Why the mole photo? Well, something to do with sort of ‘seeing the light’ coming up from underground, but being unable to benefit from it due to rubbish eyesight I think. It seems to capture a bit of my uncertainty re Cambodia, though a picture of ‘what next’ is beginning to form.
So, if you are following my blog, then you’ll know I’d applied to CWF, heard nothing, read bad reviews about the project, decided I had a lucky escape… and then months later got an email saying that there’d been some hiccup in staffing (now resolved) so my application had been overlooked. Was I still interested? I decided to sleep on it.
I slept on it.
I was really unsure what to do. Since I’d not heard, I’d kind of talked myself out of the opportunity but now it was back in my inbox all over again. I took what was for me unusually assertive action. I decided that given the delay, and the damning reviews I’d come across I would reply positively, but honestly. Long story short, I replied saying that given the time that had elapsed I’d been pursuing other options (ahem) but might still be interested. However, since applying I’d come across some negative comments on the interweb, and, whilst I don’t believe everything I read online (not even wikipedia) I couldn’t disregard them and I’d love to have their response before I proceeded with my application any further. I think I actually winced when I hit the ‘send’ button. I don’t normally come out with such comments, but I can hardly travel half way across the world on a self-funded volunteering programme if I have doubts about the legitimacy of the project. Can I? Cue period of uncomfortable angst…
Probably not as altogether existentially challenging as The Scream might suggest, but enough to feel awkward about whether I’d been too candid. Don’t want to alienate people you are going to be potentially working alongside, plenty of time to do that once you join them in the workplace… Fortunately, I got a very full and honest response. It took what I said seriously (I’d seen comments suggesting funding was not going to the linked Rural Development Project but rather lining pockets of individuals in the capital, and also about volunteers being misled about number of teaching hours and level of support). The financial organisation of the project was explained, and that there had been some staffing shifts acknowledged. Crucially, I was also put in touch with a long-term volunteer from the UK, with whom I subsequently was able to exchange even more candid emails.
The long-term volunteer sent a brilliant email. Cleverly worded, he avoided saying anything negative about any individual. However, it was clear that what might be charitably called ‘an error of judgement’ had been made in respect of a few appointments. This led to false promises being made to both volunteers and probably students – in order to boost numbers, rather than maintain quality and integrity of project. This led to an unhappy blip, some long-term staff and volunteers left en masse, and things were pretty bad for a while. However, the organisation seemed to come to its senses (not sure how) the person who had upset the proverbial applecart with their approach moved on (not sure where) and then previous volunteers and long standign staff members returned. The project came back on track and all is much improved. It may be that I had a lucky escape not being snapped up when I first applied, as I may have coincided with all this turbulence. The volunteer’s account rang true, it was consistent with what I’d read on line. (Really positive reviews, and then suddently some absolutely damning ones – to which other volunteers who’d attended previously replied in disbelief, vociferously defending the project based on their own experiences.). What’s more, the individual who responded to me was very open about their own personal circumstances. It isn’t my story to tell, but suffice to say I gained the impression that joining CWF had helped him progress both personally and professionally. He had clearly found a way to get stuck in to life in Phom Phen and develop from an almost trembling with fear first time teacher in the classroom, to a highly competent, cheerful and well respected teacher, facilitator, coach and mentor to his students. It was all very heartening. He’s been there long enough to get involved with local intiatives. Not least a public speaking group which is based at the University in Phnom Penh (as far as I can gather).
Also, his story, seemed to echo with what it is I’m seeking, I need to finish what I started in Viet Nam, I want to restore my professional confidence, I want to learn new things. I want to feel as if my work has some purpose, I want to experience another culture and gain some understanding of a different way of life – even though I know that will be uncomfortable at times. I’d like to explore some meaningful cultural exchange, learn some khmer even (I never got anywhere with Vietnamese, it’s a tonal language which didn’t help). CWF do offer some (optional) language tuition, that would be fab – daunting, but fab!
The project appears to have a collegiate approach, ideas are shared, weekly meetings allow for professional development through exchange of ideas and experiences. Sounding good. This volunteer is even being supervised doing a separate more advanced teaching qualification whilst in Cambodia, suggesting there is genuine expertise on site. It bodes well. Finally, he was honest about the accommodation. He likes it because it’s cheap and cheerful and easy, but tellingly he said he knew plenty of volunteers who’d extende their stay with the project, but knew of none who had opted to continue in the project accommodation. It seems living independently is the way to go!
So, eek. I was buoyed up by this candour, and relieved my questions were well received. In fact I wonder if far from being annoyed by my potentially challenging questions, the project was pleased I was taking the opportunity seriously. One thing I am NOT looking for, is a voluntourism gap year where exploitation of children and locals is the basis of unethical and cynical money making ventures. I suppose the fact I queried this project, peversely would reassure any legitimate enterprise that I do want to go to do a worhtwhile job, not just parachute in and out for a snatch squad feel-good moment.
So, the upshot was I decided to ratchet it up a gear. Yep, I’m interested, bring on the skype encounter and let’s make it so!
Unethical Volunteering Postscript:
By the way, if you want to know more about the risks of unethical volunteering and how to avoid them, the following links might help. Bottom line, it’s potentially something of a mine field. At best you could be depriving a local person of a job, at worse you could be fuelling child trafficking as unscrupulous people scoop up children to place in ‘orphanages’ just to give western visitors somewhere to visit and feel good.
Working with animals is equally fraught by the way – lion petting in Africa a particularly appealing but cynical initiative. Often linked with canned hunting. It is true that lion numbers are declining rapidly, but the issue is not with a need to breed more (let alone remove cubs from their mothers) but to do with habitat protection. If it feels wrong, it probably is. Not really for this blog I suppose, but if you are intersted see here:
and don’t get me started on elephant riding… though I have to admit, I did this 20 years ago when I had no idea how cruel the ‘training’ process is, now I know otherwise there is no place for such experiences in this day and age: https://journals.worldnomads.com/responsible-travel/story/81053/Thailand/Why-Elephant-Riding-Should-Be-Removed-from-Your-Bucket-List