Some weeks ago I contributed a post to the Asian University for Women’s Center for Teaching and Scholarships blog. It is a space for teachers and professors to reflect upon their experiences as educators. I thought I’d share this post on my personal blog also, as it seems like an appropriate time. The current school year has recently come to an end and I’m feeling proud of the students I taught this year, as they have now successfully graduated from the one year Access Academy course and will move on to the full undergraduate program in August.
One of the most rewarding aspects of this job is the influence you can have on the education of your students. It sounds obvious of course, but well-planned lessons, engaging subjects, and interactive instruction is the catalyst for an effective learning environment. There may be times when you reflect on a specific class you have taught, or a topic you have covered with your students, and wonder if they gained as much from it as you had hoped. However, overall your support, guidance, and enthusiasm have the ability to direct your students on the path to independent and inquisitive discovery both inside and outside of the classroom.
Personally though, I have become aware during the past five years of incredibly varied teaching roles that it’s not solely my students who (hopefully) have this opportunity. From preparing lessons, teaching classes, facilitating discussion, and, crucially, from listening to my own students, I too have learned so much, and in many ways it has significantly reignited my individual desire for learning.
Upon completion of my Masters Degree, and prior to embarking on my life as a teacher, I spent 18 months working in an office. The job was fine enough and helped to clear some mounting post-university debts whilst introducing me to the day to day responsibilities of paid employment. However, it led to a noticeable stagnation of my motivation to seek out new knowledge. This may very well have been a consequence of my own personal misguided path, but the nine to five routine left me demotivated in other aspects of my life, and whilst I didn’t recognise it at the time, I needed something to change.
In hindsight I did learn tangible lessons from my first ‘proper’ job. It clarified in my head that having progressed somewhat zombie-like straight from school to university, I now needed to explore beyond that particular bubble. At this point I didn’t really know quite where that would take me, but as I reflect on the places I’ve lived, worked, and visited since that fork in the road, I feel pretty satisfied with the choices I made.
It began with an important and life-changing decision to rectify the dissatisfaction of 18 months behind a computer screen, and it was at this juncture I travelled to Rwanda as a volunteer teacher in a rural secondary school. It was a challenging year, but also highly rewarding. One of the main reasons for this was my assignment to teach Entrepreneurship.
My initial reaction was to panic and focus entirely on the fact that I considered myself to be the least entrepreneurial person I knew, most probably due to my cautious and frugal nature; two qualities that no career entrepreneur would ever claim to possess. However, once I set about building a syllabus, seeking out resources, discussing ideas with my peers, and thinking logically about how I could best guide my expectant students, it became something of a new and exciting challenge.
Entrepreneurship requires a great deal of “out of the box” thinking – something many of my students were not accustomed to. Therefore, in order to teach the students before me, I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. I recall sleepless nights, confused faces, and undoubtedly one or two lesson plans that in hindsight may not have been the most effective. Yet, by the end of the year this experience had taken me back to the period prior to my office job. I was driven to learn once again.
At AUW this experience has been no different. Teaching ‘Interpreting Texts’ in the Access Academy has provided me with broad scope to develop a course that covers a range of topics and utilizes a variety of sources and authors. This past year we studied issues relating to identity and gender. We debated the merits of anthropological research and scrutinized the influence of modern media on our lives. We investigated how fear and stigma perpetuates the global HIV crisis, and we spent time reading about the intricacies of a divided Sudan. We read textbooks, journals, academic texts, editorials, blogs, and even found time to analyze the lyrics of Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles, and The Kinks.
Each week I feel I learn just as much as my students, and of course lesson preparation and in class instruction account for the bulk of this. What should not be underestimated though, and is a factor that has become abundantly clear during my time at AUW thus far is the knowledge I gain from my students.
We’re from contrasting regions of the world and they have faced significantly different journeys to my own, so whenever we discuss a topic in class or they write a response, I am exposed to new thinking and new perspectives I may have otherwise failed to consider. The wonderful consequence of this is that unlike my previous non-teaching job, which at times left me feeling uninspired and lacking direction, I now have no option but to learn and grow as both a teacher and a person, and to strive to consider the world around me. It is thanks to this job and my inspiring students that I am able to experience these opportunities.
