We got in touch with John Callaway a short while back, after having found his blog, and asked him to tell us a bit about himself and his international volunteering journey. As it turns out, he had recently written a great article on the topic for Portsmouth Today, which he kindly offered for us to publish as well. Said and done, here is the complete, unedited, article:
I am 51 years old, married with two adult children. I have lived in Portsmouth since 1980. I trained as a social worker in 1984 at Portsmouth Polytechnic and since qualifying have worked in the field of substance misuse (drugs and alcohol), HIV/AIDS and mental health. For the past 15 years or so I worked in Southampton for Two Saints Housing Association in a variety of management roles. This organisation works primarily with homeless people,many of whom experience problems with substance misuse, mental and physical ill health, and who come to the attention of the criminal justice system. At different times I have had operational responsibility for supported housing schemes, day centre provision, floating support services and drug and alcohol services run by Two Saints.
The idea of using my skills overseas in a developing country has been with me for a number of years. Partly it is about believing that you have the ability to “make a difference”, but it is also based on a view that skill-sharing is a two way process. I may have skills and knowledge that others can use, but I too can learn a considerable amount from another culture. Also, in doing something like VSO, you learn more about yourself.
Circumstances play a large part in any decision making process and it is only in the last couple of years that transition of an idea into reality became possible. Both of my children (Emma & Robert) had reached adulthood, my financial circumstances had changed, and most importantly I have a wife, Lesley, who was (and is) extremely supportive of my decision...and so it was that some 18 months ago I completed the initial online application with VSO. (I had considered other organisations working within the development field, but VSO seemed to fit most with my own views about development work, and had a well established track record)
From Portsmouth to Nepal:
Recruitment to VSO is quite rightly a long drawn out and rigorous process. Considerable resources are committed to training a volunteer, followed by the cost of actually sending them abroad and providing them with an allowance to live and work in the community for period of up to two years. VSO needs to be sure in selecting a volunteer that they have someone who will stay the distance. Equally any potential volunteer needs to be sure at every step of the way that they have the inner resources to live in a different country, with a different culture and language, and potentially without many of the resources that here in the west we take for granted.
So...the initial online application is just the start! At this stage the potential volunteer is simply letting VSO know something of their work experience, and the skills that they believe they have to offer. (There are particular skills which VSO is looking for, and which are clearly stated on their website). If your initial enquiry suggests that you might have the skills that you are looking for, then you are expected to complete a much more detailed analysis of your work experience and skills, accompanied by specific examples of work that you have done which support your claim. You need to supply references and agree to a Criminal Records Bureau check at this point.
If VSO decide to continue once they have received your more detailed application, then both you and your partner are invited to an interview. (The partner is interviewed whether or not they are intending to accompany the volunteer). Having been with the same employer for over 15 years, I’d largely got out of the habit of interviews other than carrying them out to recruit staff...so a full day’s interview which included some very searching personal questions about motivation, coping strategies, and the like is a good way of checking your commitment. ( I can’t remember ever being asked before in an interview whether I had considered the possibility of kidnap for instance...). Meanwhile, Lesley was interviewed separately to ensure that she is supportive and is sufficiently resilient to deal with me being away for two years...(I think the answer to that is yes!) There are then a number of problem solving activities and scenarios which you discuss with your fellow interviewees whilst VSO staff observe you and take notes.
There’s a certain satisfaction when you receive the letter telling you that you’ve been successful at interview, but you soon realise that there are a few more steps to take before the end is in sight. Medical and dental clearance are required, plus two very intensive weekends of training at VSO’s training centre in Birmingham. The key themes of the training are “Preparing To Volunteer”, “Skills In Development” and “Health, Safety & In-Country Security”, and they cover in considerable detail all of the potential difficulties of volunteering and ensure that you have a very clear idea of what may be ahead.
Almost there now.... You’ve done all of the training, you’ve received medical clearance, you’ve submitted all the paperwork,and you’ve told VSO when you’re available to leave the UK. All that needs to happen is that the skills that you are offering can be matched up with the needs of a partner agency somewhere in VSO’s portfolio of projects around the world. And so on 24th November 2009, (co-incidentally my last day of work for Two Saints) I received the offer of a placement in Nepal.
The story so far...
I’ve been in Nepal since the end of March, and in truth I don’t think I could have asked for a better placement. I took the view that I would be happy to go wherever VSO wanted to send me, and so here I am, living in Banepa, in the Kavre district of Nepal, some 25km drive from Kathmandu. I work three days a week with Sakriya Plus Nepal(SPN) and two days with Navadeep Jyoti Kendra (NJK). Both projects have been implementing a range of programmes in HIV & AIDS prevention, care and support for people living with HIV & AIDS (PLWHA) and share the same common aims:
• To reduce the rate of HIV transmission amongst PLWHA and their families
• To provide a range of services (prevention, care and support) to PLWHA’s in the district.
• To build the capacity of the organisation
• To continue the implementation of the HIV prevention programme
• To strengthen the organisational capacity of the organisation
My role as an Organisational Development Advisor is to work with both organisations to help them develop the appropriate management structures and systems necessary to achieve these objectives in a country where the key data about HIV/AIDS is as follows:
• Approximately 0.49% of the adult population of Nepal is HIV+
• This equates to approximately 70,000 people living with HIV
• Approximately one in three infected are women
• The highest prevalence of HIV is amongst labour migrants to India, and sexual transmission is the predominant mode of transmission in Nepal
• There is an expanding sex industry in the urban areas of Nepal, and there is a high incidence of trafficking of Nepalese girls and women to India
• The second most significant route of HIV transmission is through the sharing of injecting equipment by intravenous drug users. This is compounded by many drug users financing their drug habit through sex work.
