Miia comes from Finland; she lived in the UK for some years and is now living in Australia. She has implemented projects in a number of countries including Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia, Middle East in occupied Palestine territories and Jordan and in Africa Zimbabwe, Uganda and Kenya, she has also lived in Brazil and Cambodia and also travelled for short assignments.
Heather Saville, Former Convenor Quaker Service Australia.
Heather and her family were in the first group to live and work in Zimbabwe in the 1980’s after the war. She has experience on regular shorter assignments monitoring HIV AIDS program implementation in Cambodia.
Miia and Heather shared their experiences and started a lively and interesting discussion at the Women in Development Meeting in June 2013. This is a summary of they points they and other Women in Development members made.
Most large agencies have full preparation programs and materials available for staff, smaller agencies have more word of mouth at times but all assist with the logistics of getting there, insurances, health requirements, introduction to a local person, accommodation, etc.
TIPS AND THOUGHTS ON LIVING IN THE FIELD
· Study thoroughly the country you are going to – culture, people, the place you will be living,
· Be very careful and sensitive to culture – research what is expected before you leave e.g. how to shake hands or bow, not touch children on the head, etc. It’s important not to give offence when you first arrive.
· Learn some of the local language – this is very helpful with the project as language shows you are willing to learn and it will help you to communicate and gain respect from locals. It’s also helpful in getting local people to help you and your project.
· Consider your expectations – what do you think will happen, what will be the expectations of the local people/staff, what do they expect you will be like. Heather was asked to teach children to swim – she expected to pass on survival skills to keep them safe when playing in the river but the locals expected her to teach children to win races. What ever your expectations they will always be wrong - professional, organisational and personal goals will not always be met, and locals will expect more than you can deliver.
· Be aware that everyone will know you very quickly because you stand out e.g. one aid worker who was nearly 2metres tall with red hair definitely stood out in Cambodia!
WHAT TO TAKE WITH YOU
· Think about what you cannot live without – for one person in Zimbabwe it was a coffee machine. For Heather it’s a regular swim so she always finds the local pool and while some are not as clean as she would like, for her its worth the risk!
ACCOMMODATION & PERSONAL SAFETY
· Travelling alone or travelling with another project worker or a partner makes a big difference to how and where you live:
· Travelling alone will influence the place you choose to live as you need somewhere safe, close to work, easy to travel to work and where you can have some social life. For example Miia was assigned to a small town and she chose to rent a small house in a two house compound next to a family so there was always someone around and someone to provide support if required.
· Accommodation in a UN compound is a possibility if the job provides sufficient funds however it means you are more distant from the local people, which makes building relationships harder.
· When travelling with her partner Miia lived in a small town without streetlights, as a single woman she would never have gone out at night but having a partner opened more opportunity to socialise in the evening.
· Check what you are getting when you rent a room – you may need to specify the basics e.g. if you want a window!
SHOPPING & EATING
· Shopping can be a challenge – if living in the city there is usually ready access to the supermarket which stocks most staples but in a small town or village choice may be limited or zero. Miia invested in a large fridge and cool bag and shopped in the city every month and stored what she needed.
· Local markets are great for supplying fresh food and you get to know local people and they get to know you and little shops may start to stock what you want to eat.
· Be careful of local food and water and always filter water – using a clay pot filter is ideal and readily available. Even then expect some stomach problems so take a medical kit.
· Be aware that in many countries products are very different. For example moisturiser in Asia usually contains whitening agents to bleach skin!
· Buying clothes in Aisa may be a challenge as sizes of locals are very different so if a size 12 in Australia you may end up being XXXL in Cambodia which can be a bit of a hit to the ego!!
· Before you go visit your doctor and get all the vaccinations required, malaria pills, contraceptives, advice on medications to take.
· Taking antimalarials long term can play havoc with gut flora so take some probiotics too – there are some brands that do not need refrigeration.
· Before you go visit your dentist and get all necessary work completed – there are very few doctors around and even fewer dentists in developing countries so toothache or dental decay can become a long-term nightmare.
· Knowing who to call if you become ill and who to trust to treat you is essential as qualifications and access to medical help varies greatly.
· Take a copy of ‘Where there is no Doctor’ as a medical guide.
· Keep fit; exercise regularly, which is good for physical and mental health. Miia tried running at first but gathered an entourage following her on motorbikes and it did not feel right – she was working off a chocolate bar when most people ate so little and working in the fields kept them thin. She tried skipping – that was impossible in the dust so cycling was the best way to keep active.
· Mental health issues should not be a barrier to working overseas, most medications are available and you can take ‘Where there is no Psychiatrist’ as a guide.
· First aid kit essential and know how to use it – try to do a first aid course before you go so you can at least recognise the basics.
· Your organisation should have insurance to evacuate you should something serious occur.
· Military presence and aid work is now overlapping and has been increasing over past 12 years. Some co-dependency makes for easier working during emergencies but can a risk later if local people are confused about your role and why you are there.
· Relationships are essential to maintain your mental wellbeing, do not underestimate the impact of living and working without other first world staff around. Build a social network of people in the region and local people. Share time, beer, dinner, chocolate etc. with other ex-pats who can share your experiences and you can support each other through challenges and homesickness.
· Communications are improving in even remote areas via phone and Internet so contact with other expats, family and home can be regular and fast.
· If you choose to start relationships with the locals consider the impact of a short term relationship, or several, before getting involved consider whether you will sex, consider the impact on you and them if you become pregnant to a local.
· Bribery is endemic in some countries due to low salaries – how will you deal with it how does your organisation expect you to deal with it. Is there a way around – e.g. wait 6 months for permission or pay to get it today.
LIVING IN A SMALL TOWN
· You will stand out because you look difference and cannot speak the language – being there is like being famous because people will expect you to be endlessly nice, endlessly available and endlessly happy to answer the same basic questions!!
· How will you deal with begging? You are rich by everyone’s standards there and they will ask to borrow money for many worthy causes e.g. their mother is sick, a child needs school uniform, they want to buy a taxi, etc. This is complicated by the size of the town and how many people will find out about a loan or gift and then expect the same.
· In many countries your garbage is put in the road and animals eat it and its gets sorted by locals for things to recycle or sell. Think about what you want to put in the garbage which may be to be examined and shown around e.g. sanitary items – an alternative is a moon cup which is easy to use, non allergenic, reusable and very easy to clean with hot water.
TRAVEL WITH CHILDREN
· This is a personal choice and depends on family support and length of stay, safety of location, and access to health care professionals.
· Availability of reliable childcare may be an issue.
· Heather took her 12 year old overseas for two years and found it provided an excellent experience resulting in a balanced, independent child with wide friendships and no idea of racism.