First-time enquirers to Palms often feel a bit shocked when told our volunteer placements generally last two years. Some are dissuaded, but many will call again after considering the philosophy and effectiveness of a long-term program. Sam Haddin explains the importance of a far-sighted view and the crucial time forming relationships.
For a little over a year now, Guida and I have been working in a community called Bedois, which is on the outskirts of Dili.
Reflecting on the past year, I’ve come to realise and appreciate the true meaning of solidarity volunteering. Yes, the Palms crew did a great job in preparing us during the orientation course for working cross-culturally before we left for our various placements. However, it’s not until you are in the situation, amongst the community you are working in, that a genuine understanding dawns.
We are the first volunteers our community has hosted and whilst we were warned on the orientation course that progress would take time, I didn’t realise just how much time it would take! We are working with teachers from a local primary school and a local primary/junior secondary school, sharing ideas and developing skills in pedagogy so that the children of each school receive a decent education. And it has taken us a year to feel like we have made meaningful progress in terms of the skills we are teaching the teachers for the classroom.
“A year!” I hear you exclaim. “What’s taken you so long?”
Indeed, I feel like this myself sometimes when I think about our work in terms of tangible, measurable outcomes. We in Australia and other developed nations often view success or progress by how much we have achieved in a given amount of time – needing to tick this box and jump through that hoop in order to reach this target by that time.
But then I think about the intangible, not-so-easy-to-measure realities that are necessary to achieve anything when working not only cross-culturally, but also in a developing country. The most important being what is the essence of solidarity volunteering – relationships. Taking the time to build trusting, solid relationships with those whom you will be working most closely is vitally important to achieving any sort of progress and, ultimately, success.
When we first arrived, the priests, teachers and wider community made us feel nothing but welcome, treating us like VIPs at any function or celebration we were invited to and ensuring that we had all that we needed to feel comfortable. Which, strangely, made us feel uncomfortable. Being treated with almost excessive respect simply because we were from a different country didn’t sit too well with me or my fellow volunteer. Now, we don’t get treated any differently when we are at weddings or baptisms or other events. We sit with the other guests (not the VIPs), we wait in line to eat (not get ushered to the front to eat first), we are included in general conversation (not awkward, polite chit-chat with gratuitous head nodding and smiling). People pop round to our house just to say hello and our neighbours seem genuinely happy to see us after we return from being away. This is how we like it, as it’s indicative that we have been accepted as much as we ever will be by this wonderful community – the fact that they treat us like any other.
And the teachers…and here’s the most important part… now trust us enough to let us help them. We are planning lessons with them and supporting them in the classroom, something that, at one point, seemed like a distant dream.
So it has taken a year… but I know that without those 12 months of cross-cultivation in nurturing these vital relationships, progress would still be that distant dream and not the reality it now is.
Teachers Samantha Haddin and Guida Cabrita are both volunteering at two primary schools in the Dili suburb of Bedois. You can assist the second year of their placement with a tax free donation here.