I’ve neglected this blog so far in 2014. A combination of work, misguided priorities, and the fact I’ve been slightly daunted by the task of describing a one month tour of South East Asia through words, which will almost certainly not do it justice.
So, for now I’ve decided that I’ll let images tell the story. I took many, but here are 15 of my favourites and a selection which I hope do the places most justice. I chose five photos from Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam.
For a more comprehensive album of photos from the trip please follow this link;
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
Floating village community, Inle Lake
Roadside tea shop, Yangon
Sunrise and hot air balloon rides over Bagan
Kandawgyi Lake, Yangon
A quiet village road, just outside of Siem Reap
Sunrise over Angkor Wat, Siem Reap
One of the many faces of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap
Village home, Siem Reap
Choeung Ek Genocide Memorial Site, Phnom Penh
(This is the main memorial to mark the genocide that took place in Cambodia during the late 1970s. It is also a burial site for thousands of Cambodians who were victims of Pol Pot’s brutal Khymer Rouge regime, executed here at just one of the many sites across the country, which became known as the ‘Killing Fields’.)
Ho Chi Minh City
Da Lat hills, in the southern highlands.
Village road outside Thai Nguyen, northern Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, Hanoi
The northern hills of Tam Dao
It was an incredibly diverse and eye-opening trip. Once again South Asia completely failed to disappoint, and armed with a camera I feel like I saw so much in such a short space of time.
Here is a larger set of photos from the trip;
…poor people? This was a question posed to me by a student a few days ago. It stopped me in my tracks a little, and I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. In actual fact, her exact question was why do foreigners always take photos of poor people? I presumed however, given the nature of some of my recent photos, that I most probably fell firmly into this bracket and was the inspiration for her pressing question.
I thought for a second or two and my response was simple. “I don’t take photos of poor people, I take photos of people.” That’s all I could think to say when put on the spot like that. However, after contemplating it a little further, I realised that my initial response had been fairly accurate. I never actively or purposefully set out to capture images of so-called ‘poor people’ but maybe I am naively guilty of it appearing this way.
The whole question though makes me uncomfortable. One of my favourite weekend activities here in Chittagong is to wander somewhat aimlessly with my camera capturing anything that makes for an interesting shot. This pastime has earned a pronounced regularity since I returned to Bangladesh, but a simple question posed by one student has made me question every aspect of it.
My photography subject of choice here is predominantly people, so I am certainly in the right place. I cannot deny though that this does weigh heavy on my conscience at times. For example, a couple of weeks ago I visited one of the railroad communities, and as I peered down from the bridge above, I felt a certain amount of embarrassment. Why is this interesting to me? Why do I presume it’ll be interesting to the people I eventually share the photos with? All I can say is that it is different. That is all. Different in so many ways.
I really appreciate this quote from Dorothea Lange,
“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”
Living in Bangladesh, I want my photos to represent life in all its forms here. So when I share them, my hope is that viewers will see beyond just the single image. I want people to be able to contemplate this country and the people of this country in a much deeper capacity.
The residents of the railroad communities, I would hazard to guess, are poor in the most simple and raw form of the word and in the sense that their single image suggests. However, who am I, or we to judge if they are poor? And how do we define poor? That is not something for me to do, and it is not something I want to do. All I want to do is take photos of people, not poor people…people.
Therefore, here is a collection of images representing just a tiny corner of Chittagong, Bangladesh taken quite recently in the past few weeks. And here is one more quote,;
“A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth. ” – Richard Avedon
Armed with a new camera I have been exploring Chittagong a little more by foot in the past couple of weeks. Last weekend it took me to the fisheries market. Arriving at 4.45am we waited for the sun to rise and for the energy of a new day to dawn.
By this time however men were already rushing by, scooping the night’s catch out of nets and piling it upon waiting baskets and wagons. The tea shacks were already serving hot, sweet tea to the various workers, and it was difficult to sense quite when night ended and the new day began.
The photos I was able to capture that morning reminded me of a simple, yet profound lyric from one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite bands – ‘Alone Again Or’ by Love. I hope the images speak for themselves.
