Monday, 18 February 2013

The Return Home: Part II – What does the future hold?

In the midst of our hellish week, we got a Skype call from Lynn (the Operations Director of Hands) and Marc (also part of the leadership team at Hands). I (Byron) have known Lynn and Marc (both of whom, coincidentally, are from Calgary) since I first volunteered with Hands back in May 2008. Diane and I have a tremendous amount of respect for both of them and both serve as an inspiration to us, having been in Africa with Hands for a combined 11 years, despite both being only in their early-to-mid 30’s. The purpose of the call was to debrief our time in Zambia so far and to discuss our roles going forward into the new year.

Our Time in Kitwe

We raved about our team in Kitwe and how much we’ve enjoyed working with them. The relationships we’ve built with each of Blessings, Towela, Clement and Mary have been a huge blessing in our lives and we are mindful not to take those relationships for granted. Upon being assigned to support the Service Centre in Kitwe for the 6 weeks before Christmas holidays, our mandate was simple: build relationships. If an opportunity presents itself, build capacity, but building relationship with the Service Centre team and the care workers in the various communities and Community Based Organizations (CBOs) was our number one priority. As mentioned above, we felt that we were able to accomplish this fairly well and we received reciprocal feedback from our Service Centre team.

In terms of building capacity, we felt we were able to contribute most tangibly when it came time to preparing budgets and proposals. As mentioned in an earlier post, the 2013 Three Essential Services (food, education, health) budgets for each CBO were due towards the end of last year, as well as all 2013 project proposals and training budgets. Given the time constraint to have these submitted, we really saw how our knowledge of computers and Microsoft Excel greatly assisted in the preparation and submission of each of these budgets. Having said that, due to the time constraint, this exercise did not so much build capacity in our team as it did ease the burden on them. It’s not like we feel any more confident in our team’s ability to prepare and reason through budgets for each community or that we can point to a noticeable uptick in their grasp of the inner workings of Microsoft Excel.

Throughout most other days, it was a joy to do the things we were doing, whether it was going into community to visit one of our CBOs or assisting our team in conducting a training session with a group of care workers. However, in much of the work that we were doing, we were curious as to whether our presence was making any impact. Sure, we got along great and our relationships were continuing to grow, so we have no doubts that our team enjoyed us being a part of them, but we weren’t as confident in exactly what we were bringing to the table. A large part of the struggle is a result of our work being dependent on what the needs and situations of our communities are and/or what Blessings and Towela assign us to do. If there is nothing to do, we are not in a position to create work or bring up ideas as to what they should be doing, yet. We have, after all, only been there for 6 weeks and it is not our role to tell them how they should do things. Moreover, we don’t have a specific set of daily duties that we can rely on as one would have in a normal job. As much as we wanted to help and to build capacity, in all honesty, we couldn’t really point to anything significant that we had accomplished. And that didn’t really sit well with us.

Despite the fact that we genuinely enjoyed being at the Kitwe Service Centre and working with our team, there were times where we questioned why we were there. Days would pass by where we felt like we had accomplished nothing. We would sit at the Service Centre, asking Blessings and Towela whether there was anything we could do. Sometimes, there was nothing and we would just sit in the office and … sit. While this was great for allowing us time to catch up on the internet (come on ESPN … more trade rumors, please!) or work on our blog, this is not what we came to Africa for. Everyone says that everything in Africa happens at a much slower pace. Apparently, they weren’t joking around. And, apparently, we have yet to let go of our Western mentality to be productive and efficient at all times.

During orientation, we were told, on countless occasions, that this would happen. We were prepped to temper our expectations, to understand that we wouldn’t be saving Africa in our brief time with our respective Service Centres. We understood the importance of reigning back our North American tendencies of wanting to take over and control outcomes. We acknowledged the value of forcing ourselves into the background, of allowing ourselves an opportunity to soak everything in and gain a better understanding of the culture and needs of the communities in Kitwe and how things operated at the Service Centre level. We knew we had to strip ourselves of our identity and what we felt made us valuable and allow God to work through us on HIS timing. It all made sense, in theory, but trying to live it out on a day-to-day basis with a focus on the bigger picture has been a big challenge for us.

We were sure to communicate everything that we were feeling, openly and honestly, during our Skype conversation with Lynn and Marc. There was a temptation to portray everything as sunshine and lollipops, out of trepidation that our complaints and concerns would be perceived as us being impatient and whiny, but there were things that we wanted to address and questions we were hoping to get answered.

