Retired primary school principal Padraic McKeon has volunteered with VSO Ireland three times, in South Sudan, Myanmar and most recently on an Irish Aid funded project in Uganda. Here, he outlines his motivations for initially taking the plunge and why he has no regrets.
‘Sudan? That’s a trouble-spot, isn’t it?
‘Is it very hot out there?’
‘You’re a brave man.’
‘I’d love to do it – sometime.’
The reactions of people varied a lot when I told them I was going to Africa for a year to work as a volunteer. I had holidayed in Africa with my family on three occasions over the years, mainly in Tanzania, and had visited some schools while there. When I saw the conditions in which teachers worked, I had thought, "maybe I could help here’. The notion of volunteering in Africa took root with me.
I had retired as primary school principal in Newport, Co. Mayo at Christmas 2010. During the following summer, I researched various options when I noticed that VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) were seeking education advisors in various countries. This immediately caught my attention. I duly applied, was interviewed in October in Dublin, and in November was offered a placement as Education Advisor in Yambio, South Sudan. I had two weeks in which to make up my mind about accepting or rejecting the offer.
My initial reaction was wariness, having read of conflict in Sudan over many years. I made extensive enquiries and was reassured about the security situation. Having discussed the matter with my family, and with their full support, I accepted the offer.
My first volunteering experience
I was well-prepared by VSO over the next couple of months. Finally, at the end of January 2012, I was on my way to Africa. Leaving my family was definitely the hardest part, as I knew it would be. But I was happy to meet Keith, my colleague from England, in Heathrow Airport. We were the first VSO volunteers in South Sudan - my badge identified me as VSO 001. We had ten days of in-country training in Juba, capital of South Sudan, which included security awareness and learning the local Zande language.
We were given a warm welcome in Yambio and were lucky to get comfortable accommodation with the Christian Brothers community there. Yambio is only four degrees north of the equator, but is on an extensive plateau 2,000 feet above sea-level, which results in its moderate climate.
South Sudan is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, with more than 80% of the population living on less than $1 per day, massive illiteracy, and the worst maternal mortality rate in the world. After decades of war between north and south Sudan, a peace agreement was brokered in 2005. This led to the 2011 referendum on independence in which 98% of the south Sudanese people voted for independence. And so, in July 2011, was born the newest country in the world: South Sudan.
My role in South Sudan
The work description I had been given was to build capacity in the county education office and education centre staffs, to improve co-ordination of educational services, and to help organise the training of teachers, inspectors and Parent-Teacher Associations. After decades of neglect by the Khartoum government, the educational infrastructure in South Sudan was at ground zero. Schools had few resources/ materials, text-books were very scarce. There was little classroom furniture, and many classes were taught under trees. But the locals were easy to get on with, and appreciated our willingness to leave home and work to improve their lot. Gradually, with co-operation of all involved, progress became evident. I travelled around on my motor-bike, reliving my time as a young teacher on my Honda 50 in Dublin!
Among all the poverty and illness in South Sudan, there is a wonderful atmosphere of life and fun. It is easy to discern a sense of kinship, community and loyalty, with people quick to laugh and smile. There is the daily struggle for survival but there is grace and dignity in that struggle. I had mixed emotions leaving, but very happy to be going home. Since then, I have been saddened to see the country slide back into conflict and pray that my friends keep safe.
In 2014, I spent four months in Myanmar (formerly Burma), working as part of a VSO team to help the new government and educational establishments there adjust from military rule to a democratic educational system. And from March to June 2016, I worked in Uganda in a VSO teacher training programme, funded by Irish Aid. Both were very interesting experiences.
Volunteering is challenging, but very rewarding. It is said that volunteers make a difference and so we do, but the biggest difference is to ourselves. It changes one’s perspective. It changes you. I know that I have got back more than I gave, and for this I am grateful.
Interested in volunteering with VSO Ireland?
We're always on the lookout for education professionals like Padraic to support sustainable change overseas. Please see our Vacancies page for a list of current opportunities. You can also support VSO by donating what you can this Christmas and help more children get the education they need.