In my next entry I’ll touch upon an example of just why the people of this country continue to make Chittagong and Bangladesh an easy place to live.
“Abar ashben” roughly translates as “come again” in Bangla. In the days leading up to my departure from Bangladesh back in June 2012, these words were delivered insistently at times, and on other occasions in polite passing. At that point I gave a standard response of “Heh, heh…inshallah.” Or, “Yes, yes…god willing.” And then I left.
I wasn’t sure quite what was willing me to come again (so soon at least), but I did, and here I am, back in Bangladesh, back in Chittagong, back again. I’ve never returned to a place before. Rather, I’ve never returned to a distant land before where I have previously spent a prolonged period. However, the chance to continue working for WorldTeach and back at AUW was compelling motivation to make this a first. Two organisations close to my heart, both of which have provided me with unique experiences in the past few years, and both working in partnership here in Bangladesh. I’m proud to work for both, because not only do I get to lead another group of conscientious and dedicated WorldTeach volunteers, I also get to teach another set of inspiring AUW students, hungry for education. It’s difficult not to be motivated.
Never go back. These three words floated around in my head for a long while as I contemplated my next move. As a big football lover, I can think of various occasions when a player or manager has returned to a club only to experience a torrid second spell. For any fellow, hardy Plymouth Argyle fans out there….Paul Sturrock. Yet, I was willing to risk this for the reasons given above, and after one month back in Bangladesh I so far feel satisfied with my decision
In the coming months I hope to once again utilize my blog to express my experiences, though more importantly I would like to use it as a platform for other stories, for other images, and for other perspectives. For anyone still reading I say thanks, and I will try to ensure I keep you interested so that you too ‘come again’ to my blog.
Here are some photos taken since my return. The second photo shows the WorldTeach Bangladesh group and Dr. Fahima Aziz, AUW Vice Chancellor (third from right).
Sunday, May 5th 2013 was a notable date here in Guyana. It marked the anniversary of an event which played a huge part in shaping the face of the Guyana you find today. Exactly 175 years ago to the day, on May 5th 1838, the very first indentured Indian labourers arrived to work in the sugar plantations of the then British colony of Guyana. They weren’t ‘slaves’ as such, however their workers’ rights were neglected and conditions were often poor. They did however have the right to repatriation in India after five years. Some took up this offer, others decided to make Guyana their permanent home.
Over 200,000 workers in total made the journey from Asia to South America in the 19th century, and possibly the most telling statistic of all is descendants of those immigrant workers now account for 44% of the total population in 2013. The Indo-Guyanese are therefore officially the largest ethnic group in Guyana.
One aspect of this country that has intrigued me most during my time here has been the incredible diversity. For a nation modest in geographical area and with a total population comparable to the city of Leeds (UK), or Austin (Texas), Guyana is a melting pot for such a diverse range of cultures, peoples, languages, and traditions. In addition to the Indo-Guyanese; Afro-Guyanese account for 30% of the population, whilst mixed heritage Guyanese make up 16%. The Amerindian (indigenous) community accounts for the remaining 10%, aside from small Brazilian/Portuguese and Chinese communities.
This diversity manifests itself in so many aspects of Guyanese society. As I touched upon in a previous blog post, language is certainly a strong reflection, with the presence of English, Creole, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, and nine Amerindian dialects. Cuisine is another. The popular ‘cookup’ is a Caribbean style dish made of rice, beans, meat, coconut and various vegetables all cooked together in one pot. Curry and roti dishes are readily available and popular, as are Chinese options, including the Guyanese style chow mein. Meat eaters get their fix at various Brazilian barbeques, and Amerindian cuisine is known for the spicy beef or pork stew, Pepperpot – customarily eaten during the Christmas period.
Music and dance is another diverse characteristic of Guyana. Traditional south Asian beats, tablas and sitars, and popular Bollywood songs frequently fill the air. Calypso, Soca, and Reggae are equally prevalent, and a reminder that despite being part of mainland South America, Guyana is very much influenced by its Caribbean connection. Brazilian and traditional South American music is also a common sound.
