Water shortages, cockroaches, malfunctioning plumbing, blackouts, limited medical facilities, occasional unwanted attention from the local community, toilets that don’t always flush, the relief of having a toilet with a seat (and the despair of not!), school meetings which last hours and often result in stalemate or nothing of any note, sporadic bouts of overwhelming homesickness, little outside communication, facebook withdrawal, and infrequent and overcrowded public transport. These are exactly the kind of issues WorldTeach volunteers commonly face in their daily lives. I experienced it, and the visits I made to my volunteers last term proved these are challenges posed to many volunteers worldwide. Of course, most of these challenges are actually quite trivial in the context of the countries WorldTeach places volunteers. Yet every challenge can be considered a terrific learning experience, and for each one there is an equally rewarding encounter.
In my role as Field Director I have been able to view the experience of volunteering with WorldTeach from a different angle. For a start I’m no longer a volunteer, which instantly reduces the pressure in some ways, but certainly increases it in others. However, far more importantly I am able to get a sense of the volunteers’ experiences with the additional value of prior insight. I do, to some extent, have an idea of how they may be feeling and how certain challenges may cause more stress than others.
Anyone who followed my updates from Rwanda (seems a while ago now right?) will recall the epic battles fought with the ever present and constantly multiplying and growing ants I cohabited with. I duelled valiantly with them, but there was only ever going to be one winner, hence why I’m now in Guyana and they remain warm and cosy in their underground lair in Rwanda! My point being that if one of my volunteers raises any insect-related fears or concerns, I like to think I’d be able to offer some constructive and reassuring advice, rather than simply screaming (in a high-pitched and panic stricken voice) “RUN FOR THE HILLS….THEY’LL ONLY GET BIGGER!!” Hopefully this applies to additional scenarios besides solely mutant ants.
This was in fact tested a few days ago when two volunteers informed me they had just encountered a scorpion in their house. It scurried across the floor and past their bare feet during the evening. Now, in this scenario I don’t think I offered any actual advice, aside from stressing (like a concerned and slightly irksome, stating the obvious, parent) “In future wear something on your feet and don’t leave piles of clothes around,” (as this is where it emerged from). They sent me a photo and my response was, “That looks flipping scary!” I did actually say flipping too, no need for profanities, even if it was a large, black, poisonous (unconfirmed) tail-wielding beast from the abyss. I’m pleased to say though that these volunteers didn’t need any advice from me as they’d already handled the situation with great aplomb by this point. Their solution being, and I quote directly from one of the guys….
“I ran and got my real camera and took some pics….then I squished it with a shoe.”
Classic maneuver, and justification for the session I facilitated during our training at the start of the year entitled, ‘Insect Armageddon: The Art of the Squish.’ Anyway, I’m pretty sure Bear Grylls used this exact technique during one of his escapades in the desert. I also have no doubt that Ben Fogle has dabbled in the old shoe squishing method during his many travels.
Now, arguably the most enjoyable role in my job as Field Director is visiting the volunteers at their sites. I’d be lying if I said I don’t miss the experience of living in a more remote location within a tiny community. Village life in Rwanda was such a journey of random discovery. Georgetown does offer some exposure to this, but as my previous blog may have revealed, living in a capital city is certainly not the same as living in a village (newsflash). Still, perhaps I get the best of both worlds. I am able to experience firsthand the placements in Guyana, but enjoy access to some home comforts in Georgetown. I do reminisce about Rwandan village life a great deal, but maybe with the benefit of time and absence, I’m romanticising it in my head, selectively recalling the aspects that were so compelling, and discounting those that tested my comforted western resolve.
Let me tell you a little about the sites we have placed volunteers in Guyana this year. There are a total of nine people in the group placed at four different locations across the country. Two are placed just outside Georgetown. One person in New Amsterdam, three in Bartica and the remaining three situated in Port Kaituma (map provided below). Each site presents unique challenges and charms.
Port Kaituma is probably the most remote. Accessible by plane or a two day boat journey (so I’ve heard) from Georgetown, it certainly seems to provide volunteers with the classic rural placement. Set deep in the dense ‘jungle’ of northern Guyana, from the sky it appears to be quite an insignificant little place. However, once you’ve landed and make your way into town you soon find out this community is pulsating with energy. Some positive energy…some not so positive. The mining industry is arguably at the heart of this, with the accompanying mining population acting as the arteries pumping life into the community. It‘s clear there is money available here, and I’ve heard stories of people going into a shop and paying for toilet paper with gold! It almost has a Wild West feel to it. Centred around just a couple of main streets you get the sense that everyone knows each other and consequently I imagine it takes on the sensation of living inside a bubble. The people I met were very friendly, especially the guys who shouted “Hey white boy!!” every time I passed. Banter.
