Wednesday, 17 September 2014

My time as an ICS Volunteer

I spent some time as an ICS volunteer, spending three months in Mali in 2011. Back then, it was a very new scheme (I was part of the second cohort of volunteers), but it's now developed and has achieved some incredibly positive things worldwide.

International Volunteers Day in Mali
International Volunteers Day
Those of you who know me will know that I'm hardly David Cameron's biggest fan, but this was his idea, and a very good one at that. The aim of the scheme is to send young people out into the world, to experience life working abroad, and to give them a chance to join in the fight against global poverty.

I've always wanted to work for a charity, and if I could go back again I'd study International Development at University, so this scheme was perfect for me. There are lots of different aid organisations who work together as part of ICS (Restless Development, VSO and Progressio are just some of them), and I worked for International Service, who are based in York, where I went to University. I heard of the scheme in a 'Charity and Third Sector' career talk in my third year, and knew straight away that I had to apply.

The scheme is funded by DfID (Department for International Development), and although volunteers are encouraged to fundraise a small amount of money themselves, everything else is included in the programme. This was very important for me - I'd always wanted to do something like this, but could never have afforded to fund it myself, so it gave me an amazing opportunity that I wouldn't otherwise have had.

I applied as soon as I could, and was invited for an interview with several other people around my age. The scheme is open to 18-25 year olds, and I'd encourage anyone to apply! Had I known at the time that it was several different organisations, I may have applied through another, not because I don't think International Service are amazing (they are) but because others have slightly more range of countries to choose from.

Goat on a bus, Mali
Goat on a Sotrama!

I was still spoiled for choice however, and could state a preference of either Palestine, Bolivia, Mali or Burkina Faso. I originally wanted to go to Bolivia (I've always wanted to see the Salt Flats) but when I was accepted onto the programme I'd been allocated Mali (because I spoke some French and I'd been to Africa before), and I certainly wasn't complaining!

Cows in Mali

The scheme includes a couple of days of training before you depart (mine was in London, and they reimbursed me for all travel costs) which is great. It gives you some idea of what you're letting yourself in for, as well as giving you a chance to meet the people you'll be travelling with before you go!

I was to be in Mali for around 3 months, from September through to December, and in that time all airfares, accommodation etc. would be provided, and I'd also get a small allowance each week for food. If I wanted to travel or buy souvenirs etc., I had to bring my own money (which of course is to be expected - they're not necessities!) but basically I had everything I needed!

There were 10 of us volunteers headed to Mali altogether - some of us had met at the training weekend, and others had gone to a different one, and we were certainly a mixed bunch. Fortunately, people doing this kind of thing all tend to be of the same mindset however, and we all got along relatively well (a few tiffs along the way are to be expected in three months!). We were split into two different teams, and each had a team leader who had already been in Mali for a week or two by the time we arrived.

International Service work with local NGOs in the countries they work in, to ensure the work they do is both ethical and sustainable, so we were based in the main IS office, but each team was working with a different NGO. Our team was working with AJA (Association Jeunesse Action), an organisation which aimed to reduce unemployment in Mali through microfinance and entrepreneurship. The other team was to work in a school for children with special needs - Amaldeme.

Artisans in Bamako, Mali
Artisans hard at work making bags
Anyone who's ever been to Africa will know that it works differently there to the UK - time is different, attitudes are different and the way of life is different! TIA! (This Is Africa!) One of the most important things the scheme taught me was to be flexible in the way I worked; we expected everything to be done to a timetable, and allowed ourselves to become frustrated when things didn't happen as we liked, but we learned to accept this over the course of the three months, and to adapt to the Malian way of doing things. You can read more about my day to day life in Mali here.

We worked with a group of artisans who were struggling to sell their crafts. Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world, and apart from a group of volunteers, ex-pats and missionaries, there are very few tourists there. In the whole three months that we were in Mali, there were just 19 Brits in the whole country, and we constituted 10 of them! This means that the artisans struggled to make a living, so we endeavoured to help them market their products. We interviewed them, created a catalogue (both in French and English), set up a social media page for the gallery, and even leafleted and put posters up in the wealthy ex-pat area of Bamako.

