Visualize this – someone in a Cuso International t-shirt leaning forward with a piece of raw meat on a stick in his/her mouth about to feed a wild hyena; the caption reads “Take a risk!” Would that grab your attention and possibly get you to read the pitch to be a volunteer in Ethiopia? Well that’s what our Canadian team came up with during the “key messaging” session at the recent VSO Ethiopia national conference…Yes volunteering can be risky and adventurous but relax, feeding wild animals is not really part of anyone’s job description. Though, for the record, no animals or humans have been harmed while taking part in the unique tourist experience of feeding hyena’s in Harar and a few vacationing volunteers have enjoyed the photo op!
The Canadian team at Lake Langano: Brian, Nalini, Sharmilla, Tsion, Me, Francis and Gerald with Beza in front
Volunteering really does provide challenges and opportunities along with risk and adventure. Organizing a national conference is certainly not without risk and I must admit that when I saw the email, my heart sank. Deputy Country Director Catherine had found some funds that needed spending before the fiscal year-end and issued a “challenge” to our VSO Ethiopia volunteer committee – organize a conference for 150, including all long tern volunteers, 38 short term youth volunteers and staff within 3 weeks. As chair of the volunteer committee, I knew we had to say YES and make it happen. After all, there had not been a national conference since 2010, volunteers were asking for a chance to meet as a whole and our volunteer committee had been lobbying for just such an opportunity. I also knew it would be risky, trying to please such a large and diverse group.
Thankfully when I contacted the committee, several immediately agreed to help. James was in town between meetings for the week, Gideon joined us one afternoon and agreed to be the “registrar” via email, Kate showed up for a medical appointment so we just mixed and matched meetings, keeping in contact by email and mobile with Barbara to make it happen! To avoid chaos and confusion we agreed on a clear and efficient communications strategy, using the VSOE Weekly Update for general messages with links to emails of those in charge of registration and transportation.
Coming together at the VSO office to take the bus to Langano, spirits were high. Most people had flown to Addis (or already live in Addis) so we needed 4 buses to make the journey, all efficiently organized by Eden, Judy and Beza
The stage is set – Lake Langano!
Location was a major issue since the budget was small and few places could accommodate a group our size. The added challenge of power cuts, unreliable phones and fax machines made getting the requisite 3 quotes take much longer than anticipated. Suddenly a breakthrough came and James and I found ourselves in Ruth’s car heading to a negotiation with a “big man” in charge of the Lake Langano property. Yes he said, I will set up a tent on the beach big enough for 150, yes I will give you the most expensive buffet for the middle price, yes, yes, yes! I basked in the Amharic negotiations and, understanding my numbers well, I even managed a few clarifying questions as Ruth used her charm to get us a great deal. Meanwhile, I secretly wondered how a small bottle of pink nail polish had made its way into the man’s desktop arrangement of pens and pencils…
With great relief, we were able to announce the location to the participants who already knew when but not where. Swim suits, sunscreen, torches and malaria medication were advised; Langano being one of the few Biharzia free lakes in Ethiopia, located in the lowlands of the Rift Valley about 270 km south of Addis.
The night before James, who had gone early to check things out called to warn me “We have a small problem”. No tent. Ever resourceful, he convinced the staff to re-arrange the dining room, moving tables and chairs into the bar and onto the deck, so we could use it for our sessions.
As soon as we arrived, the deck became a favourite place to meet new people and re-connect with others
Once we had settled into our rooms, our volunteer committee convened to iron out details and agree on tasks. We had left the evening free for people to mix and mingle and this seemed to set the right tone, as we were aiming for a good balance of free time and programmed sessions.
So far, so good! Time for a bottle of St George and sunset on the deck!
The next morning we formally began, all squeezed in to the dining room converted to meeting hall!
After the welcome and overview, and a short introductory activity, we shared images of what VSO means to us.
Barbara had suggested we bring these images to contribute to a VSO collage, Judy volunteered to put it together and voila – we had a colourful conversation piece/backdrop for our conference!
Working in sector groups, we used metaphors to share our volunteer “journeys” and create group posters. Barbara had taken the initiative to seek out some extra funding and resources and we were thrilled to have these giant Post-It chart papers to use. This also meant that we all got new bright green t-shirts and some “beverages” for the final night’s festivities!
The IT group at work!
After all that creativity, it was time for tea…
Peter couldn’t resist a bird’s eye view of the tea table
And it truly was an idyllic spot
Colourful birds and birdsong provided a delightful visual and audio backdrop
Long tea breaks and a 2-hour lunch gave plenty of time for informal conversations
Time with friends and time to meet new people. As well as long term volunteers, we included 38 ICS Youth Volunteers . These British and Ethiopian youth (ages 18-25) partner up to work together for 3 months contributing their skills to environmental, education, community development and health projects
Friends meet up after being spread out across the country for some time
Volunteers and staff enjoying a chance to talk informally
To form regional groups for the afternoon session we lined up in direction/ distance from Addis and then we headed off to share ideas on how we could expand our regional linkages
Barbara and Deputy Country Director Catherine confer on the guiding questions for the regional group sessions
To involve as many people as possible, we had put out the call for volunteers to be on IT, social and sports committees and to facilitate or take notes for small groups and in the end at least half the people contributed beyond just participation.
