Comhlámh’s information and support officer Ruth Powell will have a number of conversations with volunteers about their unique experiences of international volunteering over the coming months. Here is the second conversation, with Dominic Hannigan
Why did you decide to volunteer internationally? I was always interested in international volunteering, and this opportunity was right for me. It was for three weeks, very structured and finite. It was in a country that I had visited before so I had some idea of it
Tell me about your volunteering role and your placement?
VSO Ireland had a programme where they asked Parliamentarians to get involved in volunteering, so along with five or six other politicians I got involved. It was a health sector placement, because I had some previous experience of health management and business. My role was to examine the Mongolian health system, do a needs assessment and report back to the government. As a politician I was able to get access to the Mongolian Minister for Health, which put more focus on the conclusions I drew from my time there.
I volunteered in the Chingeltei area of Ulaanbaatar, and I stayed in an apartment about 25 minutes away from the main square, Sukbaatar Square.
We had some downtime at the weekends, which allowed us to get to know the other volunteers. On one weekend we went outside the city one time for a picnic. On a different weekend I drove out of the city with my Mongolian workmates. They hired a small chalet, set up a barbeque and we spent the day watching the Beijing Olympics on the TV. As luck would have it one of the boxing bouts involved an Irishman against a Chineseman. The Chinese are the “auld enemy” to the Mongolians, so for that bout all the attendees in the Chalet were cheering for the same corner!
For my last weekend I went to the Terelj area, where I stayed in a ger (yurt) and went rafting, horse-riding and just enjoyed the vast Mongolian open countryside.
What was your accommodation like?
I shared an apartment with a volunteer called Gecca and we swapped food in the evenings. She was from the Philippines. VSO have a very interesting “south to south” volunteering programme where people from the global south are encouraged to volunteer in other so-called global south countries.
It was easy to settle in. There were plenty of gatherings and house visits to other volunteers’ apartments. Everyone helped me feel part of the group. There was a good vibe, everyone was so very helpful and open.
What were your first impressions of Mongolia?
This was my second visit to Mongolia, I’d travelled from Dublin to Mongolia by boat and train in 2001 and I’d done the tourists things. I was particularly taken by the amazing and weird throat-singing!
I found the weather rather bizarre. When we arrived it was 25 degrees, it was the height of summer and everyone wore t-shirts. But then all of a sudden someone turned off the sun, and over a matter of days it became very cold. Even though it was August the temperature dropped considerably. One minute is was summer and then it went straight to winter.
I spent a lot more time with local people, worked with them, saw the culture and heard about how they lived their lives. I saw people living on the margins of life. I got to see how people used the hospitals and accessed the health service. I saw the difficulties faced by the staff and the patients. For instance, I saw several GP practices without any running water.
I had an unfortunate incident where I broke one of my ribs (I fell out of bed!) and as a result I experienced the system first hand. One of my colleagues took me for an X-ray. It was a very efficient process but I was rather surprised to see that the machine was from the 60s – thankfully it still worked fine! But it did make me think about how much more resourced the hospitals and clinics here in Ireland are.
Did you learn the language?
I was only there for three weeks, so the placement was too short to allow me to do so. Instead, I had access to a translator called Jill, who worked with me on a daily basis during my time there.
Did you like the food?
Mongolians eat a lot of fatty meat, presumably to keep warm during the cold winters. They like mutton, which is nice but can be a little tough to eat. And of course being a capital city there are lots of international restaurants, so I ate in these, or in the homes of other volunteers. There were a lot of volunteers from the Philippines and I loved going around to eat their cuisine!
Did the experience lead you to volunteer again?
Yes. A year later VSO asked me to go to the Philippines and work on a peacebuilding project. At the time I was Chair of the Good Friday Agreement Implementation Committee in the Oireachtas. I agreed to go. It was a different type of experience. I was tasked with trying to share the history of the Good Friday Agreement with as many people as I could. I spoke to Imams, to politicians, to Members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, to university students, to workers, to political prisoners inside the prisons. I spoke on TV, on radio, in universities. It was great fun but also it made me realise how much Ireland has to offer in terms of peacebuilding. One good thing that came out of the horrible, awful past of the troubles is a legacy of peacebuilding. It was humbling to be able to talk about how the different sides of the conflict were able to find a way to peace.
What was your favourite thing about the placement?
Eleven years on I still have strong and positive memories. I came away with the feeling that I was doing something good. It was a pleasant experience, enjoyable and fun and I think it did help to put a bit of attention on the health facilities in the district.
And would you do it again?
Absolutely. Perhaps when I retire or am nearer to retirement than I am now. It would need to be a very structured role, one that is not taking the place of a local person’s job. I found my volunteering experiences to be worthwhile, life-affirming and I think helpful for everyone involved.