Our New Roles

After some initial conversation, Lynn began to discuss where Hands sees us with our new roles going forward into 2013. Hands realizes that we do have more to offer and that staying solely in a role of supporting the Kitwe Service Centre would not be the best way to utilize our time with Hands. Conversely, from the organization’s perspective, there were good things happening in Kitwe and they wanted to continue to build off the momentum we had established in our first 6 weeks. Hands pointed to the relationships we had built with our team and their feedback of how we had been a huge blessing to them. Despite our doubts of how much we had really contributed, it appears that our Service Centre team disagreed with our assessment.
As such, Lynn proposed split roles for each of us. Part of our role would involve continuing to support the Kitwe Service Centre and the team there. Our other roles would capitalize upon our educational background and experience. For Diane, they envision her greatly assisting Marc and carving out a niche in project administration, essentially acting as a liaison between the project support teams and the finance team. Diane would make use of her finance background to help build capacity in various Service Centre bookkeepers and aid in implementing a finance system in Zambia (a great need which is currently lacking). As for me, they proposed that I assist Lynn with the legal registrations across the 8 different African countries that Hands operates in as well as ensure that Hands is compliant with local laws and regulations governing NGOs in each of those respective countries. Further to this, with Hands at Work in Africa (Canada) Society being the major contributor of funds to the Hands office in South Africa and providing Hands with most of its international volunteers, there is a major need to ensure that our operations in Africa across the 8 countries are structured in a way so as to be compliant with the Canada Revenue Agency and Canadian charity law, insofar as it relates to projects that Hands Canada funds.

We were both quite intrigued with our new roles. Considering the feelings of boredom and unproductivity we experienced from time to time, we were genuinely excited to apply our respective areas of expertise to assist Hands in roles that were of great need and in an area where most other volunteers would not have any experience. Having said that, we realized how daunting our new roles may be. If my dealings with the ZRA re: my car permitting issues have provided any foreshadowing, I can only imagine how much of a headache it will be to correspond with governing authorities in 8 different African countries and try to get some guidance or clarification on their laws and regulations!

As the conversation progressed, the big bomb dropped: “How would you guys feel about staying in Zambia long term?” When we pressed for what “long term” meant exactly, the follow up was: “The rest of the year that you’re with Hands.”

Is Zambia our future?

We weren’t expecting this at all. Ever since we left for Zambia in mid-October of last year, we had been preparing ourselves to stay in Kitwe until the end of April and were convinced that Hands would subsequently ask us to come back to South Africa to be a part of the Regional Support Team (RST) or Hub team there. Never once did we think we would be in Zambia for the rest of the year. At the time, we didn’t really know how to feel or how to respond.

Understanding the significance of what had just been proposed to us, Lynn and Marc encouraged us to spend some time thinking and praying about our conversation. They then asked us to come back to the Hub in South Africa for a couple weeks so that we could continue our discussion, learn more about our new roles and have a chance to reconnect with everybody back at the Hub. This was also quite a surprise, given that we had just settled back in Zambia a few days ago after 6 weeks of traveling, but we were more than happy to have the opportunity to go back!

After the conversation ended, Diane and I discussed how we felt about our new roles and the possibility of staying in Zambia for potentially the rest of our time in Africa. Given everything that I had just detailed in Part I of this blog post, perhaps it wasn’t the best timing. The more we discussed, the more hesitant we felt about staying. We couldn’t really pinpoint it down to one factor. Rather, it was more a culmination of a lot of little things that have been eating away at us during our time here: 
  • What’s going to happen with our vehicle situation? Can we afford to be paying $2,000 to continue having our vehicle in Zambia? Is it fair that we bear the costs of this?
  • Are we going to be able to handle living in our house for another 8 months or so? It’s easy to romanticize being in humble accommodations and ‘roughing it’ (relatively speaking) for a short period of time … but for an entire year? Is a year of bucket bathing, hand washing our laundry, and an inability to be comfortable in our home going to drive us mental? How much longer can we stand having our landlord operate her property as a bar?
  • How do we really feel about Kitwe? Is the fact that there’s nothing to do in the city, a lack of restaurants, coffee shops and social activity, slowly chipping away at our spirits? What if more situations like this past week arise where we’re forced to try to deal with situations in a city/country where it appears impossible to do anything easily?
  • How do we feel about potentially being isolated in Kitwe for the rest of the time we’re in Africa? Part of what makes being with Hands so great is the community aspect and the genuine love and support we receive from so many of the people in the Hands family, most of whom are in South Africa. In Kitwe, it’s just the two of us and, while we value our privacy, it has been difficult adjusting to not having much of a social network here. With us being together 24/7 with no outlet, are we going to drive each other insane before the year is over?
  • Why did everyone else in our intake get assigned to support a Service Centre for a few weeks and then return to South Africa before Christmas except for us? Why did it seem like everyone in our intake was transitioning into long-term roles with the RST or Hub while we continue to support our Service Centre and our long-term roles remain undefined? How are we supposed to make a decision on whether we will stay on with Hands past this year (the million dollar question that has consumed our thoughts) if we don’t even know what our roles will look like?

These were, among others, some of the questions and thoughts racing through our minds as we prepared for the trip back to South Africa. We felt we needed to lay everything on the table for Lynn and Marc to hear so that they understood exactly where we were coming from. We needed to be heard! 

How everything unfolded during our time in South Africa is a different story …

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