An idea I came up with to allow maximum skill sharing was “Open Space” at the end of each day. We issued an invitation to volunteer to run an hour long session on whatever they wanted to share and let people chose whatever appealed to them. This seemed the riskiest idea to some of my colleagues – what if no one volunteers or people don’t show up? Don’t worry I said, it will work out!
It was a risk that paid off! Talents shared by volunteers included…
A bird watching expedition – Weaver birds amazed us with their nest building skills
Ethiopian cultural dancing lessons
Intense IT virus discussion!
Other Open Space sessions included Meditation, Origami, Ethiopian architecture, First Aid and photography. The energy and enthusiasm were catching and next day people added more sessions – hidden talents were surfacing… and it was a lot of fun!
We ended the days early to allow free time before dinner -yeah!
Goofing around on a log!
Nice to see VSO staff enjoying the beach!
Swimming and playing in the lake or simply toe dipping…
Time for dinner – all meals were served buffet style on the bar
VSOE staff Ruth and Beza
Early morning meditation enjoyed with birdsong and sunlight on the acacias
Early bird yoga each morning at 7, led by Catharina
Birds watch people too!
Happy t-shirt models!
Judy, once a textiles teacher, helped customize t-shirts for some who were willing to risk the scissors for a new look
The second morning we set up heterogeneous “cross-cultural conversation” groups to tackle case studies that represented the common issues we face – accommodation, job frustrations/dissatisfaction, misunderstandings across cultures, emergencies, etc. Since a risk of events such as this is that they can spiral down into gripe sessions, these conversations were structured to support creative and collaborative problem solving. Volunteering in another country inevitably involves the ups and downs of culture shock and, despite the preparation we are given to help us cope, sometimes we really need a good listener. Comments on evaluations showed that it was helpful for some to recognize that they are not alone and that others have overcome similar challenges.
Cross cultural conversations mixed people up to share perspectives on case studies representing common challenges faced by volunteers – it was helpful to learn how differently others may see the same situation…and how often we leap to conclusions that miss out a lot of the pieces of the puzzle,especially when we are in another country
We tried to set up groups to ensure a mix of staff, volunteers from different sectors, cultures, and regions
VSO Ethiopia currently has volunteers from England, Ireland, Scotland, Kenya, Zimbabwe,Uganda, the Philippines, the Netherlands, India, China and Canada (recruited through Cuso International) as well as Ethiopian and British youth volunteers.
Volunteers from the Philippines and India. Here you see doctors, IT experts, educators and even a mechanical engineer!
Moving on from challenges to successes was the next order of business and James and Kate assigned sector groups to share their small and large successes and figure out how to creatively present them to the rest of us.
IT group sharing their successes – the presentations were high energy and plenty of fun
Youth volunteers shared some amazing success stories. These were inspiring to all of us, as we had previously known little about what they were up to in Hawassa and Addis…
Climate change is a cross cutting issue (like gender and ICT) in VSO’s strategic plan so it was good to see the youth doing environmental projects…
This education group had plenty of fun setting up their presentation!
There are also 4 APs (accompanying partners) currently in country and many have gotten involved in their own initiatives – here Viv shares her “Give Me Education” project in Axum that has resulted in several street kids getting into school. Others have gotten involved in providing knitted blankets for neo-natal ICUs and one, a trained counsellor, has been working to support sustainable counselling services in his town
After another long lunch, it was time to think of taking our success stories out to the rest of the world.
To begin, Country Director Wube explained the key messaging strategy of VSO and gave pointers on how to effectively communicate to external audiences. Then groups set to drafting their own external communications plans including identifying target audiences, key messages, media to be used…the impressive results have been summarized and may be used for further outreach projects. I do hope our Canadian Hyena visual gets some air time!!
My “key messages” about the conference:
- Retreats enhance volunteer motivation and satisfaction
- Volunteers are resourceful organizers and willing participants
- Trust the process and goodwill of people and you will not be disappointed
- Open space is worth the risk – it works!
The last night we had dinner around the bonfire and some partied well into the early hours…
In the end about 130 people came to Lake Langano and created, through their enthusiasm and participation, a successful and memorable event that will now become a shared memory for volunteers and VSOE staff in Ethiopia in 2013.
While it is hard to measure the long-term impact of such a gathering, the evaluation comments showed that people left feeling re-energized and supported to carry on with their volunteer work, knowing they were not alone and that everyone has ups and downs but the journey is worthwhile. New friendships blossomed, old friends re-c0nnected and ideas/experiences were shared all in a spirit of fun and creativity. Well worth the risks…
*We also had a team of about ten people taking photos during the conference and many of the photos in this blog are from the collections we shared – thanks to all these folks for sharing their talents!
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