Wet, cold, a snake in the loo and a dog for dinner...but glad to be here

13th March 1998 at 00:00
Voluntary Service Overseas is 40 this year. But times have changed for the charity that once filled in the year before university for many idealistic 18-year-olds. The days of beards and sandals have long gone; now the organisation desperately needs professionals. But it is in the midst of a severe recruitment crisis; applications from teachers alone were down by half last year.

VSO has been in Vietnam since 1991, arriving almost two decades after the fall of Saigon and the flight of the last Americans from their beleaguered embassy. Twenty-three volunteers - many more are needed - now work in a country still suffering the effects of civil war. Jeremy Sutcliffe spent a week with some of the Britons


The boarding house at Lau Thi Ngai primary school is a bleak building, starkly fashioned out of mud and thatch. Inside is a trampled earth floor and, lining the windowless walls, a number of hard wooden bunks. It is here that, every night, 42 small children sleep, four to a bed. They have no blankets to speak of, no other company except the rats which live in the roof. None of the classrooms has glass in the windows; some do not have walls. This is just about as poor as it gets in Vietnam.

It's hard to believe that life could be tougher for young children; harder still to believe conditions have improved. But they have. Last year, the school got two new classrooms. Any day now, the boarders will receive a supply of blankets to keep out the winter chill.

Lau Thi Ngai is one of three schools in Bac Ha - a desperately poor district in a remote part of the north of the country - to have been adopted by Save the Children. The charity has joined forces with Voluntary Service Overseas in a project intended to introduce modern teaching methods to the area.

Leading the project is Graham Cameron, a 55-year-old former principal educational psychologist who took early retire-ment two years ago when his employer, Lothian Region, disappeared as a result of Scottish local government reorganisation.

Graham represents a new breed of volunteer that VSO - whose 40th anniversary is celebrated this month - is increasingly seeking to attract: he is highly-skilled with years of experience, as a teacher, primary head and psychologist. He is currently 18 months into a two-year placement, teaching students at Bac Ha teacher training college how to use group and project work.

It's a difficult task. At Lau Thi Ngai a third of the children suffer from malnutrition - the effects of a relentless diet of maize and food shortages which last for up to three months every year. It's not surprising many find concentration on their schoolwork difficult.

But abject poverty is only part of the problem. Most of the 500 day pupils and boarders come from three of Vietnam's ethnic minorities - there are 60 altogether - and speak no Vietnamese when they start school. They are mostly taught by teachers from the main ethnic group who often do not speak their languages. Inevitably, lessons are based on rote-learning; repetitious and dull.

These are the major stumbling blocks for Graham, who has to work through an interpreter. Even so, he is making good progress. The students have been working on a school garden project and a range of games - a Vietnamese version of "O'Grady says do this...", bingo and snap - to improve speaking and listening skills. The student teachers love it, and so do the children.

"One of the highlights for me is when you see the joy on the faces of the kids when they are doing something enjoyable as opposed to what they are used to doing. That's what makes it worthwhile," he says.

For Graham, his work - which has brought him to a beautiful, if poor, mountainous region near the Chinese border - brings immense satisfaction. But there have been many bad moments, including a close encounter with a deadly, five-foot snake in the college loo. There have been times when he has had no water, no electricity and not much food. Perhaps the lowest point was in the depths of last winter, after returning from holiday in Thailand.

"The weather was terrible. I was living in a guest house with no glass in the windows, the rain was pouring through, my bedding was soaked, my pillows were covered in mould. All my clothes in the wardrobe were mouldy. I was sitting in bed with an umbrella. For several days it was cold, it was damp and I couldn't heat anything. I had no radio, and no telephone."

But he never felt like giving up. Gradually, the project began to bear fruit and, after living for more than a year in a room with no windows, he now has good lodgings, with glazed windows, a toilet and hot shower.

"This is not a placement for every volunteer. It's for a very special young person - or an older person, like me, who's rather different from most."