However, I feel I’ve been struck most by the religious diversity of this country, which is quite evident in Georgetown. Perhaps it’s because my eighteen months prior to Guyana were spent in the predominantly Islamic state of Bangladesh, where 90% of the population identify themselves as Muslim. My religious experiences were therefore defined by the distinct daily call to prayer, the abundance of traditional Islamic dress, and the Mosques of varying shapes and sizes. There is of course a sizeable Hindu community in Bangladesh as well as a modest number of Buddhists. Yet, overall society is defined by the teachings and values of the Qu’ran.
Christianity is the most widespread faith in Guyana, but given the history I touched upon earlier in this post, Hinduism is also very visible. Islam has a noticeable presence, despite being less represented in terms of actual followers.
From my front porch if you look to your left you will see a large Seventh Day Adventist Church, and if you look to your right you will see the towering structure of Guyana’s newest and biggest Mosque (currently under construction).
I decided a few weeks back to take a series of photos that would demonstrate Georgetown’s religious diversity, and I’d like to present these in this blog post.
(The images are best viewed in full screen mode!)
I’ll begin with the most followed faith in Guyana. It is estimated that 57% of the population are Christian, of which various denominations are present. Below is a selection of images showing the churches of varying shapes and sizes across Georgetown, most of which were built during colonial administration and therefore possess a significant degree of historical and architectural charm.
Hindus account for 28% of the population, with the presence of Hinduism a result of the vast numbers of Indian immigrants brought to Guyana in the colonial era. Below are photos taken at temples across Georgetown.
The exact root of Islam in Guyana is debated. It’s quite possible that it first arrived with a number of the West African slaves. It’s also widely accepted of course that like Hinduism, the presence of Islam is a direct result of 19th century immigration from India.
The first three images below show the new Queenstown Jama Masjid. The original was built in 1895, but succumbed to old age in 2007 and was dismantled. Upon completion it will once again sit proudly as the biggest mosque in Guyana and will be a place of prayer for much of the city’s Muslim population. It sits literally right behind my house, and I have watched its growth with great interest. When I first arrived it was merely a shell, but 10 months on it’s nearing completion and will certainly be a grand structure when finished.
Below this are images taken at other mosques across Georgetown. I’m always more intrigued by the role of Islam in society here, and I think this stems from my time in Bangladesh.
So there you have it, a selection of places of worship, which are dotted across Georgetown, some of which bear a connection to a bygone era when the foundations of religious faith were being laid in Guyana. My impression has been that generally speaking this is a spiritual society, signified by the vast array of ‘houses of god’, which vary in shape and size. Within one square mile of my house I believe there are at least ten different places I could visit to connect with god, if I were so inclined. I would therefore hazard a guess that there are at least fifty across the whole of Georgetown.
I could of course have delved much deeper into this subject area, but I was more interested in capturing and presenting the distinctive religious architecture that is displayed right across Georgetown. I am also pretty impressed by the manner in which religious respect seems to maintain a sound level here. Considering you have three significant world religions coexisting very openly side by side in such a concentrated area, maybe other places across the world could learn a few lessons on religious tolerance from Guyana.
I’d like to take this opportunity to share a wonderful project initiated by two great friends of my family. ‘Wild and Precious’ was created by Liz Scott and her husband Stuart. Combining a wide ranging set of skills developed through their respective jobs, they have dedicated this corner of the internet to documenting and presenting the stories of ordinary people who have very different tales to tell. The collection of short films is a growing mission and they are all wonderfully produced.
Last summer I was very honoured to be asked by Liz and Stuart if I would be interested in discussing my experience in Rwanda. I jumped at the chance as I had never done anything like this before, and I was really thrilled to see the fruits of their labour a few days ago. You can view the short film here;
I was especially humbled that they asked me, given the nature of the other stories they have documented previously. I hope you enjoy viewing their films, and I’m excited to hear the stories recounted on their website in the future.
Their project is inspired and named in recognition of a poem by Mary Oliver, entitled ‘The Summer Day’.
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
In many ways the final two lines reflect perfectly why I continue to write on this blog. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been on this journey, and my way of acknowledging this is by documenting it through words and images.
