Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Working for inclusion in Bolivia - Sinead Morgan

The last three months volunteering with ICS have been an adventure that has inadvertently let me experience not one different country and culture, but two. Initially I had been placed in Burkina Faso; it was for 'Burkina' that I had packed and received training, I'd flown out there and met all my co-workers as well as settled into my host home and become acquainted with the remarkable  women of my project partner, Kabeela.

However, on the 16th of September the staff and guests in our hotel in Ouagadougou gathered around a television screen to see reports that the interim president had been kidnapped. What was happening was, in fact, a coup d'état. Ironically, only days before, my co-team leaders and I had commented that the emergency procedure instructions we were given had probably never been carried out. We were looked after incredibly well by the International Service staff during the political uncertainty and civil unrest, until eventually it was decided that the current cohort's work would be postponed until the new year. It was a difficult period for all involved, we were disappointed at not being able to see our plans come to fruition and the budding relationships with our Burkinabé colleagues were cut short. However, rather than having to return to the UK, the three other UK team leaders and I were fortunate enough to be transferred to other ICS programs. And so it happened that I found myself travelling across the Atlantic to Bolivia.

Four flights and several time zones later (or earlier) and I was finally in La Paz. The contrast was striking not only culturally but in terms of climate. I had gone from living in a flat, hot, rural Burkinabé town where I spoke French daily, to a chilly, mountainous metropolis sprawling with sky-scrapers and Spanish-speakers. Needless to say, I had not packed for the Andean altitude and quickly had to switch to speaking Spanish, but these were changes I was ready to embrace.

Initially, arriving to my new project three weeks in made me slightly apprehensive. Would I be able to catch up on what I'd missed? Would my team have formed a bond that would be hard for me to join? Fortunately I was greeted by the most welcoming office staff, and the Bolivian team leader and volunteers on my project were equally warm and approachable.

My initial arrival now feels distant as so much has happened since then. Our team, Volunteering and Participation for Inclusion, has achieved an incredible amount; we have worked with not one but six project partners on a weekly basis, each of them different yet similarly inspirational. Our work over the last twelve weeks in a nut shell goes as follows: we have planned and carried out many workshops to help improve social skills and promote healthy lifestyles with AVCCI (Association of Volunteers for Children with Cancer), Best Buddies Bolivia (an organisation promoting rights of people with disabilities) and Lurañani (an occupational centre for people with multiple disabilities), conducted various awareness-raising campaigns with the general public on the subject of disabilities and inclusion, participated in livelihood promotion for Agora (an association which helps people with visual disabilities to generate income) and Lurañani, and put our creative talents to the test developing valuable resources including making a textured mural and creating physiotherapy manuals for Aprecia (a special school for visual and multiple disabilities), Despertares (a physiotherapy centre for children with multiple disabilities) and Agora. I hope the impact of our contributions will be felt into the future as the partner projects continue their vital work.

Watching the diverse individuals in the team progress personally and professionally has been particularly rewarding, too. I have seen the team's planning and communication skills improve (to mention just a couple) and confidence levels soar. It is evident that the ICS program is an opportunity for both local NGOs and young volunteers to benefit mutually from collaborative work and this is something I consider invaluable in the scheme.

That said, it hasn't been all hard graft. We've celebrated five volunteer birthdays (that's a lot of cake!) and taken the Buddies and Lurañani on trips away. One highlight was being invited to the quinceañera (fifteenth birthday party - a rite of passage for fifteen year old girls in Bolivia) of Adriana, one of the Best Buddies. Buddies and volunteers shared the dance floor and boogied to the Bolivian pop songs I'm sure the UK volunteers will grow to miss, though some may deny it! The bond developed between volunteers and partner members has been delightful to witness and is something I will always remember as truly reflecting the spirit of inclusion.

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