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Volunteering is fun

/ 05:26 AM April 19, 2012

Aboard a domestic flight, as I was contemplating my 2010 New Year’s resolution, my attention was caught by an ad in the in-flight magazine. It was a call for volunteers to share skills and change lives as part of a nongovernmental organization. I sent in my application shortly, sensing that seeing the ad at that moment was a gift. I asked to volunteer in the Philippines, but the NGO had no national volunteering program, so I was sent abroad.

My current voluntary placement is in Uganda, East Africa, specifically in Gulu, which was recently made famous by the Kony 2012 video. I have not seen the film but I can say that Gulu, the epicenter of the 20-year atrocities of Kony’s Lord Resistance Army, is now peaceful. The government of Uganda, donor community and international NGOs work hand in hand to implement the Peace, Recovery and Development Plan for Northern Uganda. The people from the Acholi and Lango subregions, whose lives were disrupted when they were forced to live in camps for internally displaced people, are being assisted to return to their normal lives after the camps were closed in 2009. Gulu is buzzing with international NGOs whose development programs are mainly on education, health and livelihood. It is also not surprising that some countries display their economic interest by sponsoring programs that can expand bilateral international trade.

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I am just a dot in this collaborative effort to change lives. But there are many dots here like me—men and women who, their children all grown and leaving behind an empty nest of older folks who have experience and skills to share, are still active and would rather continue to live and work in some life-changing environment.

As I reflect now on my decision to quit my job and become a volunteer, I realize that unknowingly, I fall into the pattern of human nature introduced in 1943 by Abraham Maslow in his concept of a hierarchy of needs. According to Maslow, a psychologist, people are motivated by five types of needs: physiological, security, social, esteem, and self-actualization. If you get all you need, you are bound to move to the next level until you reach the highest-growth motivation. In my decision to be part of an NGO, I feel that I have moved to the self-actualization level of need as a volunteer’s role is to be an agent of change.

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Other than the formal qualifications that you carry in response to the needs of the people among whom you are stationed, you bring to the place what you are, your personality, values, habits, upbringing, work ethics, beliefs and superstitions, language, mannerisms, and personal effects from home. In this respect, I always try to find a chance to draw similarities. I point out the contrasts and conjecture that these might be due to cultural differences. For example, jeering is taught as bad manners back home, but to the locals, it is as normal as a greeting. If they like what they see and hear from you, it is likely that they will emulate these. A volunteer should not lose his or her identity in the guise of being adaptable, and a volunteer could also learn from the locals.

Volunteering is like being in solitary confinement, and in your solitude you have the time to examine yourself. Volunteering made me appreciate the fruits derived from all my labor since my 30s. Seeing the world and accumulating things along the way as souvenirs, staying in a 5-star hotel and paying $300 per night as business trip entitlement when you only need it for sleeping and using the toilet and bath, pampering the body with frequent visits to salons and spas to relieve you of self-induced stress, driving around the city in an air-conditioned car because of the heat and dust, finding occasions to eat in high-end dining places because they were well-advertised, acting your right to expect value for money because you have choices to bring your business elsewhere, you manage to still live frugally and save so that your children and your grandchildren will not have to penny-pinch in order to live comfortably. And amidst these, to pray to your God, give alms, and help your fellowmen.  Indeed I found pleasure in all my labor and for all my labor, this was my reward. Yet everything is futile and a chasing of the wind (Ecclesiastes).

Living in what used to be a “no man’s land” until three years ago, did I miss the comforts that I left behind? Did I long for the sight and use of the material things that I acquired from my toil? Did I feel deprived because with the little money that I have, I could not spend it even on useless things? Did I miss my family and friends? Surprisingly, I did not. I was satisfied with how my family members managed their lives and well-being while I was away. Thanks to the webmail, Facebook, Skype, mobile phones, I felt I had never left home.

Being an international volunteer is a good badge for the local community to accept within the norms of their society your being different (particularly in appearance). Foreign women wearing pants is tolerated although I still have to get used to the common sight of local women with popping cleavages, and breast-feeding anytime, anywhere. Using an umbrella or wearing a hat can make you an object of curiosity. Children wail when they see a person with white skin or light-colored hair.

Volunteering gave me access to both the church and state. You can have the ear of the politicians and bureaucrats who run the town because they know that you are well-meaning and they want to learn how it is out there. The church, true to its mission, is just too happy to provide virtual and face-to-face spiritual comfort to a member of the flock who is in long separation from family and friends.

In Maslow’s narrow definition of self-actualizers, he says that they need the following in their lives in order to be happy: truth, rather than dishonesty; goodness, rather than evil; beauty, not ugliness or vulgarity; unity, wholeness and transcendence of opposites, not arbitrariness or forced choices; aliveness, not deadness or the mechanization of life; uniqueness, not bland uniformity; perfection and necessity, not sloppiness, inconsistency, or accident; completion, rather than incompleteness; justice and order, not injustice and lawlessness; simplicity, not unnecessary complexity; richness, not environmental impoverishment; effortlessness, not strain; self-sufficiency, not dependency; meaningfulness, rather than senselessness.

In the last third of my life, whether back home or elsewhere, I will pursue these needs and satisfy them the best I can. When all else fails, I will just take things as God gives them to me. Carpe diem (Seize the day), says my parish priest here.

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Eve Avila is a former assistant governor of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas. She is now in Gulu, Uganda, as a volunteer of a UK-based charity organization and keeps a blog at eveavila.blogspot.com.

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