Should We Be Here? PART TWO

DISCLAIMER: Unauthorised reproduction of any part of this blog is strictly prohibited without prior consent. These views are my own, not of ICS, DFID or Skillshare International.


We powered along a long, bumpy road in the old safari jeep patched back together earlier that day. It was our first weekend, and luckily for us, we were able to go on a safari in the Okavango Delta, which is right next to where we are staying. Maun is the gateway to the world’s best wildlife reserve and we went on an overnight safari, camping in the delta itself and taking a night drive around the reserve in search of lions, leopards, elephants and anything else we could spot.

As the sun blazed down on us, I shuffled around again, in the vain hope of catching some cooler breeze out of my window. It was 35 degrees, hot, sweaty and the ride to the park was on a really bumpy road made of sand. Our driver, Terry*, was dressed casually in a black leather coat one size too big, underneath it a Mexico football shirt (donated to him by a friend after they lost their World Cup game against Argentina in 2010). He frowned for a moment, and then smiled before answering my question: “No, I don’t think I agree with that. You do a lot of good and change a lot of things that without you wouldn’t necessarily have happened! We really need volunteers and you do a lot of good. Take me for example, I have my own safari business and am my own boss now. I wouldn’t have done that if it wasn’t for one of the previous volunteers I met”. Terry* is a well-known local safari guide and was recommended to us by some other volunteers, as he is trusted and offers low rate prices for volunteers that come to work here in Botswana. “I remember an old PeaceCorp volunteer asked me why I don’t set up my own business as a safari tour guide. At first I was afraid and reluctant to take such a big step. How would I manage, I worried. But he really pushed me and encouraged me to do it, and said that I could do it. I can’t thank him enough now! Those guys helped me set up things, they even gave me lots of ideas on how to improve things and get more clients, and now all the volunteers always ask me to take them for safaris when they come. There is a lot that carries on after you leave, and lots of small ways that you help in. We need those fresh ideas and input that we wouldn’t get otherwise. You know, when it’s just us, we are doing the same things and approaching our problems in the same way, it’s hard to approach it fresh and from new angles. That’s one thing volunteers bring to Botswana. And we are glad to have you here!” He looked over at me and grinned, then jokingly adding, “plus you spend plenty of pulas!” laughing out loudly as he swerved sharply once again avoiding a deep pot hole, the jeep rattling along as we all swayed from side to side.

In my previous post I asked why we were here. Are we doing good or simply creating friction and being another obstacle to local people? Why have we come – for the photo opportunity for our Facebook profile, or because we genuinely want to create and promote progress?

Since the beginning of my placement in Botswana, from the moment I packed my bags and stepped onto the plane, these are the questions I have been asking myself. Is this more about me, and pleasing my own ego, my own self-righteousness; or do I really want to be here to help? If so, am I doing everything I can? Could I do anymore? The answers to these questions are always going to be subjective according to the person asking them, and the honesty to which we answer them. It is hard to really measure or understand the impact we are having and how worthwhile everything is. But having thought about my last post for some time – If I ask myself, should we be here? I think my answer would have to still be an emphatic yes. Yes we don’t know all of the history, or all of the language, but it is quite clear that the locals aren’t really too bothered about this. Case in check, during a trip for groceries I casually greeted a local with my broken Setswana (dumela rra [hello sir], le kai? [how are you] Ke teng [I’m fine] ke bidiwa Tebogo [My name is Tebogo]) in the supermarket aisle. He stopped, and patiently listened to me speak, was extremely happy to hear my Setswana name and even offered me some tips and thanked me for conversing with him. And this pretty much happens most of the times I or the other volunteers speak in Setswana to local people. I still find it incredible. Can you imagine somebody in London thanking you for saying hello to them, then smiling warmly whilst vigorously shaking your hand?! My point is, the important thing is not how much we know, but the effort and determination we put into our efforts.

I am sure there are times we behave in ways that offend or annoy people, our ignorance as foreigners makes us stick out like a sore thumb. But you have to start somewhere, and we shouldn’t use these things as a reason not to volunteer and not to travel to new lands. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and unless you have the courage to lose sight of shore, of your safe harbour, of home; then you will never discover new oceans and lands. The best way to learn is through experience, by seeing and hearing – engaging all 5 of your senses – and just through our very being here we are learning all kinds of lessons. The difference is merely our levels of comprehension and understanding: we might be learning at different speeds, but we are all learning.

So whilst the questions and points I highlighted in Part 1 are valid – and things we should certainly all think about – they must also be placed in context. Things may not be perfect, we may act like ignorant foreigners at times, we may even offend and be criticised for these imperfections. But it’s all part of the experience of learning. And as we explore new places, new people and new cultures, our scope is broadened, our understanding increased and our minds opened even further. This knowledge serves only to further empower us, regardless of our character. How can we ever learn and grow as people otherwise? Failure is the path to success and I know my biggest learning lessons have come from my hardest setbacks. The more we ‘fail’, the more we learn – In embracing our flaws, our insecurities and vices, deeper depths of strength and character are created.

Why did we come here? The answer is simple really. We came to learn. To volunteer. To give and receive. We came to become better human beings. We came to experience and grow even more because of those experiences.  And through those experiences, we come closer to the realities of the world. Through these realities, as they unfold before our eyes, we begin to understand and experience what ‘truth’ really is. What it really means.

When we encounter and come upon the truth, it resonates with us far deeper than we can ever know. It binds itself to us almost immediately, embedding itself into the core of our being. The same core of our being that we are constantly seeking to know and to understand. We discover this truth, we analyse it, we think upon it but most of all – most importantly – we experience it. The truth is no longer something which has been told or commanded to us by an external agent. It becomes part of our first-hand experience. It becomes so self-evident, so obvious to us that we ingest these truths and like nutrients in the soil, we use these truths to shape our growth. How could we not? And so, it no longer lives outside of our being, as something external, as someone else’s truth but becomes part of our being. We begin to merge the truth with ourselves. With who fundamentally are as people. So as life progresses, we move from truth to truth, from grosser more obvious truths to even subtler and subtler intricacies. They all make up part of that same whole, yet we begin to see things in more detail. Like seeing the big picture in HD. And the closer we get to the truth, the more we understand it, and see both the big picture and small details, the more the truth becomes a part of us. We become immersed in it. Because if we know truth, if we really understand and accept it, how can it not become a part of us? As we delve deeper, and move closer towards these truths, we begin to realise that the truth is no longer so separate from who we are but it is a part of us. It becomes who we are. Through exploring and experiencing the truth we are simply getting to know our true nature, our essence within.

That’s why we are here.

If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal…then you become something else entirely.

– Batman Begins

Things are not as they seem. We hover above while giving the appearance of scurring below… We are more than we know, more than we hoped and dreamed, a generation of generators – a power source in supply – Saul Williams, Pedagogue of Young Gods.


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