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 manoeuvre and justification for the session I facilitated during our training at the start of the year entitled, ‘Insect Armageddon: The Art of the Squish’….I jest of course. 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. Incidentally I must thank my Auntie Julie and Uncle Robbie for giving me Ben’s latest book for Christmas. In the coming months the guru Fogle will once again guide me and I will follow his words of advice dutifully!
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 persons 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.
Amid the confusion and excitement of another new country and adventure, the first thought to enter my mind as I made my way by taxi from the airport to my new home was, ‘boy, this place is relaxed.’ We passed house after house and each one appeared to share the same three prominent features; a front porch, a hammock strung up in said porch, and reclined in each hammock, a person. For miles and miles this seemed to be the norm. The main road was lined with homes, similar in appearance; all charming wooden structures raised high off the ground to avoid potential flooding I presume. To the rear of the houses on one side of the road sat a wide body of water and behind the homes parallel to this there lay a vast blanket of green which stretched inland as far as the eye could see. In many ways this sums up Guyana. A small splattering of settlements (the majority of which are very small) nestled deep amongst two significant natural features; forest and water (see photo below, taken from the plane on a recent trip to visit some of my volunteers).
On this particular July day it was misty, humid, and damp, and the behaviour of the people I passed seemed to perfectly reflect the mood. Families and friends gathered on porches engaging in an activity I would soon learn to be known as ‘liming’. To lime, as I understand it, is to generally get together and hang out. To gather, to watch the day go by, to take time out, to escape, ignore or share overarching stress or struggles, or to crucially devote a moment of the day or the week to enjoying life. I may well be over-thinking or dramatising this pastime, but this is purely my own personal perception of something I have witnessed people partake in during my time here so far.
I’ve been based in Georgetown, Guyana for a period of almost five months now, but shamefully this is the first opportunity I’ve taken to sit down and attempt to describe this new location in words (ironically I’m doing this whilst sat at home in the UK having just arrived for Christmas). Five months is a decent amount of time, but I have no doubt I’m approaching this update weighed down by the heavy burden of ignorance around my neck. When it comes to the exact dynamics and understandings of this place, I’m still very much a fresh bystander, so please don’t judge Guyana on my observations alone. However, the impression I’ve gained so far is that Guyana in general is a captivating blend of cultures and people, and Georgetown is a perfect microcosm.
Prior to my arrival I clung to the belief that with Guyana’s status as the sole English speaking enclave in the whole continent my successful transition would not be hindered by language barriers. I was wrong to an extent. At any point your ears can be exposed to Portuguese, Spanish, Creole, and even Chinese. If you travel deeper into the interior regions you are also liable to hear any one of nine regional Amerindian dialects. Portuguese stems from the sizeable Brazilian population that has emerged in Guyana. This comes in the form of migrants who have settled here, or from workers travelling through on business, which in the majority of cases is due to a lucrative gold mining industry. In Georgetown you see the Brazilian flag all over, and Brazilian bars swell the already congested nightlife. Neighbouring Venezuela is most likely responsible for the presence of Spanish, and Chinese seems to represent the new business investment transpiring at a noticeable pace, especially in Georgetown.
Officially I live in South America. There is no disputing the geographical fact. To the west you’ll find Venezuela, and to the south lays the giant of Brazil. Yet in Georgetown you can quite effortlessly forget this fact, despite the language variety I just touched upon. The music, the dialect, the food, and the approach to life; in so many instances it screams of the Caribbean. Again I’ve found this to be more the case in Georgetown, which is the hub of activity due to its position as both the main port and capital city.
In many ways Georgetown is an attractive city. Comprised predominantly of wooden structures, the old colonial buildings (built in large part by the Dutch) possess significant charm and character. A network of canals assists in the drainage of excess water. I often pause in appreciation of their splendour. On occasions they send glistening channels of light through the heart of the city, as the setting sun dips and the overhanging trees create an intricate pattern on their surface. Some possess more charm than others however, and the aroma that drifts from one or two of them is questionable!
