‘The Volunteers’ is the first Intertel documentary to be made in colour. It will be seen on the ITV network on January 9 and it tells the story of Volunteers Overseas by tracing the progress of four volunteers (two are pictured above left) from this country to Malawi. This article is by sue turner, the researcher.
Two hundred and nine million pounds is a lot of money, but that is what Britain gives away every year in aid to countries that are classed, in the politeness of diplomacy, as ‘underdeveloped’ [£5,600,000,000 in 2020 money, allowing for inflation]. Is it a waste of money, or enlightened self-interest? Well, the next war, the pundits are fond of saying, will be between the haves and the have-nots. That means it will be a race war. Because we, the whites, the West, the developed countries, have; while the blacks, the browns, the yellows, the underdeveloped nations, have not. They haven’t got schools, houses, hospitals, factories, or viable economies. Many of them haven’t got food, or clothes or shoes either.
This year alone the British taxpayers gave £9½m [£178.5m] to one tiny African country. Four million people live there – that’s £2 6s. 3d. [£2.31¼ in decimal, £43.50 after inflation] for every man. woman and child in the country. In fact, we paid nearly a third of the country’s whole budget. Yet most of us have never even heard of it . . . Malawi. It used to be called Nyasaland. Its main claim to fame is Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the fiery, pragmatic President who is known to his people as Ngwazi – the conqueror.
Malawi is much the same size as Britain. It has no coastline, very little industry, and very little to sell except its scenery and its labour. It has only been independent for three years. It has the same massive problems as its newly independent neighbour states, but it hasn’t got any copper, or gold, or diamonds, or indeed any other natural resources apart from the treacherous and beautiful lake that covers one-third of its total area.
Malawi isn’t typical of emergent Africa, or underdeveloped countries in general. Nothing, after all, is typical of anything but itself. We went there to make a documentary called ‘The Volunteers’ for many reasons. Specifically we went because there are a lot of volunteers there, because it is a very beautiful country, because it is relatively stable, so volunteers don’t have to worry too much about politics and can get on with their job. And we went for vague reasons, emotional reasons… Malawi is the land of Livingstone; it is almost legendary in Africa for the friendliness and vitality of its people; and, of course, there haven’t been too many films about Malawi, and there aren’t too many preconceptions to be destroyed.
To grow, even to survive, Malawi must have money. And to a large extent, she’s getting it. But she needs something else as well. People are needed who can do and teach others to do the things that Malawi hasn’t had time yet to learn for itself. And people are more difficult to find than money. It is a lot less trouble to write a cheque, send a donation, put money in a collecting box than to go out and spend time helping someone. And it’s pretty easy to kid yourself that it’s just as effective. But without people, all the money, and hydro-electric schemes, and pre-fabricated hospitals aren’t a lot of help. Like the other underdeveloped nations of the world, Malawi simply hasn’t got the people to do all the things she needs to do and, however fast she trains them, she won’t have enough for some time to come.
Luckily, there are people who want to help. Half a century ago they would probably have gone off to bring order, religion and education to the natives in some corner of the Empire, and, if they were lucky, make a comfortable fortune while they were at it. But these days you can’t simply turn up in Bangalore or Bangkok and say: ‘I want to help, tell me what to do’. You stand more chance of ending up broke and in need of repatriation by a long suffering British consul, than you do of carving a fortune out of virgin jungle.
In 1958, a man called Alec Dickson realised that there were people desperately in need of help and people who wanted to help them. But there was no satisfactory way of getting the two together. So, largely through personal contacts, he organised cheap (and sometimes hair-raising) passages for 18 young people to various far-flung corners of the world. Most of them were school-leavers, without any formal qualifications beyond a few A-levels, good health, and a willingness to turn their hands to anything. Surprisingly, they made a good job of what they went out to do. They made friends too, and other people and other countries began asking for similar young people. When there are only a handful of graduates in an entire country, even a year’s help from an 18-year-old with three A-levels is valuable, especially when the 18-year-old is working for little more than his keep.
From that engagingly amateur start in 1958, Voluntary Service Overseas has blossomed into an organisation which this year sent 1,400 young people to 60 countries. They are no longer just school leavers. Now two-thirds of them are graduates and qualified volunteers, nurses, teachers, agriculturalists, foresters, engineers. They go for one or two years, and V.S.O. (with substantial help from the Government) pays for their recruitment, selection, training and passage. Board, lodging and pocket money comes from the host country. Although they volunteer, they are not altogether free for they can cost their new bosses as much as £600 a year. The fact that they continue to be asked for in growing numbers is some measure of their value.
V.S.O. was the first but it is not the only organisation which sends people rather than money overseas. There are half a dozen more in Britain alone, and Canada, West Germany and France are among the other nations to have similar programmes. But perhaps the most famous volunteer organisation to follow in V.S.O.’s footsteps, is the mammoth Peace Corps of the United States. It has around 14,000 members working in 46 countries. In fact, it is difficult to go to an underdeveloped country without tripping over some kind of young volunteer for there are more than 20,000 of them scattered about.
There are two ways to begin any comment on ‘young people’ or ‘the problems of the younger generation’ these days. One talks about hippies and drugs and flower people. It is sensational and generally disapproving. The other usually goes something like ‘not all young people are idle layabouts or paranoid delinquents, many ordinary young people today are doing worthwhile things, making sacrifices . . .’ and what follows is generally admirable but boring. But doing something worthwhile and ordinary is not boring. Especially if being an ordinary engineering apprentice, an ordinary school leaver, an ordinary graduate, means opting into life – not out of it. And if it means opting into a dramatically new kind of life, on a different continent, rising to a whole set of challenges that could never have existed in Bath, or Bognor, or Bootle.
It is often the simple questions that are the most difficult to answer, and ‘why did you volunteer?’ is the simplest of questions. ‘It seemed a good idea at the time’, is the usual answer. But the reasons why it seemed a good idea appear to be pretty varied. ‘I wanted a break from learning before going to university’, ‘I wanted to travel’, ‘I’ve had so much. I wanted to give something back’, ‘I wanted to see what it’s like in a coloured continent’, ‘If you can’t be idealistic at my age you never will be’. ‘I was fed up with books. I wanted to use my hands’, ‘I wanted to see how England looks from a few thousand miles away’, I wanted to see – to go – to do – to try . . . It all comes down to a restlessness: the urge to try their own wings, make their own mistakes, take responsibility: to be themselves in a way they never can among people who know them, in the place that they call home. It’s an attempt to see the wood through the trees.
Malawi has 70 V.S.O.s, about twice as many Peace Corps, and assorted French, German and Canadian volunteers as well. Some of them are doing glamorous things – working in hospitals or schools buried in the bush in the Livingstone manner, killing snakes in the rainy season and boiling their drinking water. But most of them live more comfortably and are fighting another kind of battle, trying to bridge a gap several thousand miles and about 60 years wide. Slowly and patiently they are teaching people about the twentieth century. They are not missionaries or do-gooders, for V.S.O. tend to reject the starry-eyed idealist. They know the path to failure is often paved with good intentions. It is an accepted cliché at V.S.O. headquarters that returned volunteers will invariably say: ‘We got a lot more out of it than we were able to give’. They have given their time, their education, and their enthusiasm. They have filled a gap. and possibly helped to bridge one. They have learned tolerance and patience; they have lived in a civilisation and culture radically different from their own. and they have begun to see, as a matter of personal experience rather than intellectual recognition, that there are many sides to every question. In the process of teaching others to grow, they have themselves grown up. Who is to say which side has learnt the most?