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Giving something back in retirement

When early marriage and family put limits on her travels, Mary Duggan put volunteering on the back burner – until she decided to retire last year. Here she tells us her story.

What made you decide to volunteer with VSO?

I had, since my school days, a ‘notion’ of teaching in Africa; perhaps it was a guilty conscience because of not being in the least attracted to the idea of being a nun, which was sold early and often in those days to all girls in convent schools! Early marriage and family limited my travel until I decided to retire last year. During the previous four years I began to think that my experience might be useful in teacher training. VSO was the organisation which was best equipped to use the skills and experience I had to offer as it has a long tradition of placing educationalists of all kinds in many developing countries.

What does your role in Ethiopia involve?

I am a higher diploma leader. This means I lead and teach the Higher Diploma Programme (HDP) to the teachers/lecturers in a teacher training college, Sekota College of Teacher Education. I have 21 candidates in two groups; each candidate must be formally observed teaching three classes at 50 minutes per class and each must have two professional interviews of 45 minutes during the 30 weeks. All of that, combined with preparation, assessing the candidates’ work, meeting to discuss active learning projects and action research projects, makes it a full time job. I am also required to train Higher Diploma (HD) tutors who will, by the end of the year, be capable of leading the course next year.

I find the job extremely rewarding as I got great support from day one from the college dean and vice dean. The candidates are hugely enthusiastic about the course and willing to try new teaching methods. One of my tasks is to encourage them to be innovative and find ways of using locally available, no cost, materials and come up with activities.

Describe your average day

I walk for 45 minutes to the college to arrive at 8.15am. I do the four sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays so the other days are taken up doing what I have described above. If I am observing a class I am greeted by the teacher and escorted to the room; all are very open to observation and see any constructive comment as helpful. They love to share experiences with others; in that way they could teach us a valuable lesson.

When I have a break I go to the staff room, or go out to sit with those watching a table tennis game, which is very popular here. The dean’s door is always open so I drop in to discuss progress. The course is very clearly set out and the initial training was very good so that combined with the experience I brought with me makes my job easier.

I go to my house for lunch and I try to get a ‘Bajaj’ for at least one leg of the way as the temperature can be very high at that time of the day: 27-30 C and the sun high in the sky. I generally walk with some of my colleagues/candidates and discuss the topic of the day – never the weather! I am the only foreigner or ‘ferengi’ as they say, in the town so that means I have plenty of opportunity to mix with the local people and get to know the culture. It is a rural town in the true sense so I share street space with donkeys, goats, sheep and oxen.

People all around are involved in eking out an existence but all are remarkably cheerful and interested, often too much so, in ‘the stranger’. The simple act of buying bananas or powdered milk can turn into a communal activity: everybody minds everybody else’s business and no one minds at all. I do my own cooking but as the choice is limited and I have, like all volunteers, only a one ring electric cooker, my culinary skills are not really tested.

How did you adapt to life in another country and culture?

I found the first few weeks quite strange, being as I was, ‘lone and remote’: the VSO categorisation for someone who is not accompanied by another volunteer and is in a very remote area. The fact that there was no one in the area whose first language was English was difficult and I did not have internet access for the first two months. I was dependent on phone calls for all communication and as the lines were sometimes down. It was very challenging.

The people are extraordinarily friendly and helpful: I was invited by so many people to come to their homes for coffee or a meal that I would have done nothing else if I accepted all invitations. Against that, the children can be over friendly; I got very good advice from my dean on our first walk through the town: ‘Do not shake their hands and do not give them money’. Children beg whether they need to or not: ferengi are seen as rich, which is relatively true, and it is a reflex action to say, ‘You, you, money, money’. For a while I felt like the Pied Piper but eventually they realised that all they were getting was a wave and a smile so now the numbers are greatly reduced! Although money is very scarce, the people have enough to eat and the children are well nourished.

What would you say has been your greatest achievement to date?

I think surviving the first month and getting the course off to a good start, despite the difficulties, was a big achievement. Most of the candidates are in their 30s and when one of them said that I was like a mother to them as well as a teacher, I felt I must be on the right track. Many of them have very difficult lives also as they live away from wives, children and families and do not see them for months due to the poor roads and distance involved; most journeys take two days. I realised very quickly that I would not be leaving Sekota often so I made plans for two holidays: one at Christmas when one of my daughters and her partner visited and the second in February/March when my husband visited and we travelled for two weeks.

What are the highs and lows of life as a VSO volunteer?

The highs are feeling you are making a difference and succeeding in whatever your role is. Getting immersed in an altogether different culture is very exciting and a marvellous experience. Talking to people about their culture, lifestyle, beliefs, hopes and dreams is interesting and often amazing. The lows are missing family, being lonely at weekends in a remote place where there is no entertainment of any kind, especially for women. This would not be the case in Addis Ababa or a few other urban areas, as there would be a number of volunteers from various agencies and also a more ‘modern’ attitude and way of life.

How did you overcome any difficulties in Ethiopia?

I called up whatever resilience I have, I communicated a lot with the staff in the college, I have a Kindle full of good books, I have an iPod and I spent time and money emailing and sometimes on Facebook once I got internet service. I did a lot of research on the area before I came and I knew, to some extent, what was in store. I didn’t know I would be the only foreigner for miles around but I soon realised I would have to make the best of it and now I am rather glad I did.

What new skills will you take back to Ireland?

I know I can survive quite adverse conditions. I was already a reasonably good communicator but I now know I can manage to learn the basics of a foreign language fairly quickly; the course I am facilitating is in English and some of the staff in the college have quite good English so I need Amharic only for the market, shops and so on. I know I can organise and deliver an academic course to adults, which is quite different from my experience as a second level teacher. I can motivate and encourage people to take risks and try out new approaches to teaching, as long as they are well practiced and confident.

What would you say to someone considering volunteering with VSO?

I would say go for it. It will be an exciting and rewarding experience. You will do a fairly in-depth preparation before you leave for your placement and the in country training provided is comprehensive and encouraging. VSO is a very professional organisation and will listen and assist you if you find yourself in any difficulties. You will meet interesting people, including other volunteers when you meet up for workshops or social gatherings and you will get a real insight into another culture. Do not expect it to be a holiday or a bed of roses, but any lows will be more than offset by the joy of working with people who are really appreciative of your efforts and very happy to have you share their lives.

Interested in following in Mary's footsteps?

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