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My Volunteer World (Pt. I) July 31, 2006

Posted by earthlingconcerned in Volunteer.
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It was just over a year ago that I went from having a slight interest in knowing what goes on outside of my country to one bordering on obsessive. Throughout 2005, my job pretty much allowed me to read whatever I chose on a full time basis. As someone who is fairly convinced by the age old adage, the truth is stranger than fiction, most of my time was spent with works of non-fiction. After reading several popular books (Jared Diamonds recent works come to mind) as well as the works of some of the greatest political theorists of the 20th century (Karl Popper and Bertrand Russell), I began to delve into 20th century history. One book that made an impact on me was The Fate of Africa: From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair (Martin Meredith). My eyes opened ever so slightly, and from that point onward, my interest in world outside my own became more and more important to me. As my interest in this genre of thought continued, I decided that I should make an effort to make any positive change that I could. After researching a few NGO volunteer agencies, I followed the lead of a friend and began the application process with Youth Challenge International. The organization had ongoing projects within several countries around the world, but since I was new to all of this, I decided it would be best for me to travel somewhere that I could communicate in my native tongue. Guyana and Grenada were the two countries I checked off on the list and before I knew it, I was selected to join a group of volunteers destined for Grenada.

To suggest I knew much, if anything at all, about the culture of the small Caribbean island would be foolish on my part. I was aware that Hurricane Ivan had happened, but not aware of the long lasting toll it took on the psyche of its population. I hadn’t heard of Emily until after my selection for the project. In looking back, I won’t say that I necessarily should have known anything about Grenada. It is a country with a population of just over 100,000 and is known for spices and rum more than anything else. In the months prior to my departure, I did a lot of reading on its history. Grenada, an island which lost its indigenous population once the Europeans arrived, always seemed to be involved in some sort of tug of war between the world powers of the time. England and France both claimed it to be their own several times throughout the last few centuries. Shortly after independence arrived in 1974, the country became a playground for the Cold War super-powers. With a short lived flirtation with communism squashed by a US invasion in 1983, Grenada was finally free to exist in a the democratic style preferred by the United States. And somewhere along the human time line, I entered the equation. A speck of dust, en route to Carriacou, one of Grenada’s sister islands that has a permanent population of just over 5,000. Supposedly, there is a need for our labor and very general skills.

After a week of orientation with my fellow volunteers, we were on our way. No turning back. We were fortunate to have a small house donated to our cause. With it, surprisingly, came the standard comforts of modern life (electricity and running water). We took some time to adapt to the temperature, pace, and cultural differences before doing what we all flew thousands of kilometers to do. The mind of an idealist will always conflict with the actual way of things. The group was divided into mini projects that would take up the remainder of our time on the island. I was deemed worthy to be part of an effort to help establish PAM, Program for Adolescent Mothers. This was a program that had been in place on Grenada for a decade but was only in its infancy in all aspects on Carriacou. Early enthusiasm on the part of myself and my partner dwindled as the realities of volunteer work took hold. There were questions of acquiring the funds required (the Grenadian government, UNESCO, and the United Methodists all had representation at early available at early meetings), of who would in charge of the program, the time line, scale, and pretty much everything else one has to deal with in regards to such a creation. And as volunteers, it was our job to be patient while all the details were squabbled over. In an attempt to initiate something on our own (with a guiding nudge of our group leader), we spent most of our time working on a workshop for adolescent girls on the island. This became our own. We had to live with promoting PAM through our own workshop instead of working directly on PAM, as there wasn’t much of a PAM to work with at the time. The preparation and eventual facilitation of the workshop, some furniture building, house painting and helping with other volunteer programs was what I ultimately did on Carriacou. Two months working on a tropical paradise, in my forgivably naïve attempt at being the first creature to be truly altruistic. I failed in achieving this selfless ideal, but I suppose understanding this only makes me more human. Going into the project, the idea that we couldn’t save the world was drilled into us early and often. If you can make a positive difference in one person, then you’ve achieved your goal. This always made a lot of sense to me, and throughout my trip I would always try to find that person. But until then, there were several hurdles to overcome (or at the very least, understand).

