Wednesday, December 16, 2009


I am almost halfway thru my volunteer assignment in Zambia. I have learned that it Is best to take it one day at a time. Some days though are a bit tougher than the others.

The bad days aren’t so much because of the adjustment in lifestyle and living conditions. I’ve found out that there are many things I can live without. I guess I just had too much stuff before that I didn’t really actually need.

I come across the rough spots when I begin to doubt my ability to accomplish anything while I’m here. Take last Friday – a project prioritization workshop which I had carefully planned was cancelled for the second time.

In both cases, the cancellations came about because of sudden deaths in our small town. As senior council officials, my workshop attendees had to drop everything to sit with the bereaved families because of tradition and social obligation.

If it’s not a death, then it’s something else that causes a break in my work plan – somebody has malaria, there is no money for fuel, there is no electricity and so on. In the meantime, the clock is ticking and I don’t want to find myself at the end of this assignment without having anything to show for it.

Throwing a fit is a tempting option. I could make a big thing out of time being wasted and people not taking the work seriously.

And then again (several deep breaths later ), maybe not.

After some thought – this is what I have: What to me are inconveniences and annoying disruptions are just part of daily life here in this remote rural town of Zambia. These conditions were here before I arrived and will still be here after I’m long gone.

In a country with one of the highest mortality rates in the world and where the extended family is the main support system, it’s not unusual for a co-worker to have to attend four funerals in a day. In an environment of unstable cash flows, It is my co-workers who take a bigger brunt of the lack of resources – they can go on for months without being paid. In a district where the number one cause of death its malaria and there are rumors of another outbreak, It’s not irresponsible for somebody to take time off from work to make sure that he or she is tested and treated properly .

So, who am I to complain about unused presentation materials? And what are my timelines and work-plans but merely means to an end – not the goals by themselves? If they can’t serve the needs of the people then they have to be modified accordingly. I will Zen this out, I will reschedule the workshop and make use of the additional time to improve my hand-outs. In the meantime, I will see where else I can help.

Sometimes I surprise myself with how mature and rational I can be (a bit of irony there, in case you didn’t get it. Ugh, now I’m patronizing you. Sorry. Going on…)

The district council where I work has as its mandate the provision of basic social services to a population of about 200,000 people. My visual for the resident who needs the council’s help the most is this unsmiling little girl I see sometimes on my morning walk to work . She must be – oh, maybe 10 or 11. She has a baby slung on her back and a hoe in her hands as she tends the small field in front of her family’s mud-house. I ask myself – Why isn’t she in school? Why does she look so sad? Where are her parents? Does she and the baby get medical attention? Are they AIDS orphans?

In spite of its gargantuan responsibilities, the council does its work with very limited resources. Its’ annual budget for its social programs is about equal to the sales target of a junior IT sales executive in the Philippines

My main task for the time I’m here is to identify alternative sources of funding and introduce a system and structure in place to make sure that when the funds do come, they are utilized properly. That means literally anything. So, my typical day can be spent meeting with our program beneficiaries, running computer tutorials, communicating with potential donors , running capacity-building workshops or riding on a truck distributing flyers for the hygienic use of toilets.

You know that eager-beaver guy in the office who volunteers for everything and offers a lot of unsolicited advice ? I’m that guy over here. “What’s the problem? Where do you need help? Why don’t you do it this way?” I know, I knooooow. We hate that guy but I can’t help it.

So, (more deep breaths later) do I have any good days at all?

Yes, I do. Thank you, God. One of the guys from work came up to me after church last Sunday and said – “I wish you could stay with us longer” . I was having a classic Debbie Downer moment so I, of course, had to say- “But sometimes I wonder if I’m really helping out. All I seem to do is ask a lot of questions”. And then, this guy replied – “But your questions make us think of how we could do things differently and that’s always a good start.”

That exchange kind of put what I’m trying to do here in perspective. I have to remind myself that, sometimes, trying, by itself, is already the victory . I need to stop equating accomplishment with tasks done and targets and timelines met , like I normally would.

Several recent instances make me start to think that maybe - maybe - I am able to help in some small way, after all. I was very happy last week when one of my co-workers bought himself a corporate strategy book out of his own money (costing about 5% of what I estimate his monthly salary must be). I’m taking that to mean he realizes that he has to do his part in closing in on the knowledge gap I felt like a proud parent on his kid’s first day at school when I saw him bring home that thick book.

One other co-worker made a case to the bosses to adopt a management report that we had been working on together. I take that to mean that he’s taking ownership of the project and will stay on top of it. And earlier today, I was approached to see how we could create simple Excel databases to replace the books that have been kept manually for years and years. I take that to mean, they’re realizing that there could be a better way of doing things and that they might now be ready to try them out.

In the world I want to live in, this is what is going to happen: Even after I’m gone, the people I’m working with , will build on whatever skills and knowledge I am able to share. This will help them generate more resources and then run their programs more efficiently and professionally.

At the end of the day, the beneficiaries of those programs – especially women , children and people living with HIV/AIDS, VSO’s target beneficiaries , and that little girl with the baby on her back – will benefit by having a chance at a better life.

It’s not exactly digging trenches or constructing a school but I guess we all have to start somewhere. And that’s how I’d like to think of my experience here - it’s a start.


Renee said...

Tarcs, you're right, a great theologian said (i'm already rephrasing), we continue to exist because we continue to ask questions. We can transcend ourselves through our questioning. We don't have to have the right answers but we should have to ask and ask. It is in our questioning the we apprehend meaning. THe moment we stop questioning is the moment we decide to be "as is where is"

Anonymous said...

im sorry it took this long to react.yahyah, facebook is there but like the people over there, some things can't be learned overnight. reading ur blog brought tears coz i can imagine your frustration. but the realist that you are, or that you have to be considering your current situation, you've overcome the initial feelings and instead chose to focus on the good and the bright spots. this is not just about social work, this is about rediscovering yourself, and finding out your limits and weaknesses. You will come out stronger and better my bestfriend, something i lack terribly. so push forward, you are making a BIG difference BIG WHITE MAN. i lov u firend - jtt

bill and carol said...

Thanks, Tarcs, for sharing this with us. We are currently just having fun traveling but Bill and I have been thinking of giving back when we travel to other, more deprived countries. What you are doing is something that we may be able to emulate in the near future. We hope that, at age 65 and 61 respectively, we are not too late in sparking more good starts and are mature enough to face the challenges you speak of. Kudos!