before departure, and over the last few days I have been working on my final report. It’s a mixed picture, some good, some not so good. The last question in the final report template is, “What have you gained personally from your experience as a volunteer?” This prompted a very positive narrative, which I am including below:
“I have gained an immense amount both personally and professionally. I have absolutely loved my time in Ghana and being a part of society here, and learning and gaining insights into Ghanaian culture. I am most impressed by what I have seen and experienced and it has made me reevaluate what makes a society ‘civil’. To me, Ghana is extremely civilized, in some ways more so that Britain, especially with regard to people’s peace loving natures. I met and came to respect a group of professional partners. I have also learned about some of the downsides of life in Ghana, such as the problems faced by its deprived farming communities, and how corruption at all levels acts as a brake on development.
I have also gained insight into cultural practices I find much harder to explain, they are incredibly deep rooted. One example is the apparent lack of willingness of people to think and plan strategically and for the longer-term. It appears to be true that the African lives very much in the moment, and is fatalistic about change. This is God’s will. This means in practice that people do not see the importance of certain key actions and tasks, which once accomplished, will open doors in the future. A good example is people not seeing the benefit of registering their FBO, or developing a project/business/action plan. This effectively disqualifies them from accessing funding and investment, as nearly all funders and investors require evidence that a group is genuine by seeing that it is registered (often for some years), and that it has a credible project/business plan. This means that really good opportunities are lost.
Professionally, my experience as a volunteer has strengthened my confidence in my abilities. I have learned that I can rise to any challenge. I have learned that the fears I held before I came, for example about returning to front line facilitation after a long absence, were not founded. I found that I thrived in situations that before I came would have scared me, like facilitating very large groups of people (98 was the record), using simple participative tools and signs, in churches, palaces and under the shade of trees, and working through interpreters. These became the highlight of my experience here. I was really happy doing this work. I wish I could have done more of it. I delighted in working with my professional partners here.
Also, my health benefited enormously from this placement. I have a long-term illness, fibromyalgia, and it was a risk taking on this placement. I manage my condition with medication and a ‘can do’ attitude. I had no idea whether my health would stand it. I am grateful to the London medical experts for clearing me for placement. I have had some minor spells of illness, but overall I have made a significant recovery, given the state of my health up to the time of my departure. I have been able to cut one of my medication doses by half and maintain a reasonable stable level of health. One of the most debilitating symptoms of my illness, chronic pain, has almost completely disappeared.
I will be returning to the UK refreshed and recovered, and with a restored and invigorated self-confidence, which I will carry into my future work and relationships.”
This blog has played a really critical role as part of my placement. It is a record, a testimony, a narrative, in words and pictures, of my time and experiences here. At this point over 2,300 people have visited my pages, many have left comments. Old friends have re-emerged. It is my book of my time here, and I intend to keep it going at least during the early part of my repatriation, as my experiences might be interesting to others. And the cloth! I have been shopping! The sewing machine will get fixed, and I will make beautiful things, and grow wonderful produce on my allotment.
How I will find time to have a job is a worry. I’d really like to work locally and part time, but living costs in my city, Oxford, are very high, and of course jobs are scarce, but I have a knack for winkling out the interesting stuff, and am busy sending out applications. But that is all ahead of me. For now, I am trying to etch impressions of Africa, of the people and the places, into my memory, my visual cortex, so that I can return to and bask in the images, the sounds, the feelings. It will be my secret place that I can go to when I need to.
The pictures accompanying this post are part of this journey, capturing the faces and the colours, the song and the dance of this wonderful country and its lovely, peaceful people. I feel quite emotional at the thought of leaving it all, not knowing when or if I can return.