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Volunteering is an amazing experience

Written by: Dutch VSO volunteer Nicole van Zurk, placed at Kapamagogopa Inc as an organizational development and resource mobilization advisor.

"Hey Joe', I hear when passing the banana vendors on my way to work. They call me Joe since they think I am American, because I am not Asian looking. The school kids ask me what soap I use, so they can buy it as well and become white as me. Very funny since I like to be tanned.

Since September 2006 I am a VSO volunteer working in the Philippines on the island Mindanao. As organizational development and resource mobilization advisor I work for Kapamagogopa, a Muslim sending volunteer organization. This NGO educates young Muslims with a bachelor degree to become peace weavers. After that they will be working in their own field as a volunteer in NGOs that work for peace and development. Since 5 centuries there is conflict and violence here in Mindanao. A lot of indigenous Muslim tribal groups are excluded of social basic services and development. Because of this and other problems, different rebel organizations have been set up, against which the national government is fighting protracted wars for a very long time.

My work is very interesting and my colleagues are very passionate in their work. Integrating is going well, and in case of cultural differences my colleagues and I laugh! Sometimes we have misunderstandings in the language. The word 'yes' is '0 0' or you just move your eyebrows. It took me a while to understand that decisions were made already during meetings, since I was waiting for a 'yes'. Now I look at the non verbal communication and facial expressions. I have learned a lot from the four women I work with: Mari, the executive director, Lalai, the project manager, Bebe, the finance officer and Girlie the finance and administrative assistant. Since the organization is very young, only set up in 2004, it is still looking for funding and publicity. I shared my skills in this field and one of the activities was to write a book on the significant changes made by the Muslim volunteers in the communities where they work. Together with my colleague Lalai I traveled to the communities where the volunteers worked to interview their beneficiaries. Traveling was not always easy, since most communities are in the rural area. They consist mostly of some bamboo huts, surrounded by rice plantations, banana trees and coconut trees. To me coming from Europe where we dream of blue sky with lots of sun and living surrounded by coconut trees, the communities look very idyllic at first. However, the inhabitants suffered from war and natural disasters. Their livelihood consists of selling rice cakes door to door or peel coconuts for richer farmers. To reach the beneficiaries to be interviewed for the book, we walked long distances through nature or sometimes rode a habal habal, the only means of transportation in these areas, a motorcycle that carries up to six people. Sometimes we had to be protected by soldiers, a very strange feeling. In Pantar, a small village, elections were being held, which often evolves in conflict and violence. The inhabitants did not feel safe at that time, so military camps were set up in the area. For our own protection, we walked between military on the way through mud and grass lands to the bean plantation of a farmer that we were going to interview. During our walk I was wearing a head scarf, long sleeves shirt and long pants, to not look too different between the Muslims. It was an interesting experience. The book is finished now and we are all proud of it, of all the changes these volunteers made.

My placement is now almost finishing and I feel like a split personality. It is really great of course to go back to the Netherlands and see my friends and family again after such a long time. But I know that I will really miss all the friends I made here, my colleagues, the fresh fruits, the excitement in my work and the beautiful country of the Philippines. Luckily nowadays communication is getting easier worldwide through internet, so I will be still in contact with my friends from here. I am sure that if I am back home, I will always remember my volunteering experience as a very amazing time of my life!

If you like to know more about Kapamagogopa Inc. you can look at: www.ki-volunteer.org

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