Port Kaituma is extremely muddy. Immediately prior to my visit, there had been some rain and thus the whole town resembled a mud-bath, or the perfect location for a wellington boot-wearing convention. I of course wasn’t prepared despite prior warnings and spent the whole visit resembling a Labrador on ice as I attempted to navigate the ‘roads’. On a more serious note, I made a comment earlier alluding to some of the energy in Port Kaituma being less than positive. It is noticeable in a community that serves as a thoroughfare or a temporary home for miners working in the surrounding area that certain services and trades feature quite apparently once the sun goes down. You find an edginess at this point and it reinforces the Wild West persona. It’s not a particularly dangerous place at all, and I felt far safer than in Georgetown, but it reminds you that particular issues, which are perhaps conveniently hidden from us back home, can manifest themselves so publicly in other places.
Oh, and one more interesting little fact for you. Port Kaituma is actually very close to ‘Jonestown’ – the famous site of Jim Jones’ cult, which led to the deaths of 918 people (predominantly American citizens) on 18 November 1978. 909 of these were due to mass suicide/murder. In fact Leo Ryan, a US Congressman at the time was actually murdered by one of the members of the cult at the very airstrip I landed on and took off from in Port Kaituma. You can visit the site today, however nothing much remains and it is surrounded by thick undergrowth.
Bartica has certain similarities to Port Kaituma. It sits right at the door to many of the mining areas in Guyana and is known as the “Gateway to the Interior.” My visit was generally spent on the outskirts of the town as the volunteers are placed at a school there. One of the highlights of the visit was actually the journey. To reach Bartica you have to complete part of the leg by boat, and of course depending on the weather you can either sit back and relax, or cling on for dear life as your body is thrown around like a ragdoll. Fortunately both legs I timed it perfectly (complete fluke of course) and was able to sit back and enjoy a very pleasant river cruise! I like Bartica as a placement for our volunteers. The location has a pleasant balance of being rural, yet volunteers have convenient access to amenities in the town. They also have some great characters on their school campus, including the friendliest security guards I’ve ever met and a caretaker who was perhaps even friendlier. Well, I think he was being friendly…he had a thick accent so it was hard for my unaccustomed ears to decipher everything, especially as he was using a lot of Creole also.
We have one volunteer in New Amsterdam, which is the second biggest settlement in Guyana. It’s down the coast from Georgetown and having visited just for the day, and spending most of it at the school, I didn’t get much of a sense as to what kind of a place it is. It does seem to represent a slightly scaled down version of Georgetown, and I plan to visit again in the coming weeks.
Finally, our remaining two volunteers are placed together at a school just on the outskirts of Georgetown. It’s a big school with around 1,000 students, and my visit was memorable for one main reason. I saw the biggest butterfly/moth creature I have ever seen. I was sat in the classroom and this thing flew in through the window.
My initial thought was how this bird is bound to distract the already excitable students. Then I realised it wasn’t a bird and was in fact a large flying insect that was bird-sized, and at that point I started to shuffle uncomfortably in my chair as I’m not a huge fan of bird-sized flying insects. I willed it to pass back through the window, but of course within seconds it had flown straight for me and landed on the upper corner of my chair, just by my shoulder.
I should add that I was at the time observing one of my volunteers teach a class and thus as soon as the winged insect of doom had landed by me all eyes had centred on my location. How would this strange foreign man react? This was the question etched across all the young faces.
Well, I’ll tell you how I reacted. I laughed nervously, remained where I was, whilst edging to the corner of the chair so at one point only one ‘cheek’ was perched on it, and soon succumbed to my irrational fear by shuffling across the room. Cue giggles and pointing. Eventually one of the students got up and shooed it away back out the window, and the giant flying insect incident was over.
Fortunately the students were very sympathetic and didn’t mock my ridiculous behaviour. Well, they probably did, but in their politeness they must have saved it for once I had departed. I was however reassured by my volunteer that she too had been struck by a similar fear, but was grateful that mine had stolen the embarrassment.
I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed all of my visits to the volunteers’ schools and sites. The opportunity to observe them teaching brought back a lot of great memories from my time as a volunteer teacher. It was also a reassuring and affirming experience, as I discovered that I could actually pass on some constructive advice to many of them. They’re a good bunch, and it was heartening to see how well they have settled and the hard work they are doing at their schools. As a volunteer you can never change the world, but as long as you give it your all and care about your work you can certainly make a positive impact.