Leigh Jones, a member of the senior committee, has been involved in international development projects for over 50 years. In this piece, he reflects upon the changes in Volunteering between then and now, and lessons we can learn going forward.
If one had to define the essential difference since the world of volunteering overseas fifty years ago, it would have to be: knowledge and communication. Today, when disaster strikes or a community suffers from shortage or absence of essentials: shelter, clean water, food, wellbeing, security and the like, through television and social media the whole world knows about it within hours or even minutes. Fifty years ago, that was not the case: there was awareness that such problems existed, but we were not continually being reminded of them. It was “a foreign country, where they do things differently”. The problems in the past, though, were just as bad as they are now but with society’s increasing knowledge of them has come a much greater desire to do something about them.
When I left university in the sixties, only 1% the class thought about doing voluntary work overseas afterwards, let alone during their course. Now, typically, 30% of students are actively involved in the work of organisations like Cameroon Catalyst while studying and a substantial number continue to be involved after they graduate.
How different, though, is the volunteer experience, in the field, between then and now?
In attempting to provide some answers to that question whilst trying not to sound too much like an “old boy” reliving his “good-old-days”, what follows may appear a bit like a canter through holiday reminiscences. But I hope you find it interesting and insightful in demonstrating that although the technological, political and economic landscapes have changed considerably over the past fifty years, the fundamental challenges in delivering Cameroon Catalyst’s mission remain broadly the same.
Fifty years ago:
- independent developing countries had been so for less than five years
- self-government was both novel and bizarre and there was still a strong colonial atmosphere
- close friendships between expatriates and locals were rare or tended to be paternalistic
- air-travel was slow and expensive: tours were much longer: minimum 1 or 2 years, leading to close bonds between expatriates, life-long friendships and marriages!
- communications were mainly letter post: two weeks for a letter from UK and no long-distance telephones
When, in 1965, I took off from Gatwick for Eastern Nigeria, my mother was convinced that, like Colonel Fawcett, I would never be seen again; the elderly parents of a Catholic priest leaving for a ten-year posting knew they would not see their son again. But my first real awareness that I was somewhere different was, when I arrived at Ikeja airport, Lagos, seeing a three-foot orange and blue lizard doing press-ups on the apron.
At first, I stayed in the regional capital, Enugu, at the house of a volunteer teacher, Wendy, for a few days. Putting up visiting strangers like that was quite common, though, in our case, there was something more and were married in 1969! I then moved into my home for the next year and a half, in Awgu, about 20 miles South of Enugu, with two other British volunteers, Bob and Steve, and a Peace Corps volunteer, Lennie (who, sadly, died in Vietnam), and our steward, John.
My work comprised design and construction of low-cost bridges and roads, village latrines and fresh-water distribution systems, training local works superintendents and advising Peace Corps volunteers with their similar projects –all on the basis of a three-year degree and eight weeks site experience in a soils and concrete testing lab!
But then in Nigeria – in the words of local author Chinua Achebe – “Things Fall apart”! And there was always “WAWA” (West Africa Wins Again)! For example:
- In an attempt to get the work superintendents to produce “Good concrete!” “Strong concrete!”, I drew a picture of a half-sack of cement, a pail of water, a pile of sand with three shovels, and a pile of ballast with six shovels. The response was “Where do we get all the shovels ?”
- Constructing the deck of a 12-foot span Reinforced Concrete slab bridge, I said that I wanted to inspect the reinforcement before the concrete was placed. This I did and, before moving on to another site, told the foreman he could now place the concrete, keep it moist for 10 days and then remove the shuttering. In four weeks I would be back to watch the first “Mammy” wagon (a six-ton truck usually weighing 20 tons) drive over the bridge . When it did, the slab snapped like a biscuit with a sound like a cannon, tipping the truck into the stream! Why? –No reinforcement! Explanation? –I had seen the rebars in place; it was to be covered up; hence, there was no further need of it.
- We were building a road, using government plant and free local labour, to connect several villages to the main road so that local produce could be transported to the district market. We started, quite reasonably I thought, from the main road. The result was that, as soon as we reached the first village, the labourers from that village stopped work!
The next similar job, we transported all the plant by river and through the Bush to the furthest village and stated from there!
Travel, at least to begin with, was relatively safe and unrestricted. I was fortunate enough to have my own transport, which we also used to explore with or visit other volunteers
Here Wendy and her friend Nancy, embark on a three-week tour of East Nigeria, staying with other volunteers, and among other things visiting the grave of Mary Slessor, missionary and champion of women’s rights, overlooking the Cross River. Imagine such a trip today!
…And then, sadly, came the Nigerian Civil war, ‘Biafran’.
First there were peaceful demonstrations. Then, the horror of famine and hunger spread across the country; close to one million people died during the 30month war. Thus, as it was then, so it is now.
Meanwhile we, the volunteers, were forced to return to our homes to continue with our ordinary lives and careers.
The lessons I learned:
- Enthusiasm and goodwill are not enough!
- The project has to deliver equitable success i.e. it has to work for both the proivders and the recievers
Lessons for Cameroon Catalyst
So what is Cameroon Catalyst doing to embed the lessons we’ve learned over the past fifty years?
- We prepare our volunteers for life in Cameroon to ensure they maximise their experience and operate in a safe environment with positive behaviours
- We recognise and harness the talents of local communities in Cameroon, such as their construction techniques
- We empower, educate and train local communities to build for themselves, own, use and maintain the facilities, be they wells, water pumps, latrines, washing facilities, buildings and other infrastructure, that Cameroon Catalyst has created with them