Chipping away at the monolith.

I know a few people who do phenomenal things. One works in legal aid with minority groups; another spends half his time doing primary health care work in South Africa; another lived in the West Bank for nine months supporting Palestinian families who were made homeless by settlers, and organising non-violent resistance; and others work for the unions, animal rights / lib organisations, and so on. I dipped my toe into these waters in a not-very-meaningful way in Kenya, and hope to really take the leap once I’m qualified to do something useful. Making full time commitments to these things comes at a price, of course, and watching people do it, I suspect the only way it can be sustainable is through a very specific attitude. You cannot hurl yourself against the monolith.

I really think this applies to anything, any profession or lifestyle or activism that asserts an influence on your daily life. It wears you down, confronting the same issue on a huge scale every day. A friend of mine talks about this regarding climate change – it’s so huge, so overpowering, that it paralyses us. I’ve seen other people I know hit the same point in other areas, chipping away at a small section for years, then looking up at the thing for a moment and feeling totally overpowered, as though everything they’d done in the intervening years was meaningless because the monolith remained standing. You cannot, must not, look at your own work in that context.

Whatever keeps you up at night, it is crucial not to frame your own part in it as succeeding or failing based on your impact on the rest of the world. The best thing I did in Kenya had basically nothing to do with the program I was working in. I spent fifteen dollars on a year’s supply of Ventolin for the eldest son of one of the HIV+ women I was working with, which got his mother out of the position of choosing between a month’s rent and a trip to the hospital every time he had an attack. That was it. Nothing I did as a volunteer even approaches that for impact. The best thing I do now is organise with some friends to pay his high school tuition each year. I cannot “fix” Kenya or ameliorate the conditions which lead to the devastating impact of HIV in south eastern Africa, and it would be laughable, naive, and patronising of me to try. I can help put a sixteen year old through school. The education system itself and the crippling income inequality that would have denied him access to it are unchanged.  It is a small thing in a country of forty million. He is one person, part of one family who may one day depend on him completely, and it really, really matters that he goes to school.

Do not hurl yourself against the monolith. The wonders of the internet mean all politically aware people are at risk of the spiritual equivalent of the death of a thousand cuts. Do not devote hours of your day to reading soul-destroying articles on things you’re already well-informed about, unless you have reason to believe that they’ll contain new information which you can use to direct your actions in some meaningful way. Seriously. Don’t do it. Make careful decisions about what you really need to know. Find something at a scale where you can have a really meaningful impact, and chip away at it. Volunteer somewhere locally. Put the effort into finding a really good, preferably less well-known charity – two I’ve been really impressed with are the Fistula foundation and Interplast, both of whom do life-changing things for individual people. Edgar’s Mission  does life-changing things for individual animals.

By all means give to Amnesty and Oxfam as well, be vegan, post articles to Facebook, whatever you think is important in the grand scheme. I just think it can be really useful to balance that with something that feels like your contribution has a clear, well-defined impact on a smaller scale. Remember that all of these issues are fundamentally about hardships faced by individual people (or animals), and that you may be able to do far more for one or two of them than you will ever do for the masses. Knowing you’ve managed to help them personally may give you the energy to do more for other people. It can sustain you as well as them, and that’s important. You’ll be no use to anybody if you give up in despair because you can’t take down the monolith.


So you want to volunteer in Africa.

I’ve volunteered overseas twice now, and my second time in the Philippines was far more worthwhile than my first in Kenya. Kenya may have been the steepest learning curve of my life, and I don’t regret the experience I had at all, on a personal level. The point of the exercise, though, was to go and spend some time helping people. In that regard, I wish I’d gone about it very differently. It boils down to two things which I think anybody who wants to do this should consider very carefully.

1)     Find out where your money is going to go.

If you put “volunteer” and “Africa” into google, you will get pages and pages of companies in first world countries who will ask you for substantial sums of money to send you off to volunteer somewhere else. In my case it was a company in New Zealand, who had a NGO partner in Kenya, which sent us to the specific project. Some of my money went to the Kenyan organization, some of it went to the woman whose house I stayed in. A lot of it stayed in New Zealand. Not a cent went to the project I actually worked on, and believe me, it really would have helped.

If you’re thinking you shouldn’t have to pay anybody anything, think again. You’ll sleep in a bedroom which could be rented out instead. You’ll eat food, you’ll have showers, you’ll use electricity. You need to cover the costs associated with you being there. Paying more than that may provide funding to a project which simply couldn’t exist without it, or it may line the pockets of someone in your own country who’s making a nice living exploiting other people’s good intentions. Find out which. Look for small projects who take volunteers directly, they’re harder to find, but there are plenty of them. Don’t be fooled by nice websites and liberal use of the word “non-profit” by western companies – private hospitals are “non-profits” too, but they certainly aren’t charities. Call the organisation and ask detailed, direct questions about exactly where the money goes. If they don’t answer clearly, find someone else who does.

2)     Have a skill.

There are two things most poor countries are not short on: physical labour, and unskilled people with good intentions. If you have teaching skills, healthcare skills, if you can do accounts or fix computers, then you might be able to provide something that the community you visit doesn’t already have. If you go over there and build houses for free, there may be someone who could’ve been paid to build those houses missing out on a job.

If you’re already thinking about going for a while and you have skills which are really in shortage, think about applying for a job instead. There are some areas where having a relevant degree, especially a postgrad one, is more important than speaking the local language. You’ll also do a lot more good being one person in the same place for a year, than one of twelve people reinventing the wheel every month.

