Real poverty in west Africa: why I quit the bank for an NGO post
Two weeks cutting silage on the family farm in Co Clare was a break from the mental strain of NGO work in Africa
I had been working in AIB in Dublin for two years when myself and a colleague got itchy feet. It was 2001, I was 25, and wanted to travel. Both of us were up for a challenge, so we took a two-year career break to spend 12 months volunteering with a small NGO in Delhi, followed by 12 months in an orphanage in Uganda.
The simplicity of life in both places really appealed to me. The bank was all about profit – making money for people we didn’t know – but the young people we volunteered with just wanted to go to school.
Seeing such a basic need denied to children, and realising we could do something to help, changed our perspective and priorities.
We both decided not to go back to the bank. I joined Goal and my colleague Eoin Wrenn joined Trócaire, where he still works as sustainable livelihoods adviser. I spent 3½ years working in the Congo, followed by Niger and Darfur, before returning to Dublin to join Plan Ireland as head of programmes in 2008.
When the role of deputy regional director for west Africa arose last year, I was eager to get back into the field. I flew out this January and have been based in Senegal since, though I travel a lot between the 12 countries we work in in the region.
I spent June in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, where a huge number of people have been displaced because of the war in northern Mali. I spent the time ensuring children’s rights to education, health and safety are being met by the Plan programmes already in place, and assessing what further interventions might be needed. I also met with the minister of education in Mali, the sultan of Dosso in Niger, governors , UN representatives and local community members to discuss what role they can play. The aim is to provide guidance, training and basic resources so they can take ownership of the situation for themselves.
I grew up on a farm in Co Clare, and I usually make two visits home every year to coincide with the busiest times on the farm – between late February and April when the sheep are lambing; and again in summer when the silage has to be cut, sheep sheared and sheds cleared out. I have a sister in Australia, but my four brothers are still living around Clare and we are all called in to help my dad during these busy periods.
I was home for two weeks at the beginning of July. We sheared more than 200 sheep, cut the silage, and weaned and dosed the lambs. My work in Africa is more mental than physical, so back on the farm, although the work can be hard, I can give my brain a break.
Things I miss most
I have spent about seven years overseas in total, so I am used to being away from Ireland. But every time I head to the airport after a trip home, I still get that lump in my throat.
My nieces and nephews are getting bigger and bolder, the ones who couldn’t walk are running, and the ones who couldn’t talk are saying things they probably shouldn’t. Those things I miss.
I sometimes get disheartened when I’m home and hear people saying we shouldn’t be giving any money to developing countries, that we need to be looking after our own first. Ireland relies a lot on funding from the EU and investment from other countries.
Although things are tough for many people in Ireland at the moment, mothers aren’t holding babies dying from starvation because they have no milk to feed them because they are starving themselves, and children aren’t forced to survive on animal feed due to desperate food shortages. That is poverty.
There are times when you wonder whether you are making any difference at all, but when you meet the community and hear stories of young girls who have been able to stay in school instead of been forced to marry at 15, or children with disabilities being encouraged to participate in normal community activities instead of being locked away, it makes the hard work worthwhile. We can’t save the world, but at least we are doing a bit for those we are able to reach.
I told my parents I was going to Senegal for a year, but I think I will be here for three. I’ve never had a long-term plan, so I will have to wait and see what the path in front of me throws up – if it seems interesting and exciting, I’ll go for it.
In conversation with Ciara Kenny