In the last blog post, Chelsea, a World Teach volunteer in Tanzania talked of how she is trying to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. She shares situations that have forced her outside her comfort zone while volunteering in Tanzania but at the same time helped her grow.
After reading the post, I started thinking of how the article relates to me. Language, systems — these are similar concerns for me as well. What are the things that have forced me out of my comfort zone while volunteering, particularly outside India. As my mind was framing the response to that, it suddenly struck me that in my case, while I am forced out of my comfort zone every time I moved to a new country, it was volunteering that helped me find it back and feel like I belong there :).
I too want to share a few stories.
When we moved to Angola, I knew I will have to learn a new language (Portuguese) but to wait to have learnt a sufficient amount before going out and interacting with local people didn’t really make sense. Conversations don’t always need speaking! I reached Luanda on 15th December and after a week I knew only 4 words in Portuguese – Bon dia; Obrigada; Todo bem.
Soon it was Christmas holidays and most people in my building had left but the security guards and the cleaners and the gardeners of the building were still there. How could I reach out to them? Christmas is their biggest festival, a time to be with their families, yet they were here making our lives comfortable. The most basic idea I could think of was food and art! I baked some cookies and made cards for all of them with Christmas greetings. In the process I learned a little bit more Portuguese but more than that I made many friends!
I guess language is the biggest thing that sometimes leaves me very frustrated here. I remember in the first email that I sent to the foundation where I volunteer, I had mentioned that I don’t know Portuguese, but I love working with children. Naama had responded saying that’s all that matters. And that’s how I started volunteering in Angola. It’s amazing how much you can converse simply by gestures and body language. During one of the sessions, I was completely at a loss for words. I would know the entire sentence but not just one key word. “You need to stick the two”. I know all words in Portuguese except for stick! I made the gesture of picking up the two things and bringing them together but all I had were blank faces staring back. So I went to the cupboard, got the glue out and held out the cardboard tube and the paper and just did the action and it worked! They also taught me that the word I was looking for was ‘colar’ 🙂 And I told them it’s ‘to stick’ in English.
It makes such a big difference when you make an effort to learn their language. Everyone I meet goes the extra mile to understand me when I start in my broken Portuguese. 😀
Making new friends
I could have very easily disappeared in the Indian community or the families at my husband’s company. I realised that would never make me feel like I belong in Luanda and if I chose to be here, I want to really ‘be’ here. In that also volunteering helped me! Through foundation activities I met and made friends with so many people outside my husband’s work circle or the Indian community. More than anything that helped me feel at home in Luanda. I am enjoying being part of the culture, the problems and the fun.
Sometimes things do (& will) not make sense
… and that is something I need to still be comfortable with though things like these are not very different in India either. The kids I volunteer with are not there regularly, except for a few, every day there are different faces and sometimes some just disappear after a few sessions. Sometimes they do an artwork that leaves you bewildered. One of the girls made a high heel sandal stamping on a heart with blood coming out of the heart and a crying rose. What was it all about? We wanted to meet with the girl who painted that but she never came back and we could not find her home. That one incident made me more aware of the children’s expressions and even though we have our fun art and curiosity sessions, I try to remember who came and who did not. I try to ask if I don’t see a child for too long. Over years, mainly while volunteering in India, I have learnt that incidents happen, earlier I used to cry, I used to quit but now I try to learn and grow with them.
To come to Angola was stepping out of my comfort zone and yes, even after so many months, I am not I am not 100% comfortable in Luanda, still Luanda feels home now and this feeling of home came largely because of volunteering.