By Bev Anderson
After we made the decision to retire, my husband and I discovered that Cuso International (Canadian) was interested in accepting qualified volunteers for international work – even 60-year olds like me. After some hesitation regarding our ability to cope with a different culture, fundraising, and frugal living, we applied.
We were accepted for a six-month volunteer position in Ghana. I found it difficult living in a remote village in northern Ghana on the edge of the Sahara. I was not sure if I could last with the torrid heat, blowing dust, mud huts, tribal customs, languages, bucket showers and no working toilet, and limited local food at market. Some of you may have experienced living in third-world circumstances, or perhaps heard my talk on volunteering in Ghana at the Senior‘s Centre last June. I was not sure I wanted to do it again.
However, after some persuasion by my husband, I agreed to try international volunteering once again, this time in an urban environment. Last October, after dealing with some problems about getting visas, I was accepted as an accompanying spouse for a four-month placement in Naypyidaw, the newly built capital of Myanmar, formerly Burma.
It was difficult to start up volunteer work without an official position or public transportation, but with the encouragement of our Burmese fellow volunteer, Yaung Ni Oo, I created an informal English conversation group for an hour three days a week in Parliament. I enjoyed working with the Myanmar staff, mainly women, working in the three-year old “democratic” Parliament. Women working at Parliament lived in a dormitory with a 9:30 p.m. curfew, unless working the many hours of overtime that was expected for all.
The conversation group was for any staff who wanted practice speaking and listening in English. We all enjoyed the informality of open conversation on a variety of personal and professional topics, from national holidays, customs, and food to secret dreams and personal concerns. Many moments of humour encouraged me despite the complexities of accommodating busy staff schedules. I was impressed by the openness of the group when I asked direct questions. As I became trusted, I learned of the difficulties and challenges of being a government worker, living in a government town in government housing.
At home, working and living with two male volunteers was challenging for me. The Myanmar/Burmese people seemed to enjoy communal living and I was used to being an “empty nester”. Yaung Ni Oo was a diaspora volunteer from Ontario, fluent in Burmese. He had been part of a 1988 student protest, and had spent some time in a Thai refugee camp where he learned and taught English. His sense of humour helped us understand and appreciate a unique culture and language. He also arranged for a meeting with leader of the Opposition, Aung Sun Suu Kyi, an honour and a privilege. The other volunteer was a recent university graduate who wanted further international experience. The four of us lived together in Naypyidaw, a newly military-built city with eight-lane roads and little traffic since it is located far from the major cities. We tried to share schedules and the car to get to market and get to work on time. It was a bit like first-year university, adapting to new personalities and sharing space, all part of the “stretching” we had to learn.
Working at the Hluttaw (Parliament) was a new start-up experience for Cuso International. After some years of military government, the country has made some movement toward a more open and “democratic” government. There have been some some changes, yet there is a challenging road ahead to maintain stability and create more openness. Our Myanmar colleague suggested that having the military sit in parliament was perhaps better than having them on the outside ready to usurp the process.
Our contact person for the English program, the director of Parliamentary Research, was open, friendly, and supportive. He and his department provide MPs with background research on a variety of issues. Overtime work in his department was part of the job, for minimal overtime pay, and that was true for many departments.
Other new experiences included a) learning to drive with a steering wheel on the shoulder side of the road; b) wearing a longhi (sarong), required for both men and women on staff; c) learning to decipher menus in Burmese language by using words and charades; and d) understanding a Buddhist culture that until recently has been protected from the West. All this made for some head scratching, and we looked for mentors to help us understand our situation.
Some of the circumstances of those around us were concerning. A young family, a 19-year-old pregnant mother, a father not much older, and their young daughter lived in a small 10-square-foot room attached to our garage. This couple were caretakers for the property. A week before Christmas, I saw her walking outside, holding her back. Having had three children of my own, I knew she was in labour. Within minutes her sister, mother and two midwives arrived. There was a knock on our door with a request to boil water. We offered to take the young woman to the hospital, but she refused. Within an hour, we heard the cry of the newborn. By the time we can home from work, six hours later, Mom was sitting outside with her newborn and toddler. It seemed poignant, happening so close to Christmas and in a shed. The young mother and I became close. I am a grandmother, and they were part of my life. She did not speak a word of English, and I did not speak Burmese, yet we seemed to communicate on an emotional level. It was difficult to say goodbye to a young woman with little education, and a questionable future. We never learned each other’s names, but I will never forget her.
Perhaps the value of doing something out of the ordinary like international volunteering is how it forces you to rethink your attitudes. I have been fortunate to be able to assist others while learning more about myself – donating a bowl of rice to a passing Buddhist monk, smiling despite the heat, passing through military security, getting to market for food and drinking water or walking barefoot in homes and temples, reflecting on new ways to solve problems. I am thankful for the friendships and unexpected experiences I have been given.
Myanmar still remains a mystery with border clashes and its peace-loving, predominantly Buddhist population. My hope is that the elections later on this year protect and nurture this unique culture.
This article originally appeared in the September 2015 edition of Vista magazine for the Seniors Association Kingston Region.