VSO Conference 2013 (2005) or “Staying Afloat”

The volunteer conference mentioned last month has now happened! It’s been and gone and I think left everyone with a smile on their face. Having made such a passionate plea for a conference at our last Addis meeting, sliding out of helping wasn’t an option.

First – e-mails to a few people proved fruitful. Thanks to Ally B and Lainey for workshop ideas, which worked! Next Lynn, who immediately packed off three boxes of stationery. Two arrived in Mekelle no hassle, but the third was held by Addis customs. I had the usual result when you go head to head with Ethiopian bureaucracy, I lost!  Although I’m 1½ days bus ride or an hour’s flight from Addis, nothing could happen until I showed up in Addis in person. So we left Mekelle a day early to spend a frustrated Saturday morning stamping feet.  The box included 200 badge holders, but this was judged too many for “personal use”. Remonstrations that we were having a big party and not everyone knew each other didn’t help.  2 is the maximum for personal use.  But, if customs released them was I prepared to pay the duty anyway?

Me: “Well how much will it cost?”

Customs: “I can’t tell you that until you’ve given me two pieces of paper stamped correctly (which –ha ha – you probably can’t get on a Saturday morning).  Come back on Monday.

“ Me: “but the party is on Monday, 4 hours drive from here”……

Customs: “Ha”, checkmate!

I did pick up techniques for pissing somebody off – ignore by answering phone and talk for ages in unknown language or address something on the computer, preferably whilst the person has a taxi waiting for them. I’ve committed these to memory ready for use at some point.

After that was ready for Addis pampering and went to the hairdressers. Darijee has moved into a new building (see photo) – Eventually found it and spent an hour or so there to recover.

The conference budget was tight and after transport, accommodation and food, little was left for anything else. Luckily, my begging produced a donation which meant a bit more freedom. We went for “conference T-shirts”, so back to creative roots for adapting the VSO logo, more luxury stationery like pens, notebooks and post-its along with the much-needed badge holders! There was also enough left for “drinks on the house” on the last night.

The time running up to the conference was hectic for the committee and office with people registering, making transport arrangements, swapping ideas for sessions and presentations, and all the rest of the admin and general communication. It coincided with the worst month of Ethio Internet we’ve had since we arrived.  So poor Gideon struggled with receiving all the emails and it became a bit hit and miss, knowing who’d confirmed etc. All 150 of us had to be flown or bussed to Addis, then bussed down to the venue (another 4 hours away) and the odd group picked up en-route. Amazingly it all worked – Ethio style of course. The message was to be at the VSO office at 9.00, and we didn’t leave till 11. That’s normal. People don’t seem to mind having to get up and out two hours earlier than they need. I still struggle with it.

We went with eyes wide open for the venue – simple with shabby chalets was what we’d heard – but it felt like arriving on the Riviera. Simply sitting in the shade with a cold drink gazing at water couldn’t be more relaxing and from the start, it felt good. Everybody’s placements are tough in one way or another, so it would have been so easy for the conference to slide into a complete moan zone. Marian and James got planning it off to a good start, so we had sessions which let people say what they needed to, but hopefully leave feeling good. Experiences are really different: some have no contact with others of their nationality or their own language –  VSO has 10 nationalities here now: British, Irish, Canadian, Dutch, Kenyan, Filipino, Swedish, Indian, Ethiopian and one newly arrived Chinese guy. Or issues with accommodation and infestations – rats. Or things to do with their placements or bureaucracy (!) or being like John, an accompanying partner. Or harassment – sexual or other.  Or boredom with the same food over and over. So, everyone needs a break from whatever their major stress is. The grounds were huge so people could get together or wander off as they wished. One guy said one of the best things for him was just to joke with people of his age – he realised he’d stopped, as it was such a pain explaining everything.

A bit of a shock was that there was no internet access at all, but it probably wasn’t such a bad thing as people didn’t disappear to check stuff all the time and but got to know others. There are 3 other people from our September 2011 intake still here, so catching up with them was good, and for all the new volunteers to meet as well.

So we planned time out as well as time in. I won’t ramble on with all the activities, but we were all pleased with the sessions we’d delivered and the feedback. I was on the morning of the first day and used visual sessions and made good use of the fancy “post-it” flip charts which had got through customs!  Everybody was asked to bring a picture which represented VSO for them. One, a huge sumo wrestler being pushed by a tiny little person took a bit of working out, but actually much of the VSO experience is akin to trying to move something which takes a lot of shifting!

One of the most inspired parts of the organisation was that we finished at 3.30 every day and then did “Open Space” sessions (great idea Marian). People wrote up something they felt they could lead, but didn’t have to be an expert, and groups were formed around that. So there was photography, bird watching, a talk on Ethiopian architecture, face painting, cultural dancing, reflexology, etc. etc. Sounds a bit random, but worked brilliantly and again gave people an informal but focused time to do what they wanted.  Also John, being a counsellor, found himself pretty busy. Oh, every morning started with a 7.00 Yoga session (I can’t tell you how much I loved that – really saluting the sun!) or sport, and the day finished with most people in the water!

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I feel lucky that my time here coincided with a conference. It’s the first one for three years due to budgets etc.  We had a good team working together and were well supported by the VSOE office staff. Thanks to people who shared photos – especially the ones I’ve used in this blog.

The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of VSO.

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1 Comment

  1. Cathy Jones

     /  03/04/2013

    Hi Barbara

    Good as always to receive your news and what a lot has been going on! You are certainly making your mark and should be proud of what you are achieving. As you know it is the Easter break here and we have a teenager who is growing rapidly and eating like a horse. He is very excited about an exchange to Aurillac near Toulouse for a week on the 15th, staying with a family and going to the school which is ‘twinned’ with The Willink. The French lad, Xavier, will be here for a week in June which should be fun. Things at school are steady and we are in the build up to Ofsted, so you can imagine that tensions will start to rise! The new Ofsted framework appears to be particularly strict and a number of local schools are now in special measures, including Theale Green. So understandably we hope that we get an Inspector who is prepared to listen and not have any preconceived judgements. I will keep you posted! With all good wishes

    Cathy x


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