The economy of the island is primarily based on tourism, and this is apparent on the surface level. With air-conditioned hotels and stores running from an inefficient and environmentally unfriendly power source, those visiting Carriacou are kept happy. With a demand for a brand recognizable product base, the imports suffocate any efforts at an actual sustainable local industry, so that those visiting Carriacou are kept happy. With virtually no recycling happening on the island, the growing landfill is kept far away from where the visitors would generally find themselves, and they remain happy. Sustainability. A notion that was stapled into my skull early on remains one of the big question marks on the island. Keeping visitors happy only works as long as there are visitors. After Ivan and Emily arrived in consecutive years, many of these folks changed their travel plans and soon enough, an island geared towards promoting leisure too all those who could afford it wasn’t able to do so. Nothing about an economy based on tourism is sustainable in the long run. What was I to do about this? We did speak of sustainable livelihoods and local economies in our workshop. But in reality, there was absolutely nothing I could do. When it came down to it, with my patchy understanding of the inherent flaws of a tourist economy, I myself was a tourist. I indulged in the lifestyle, by reasons of necessity and comfort alike. People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, isn’t that what they say?

I don’t have any statistics regarding the monetary losses Carriacou endured after the hurricanes, but I do know that another ongoing short term solution, helped ease the pain for a lot of local residents. Aside from it being a tourist economy, it is also one that relies heavily upon income from family members working overseas (in most cases, Canada, USA and England). Many of the youth who I talked to while on project acknowledged that after they complete their secondary education, they will spend their working lives in one of the aforementioned countries. During a game of dominos, I once took part in a conversation with one of these expatriates in an attempt to brainstorm some ideas as to what can be done to remedy this cycle. He said that he sends relatives who remained on the island money, modern gadgets, general supplies and the like on an ongoing basis simply because he wants to help out those close to him. I can’t argue with that logic. He did see the problem in such a cycle. If money was always sent in from abroad, those receiving it begin to expect it and become less motivated to work for themselves. Also they become more intrigued by the possibility of living in these faraway lands of opportunities without thinking much about their homes. In effect, it is an economy based on reliance. Whether relying on wealthy visitors or well off family members. It was rather difficult for me to imagine how my actions during my tenure as a YCI volunteer would make any impact at all. I suppose I was warned.

As time went on, it became fairly clear to me that all of this wasn’t an issue specific to Carriacou. What did become clear was that the island was one by geographical properties alone. It was indeed part of a larger world. The ongoing brain drain is seen all over the world. My Canada is definitely one that suffers in this regard with highly trained professionals in all fields. A sustainable environment in the great white north is an illusion based on the sheer size of the country. Who am I to be a moral guide to anyone? One resident of Carriacou once asked a fellow volunteer why we flew all this way to “help out” when all of the problems present on Carriacou could be found in our own backyards. That question stuck with me, for I didn’t have an answer that could ever satisfy. I try to relate to this man. What would I think if I saw a group of volunteers from a faraway land come to my door step and suggest things are better from whence they came. That they could help me out, as long as I was willing to acknowledge that I needed this help in the first place. Who are they, who am I, to have the confidence in these assertions made? This awareness in myself, I believe, did indeed make the trip a success. I am quite certain I did indeed help one person. I was taught how small the world really is, no matter how big it strives to be.

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1. Earthling Concerned » Something About the G-Rated War (By Kids) - August 21, 2006

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[…] As a part of the workshop my partner and myself were preparing, my partner Linda and myself were walking around the community to local shops in an attempt to start up some sort of supply chain of recyclable paper. We did this because we were attempting to promote recycling and a wee bit of income generation for the yet to be determined workshop participants by introducing the idea of “spiced paper”. This was simply new paper we blended up from a mix of used paper, followed by the addition of some food coloring and aroma heavy spices. The idea was to make greetings cards (or whatever else) and sold to the tourists as a local item. This is the background to the story, this is why we were walking. This was before we saw some baby goats tied to a post on a hill. […]

3. My Volunteer World (Pt. III): Machete Mania :: earthling.concerned - February 18, 2008

[…] a part of the workshop my partner and myself were preparing, my partner Linda and myself were walking around the community […]

4. Something About the G-Rated War (By Kids) :: earthling.concerned - February 18, 2008

[…] this time, my interpretation is entirely based on historical writings and images I witnessed during my stay on the island earlier this year. Less than a decade later, the Gulf War arrived, and the censorship […]

5. My Volunteer World (Pt. III): Machete Mania - earthling.concerned - October 16, 2008

[…] a part of the workshop my partner and myself were preparing, my partner Linda and myself were walking around the community […]

6. Something About the G-Rated War (By Kids) - earthling.concerned - October 16, 2008

[…] this time, my interpretation is entirely based on historical writings and images I witnessed during my stay on the island earlier this year. Less than a decade later, the Gulf War arrived, and the censorship […]


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