Friday, 15 May 2009

A gift from India

E KAABO. Bawo ni? Gbogbo le nko? I heard these phrases and on impulse, I raised my head to take a second look at the smiling ‘Oyinbo’ beside me. I wondered if she has a Yoruba root because of the near-perfect pronunciation of the words. Then I became more surprised to learn that she is completely Indian and has no blood ties to Nigeria.
Here is what living with other people outside one’s country can do to one: learn about other people’s ways of life, connect to and identify with their culture and traditions.

MANALI Shah, an Indian lady, sees life as an opportunity to improve the world, impacting on the lives of other people and contributing to the development of the community at large.
While she was in High School, an environment conference she attended awakened her consciousness and apathy towards what was happening around her. That birthed her volunteerism passion
Her volunteer journey took a serious leap in the university, where she met her life partner, Parth Shah, who was heading one of the non governmental organisations (NGOs) where she was a volunteer!
She has worked closely with her husband for seven years to run programmes that question the impact of government policies on people and reach out to young people in India to make them informed and active citizens.
In 2007, Mana (as she preferred to be called), felt the need to experience working outside her community to test herself and her skills, and so, took the challenge of leaving her home in New Delhi to come to Africa as a volunteer.
“With the full support, love and understanding of my husband, my parents (who always wanted me to reach great heights) and my friends, who wanted me to fulfil my whimsical wishes, I decided to fulfill my three wishes: experiencing Africa; expose my skills to a new environment and learn how to live on my own,” she says.

SHE came as a volunteer through the International Volunteering Programme of the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) in March 2008 to work in Nigeria for one year. Since then, she has worked voluntarily with the Civil Society Network for Volunteering Society (also known as GIVE Network), a body that promotes the culture of volunteering within Nigerians and the framework of volunteer management within NGOs. Mana worked with GIVE as the organizational development advisor.
She has helped coordinated the organisational structure of her work place –– developing policies for the network, organising workshops to help build the capacity of the member organizations (MOs) of the network and training the MOs on Volunteer Management amongst other aspects.

FOR someone who had never been to Africa, leaving her home and coming to a totally different place with different people, culture and way of living, wasn’t an easy decision for Mana.
And to think that she was also going to leave behind all luxury and live a humble life far away from home, was a challenging reality that she had to face.
“I have never lived on my own before. I live a much pampered life with my parents and then with my husband. I have never been away from Delhi for more than a month. In Delhi, I travel in my car and seldom use public transport. With the maid and cook, I never had to do my own laundry or cleaning. Given that here, I have managed to get around using public transport, done my own cleaning, washing and cooking, I feel I have conquered Everest,” she says.
“Living away from my husband has been harder than I had imagined. But being on my own, I have realised that I can take care of myself. I made some smart decisions and some stupid decisions, but the feeling that these have been my decisions have made the consequences quite bearable. Though I am sociable, I have been uncomfortable and stressed thinking about creating a whole new social life for myself away from home. But I am amazed at both the warmth and acceptance of my landlords, colleagues and friends here as well as my ability to develop and maintain relationships which will surely last beyond this one year.’ Mana says.

AS typical of anywhere one had never been, Mana was confronted with various stereotypes about Africa before leaving home. She had heard comments about Nigeria, Lagos in particular, such as high crime, worse traffic congestion, filth in every corner etc. all giving the picture of the worst place to live.
However, living in the country has helped her experience things for herself beyond hearsay. “Yes, there is crime, traffic and garbage everywhere, but not as bad as it’s made out to be. Back home in India, you see multiple realities. Whenever I ask people about the problems of Nigeria, they say the same thing — overpopulation, laziness etc. This is not the whole truth. They say all these things in India too and they do all sort of works that they can’t do in India here in Nigeria. The root problem of both countries is the same — the break down of the government, where the state has failed to provide an enabling environment in terms of basic services and opportunity. The good things are also common — the diverse tradition, music, dress, the rich history, art and culture, diverse food. This diversity comes from the peaceful but sometimes volatile co-existence of the multicultural ethnic groups. All of these are true of both countries.”
She adds, “there have been many moments where I have witnessed kindness, acceptance, and humility in Nigeria. Twice, I did not have sufficient money to pay for the bike ride from my home to the main road and the bike guy humbly accepted whatever I had. People occasionally give up their seats for the elderly, pregnant women, and even me! Also, I have made a lot of good friends that have shown me true love. Once, when I was going home to India on a short holiday during my term, my colleague and friend came to drop me at the airport and she cried at the thought that three months later I would be going home for good!”

MUCH as Mana enjoyed her work and time in Nigeria, she is always eager to share how also, volunteering has helped her develop as an individual. She got tremendous value and respect for her experience, skills and perspective. She has been honored with invitations to, and participated in workshops and seminars even outside her primary place of work. Through volunteering, she has also realised her likeness; what she hates, her strengths and weakness. ‘I have realized that there are levels of perfection, that I am good at making something from bad to good but I sometimes lack the patience, discipline & creativity to take it from good to great. Having these realisations, and sporadic light bulbs in my head, have made me more aware of myself and understand my actions. There are lots of ways that volunteering has helped me build on myself and I believe the experience will be the same for others who volunteers.’

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