Developing a just society based on equity and equal opportunities for all with respect for diversity.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

How on earth did I end up here…..!?

As part of our end of placement ‘wrapping up’ activities, every volunteer – and Team Leader unfortunately – has to take a look at their ICS experience and write a case study on the benefits etc that we have received as a result of the scheme. Which got me thinking, my life would actually be a LOT different if it wasn’t for ICS, so I thought I would share it with you as my final blog post and farewell.

NB – I am about to go into some personal detail. But to all those parties involved I hope you understand that what happened, good or bad, has been crucial to getting me to where I am today. I hope you don’t mind. Oh and just FYI the pictures are a random selection of some of my favorites from throughout my ICS experience, both in India and Ghana.

                 Celebrating (playing) Holi in India                    
“When I am on the road or working abroad one of the standard questions people ask is, ‘So, what did you study?’ to which my reply is inevitably, ‘I didn’t’. This confuses people you see because it is generally accepted that in order to work in International Development or even – to a lesser extent – travel extensively you must have been to university and have a degree in some kind of theoretical practice. I however did not take this path.

I left college (high school) after three years with only two A-Levels in Business Studies and Photography. There are many reasons for my ‘failure’ during these years and I am willing to accept that 95% of them are my fault. I was lazy and thought the world would just give me what I wanted without me needing to put in that much effort. How wrong I was.
Gum Karaya Farmers
So leaving college, with no clue what to do, I simply began living pay check to pay check. This was a pattern that would prove to repeat itself in all subsequent jobs for about three years. Now I am not saying that this was time wasted, I learnt a huge amount and chalk a lot of my recent ‘success’ up to what I gained from those positions, but, there was always something missing. 
It was then that the catalyst moment happened. 
My parents went through a separation which can only be described as ‘messy’. I won’t go into personal details too much here but it was during this time that the following events happened (within the space of around 4 to 6 weeks):

- My Mother left and moved to London to live with my Grandmother.
- My Father went through some personal issues which ultimately resulted in him being taken into a care facility.
- Family finances went drastically downhill. 
Me and Barbara with the core staff at KOVEL.
I spent a lot of time over that summer dealing with all of these issues and at the grand old age of 22, I was made redundant from my job, probably as a direct result of this.
Life, you could say, wasn't all that rosy. 
As I am sure everyone reading this can appreciate, I finally snapped. I needed to get away and soon. I googled ‘Volunteering Escapes’ and lo and behold the International Citizen Service was one of the top results. I applied there and then and three months later was on a plane to India with Skillshare International. Little did I know when I started that it would change my life forever. 
Celebrating Damba Festival with Chief Inusa (middle)
India changed me in ways that I never thought it could. I arrived a fresh faced little lamb having never traveled outside of the EU (Florida doesn’t count) and left a different person. That country is nothing short of a continual and brutal attack to the senses and working in that environment helped to allow me to grow and gain some perspective on life and how much time I had been wasting living in a 5 mile radius of my house. 
'Practicing' with Din-nani Cultural Group
The organisation I was working for the, KOVEL Foundation, were incredible, they worked with local community farmers in order to assist them in developing their livelihoods from NTFPs (or to uninitiated, Non-Timber Forest Products). I met some truly inspirational people and I cannot thank them enough for allowing me the opportunity to work alongside them. I left KOVEL after three months with the aim of both, living in every continent before I die (Asia - TICK) and spending what little time I have on the earth to at least help one person to make a lasting positive change to their lives in whatever way I could.
Uniform donation presentation
So I came home and instantly hated it. I mean really hated the UK (sorry to all the nationalists out there, you know who you are). So I instantly started looking for the next step, the next experience, the next destination. When they say you catch ‘the bug’, they are not wrong.
I ended up applying to be a Team Leader with International Service and ultimately found out I was going to be sent to Ghana to lead with RAINS. So in June last year I upped sticks again and moved to Tamale and to new experiences. I would love to say that the last 10 months have gone quickly, but they haven’t. They have been tough, demanding, frustrating and downright annoying at times BUT they have also been eye-opening, educational, fun, exciting and downright excellent at others.
My uniform donation box 
I have learnt an incredible amount both personally and professionally and I like to think that I have made some friends along the way that I will keep in touch with for years to come (others perhaps not so much). My skill set has increased and I have done things I would never have even dreamed of before starting this job, things like, speaking in front of a group of strangers – including regional government ministers – and addressing them without even a hitch in my voice and developing long term, 5 year project concepts along with in-depth budgeting and monitoring and evaluation frameworks.
Before ICS, I could barely even speak on the telephone to a stranger without getting all clammy and nervous and quite frankly two years ago, I probably wouldn’t have even been able to tell you what that second point actually meant. I’m being facetious of course, but I’m sure you understand what I mean. 
Celebrating at an Islamic wedding
I have developed into a young adult with a solid understanding of international development policy, action and outcomes. It is through this knowledge and first-hand experience that I have decided that a much more effective way of enacting localised social change is through socially minded business. I have therefore decided that when I return home I will be looking to begin developing social enterprise skills and expertise with the ultimate aim of setting up and running my own social enterprise(s) in the not too distant future.
Running an agricultural best practice workshop.
Who knows where I will be in another 2 and a half years, but if the last 2 and a half is anything to go by its going to be an amazing journey. Thank you ICS & DFID, Not only have you helped me to personally develop but in our own small ways we have helped to improve the lives of the local communities which we have worked in.”

I am sorry that was so long but I hope you enjoyed the story. Maybe it will have inspired you to apply for the ICS programme (link in the top right of the page) and have your own story to tell at the end, or perhaps not, but If you are thinking of applying then I would give just two small pieces of advice - both of which I heard whilst on placement - that I try to live by every day:

“Don’t fight it, feel it.” and “Walk the road your eyes cannot see.”.

I would now like to take this opportunity to say a HUGE thank you to every single person that has given me this incredible life changing experience, especially to the following; My parents for imploding like they did and then for all the support they have given me since; DFID; ICS; Skillshare International; The KOVEL Foundation; Mr Rao; Martin Dorset-Purkis; Barbara Orth; INDIA; International Service; Patience Gamado; Rene Dah; RAINS; Hardi Tijani; The staff of RAINS; ALL MY VOLUNTEERS (the great and the good); Natasha Gell and GHANA. The impact you made to my life will never be forgotten.


Matthew Bell - RAINS Team Leader June 2013 to April 2014

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