Georgetown used to be known as the ‘Garden City of the Caribbean’ and it’s easy to see why. There are a number of lush, green areas, attractive gardens, and the tree-lined canals pictured above. However, in recent years it’s apparent they’ve been neglected somewhat. Just recently a taxi driver spent the entire journey bemoaning the state of the city he had known, but now seemed unable to recognise. He reminisced about the pride he once held, which has gradually eroded from bearing witness to a blatant disregard for what made Georgetown great in his eyes. He nodded his head to the left as we passed another area of litter collected in a ditch by the side of the road. Unfortunately this is not uncommon in many towns and cities across the globe. Nevertheless, my reassurances did little to appease his frustrations. One green space though seems to be almost immune from the littering disease that has ravaged some parts of the city. The National Park is a beautiful open space that residents should be extremely proud of. During the day it comes alive as people fill the park and it becomes a real hive of activity, predominantly with runners, soccer players, and a women’s rugby team who I often see training there!
The same taxi driver also touched on another malady, which casts a cloud over his place of birth, and causes a different, but chronic pollutant in Georgetown. Crime and criminal activity have soared in recent times according to his observations. I glance at the newspaper each day and unfortunately it often enforces what this man was telling me. Like any major city the world over, your safety is never guaranteed. Yet I genuinely think this may be the most dangerous place I’ve lived. This may surprise you, as it certainly surprises me. Maybe I’ve become paranoid from reading the newspaper too much, or perhaps the lack of familiarity has caused some personal self doubt. However, the stories I’ve heard certainly don’t leave me short of evidence. People often assume that Rwanda was a treacherous place to live. History suggests this. Yet, it couldn’t be farther from the truth (in my experience). I would say that village life in Rwanda is the safest environment I’ve ever lived in. University life in Nottingham (once the gun capital of England) may run Georgetown close though.
There’s a burgeoning drug trade like many countries in this region, and as a result the associated crime drags close behind. There are the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, and the economic divide is glaring in some cases. You don’t walk the streets at night, and you don’t walk the streets on a Sunday as they’re practically deserted. If you do it’s at your own risk, especially if you’re a foreigner. Yet, as is the case almost everywhere, we carry a brain in our heads, and if we engage this to its full capacity we can certainly avoid most unsavoury situations. That doesn’t of course guarantee you full immunity from peril, as we also need to be in possession of a healthy dose of luck at most points in our lives. I try to be streetsmart and to respect the ways of this city, and keep my fingers crossed that my luck holds up. There’s common sense too, which is vastly underrated and often underused. However, it seems to me that despite generally high crime rates, the majority of violent crime occurs between sources already known to each other. That is the victim and perpetrator are often previously connected, and for the most part you can exist harm-free on the periphery simply reading about the crimes as opposed to being involved.
Through my job I’ve been able to travel to some other places in Guyana, but I’ll touch on these another time. Despite the litter issues and the need for extra vigilance, I’m growing to appreciate my new home. It has been a gradual process as I enjoyed my time in Rwanda and Bangladesh so much. Yet, Guyana and Georgetown are broadening my horizons even further and I try never to underestimate this fact. If you don’t learn and grow from new experiences there’s no point in embarking upon them, and I have no doubt this fresh location and new job is pushing me out of my comfort zone, which is scary yet very rewarding.
I was very recently asked by WorldTeach to write a blog about how I would define a “successful volunteer.” This is my response based on personal experiences and observations.
I slumped down on my bed, placed my head in my hands, took a deep breath, and this is how I remained for the next few minutes. Paralysed by feelings of bewilderment and disorientation, for several moments the emotions were quite overwhelming. Five minutes prior to this I had been sat down to breakfast at a table with four Rwandan catholic nuns, whom I had met for the first time the previous evening. The bulk of the conversation was carried out in French, and thus I spent the majority of the meal straining my ears and anxiously hoping that in the depths of my mind there remained some knowledge of the language that I had ceased studying eight years earlier. Once breakfast was over I made the short walk back to my house to encounter what was undoubtedly a defining moment. I found all I could do was sit there, still. The silence was intense, suffocating almost. Where was I? Who were these people? Why am I here? What do I do next? Why is there no water coming out of the taps?
