Aboard a domestic flight, as I was contemplating on my 2010 new year’s resolution, my thoughts turned to an advertisement in the in-flight magazine. It was a call for volunteers to share skills and change lives as part of a non-governmental organization. Without hesitation, I sent in my application as I sensed that seeing the ad at that moment in space was a gift. I asked to volunteer in the Philippines but it was unfortunate that the NGO had no national volunteering program so I was slated to be sent abroad.
My current voluntary placement is in Uganda, East Africa, more specifically in Gulu – a place recently made famous by the Kony 2012 video. I have not seen the film but I can say that Gulu, the epicenter of Kony’s Lord Resistance Army’s (LRA) 20-year atrocities, is now peaceful. The Government of Uganda, donor community and international NGOs work hand-in-hand to implement the Peace, Recovery, and Development Plan (PRDP). The people from the Acholi and Lango sub-regions, whose lives were disrupted when they were forced to live in camps for internally displaced people, are being assisted to go back to their normal lives after the camps were closed in 2009. Gulu is buzzing with international NGOs whose development programs are mainly on education, health and livelihood. It is also not surprising that some countries display their economic interest by sponsoring programs that could expand bilateral international trade.
I am just a dot in this collaborative effort to change lives of others. But there are many dots here like me: men and women who have grown up children, have the experience and skills to share, are still active and would continue to live and work in some life-changing environment. In my decision to be part of an NGO, I feel that I have realized my need to be an agent of change through serving others.
Volunteering is like being in a solitary confinement and in solitude; one has the time to examine himself. Volunteering made me appreciate the fruits derived from all my labor in my 30s. I was living a high life because of my job, but still managing to live frugally at home and saving so that my children and grandchildren will not have to penny-pinch in order to live comfortably. Indeed, I found pleasure in all my labour and for all my labour: these were my rewards. I also realize how much of it was futile.
Being an international volunteer is a good badge for the local community to accept, within the norms of their society, your being different (particularly in appearance). Foreign women wearing pants is tolerated although I still have to get used to the common sight of local women with popping cleavages, and breast-feeding anytime, anywhere. Using an umbrella or wearing a hat can make you an object of curiosity. Children wail when they see a person with white-skin and light-coloured hair.
Volunteering gave me access to both the Church and state. You can have the ears of the politicians and bureaucrats who run the town because they know that you are well-meaning and they want to learn how it is out there. The Church, true to its mission, is happy to provide virtual and face-to-face spiritual comfort to a member of the flock who is in long separation from family and friends. I was fortunate to find the Comboni Missionaries in my parish because, after all, there is a semblance of similarity between a missionary and a volunteer.
In Maslow’s narrow definition of self-actualizers, he says that they need the following in their lives in order to be happy: truth, rather than dishonesty; goodness, rather than evil; beauty, not ugliness or vulgarity; unity, wholeness, and transcendence of opposites, not arbitrariness or forced choices; aliveness, not deadness or the mechanization of life; uniqueness, not bland uniformity; perfection and necessity, not sloppiness, inconsistency, or accident; completion, rather than incompleteness; justice and order, not injustice and lawlessness; simplicity, not unnecessary complexity; richness, not environmental impoverishment; effortlessness, not strain; self-sufficiency, not dependency; meaningfulness, rather than senselessness.
In the last 3rd of my life, whether back home or elsewhere, I will pursue these needs and satisfy them to the best I can. When all else fails, I will just take things as God gives them to me. Carpe diem (Seize the day), says my parish priest here.
Eve Avila is a former Assistant Governor of the Central Bank of the Philippines. She is now in Gulu and keeps a blog at eveavila.blogspot.com.