Despite the current low prevalence of HIV in Nepal, it remains highly vulnerable to a significant degree of HIV infection amongst the population.This is compounded by societal norms which lead to stigmatisation of people living with HIV & AIDS (PLWHA’s). Although there are policies in place which ostensibly protect the rights of PLWHA’s, the enforcement of these rights is patchy to say the least.
In the Kavre district where I am based, there are around 200 individuals who are known to be HIV+, although the ‘hidden’ numbers are likely to be considerably higher. Male migrant labour from the district and transport workers crossing the border with India are the most significant proportion of the HIV+ population, with IV drug users and female sex workers close behind. The knock on effect is that there is a high incidence of male workers becoming HIV+, and infecting their wives. Children being born HIV+ is not an uncommon event, and I’ve already met several children who are themselves HIV+, and who are themselves orphans as a result of their parents having died of an AIDS related illness.
Against this background both Sakriya Plus Nepal an Navadeep Jyoti Kendra are providing care and support to people who are HIV+, as well as delivering an educational programme entitled “Positive Prevention” in the surrounding villages and schools. Both projects employ PLWHA amongst their staff group. And a final somewhat humbling thought...this is all done with extremely limited resources, and without an infrastructure that remotely resembles the UK. A recent trip to one of the more remote Village Development Councils (VDC’s) in Kavre requires a one hour bus ride, followed by a two hour walk to the village, before the Positive Prevention programme can be delivered....and then we have to return.
Nepal: a few impressions so far
Comparing Nepal with the UK is somewhat like comparing chalk with cheese. What is clear is that significant poverty exists. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita income of $250 per year. Life expectancy, at 59 years is lower than its neighbouring South Asian countries, and infant mortality is amongst the highest in the region. Only 42% of women are literate, as compared with 65% of men. Inequality, poor governance and discrimination are generally seen to be the root causes of poverty here .
What I have come to learn is that many of the things that we take for granted in the UK are not so readily available here. Much of the water available is not safe to drink, and in certain areas water isn’t available at all times. This is true of Banepa, where I now live and work.
Electricity too is not always available. Virtually all of Nepal’s electricity is generated through hydro-electricity. The simple fact is that demand outstrips supply, and as a result “load shedding” occurs throughout the country, with power being unavailable for several hours per day. ( As I write, Nepal awaits the monsoon rains which will hopefully refill the reservoirs).
The relationship between water and agriculture is all too apparent here in the Kavre district as this season’s crops (maize and rice predominantly) are beginning to falter as the monsoon rains are late in coming. Even in the cities, the need to grow crops on every available piece of land is apparent. It took a few days of adjustment for me to get used to goats, chickens, cows and bullocks in the centre of Kathmandu, but it is no longer surprising as I come to understand the close relationship that exists between people and the land. What you eat is therefore inextricably linked to what is in season and available locally at the time, and not what happens to be on the shelf at the nearest supermarket.
Harvest time sees whole families engaged in the gathering in of potatoes and wheat. It is the women who appear to do the majority of carrying, their strength and fleet footedness being apparent as they wend their way through small well worn pathways snaking in between the various crops, with huge loads carried in baskets that are supported by their heads. (This is not a sight unique to farming. Amongst my first memories of clearing customs at Kathmandu airport was the sight of a group of women carrying various building materials in these baskets. Women provide a significant percentage of the building and construction labour force in Nepal).
Religion (Dharma) is a key feature of Nepali life. At its most fundamental, the daily greeting of namaste when Nepalis meet can be translated as “I greet the divine within you”; a sentiment which seems entirely appropriate within the context of society here. Although Hinduism remains the country’s ‘official’ religion, there is good deal of synthesis between Buddhism and Hinduism. The physical manifestation of this is the vast array of Buddhist stupahs and Hindu mandirs interspersed with many smaller shrines and places of worship. The routines and rituals of worship are inextricably bound up with daily life, and there is far less (or so it seems to me) separation between the secular and the spiritual. Temples are places for children to play, for washing to be hung, for people to gather, as well as places of devotion.
The amount of traffic on the roads is staggering, particularly in Kathmandu. To the uninitiated there are seemingly no particular rules to driving etiquette here beyond the need to sound your horn and make for the nearest gap in the traffic. (Gap is perhaps something of an exaggeration at times!) And yet effortlessly, out of this chaos, the traffic does appear to flow...a sign perhaps of the “attitude” of drivers, motorcyclists and cyclists. I can just imagine the standard response by drivers back in Portsmouth to some/all of the driving here in Nepal. Traffic undoubtedly contributes to the high levels of atmospheric pollution in the towns and cities; according to one of our briefings the number of vehicles in Kathmandu has risen by 380% in the last ten years!) The daily trip on the M27 to Southampton now seems tame in comparison!
And finally to politics. Nepal has only recently emerged from a period of violent political unrest. The 2006 April Uprising opened doors for Nepal to move forward as a democratic republic, placing the power in the people’s hands. Writing a new constitution which secures the rights of all the sectors of the Nepali society and creates the framework for establishing a federal system is the major challenge for the present government. Nepal’s new constitution should have been written by May 28th, but wasn’t. A general strike called by the Maoists in protest at the beginning of May brought large parts of the country to a standstill for several days, and although the interim Constituent Assembly has now been extended for a further year, I suspect there are a few more twists and turns to come.
....however, I have my i-pod and an acoustic guitar to keep me company, and I can still keep in contact with my family and friends using skype! (The world is no longer such a big place). And anyone that wants to follow the journey can check out my blog at http://johnnyc1959.wordpress.com/ ...
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