We achieved a small amount of success, despite difficulties (few of us in the team spoke enough French to interview the artisans in great detail, and we were very low on the priority list for AJA, meaning we often didn't get access to resources we'd paid for, such as the car). The gallery increased quite significantly in revenue, and we managed to create a few networking opportunities with craft markets in the UK by the time we left.

Artisan loom Mali
Artisan working on a loom
Unfortunately, whilst we were in-country, the political situation was deteriorating; Colonel Gadaffi was killed while we were there (he had a lot of support in Mali), and French hostages were being taken in the increasingly dangerous north of the country. We were banned from going into town on several occasions because it was too dangerous for a white person to be seen during protests, and the next cohort after ours was evacuated from the country when the military coup d'etat took place. This meant that International Service stopped operating in Mali for a while, as it was too dangerous, and all of our work was lost in the chaos.

  I still feel that ICS is the best thing I've ever done however. As we were the second cohort, there were a few teething problems that I believe have now been ironed out (team leaders are now there much longer, and language has become more of a requirement for example), but nothing that impacted upon my stay. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been given such an amazing opportunity, and it's definitely added a huge amount to my CV. I really felt like I was living in the community and giving something back to the country, which I hadn't felt when I volunteered before.

Baguineda, Mali

Bamako, Mali

There's a real sense of community within ICS, and it's such an amazing opportunity that I think everyone should experience! Don't expect it to be easy - you're out there to work and are expected to do so - but you have the opportunity to experience and achieve such a lot! I travelled, ate weird things, celebrated local festivals, and basically had an amazing three months! It's given me so many skills I use on a daily basis, and I really feel I have an increased understanding of International Development, which is something I'd like to look into further. I'm considering applying to be a team leader at some point in the future, as I'd love to develop the skills I gained through ICS.

It's something I'd recommend to anyone, and I'm glad the scheme is developing and growing bigger in the way it deserves to. International Service is now operating in Mali again, and although ICS volunteers are currently situated in Ghana, I hope that one day they return to Mali - there's such a potential to achieve there!

Eid al-Adhar in Mali
ICS Volunteers celebrating Eid al-Adhar

Children in Mali
Children at a local project

Ghana embassy in Mali
Embassy of Ghana

Monday, 8 September 2014

What is it like to live with anxiety?

Telling somebody you have anxiety always sounds a bit weird. "Oh, I'm anxious a lot too - it's rubbish, isn't it?!" I find it quite difficult to explain, even to close friends, but with mental health in the news a lot recently I thought I should give it a go. The more people who understand, the better.

When I was first diagnosed, I thought it was a physical symptom. I'd spent weeks not being able to breathe properly - every time I inhaled, I felt like I wasn't getting enough oxygen. I'd feel like I was breathing really shallowly, but be unable to take a breath deep enough to stop the feeling. It was always worse in the evenings, but at my worst it was there constantly for weeks at a time.

When I went to the doctor, she mentioned that it was probably anxiety, but wasn't especially helpful. It was whilst I was at University, and living in a student area, she was probably used to students being dramatic, panicking about exams, or putting it on to get attention.

There are different types of anxiety, and I suffer from Generalised Anxiety Disorder. This means that there's no real cause for my worries - it's a constant, low-level worry in my brain. I constantly feel guilty and stressed, but can't pinpoint a reason; I get frequent headaches, I go through periods of insomnia, and other of complete lethargy; I stress about completely inconsequential things, to the point where it has a massive impact on my life.

To give you an idea, here are the 'anxiety related' thoughts that go through my head on an average hourly basis:                                                   

