What It Is

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

I have to write three things today. First, I’ve got this column. Then a column discussing privacy issues in an online world. Then I have to write a farewell letter to someone who’s shared my life for the last year and a half.

My friend is only one of thousands of admirable people from nations all over the world who have devoted a part of their lives to making Vanuatu a better place. For the most part, they labour quietly, preferring to draw attention to Vanuatu’s development than to themselves.

Yesterday was International Volunteer Day, so I thought I’d take this (belated) opportunity to let you say thanks.

Every 4 years or so, in a cycle that seems to align nicely with our political ebb and flood, the issues of Melanesian values, self-determination and outside interference come to the fore. Sometimes they’re prompted by a particularly bone-headed move by an expat assistant who’s long on enthusiasm and short on sensitivity or tact. Sometimes it just springs out of the ground overnight like a mushroom on mud.

People complain about insensitivity, intrusive behaviour, lack of respect or failure to show proper deference. Generally, there’s something to it. Because Heaven knows that out of every 100 people you’re sure to find at least one jerk.

But today, I don’t really care about the failures. Let’s leave the jerks aside, and look at the effect of the 99 others who made the decision to live and work in Vanuatu in order that everyone’s lives might become a little better.

I’ve got to confess that I have a certain sympathy for development workers in general and volunteers in particular. I’m not sure where the lesson came from, but early on I decided that there is nothing more important – or rewarding – than being useful to others. And I’ve spent a fairly significant fraction of my time trying to live up to these words.

So I can’t help but be impressed when I see doctors, lawyers, teachers, business experts and people from a dozen other professions put aside their lucrative careers for months or years on end for no other reason than to help. I can’t help smiling too, when I hear them utter the same naive expostulations I did when I first arrived, lo those many years ago.

And I can’t help but feel satisfaction when I see one more project come alive through their efforts.

I’ve seen these people hospitalised by illness and injury, victimised by violence, frustrated by their environment and, occasionally, defeated by the challenges they faced. Their patience, forbearance and adaptability are often tested to the limit by circumstance. In rare cases, it’s cost them their life.

Sometimes they fail. Sometimes they don’t emerge from it as gracefully as they might have done. But some of them succeed. Some of them keep doing their job; they keep learning with every new day, working to improve themselves in order that their work can improve others.

The people I admire most are ones who stay, the ones who don’t run away, the ones who keep their head down and their voice respectfully low, while at the same time encouraging others to lift their head and raise their voice.

The ones who think carefully about change, who accept that sometimes the best you can do is inform the captain of the shoals ahead then stand by and hope.

The ones who have learned the language well enough to feign ignorance when someone says something uninformed or offensive. Those who can understand when they’re being told to shut up and when they’re being encouraged to speak. Those who are willing to express the new idea because they’re the ones who can.

If I’ve learned nothing else in my years working in the grassroots here and elsewhere, I’ve learned what devotion is. I’m not saying I have it – at least not all the time. But I know it when I see it.

It can be very hard to see at first. I sometimes cringe when I overhear a thoughtless comment, when I witness what passes for human foible elsewhere but is not acceptable here. I cringe more when I know a situation has become unsolvable, or a person is irredeemable.

But human folly is an equal opportunity sport. It’s no more determined by race, sex, culture or creed than any other human attribute.

So today I choose to celebrate the quiet workers, the people who allow others to take credit for their accomplishments and ideas, because that’s what voluntarism really means. The people who accept that misunderstandings will happen, and spend every hour of every day working to bridge the gap between cultures, who navigate on both sides of the gulf of misunderstanding, who devote countless hours to no other end but making sure that others profit, though it profits them nothing.

You won’t find these people unless you look for them. You won’t see the effects of their work unless you pay attention. You won’t know what you got from them until they’ve gone.

Because that’s what volunteering is all about.