Conversations with volunteers.  Eoin Ryan 

In 2018, Eoin Ryan came to the Irish Aid Volunteering Fair at Dublin Castle and spoke to Comhlámh about his international volunteering options.  Below he reflects on his placement in Zambia, and gives advice to other people thinking about international volunteering options (online and onsite)

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Taking shelter from the sun after planting soya beans, December 2019 

Welcome home Eoin.  Where have you been? 

I have recently returned home from Zambia where I had been based at a project in Mkushi, Central Province, since the first week of November 2019 working with Development Aid from People to People (DAPP). Since May 2020, I have been working in Ireland, with a selection of 18-25 year olds from across Ireland in collaboration with GOAL to create a new development education resource for young people to be rolled out before the end of the year. 

Tell us a little more about the project. 

Based at DNS Teacher Training College in Mkushi, my role was to develop the campus i.e. identify areas for improvement and work on practical solutions that would help improve student welfare and learning, develop a centre-point for the surrounding community, but also to make the college more attractive for future potential partnerships.  So to that end, I planned, designed, and completed a central hub area with 3 concrete tables with seating, concrete staircase, and flower garden to be used by staff and students.  I collaborated with organisations and individuals in my hometown of Kildare Town, to gather a variety of sports equipment for the college: Jerseys, Balls (Football, Rugby, Netball, Volleyball), Nets, Cones, Training Bibs, Whistles, Pumps.  I helped construct new secured storage unit, and I ran a fundraising campaign called:  Sustainable Development for A Sustainable Future which raised €1250 to help with those projects. 

Would you have any advice for people thinking about international volunteering? 

Don’t give up; the process can be frustrating at times, but learn to practice patience, and be proactive. Choose your battles wisely – if something is within your control, take ownership, if you require support to progress to the next stage of your work, communicate with your project leader; but equally be understanding that things can take some time due to logistics. Don’t be a pushover, some people need to be pushed, but be kind, be polite, and be respectful – remember you have chosen to step into someone else’s world. 

Enjoy the process, participate in as many things as you can, and take plenty of photos/videos (because before you know it, you’ll be back home!).  

Frustration, Isolation, or boredom are bound to meet you at some stage, it’s part of the experience, try not let it overwhelm you too much. Bring a journal (or two) – it will become your companion and guide you through some of those mentally exhausting days! 

Your time at the project will be remembered by everyone, so once you are trying your best and interacting in a dignified manner, you’ll be remembered for the right reasons. 

What should people do before they start an international volunteering project, be it online, remote and virtual or onsite? 

It can be easy for those from the developed world to arrive in Africa with a preconception of what you might see, how you will feel, and what stories you will take back home. Here’s some advice: 

Do your homework: arrive with a broad understanding of your project country’s history i.e. during (and post-) colonization, what impacts that may have had on the country, and how it shaped the country up until the year of your arrival; it’s a sign of respect that you have some base knowledge when you arrive, but it will also help you stimulate a conversation during your stay to build upon that base knowledge 

Learning the language: try learning a few words/phrases of local language: Hello, How are you? etc. before arriving, but don’t stress too much because you will learn the rest during your stay as you will have plenty of time to engage and practice. 

Reach out: Speak with your project leader prior to arrival and ask any questions that come to mind e.g. appropriate clothes, access to internet, food arrangements etc. – it’s important to try get familiar with your new environment to hit the ground running once you arrive. 

Challenge the stereotypes: remove negative connotations from your mind, travel to learn and understand, build relationships, listen, and share – “good will” alone may cause more harm than good. We must recognise our privilege, understand power dynamics, and work towards empowering local people through their strengths in order to bring about sustainable change. 

Think before you click: when you take a photo think about what the purpose is. If you intend to use the photo to tell a story, make sure you fully understand the context behind your photo to avoid misleading your family, friends or the general public in your home country about the message you’re trying to convey. The last thing the world needs is more people from western society feeling pity for, or negatively portraying, those in the developing world.  

People will support you, but don’t saturate their newsfeed. Remember that most people back home will not share the same passion that you do for the world, but they are still very likely to support you throughout your endeavours. Take this into consideration when you are posting, sharing images, blogging etc., and go that extra mile to find creative ways to engage the public rather than frightening them away with words, terms, images that have no bearing on their daily lives.  

You can contact Eoin below.  Eoin will start the MA in International Development in Maynooth this autumn. 

Blog: @eoinryan_ 

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Eoin speaking with Comhlámh at the Irish Aid Volunteer Fair, October 2018 

Men’s Soccer team at the official opening of the new sports department at DNS Mkushi College of Education, January 2020 

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Women’s Netball team and Men’s Soccer team celebrating respective wins during an “away day” visit to nearby Kabwe district, February 2020 

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New central hub area (table view), April 2020 

New central hub area (staircase view), November – April 2020