And Graham is different. A long-standing Buddhist, who has been on many monastic retreats, he is used to solitude and doesn't mind being the only resident Westerner in the district.

His trip to Vietnam was prompted by a mixture of factors. His early retirement, the break up of a long-term relationship and the death of his parents all contributed. For him, volunteering was as much a search for personal fulfilment, as the desire to do something different.

Sometimes the differences are uncomfortable. On one occasion he was a guest of honour at a banquet: "We had five dishes of meat. I knew it was funny and said so to my interpreter. He told me it was pig. So I ate. The next day he told me it was dog. He knew if he'd told me I wouldn't have eaten any of it, and that might have been insulting. It's a standard banquet in Vietnam - dog cooked five or six different ways."

Such problems, however, have failed to spoil Graham's appetite for volunteering. With six months to go, he's considering another VSO assignment - this time teaming up with Oxfam - in the Mekong Delta. With his pension secure, he's not missing his annual pound;35,000-plus salary. He's happy to get by on a volunteer's basic of pound;100 a month. For him, at least, living on the breadline can be sweet.


Annelise Dennis has also sampled the wilder side of Vietnamese cuisine. Take, for example, the time she visited a snake restaurant. "I have to say it was a first for me. They slice the snake in half and prepare the meat. They drip the blood into the wine and you drink that. But also someone in the party must swallow the pumping heart of the snake.

"So they put it on this very nice little dish, pumping. And no one would do it except me, I can't think why. So I thought, OK right, I'm going to do the macho thing here. I just swallowed it in one. That was a first. You don't get that in Macclesfield."

For Annelise, who's 28, working as a volunteer in Vietnam is a far cry from her native Cheshire. In many respects her CV is typical of recruits to Vietnam, most of whom are female, and teach English as a foreign language.

She arrived two years ago in search of something new. After working in a commercial language school in Japan for 18 months, teaching small groups of rich kids, she suddenly found herself working at a run-down teacher training college, teaching 40 students at a time.

Much of her first year at Ha Tay junior teachers' college - in a large rice-growing district an hour's drive from Hanoi - was a real struggle. She found conditions difficult - working in dirty, ill-lit classrooms. But worse still were the restrictions imposed on her movements by the college, making it difficult for a natural extrovert like Annelise.

Things improved with the building of new classrooms. But the real turning point was when the college began to allow her to mix freely with her students' families. "For me they were the real life-saver and probably one of the reasons I didn't leave." Since then, she has established a new library, after single-handedly securing a British government grant - winning high praise from the college director. The college also has its own computer, a previously unheard of luxury.

Annelise, whose stint has just ended, will miss the many Vietnamese friends she has made. In particular, she will miss the endless questions. "I'd get things like, 'She's not married, what's wrong with her?' Because it is peculiar. Why does a young woman, 28, want to go and live in a small paddy rice village, away from her parents and friends for two years, on a very small salary in a damp little room? Why does she want to do this? And sometimes I'd start thinking, you're right, why am I here?" She'd not been at Ha Tay long before they discovered she had a boyfriend in England, an animator who makes TV commercials. Conducting a long-distance romance for the past two years has, she confesses, been hard.

"It's been very tedious. When I left we said look, we'll see what happens. I've been lucky, because he's visited Vietnam twice and we've met in Malaysia. I've also been lucky because he's paid for my holidays, otherwise I wouldn't have seen him. He's been very patient, but it's hard because you both have to be quite committed to keep it going."

Annelise now plans to take an MA in development work and film-making. For her, VSO has worked. She knows what she wants to do; there's no looking back.


Not everyone takes to the life of a volunteer. While many people find happiness and professional satisfaction, others fail to stay the course. In Vietnam, a quarter of recruits drop out before the end of their contracts.

Most expect to have to cope with basic living and working conditions. But not everyone is like Graham and Annelise. Periods of loneliness, frustration at not being able to get things done and - most commonly - disagreements with employers are common reasons for giving up.

