Thursday, 26 June 2008

Challenges Worldwide celebration at Scottish Parliament

Yesterday, I went to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh where my friend Aileen (pictured) was hosting a reception for Challenges Worldwide, the charity who sent me out to Sri Lanka. The reception was to mark the successful completion of the government funded programme which sent 45 professionals out to work on post tsunami recovery projects.

It was great because I met up with Henry and Karen, two fellow volunteers. And I also got to speak to a packed room about my three months in Sri Lanka - and you know how much I love talking about the lovely Lanka! I was also offered work by more than one person which was a nice surprise.

And ... a member of the board of the charity suggested I get my speech published. So, to oblige & because I'll use any excuse to talk about it, I've decided to publish it myself. So, here it is ... (try not to fall asleep now!)

Scottish Parliament Reception Speech - 25 June 2008

I chose Friday 25th January of this year as my leaving date for my trip to Sri Lanka – I chose it carefully. As an SNP candidate, I am expected to buy tickets for every Burns Supper going. Sadly, this year I couldn’t make any of them and whilst they were all going on I was going to be spending my first night in a new exotic land. Perhaps I'd be sipping cocktails by the beach ...

Not quite. My first night was not how I expected it to be. Had I not been so exhausted, I’d have cried myself to sleep. I had never been to a developing country before, I had never travelled so far, I had never travelled alone.

It was a four hour drive from Colombo to Galle on the South coast where I would be living and working for the next three months. That drive convinced me I’d made a huge mistake – anyone who’s experienced driving Sri Lankan style will know what I mean. But it wasn’t just that.

The sight of goats eating the rubbish in the street unnerved me.

The constant wall of sound crashed down on me – car horns beeping, people yelling, monkeys doing whatever they do.

And the heat engulfed me till I thought I might stop breathing.

That was day one and things could only get better. You will be pleased to hear that they did.

I want to tell you a bit about my background, something about the Challenges Worldwide Approach and what I think I've gained from the experience.

My professional background was in fundraising initially and laterly, communications. I primarily worked in the charity sector although I went on to work for the Scottish National Party for a number of years and from June last year I worked as an Advisor to Aileen Campbell – so I was very used to working for worthwhile causes.

It had never occurred to me to work in a developing country, it just wasn’t me – I liked worthy causes but not THAT much. One night last October however, Aileen and I went to a party in Edinburgh at the home of Eric Swanopoel who works for Bill Wilson MSP. And there I met Mary Cuttle. I had one or two glasses of wine and I vaguely remember Mary telling me she was going to Sri Lanka as a volunteer. “oh that’s a good idea” I said and I may have added “I’d love to do that”. Well, that’s just what you say isn’t it?

Next thing I knew however, the details of the Challenges Worldwide Information evening in Glasgow were in my inbox along with an email from Mary saying “so glad you’ve decided to go”! Feeling guilty I decided I’d better lest anyone think I’d just had one too many that night.

So, as I walked through the door of the information evening on 6 November last year, I clearly remember thinking “this is as exciting as it gets” because I knew deep down that I didn’t do stuff like that. Ninety minutes later I left through the same door and I knew I would shortly be living in Sri Lanka. There were interviews to get through, money to be found, details to work out but none of that mattered – I knew I was going.

I felt exhilarated.
I felt sick to my stomach.
I felt like I was off my head.

But I was going.

So, what changed my mind?

First, the volunteers Will and Paul who are here tonight and had returned from Sri Lanka, spoke about their experiences and that, more than anything, made it real for me, made it seem achievable, made me realise that you didn't have to be a religious missionary type. Or a hippy. Normal people did this kind of thing too.

Secondly, it was the approach that Challenges Worldwide took – I wouldn’t be going out to be a spare pair of hands, I would be placed in a job with an organisation who really needed my particular skills, I’d have a job description, feedback meetings and an exit interview on my return. Hudson Recruitment had people at the information evening too who reassured me that this would not be seen in the job market as anything other than a positive move. There were other Challenges volunteers out there and there was a country manager who would be available to give advice and support.

I started work on the Tuesday after I arrived. The Monday had been spent with Cath, the Challenges Worldwide country manager and some other volunteers – this was our third training day and our first in Sri Lanka.

We had a language lesson – learning to speak some Sinhala, whilst not essential, would prove to be important to all of us.

We had culture lessons – they turned out to be crucial. It’s one thing offending someone in your own country (I do it all the time) but it’s probably good advice not to do it when you’re a guest in a foreign land.

The next day we all started work. I was placed as a Communications Consultant with CBTD – Communities Business & Technology Developers. Tells you nothing about them, you’ll understand why my communications strategy strongly encouraged them to change the name. They are a livelihood development organisation and their biggest programme at the moment is one for people with disabilities.

As I said, I worked on a communications strategy for them, I designed a website, and I recruited a communications officer so that my strategy didn’t go into a drawer in May, never to be seen again. That was a very important criteria for all of the placements set up by Challenges Worldwide – that the work of the volunteers was sustainable. There would be little point in the work only being of use in the time that you were there – it had to be something the host organisation could benefit from and develop over the long term.

The experience stretched me professionally because I was working for an organisation with no website, no information leaflets, little in the way of annual reports and only one English speaker – my boss, the Chief Executive. Except he was Chief Executive and Chief Bottle Washer. He did everything, he was all over the country, sometimes OUT of the country, he worked non stop and he had very little time to speak to me. He was great when he did – and extremely informative but often we’d go a week without speaking and sometimes pre-planned meetings would be cancelled because someone else turned up at the office unannounced.

I have to tell you it takes great imagination and perseverance to put together a Communications Strategy when there is nothing there to start with and no-one to communicate with.

In those challenging times, the support and advice offered by Challenges Worldwide back in Edinburgh, was invaluable. For a start I learned that it wasn’t anything I was doing wrong, that Sri Lanka time is very different to our time as is their working culture eg when an unexpected visitor appears at the office, we would think it rude if all other meetings were cancelled to accommodate this person. In Sri Lanka, it’s considered rude not to welcome them and give them your time.

Sri Lankans work hard but it’s different, it’s not so highly pressured and really all I had to do was slow myself down and realise that I didn’t have to go at 90mph. Every Friday we sent a written report to Alex at Challenges and every week without fail, he responded to any concerns with reassurance and sound advice.

He also came out to Sri Lanka and met with every volunteer and their organisation and that gave us an opportunity to make sure we were on the right track.

So, what have I gained from the experience. The list of benefits is endless.

I can handle insects! Admittedly I fought the mosquitoes and the mosquitoes won - but I can cope with them!

I had three months of sunshine and fresh air.

I learned to communicate with people who spoke a different language to me.

I learned to communicate with people who spoke SIGN language in a different language to me.

I lay awake at night and listened to monkeys playing on my roof.

I met some amazing people in Sri Lanka including some of the other volunteers.

But most of all being in Sri Lanka has completely changed my attitude toward material possessions. I am not taking a vow of poverty (although if I don't find a job soon I might have to!) but I have come home with a completely different mindset and for that, I will be eternally grateful to Challenges Worldwide and I am delighted to be here to celebrate the completion of this successful programme.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That was quite interesting. It's always useful to see a perspective on life outwith Scotland.

And the Burns Supper joke was actually funny!