Five minutes with... Maria Rafferty, Language Improvement Centre Coordinator, Ethiopia
Maria, a retired primary school teacher, spent two years volunteering with VSO in Ethiopia. Maria is from Donegal and we asked her a few questions about her experience with VSO in Africa.
What made you decide to volunteer with VSO and where did you volunteer?
I had retired early owing to the death of my husband. I always wanted to go to Africa and this was the first real possibility that offered itself to me since my single days. I had lots of experience in the education sector and was still young enough for the challenge.
Can you tell us a little bit about your placement in Ethiopia?
The work in Jimma University was challenging because of different expectations and modes of working, but feasible with the help of the authorities and colleagues who were very appreciative of what we tried to do. Overall the work was interesting and rewarding. I did manage to set up an English language improvement centre in Jimma University, which I hear is still operating. The English teachers in the second level area need huge help with their own level of English and with methodology and resources for their actual teaching. I also got involved in community projects outside of my official work and it is here still where my community and I continue to help Jimma.
How did you adapt working in a different culture and country?
I adapted with fortitude, gratitude for what I have here and lots of parcels from home. The fact that VSO has a system of support and collaboration in place was of untold help and benefit, and having at least two other volunteers in the vicinity was brilliant. I was also fortunate to have had a great colleague at work. He took me under his wing and saw me as one of his family. Other good Ethiopian friends also helped to make my journey productive and positive.
What are the highs and lows of working overseas as a VSO volunteer?
The highs include: getting to know, love and understand a new culture, particularly that of a developing country; a sense of contributing to a country's development and helping very unfortunate people; working at such a high level with government and university people successfully.
The lows were: missing family and friends; coping with extremes of climate and lack of food; wondering at times if we were able to make any little positive difference to the challenges of Ethiopia; challenges of travel, and so on.
Did you feel your years of experience benefited you as a VSO volunteer in Ethiopia?
Absolutely! Being older and having worked in Irish education for 30 years, I have a lot to offer. I am wiser to the possibilities of what can be achieved, more accepting when things don't happen, and sensitive to how people work, as we are the same no matter where.
What advice would you give to a person who has retired considering volunteering with VSO?
If you are healthy, at a loose end and anxious to help with development, go for it! You'll never regret it, even if it proves difficult to actually measure what you achieve. With the VSO network and support you will gain, hopefully you can add a little hope and love to the stream of people's efforts before you.
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