The answers to these and many other questions revealed themselves at regular points throughout the proceeding weeks and months, and as they did so they provided me with a reassuring clarity and logic. I was a volunteer teacher at St Bernadette de Save, a secondary school in the small, Rwandan village of Save, and I was there for a very important reason; this was what I had chosen to do. In my opinion one of the crucial factors in being a “successful” volunteer is having a firm desire and a clear reason and purpose for wanting to do it. I say this because there are certainly times when you stop and question particular aspects of the experience, and there are times when you feel like you may crumble under the weight of the challenge. However, in constantly reminding yourself of exactly why this path was taken, and the motivations that drove you to pursue it, you never lose sight of what an incredibly rewarding and significant phase in your life it is and always will be.
In my own case the WorldTeach Rwanda program was perfect. I had spent one whole summer crammed into a small wooden booth in my university library, reading countless books and writing a thesis on the role of gender in the 1994 genocide. It was here a fascination with the tiny country was born. Three years later I landed in Kigali and during the first two weeks I and my fellow volunteers visited two significant genocide memorials. Personally this signalled the end of one journey and the beginning of another. The impact of the genocide became abundantly clear to me in a manner that books hadn’t been able to fully reflect, and as the year progressed I would experience several further moments of similar magnitude. For example, on one occasion a student of mine revealed he had lost his father, three brothers, and two sisters during the country’s darkest hour. His story was not uncommon, but as I became exposed to the new, recovering Rwanda, I was overwhelmed by the strength and courage people showed, and subsequently inspired by their resolve and determination.
There is no rigid blueprint for producing a “successful volunteer”. Success varies for each person, and it is therefore almost impossible to form a conclusive definition of what exactly it means. Duck now if you want to avoid being struck by a gigantic cliché, but volunteering is a journey of self-discovery and an exploration of your personality, and for each person this will inevitably vary. However, from my experiences in Rwanda, Bangladesh, and now Guyana, I believe there are core attributes one must possess if they are to live life as an international volunteer to its fullest. No one person or moment can dictate your experience, and it’s up to you to decide how it will define you in the present, and even more crucially, the future.
Adaptability is vital. Your routine and comfort zones will be thrown on their head, and there’s only one way to deal with this…embrace it! I have constantly been amazed at how far we can push ourselves and how strong the human mind and body is capable of coping with change. In Rwanda, the initial panic of discovering no water would ever trickle from the taps in my house was soon replaced with the exhilarating feeling that came from donning a head torch and collecting rainwater in a bucket at 11pm at night. The shock felt when told by my Headmistress I was the new Entrepreneurship teacher at St. Bernadette de Save was forgotten almost instantly upon meeting my students. I realised there was so much I would learn from them. Being receptive to change and unpredictability is a must, and the results always bring great fulfilment.
A successful volunteer will be sure to pack an abundance of respect and open-mindedness in their suitcase. Although sounding obvious, it can be surprisingly easy to lose sight of these two closely connected and vital attributes when faced with situations and scenarios that place you far from your comfort zone. In my role at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh, I witnessed precisely how paramount respect and open-mindedness is. Hundreds of students brought together from 12 different countries across Asia. Many of whom have left their families for the very first time to study in a country and city in complete contrast to their homes. Yet, the manner by which these students face and embrace this colossal change, demonstrates perfectly that by recognizing and positively accepting cultural contrasts and distinctions, we are far more able to build meaningful and positive relationships in the long term.
Finally, I will offer one piece of advice to any prospective volunteers out there. Prior to leaving home and embarking on the wonderful journey that awaits you; find a large box, cram all of your expectations inside, padlock it, and hide it away in a deep, dark wardrobe. You won’t need them where you’re going! Expectations are inevitable, but they have the potential to lead only to disillusionment or frustration under the weight of a pre-defined pressure. The excitement that comes from the unknown is what makes international volunteerism so very special and significant. If you approach it with an open mind, a willingness to learn and to accept, and an attitude of determination and hope, you emerge at the end of it a wiser and healthier person.
The title of this blog is a quote by Lorna Wilson.