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Three months on...

Adrienne Harrington from Dublin speaks about her first three months as a VSO volunteer.

"I said yes"

In March 2010, I was accepted as a short-tem volunteer with VSO and in June was offered a placement as a Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Adviser in Namibia. My first reaction was, ‘What? Africa was the only place that I told VSO that I’d little interest in being posted’ and my second was, ‘That’s a job that I could never do – I know nothing about M+E.’ But the more I read the placement description, the more I realised that I had something to offer. And the more I read about Namibia (including finding out exactly where it was!), the more I realised that I wanted to go.

So I said yes to the placement offer and then waited for weeks and weeks for a decision from the partner organisation in Namibia as to whether they’d take me. They said yes in August and I was given a departure date of mid-October.

So between medical examinations, vaccinations, winding things down at work, sorting out finances and house, and saying goodbye to family and friends, the intervening weeks flew by and on 16 October, I flew to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia where I was to be based.

Initial impressions

I was met by VSO at the airport and as we dodged baboons on the road from the airport, I got a feel for the place that would be home for the next six months. I immediately got an allowance from VSO to cover the cost of basics for my house which is in a middle-class area of Windhoek. I share with two other volunteers, and we are lucky to live in a standard a lot higher than most other volunteers in the country. The house is modern, with a well-equipped kitchen, two dining-rooms, big sitting-room, and we all have our own bedrooms. However, the major bonus is the pool which has made us very popular with the other volunteers in town.

We started our in-county training the day after arrival, which consisted of four days of familiarisation on the culture and history of the country, as well as practical issues such as security. Work began the following Monday, and many volunteers were underwhelmed by their first few weeks at work. While we as volunteers had been planning our VSO experience for years and been actively preparing for months, many of our employers seemed unprepared for our arrival. But this is part of the experience. Our training has tried to prepare us for a change in approach – we needed to leave behind our goal-focused way of working and concentrate instead on developing relationships with those with whom we would be working. This has been the greatest challenge for some volunteers. However, three months later, most have found a niche in their partner organisations, maybe not doing what they had initially expected but nonetheless, making a contribution to the partner. Some are frustrated by the service-delivery aspect of their placement but in a country where professional expertise and experience can be limited, this is to be expected. My own placement has been challenging due to tensions within the partner organisation, but I’ve been able to handle it to date and have had good support from my programme manager and country director.

Four weeks after our arrival, we had a second week of in-country training which looked at development issues in the Namibian context, as well as elaborating on cultural and historical aspects, though the session that got most reaction was on snakes and scorpions – finding the poisonous puff adder in the toilet the day before the session made it a lot more real! 

Different volunteer experiences

Outside of work, volunteers have varying experiences, depending on where they are based. Those of us in Windhoek enjoy a city life which is similar in some ways to what we knew at home. Accommodation is generally of a good standard. We have a cinema, threatre, restaurants and bars; supermarkets stock familiar foods as well as some unfamiliar and some that are best left to the imagination! Our biggest challenge is stretching our allowance to cover the cost of living in the city.

Those living outside Windhoek usually have a more difficult way of life with, for example, irregular access to water. Many who work for government departments live in hospital accommodation or ministry houses, and standards vary. Those in isolated areas can have a limited choice of foods available locally and have to travel to the nearest town to stock up. However, VSO has been generally good at giving details of what was to be expected, and no-one has been too surprised by what they’ve found.

So who volunteers? Twenty of us arrived here in October last, 12 female and 8 males. Volunteers are from Canada, Australia, UK, Philippines, Netherlands, Kenya, with one from Ireland. Most are either mid-twenties to early-thirties or retirees in their sixties, with only two of us in the country in our forties.

Challenges and rewards

The hardest thing to date? My partner George stayed in Dublin and being away from him has been the hardest thing to deal with since I arrived. I’m one of the few volunteers with a partner at home, so there are not even too many others that I can moan to! However we talk every day and have Skype and email, so that helps a lot.

The best thing about the experience to date? I’m just back from three weeks of travelling the country, which was a wonderful experience. Namibia is a country of such contrasts, with deserts, mountains and wonderful coastlines. While I have travelled previously, I’ve never lived aboard before and doing so has allowed me to develop a much greater understanding of the country. It’s only 21 years since Namibia gained independence and it is fascinating to see at first-hand its attempts to realise its potential.

The strangest thing about my first three months? I am amazed at how quickly the new reality became my everyday reality. Sharing a house again after so many years, being away from loved ones, starting a new job, sharing taxis to work (we’ve no public transport system here) and the heat (30+ degrees most days, and it’s now the rainy season) have all just become the way things are and there has been very little time needed to get used to the newness. It’s as though I left my Irish life behind one Saturday and the following day, adopted my Namibian life. Now all I have to do is reverse the process when I come home in May!

"Go for it!"

To anyone wondering whether to volunteer or not, my advice is to go for it. We all have doubts about the contribution that we can make, and for me, VSO has been there to advise and support, whether at the Dublin office, on training in the UK or here in Namibia. It’s also been a wonderful adventure, one that will stay with me forever.

Interested in following in Adrienne's footsteps?

Find out more about our current volunteer vacancies and make an application now.

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