"Oh crap, I hope I switched my straighteners off. I did switch them off, I checked. I'd better check again though...nah, I checked, I don't need to check again. Oh it won't hurt to check one more time...oh good, I did unplug them, I knew I did. NO you can't check again, you just checked! What if I didn't send that email last night. What if that customer didn't book on properly. What if everyone remembers the really silly thing I said 2 weeks ago! I hope I didn't offend anybody. Have I got enough money for lunch today? Did I lock the door? I might go back and check. NO. My friend hasn't text me back for a while, I hope they're ok. What if they're ill? What if they're cross at me and I don't know why? I should text them. But what if they don't want me to text them! Is the house tidy? What if the landlord comes in unexpectedly and it's a mess? I haven't cleaned the bathroom for a couple of days... Oh no, I left some washing up in the sink. Oh no, I've just remembered that really silly thing I did about 10 years ago - that was SO embarrassing! Did I switch my straighteners off? I've got a really bad feeling about something and I don't know why. I hope everything's ok! Did I remember to pay that bill? Let me just check - oh yeah, I paid it weeks ago, that's good. Do I have enough money for the rest of the month? I shouldn't have bought that new dress the other day, even if it was from Primark. What if everyone thinks I'm silly for buying something new. Ahh did that email sound silly? Did my friend take what I said the right way? What if I offended her by accident? I really didn't mean to, I should make sure she's ok with me. She hasn't replied, crap crap crap! Ok keep calm, phew she replied. It's all ok. Ah I just missed someone out of the tea round - I hope they don't mind - I'm sure they weren't sat there before! Ok I'd better get back to work,,,"

It sounds silly, and all the worries are really innocuous, but they take up a lot of room in my head, and I have a constant feeling of dread, guilt and worry in the pit of my stomach that I can't pinpoint to anything.                                         

To give you an example of how it affects my life, let me tell you a story from the other day.

My housemate was away for a few weeks, so I was home alone. I like my own company, and it doesn't bother me during the day or evening, but I get a bit jumpy as I'm going to bed. One evening, as I was going to bed (around 11.30pm) the smoke alarm made 3 random beeping noises. I froze in the hallway for about 10 minutes, waiting for it to do it again. Nothing. I walked up to it on my tiptoes - nothing. I sat down underneath the smoke alarm for about an hour, waiting for it to make another noise. My heart was racing and I felt panicky, and I didn't know why. The worst that would happen was that the smoke alarm would go off! I justified it by realising that my landlord (who lives upstairs) is very paranoid about fire, and so would panic if the smoke alarm went off.

I have no idea how I thought sitting underneath the smoke alarm would help, or why I thought it would be such a bad thing. I catastrophised it in my head, until it got to the point where it would literally have been the end of the world (in my head) if the smoke alarm had made another noise). I eventually text my Mum, who basically told me to stop being an idiot, and I forced myself to get off the floor and go to bed. I was on edge the whole night, waiting for the alarm to go off, and of course in the light of the morning, felt completely ridiculous.

Anxiety Comic
Of course there are varying levels of anxiety, and mine is relatively mild compared to a lot of people, but it's still something that affects my life. I can't explain to friends why such a tiny event becomes gigantic in my head, and I'll still be obsessing about it months later. It's getting worse as I get older, but I've always had it to some extent.

My brother and I used to share a room as children, and we had bunk-beds, and we always slept at the same end. If my brother wanted to swap ends for any reason, I'd make him go downstairs and tell my Mum in case she came in later and couldn't find him. In hindsight, this is completely ridiculous of course, but it's always been how my brain works.

How my brain works
It's never affected me too badly at work - if anything, it makes me a stickler for detail and means I work harder than most people. It does mean that, if I make a mistake or have a difficult situation to deal with, I obsess about it, and can't stop thinking about it until it's resolved. I will go above and beyond anything I need to do, just to alleviate the situation, and I'm constantly making mountains out of molehills.

I'm getting better at dealing with it - I recognise when I'm being ridiculous now, and even though it might take a while (as with the smoke alarm) I will eventually make myself stop being stupid, and at least remove myself from the situation, even if I don't stop thinking about it.

How can you help someone with anxiety? To be honest, you might not even know they have it. If you do, there are a few things you can do:
  • Help someone see how irrational they're being. Not in a mean way, but help them see it from a normal point of view and break it down, so it becomes a smaller even
  •  Recognise when someone is feeling anxious and ask if they're OK
  •  Don't get cross someone if they don't respond to you for a while. Chances are, they're doing battle with themselves about how to reply. and feel they may have left it too long and might offend you. Maybe text them again to see if they're OK
  • Just accept them. It's always going to be a part of how I think, and as long as it's not detrimental to my life, it's how I'm going to remain, so even if you think I'm a little odd, accept it! It's just me being me. :)