In 2013, Catherine Bailey from Sydney had reached a pretty good spot on the career ladder as HR Manager in a multinational company with lots of travel. Yet she decided to throw it all in to do volunteer work for a year in the Pacific island country of the Solomon Islands. Here’s her very adventurous story.
“After five and a half years at university, seven years working in HR and ending up in a fabulous role as HR manger Asia Pacific for a multinational medical devices corporation, I wanted to travel. For years I had been saving to take a year off work to do just this.
I had travelled quite a bit, both as a tourist and for work, but really wanted to have an experience where I could connect with a local community and help people. It is hard to connect with people if you aren’t “one of them”. I particularly wanted to shake the superficial tourist experience and felt that integration in a community was key. In Australia most of us are born into such privilege – we have access to clean drinking water, excellent heath facilities, excellent educational opportunities, infrastructure and support systems including law enforcement, justice and equality. I felt it was a responsibility of the privilege I had been lucky enough to be born into, to contribute some of my time in trying to help others.
For me volunteering in a developing country fitted perfectly with these objectives.
I was frequently asked: “Why on earth do you want to do that? Why do you want to go and live in a place like that? Isn’t it dangerous? What about your job?” Although supportive, my family couldn’t imagine why I would leave a well paid job with lots of travel opportunities to move to a developing country where intermittent power, water, security, health and other issues are just a standard part of life. Mostly though, I think people around me wished they too were resigning from work and heading overseas.
The Australian Volunteer for International Development Program had a few positions in HR and I was planning on going to Papua New Guinea. Then an assignment for the Solomon Islands came up. I chose it because along with a triathlon club, lots of social and sporting groups there was wonderful scuba diving! I love being active and I love the underwater world. Honiara ended up being a great place for both.
I was assigned to HR with the national radio carrier, the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation: the only form of communication that reaches all provinces. Very few have televisions in the capital Honiara, let alone a computer and access to the internet.
I had the best people to work with, so much so that I consider all my colleagues like close friends and family rather than workmates. I also made some wonderful friends in the local triathlon club and trained with them regularly, all the while being on the lookout for crocodiles.
There were lots of challenges. My intended supervisor left the job two days before I arrived and hardly anyone knew I was starting. My volunteer group was told to expect at least one break-in at which time we would lose all our valuables. Each morning I was greeted with rat poo on my desk and I’d have to go through a daily disinfectant routine. Then there was the risk of Dengue Fever, Malaria and serious infections caused by a simple cut. Local men would touch or grab me at the local markets. Feral dogs roamed the streets and often chased you when you walked, ran or rode past. The phone system, water and power were all unreliable. Earthquakes and tsunami warnings would see the phone system crash. There was a dangerous settlement on the outskirts of town that I had to ride through to get to my beloved morning swims.
But there were also so many more positives! Communicating with people by raising my eyebrows. Signalling to the local bus driver that I wanted to get off by hissing, or raising my eyebrows if they were looking. Visiting villages, talking to the chiefs, playing with the children, donating bras to the women and travelling around on a boat for over two weeks was also one of the most rewarding experiences of my whole year. As was the diving. Diving in the Solomon’s is world class!
My best memories are of the relationships. I loved seeing everyone at work everyday. I loved having the girls over for dinner and teaching them what a ‘doggie bag’ was. I loved learning how to scrape a coconut. I cried when one of the lowest paid workers who I had encouraged to start saving (because the request for a loan was frequent) proudly placed a wooden handmade box on my desk one day, squeezed a 50 dollar note in and then whispered for me to look after it. It didn’t matter that you had to demolish the box to get the money out! Another time, after flash flooding had hit, I was grateful for the company of a work friend who I’d insisted should stay over. I ended up being the grateful one when it turned out to be a massive natural disaster that killed many people, left thousands homeless and required us to bunker down for days with a battery radio when the capital erupted with looting and violence.
I didn’t stop crying the day I left, from the moment I saw my farewell sign hanging in the courtyard at work, to hugging my boss who was also crying and waving goodbye at the airport. I admire the people of the Solomon Islands so much. They have taught me and enriched my life much more than I ever could theirs.
A few weeks after I flew home a newborn girl was named after me. I am yet to nurse little Catherine. It’s now a goal for me to get back there and meet her.”
Would you give up your comfortable life and a great career to volunteer in a developing country?