While the average age of VSO's Vietnam contingent is 32, some are older. Among the half dozen new recruits presently going though a month's training in Hanoi are husband-and-wife team Brian and Lin Mitchell.

The couple decided to volunteer after Lin, 57, took early retirement from her job teaching English at a private convent school in Cardiff last year. Brian, who's 64, retired six years ago from his last job as a teacher trainer at Cardiff Institute of Higher Education. Both have wanted to work abroad for many years; last year they decided to take the plunge.

Any day now they will be heading for Pleiku in Vietnam's Central Highlands, where they will teach English.

Pleiku is one of those names engraved on the hearts of anti-war protestors. In February 1965, Viet Cong troops shelled a US compound there, killing eight Americans. The incident led to America's direct involvement in the Vietnam War for the first time and the start of a relentless bombing campaign. The area is still feeling the effects.

"The guide book says Pleiku's a terminally depressing place, shrouded in mist," says Lin. "Our expectations are not high, but we think they are realistic. There's a danger of coming here and expecting an easy life. But I think we have an advantage because we are a couple. People keep telling us we are brave, but I think it would be harder to do this on your own.."

Should others follow in their footsteps? There's no doubt that many will. Since VSO began life in 1958 (see box right), largely as a mind-broadening adventure for naive but willing school-leavers, expectations have changed.

Ironically, it is partly VSO's insistence on skills and experience that's led to a shortage of volunteers worldwide. Yet despite this it hopes to expand its operation. In Vietnam, there are plans to almost double the volunteer force to 40. The hope is that teachers will lead the expansion.


* David Essex (below left) I was VSO's ambassador for five years and travelled the world promoting their work. On one of my trips to Uganda, I was invited by the principal at Nkosi University to go back and do some teaching. So in 1990 I went over for four weeks and taught music and drama.

Africans are natural story-tellers. They would come up with the ideas and we would talk about them, develop them and put them on as plays. We also did Godspell. It's the kind of show where you don't need fussy sets, just some planks, boxes and a wooden crate for the crucifixion. We did three nights at the National Theatre in Kampala and it was a great success. We also did versions of it in towns, villages and on the campus.

I also coached football on Friday afternoons. When I was a schoolboy I played for West Ham, and still play with my twin sons, Bill and Kit (who play for Fulham boys). The Africans have wonderful, natural flair, but they lack coaching. But it's only a matter of time - football's future is in Africa.

Doing VSO is a great experience. You go to teach, but you learn so much more. For me, what was wonderful was the insatiable appetite for learning. The relationship we built up was extraordinary. On the day I left some of the students - to my embarrassment - walked for eight hours to say goodbye at the airport. Most of them are teachers now. I still get letters.

During my time as VSO's ambassador I came across that commitment time and time again. I have seen maths lessons taught in the dirt because there was no blackboard, and the pupils have hung on the teacher's every word.

* Michael Brunson (below right) It was 1963. VSO was just starting up in a big way with graduates. I had a traineeship with the BBC, and it sponsored me to go as a volunteer to Sierra Leone.

I had not been on a plane before; in fact I don't think I'd ever left the country. Suddenly I found myself in a place known as the White Man's Grave, with 200 inches of rain a year and 100 per cent humidity.

It was a startling experience being catapulted out of Oxford to teach in an old colonial building in Freetown. I taught eight to 12-year-olds, but came back after eight months when my father died. I never went back and still have a conscience about the kids I left in the lurch.

I think VSO helped me more than I helped them. It is a pretty stiff test, teaching without proper textbooks in those conditions. But I think the changes VSO has made since then are right. I think the old way of sending out a well intentioned generalist was not the most useful thing to the countries concerned.

I am glad I did it. With unerring logic the BBC put me in its African service. I also did some broadcasting while I was in Sierra Leone. So in that sense it helped me in my career.

David Essex is a pop singer and actor (Star of the musical Godspell and films That'll be the Day and Stardust)Michael Brunson is political editor for Independent Television News

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