Regardless of what you can do or how long you want to go for, think very, very carefully about where you’re going, and whether they really need what you’re offering. Doctors Without Borders expect a minimum of two years post-qualification experience in healthcare before they’ll accept you as a volunteer. Unskilled or inexperienced people are just extra mouths to feed. And again, if you’re going to spend money to do this, think carefully about whether that money could do much more good going to a well-run NGO who can provide skills which you, personally, can’t. If you’ve just finished school and you’re about to get some skills, then take your gap year a few years late, and volunteer when you’ve really got something to offer.

This post owes something to Giles Bolton’s Aid and Other Dirty Business, in spite of the hyperbolic title, is a dispassionate look at the shortcomings of the international, national and charitable aid sectors. The author worked for UKAID for several years and illustrates the limits of the existing models really well. If you have an interest in aid and Africa, I really recommend it.

DAN: Women underrepresented in diving fatalities.

Note: apologies to divers, but I’ve tried to edit out or clear up most of the acronyms and jargon so this post is accessible to non-divers.

For non-divers: I’m going to refer to some skills and activities which are totally meaningless to you, but hopefully the general point is still clearly illustrated. A “reg” is the thing you breathe through on scuba, and your valves control the flow of air from the tank to the reg. “Tech diving” here refers to dives in caves, or deeper than 40m / 120ft, or involving decompression, which all involve much more extensive training than most divers will undertake. Tech diving is very male-dominated, and this training tends to be conducted in a way that intentionally places students under a lot of stress, which I believe is counterproductive. We’ll get to that later.

Divers Alert Network (DAN) have just published a pretty accessible report on 351 diving fatalities which occurred in Australia between 1972 and 2006. It’s unfortunately limited by my pet frustration: the lack of reliable data on the number of dives which actually occur. None the less, the results do illustrate some general trends.

A lot of it is pretty straight forward and has already made it into the conventional wisdom. One thing really shocked me which I don’t think is well known yet: 8% of deaths occurred on a course. PADI (the major international certification agency for recreational scuba) released a report a few years back which confirmed that Discover Scuba Dives (where an instructor takes an unqualified person diving for the first time) involve the most fatalities of any course, and the stat from the DAN report that 17% of deaths occurred on a first ever dive supports that. Clearly, though, quite a few people have also died while learning unofficially or teaching themselves. This is pretty scary, but it’s not what interests me most.

PADI reports that between 2002-2006, women made up around 33% of certifications. However, in Australia between 1996 and 2006, we were only 19% of deaths (95% CI: 15% – 23%; p<0.0001). We are significantly underrepresented in fatalities, and I think I know why. I’m reasonably certain it’s because we’re more willing to call dives off early. I’ve done it. I’ve had a problem with a valve before a night dive when I was feeling seasick: I stayed on the boat. I’ve had someone try to convince me I’d be able to get a 30kg set of tanks up a 6m ladder after a pier dive: I told them no. I stopped my cave course during the first in-water session because the instructor’s aggressive attitude was preventing me being comfortable performing tasks I would probably have been perfectly capable of doing with someone else. I’d already panicked on a tech course during a stress test at 40m, and I had no intention of doing it again. It achieves nothing.

All of this, I’m sure, has been seen by some people as evidence that I’m a wussy girl who can’t hack it and shouldn’t be involved in the sport. I’ve seen this attitude again and again in cold water diving and tech diving, in both men and women. Usually women who have been in the sport a while, who I suspect too concerned about proving how tough they are to the boys to recognise and admit their own limitations. The pressure to harden up and keep diving when you’re sick, cold, sleep deprived, hungover, injured, exhausted or stressed out is intense. The subtext is always that if you don’t want to risk breaking your neck carrying gear that weighs almost as much as you do up ladders or down hills, can’t do three 50min dives in 10•C water in a 5mm wetsuit after three hours sleep, or don’t fancy having your mask ripped off your face and your air turned off X times an hour every day for a week, you just shouldn’t be here. It’s sad, and more than that, it’s dangerous.

I’ve met other people, though, who recognise that nobody learns better under stress. Boot camp doesn’t work. If you want somebody to learn a skill so well that they do it automatically when they’re under stress, they need to learn it by rote when they’re not stressed. They need to get so comfortable doing it that when you do rip their mask off and their reg out, they don’t need to think about what to do. A panicking person will do whatever is most deeply embedded in their brain, and that will not be the skill you tried to teach them five minutes ago while distracting them with how uncomfortable they were. New divers shoot for the surface. When I screwed up my stress test at 40m and got myself out of air on my decompression course, I went for my instructors reg instead of my tank valves, because I’d only had the valves a day and a half. I can do a shutdown cycle using both hands in 23sec now, because I practiced it a whole lot in 5m with my mask on. By all means test people with masks off and regs out, but don’t teach them like that. Nobody’s learning anything when they can’t breathe.

It seems this idea is slowly gaining currency in parts of the tech instructor community – I once saw a very experienced techie write about “staying in touch with [his] inner chicken” and just staying out of the water when it didn’t feel right. I was taught my cavern course by two people who recognised the importance of all this. The rest of the community here seems to think they’re a bit soft, but swimming upstream and refusing to buy into the boot camp bullshit takes more courage, I think, than acting tough and hoping for the best.