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Puppetry of ethics

9 May

The decision to embark on an overseas volunteer journey was, for me, grounded in my idealist utopianism of wanting to change the world. Gandhi said it well i think, when he made the now famous quote “be the change you wish to see in the world”.  As far as I was concerned, I was going to make a difference!

Fast forward to the pre-departure training (or was that indoctrination training?).  The reality of being a volunteer within a broader context of “Australian Aid” became apparent.  Now this brought with it a new perspective on what it means to be a volunteer, with guidelines on how we are to act, what we can and can’t say, can and can’t do and so on and so forth.  A few of us volunteers did ponder from time to time why a right-wing neoliberal government would want to mass together 200 left-leaning young people and fund their travels and work overseas. We never did have the answer, but it did bring to light an interesting space where both were using each other for means that existed at opposing poles. The challenge I guess then became how does one navigate this space? Could I be guided by the ethics of both my utopian humanitarianism and Australia’s foreign aid policy? Were they compatible? Or would I need to simply become a puppet?

Perhaps the first opportunity to explore this question came from the pre-departure training. We were shown a video of the amazing ingenuity, creativity and resilience of the peoples of Bougainville during the blockade of their island home.  Things such as building electricity generators from old bulldozer parts and running cars off coconut oil.  I was so completely captured by what I saw that I later purchased a copy of the DVD so I could watch it again and share it with my friends and family. And this is where it got interesting.  For what I discovered when I watched the DVD again for the first time, was that the first half of the documentary had not been shown to us at pre-departure training. The half that showed Australia’s involvement in firstly taking control of Bougainville lands for mining, and secondly in providing military support to PNG to fight against the Bougainville “rebels” and instigate the blockade.  How very interesting, I thought. Where does the truth fit within my newly adopted ethics of Australian Aid policy? How would I navigate similar such spaces if they were to arise during the course of my volunteer position?

Six months into my twelve month volunteer position, I was  faced with this latter question, in what seemed to be an incommensurability between my own ethics and that of “my keeper”.  In fact twice before this moment the same challenge had arisen, and I had chosen the path laid out to me by the pre-departure training DVD.  But on the third occasion, my own now frayed and worn ethics could take it no more, as I struggled with the dilemma of exposing the truth or toeing the line as an Australian volunteer.  On this occasion, I chose the former. The response was swift, with my position being suspended along with a visit to the Australian High Commission for a ‘please explain’. And what was interesting about the latter was the sense of solidarity that came along with my disciplining. A feeling of support for what I had done for it was consistent with a truth, yet there existed another truth confined within the context of my volunteering that required my to be disciplined.

I can think of only cliches in trying to rationalize this dilemma…”the greater good”, “the necessary evil”, “biting the hand that feeds you”…but the question ultimately remains – How does a volunteer navigate the conflicted ethical spaces, particularly when the balance of power is not their favour?

Discoveries of self

6 Apr

What does it mean to “belong”,

do you need to have been their long?

What if the place where you were born and raised,

Only felt like it were a passing phase?

Could you still discover your true belonging,

Or would you be forever longing?

Does one even need to belong to a particular place,

Or can it simply be a familiar face?

Can you belong to a point in time,

Or even only within your own mind?

To belong do you need to be that same,

Like everyone else, not just in name?

What does it mean to belong?

After struggling my way through the previous 18 months of being a square peg in a round hole, I was happy to be leaving Australia. Not that my rejection of Australian culture was the sole reason I decided to become an overseas volunteer, but the search for something more meaningful than a commodified culture of people sleepwalking through life, the culture of my “home”, was an urgent need. The opportunity to immerse myself in a different culture, to give and to receive from something new, seemed too good to pass up.

Although I didn’t really know what I was looking for, I found it in Fiji and the Pacific. Cultures of solidarity, of community, of extended families where cousins become brothers and sisters and friends becomes cousins. Cultures where “where are you from” is more important than “what do you do” (And even then, the importance isnt because of establishing oneself in a vertical relationship with other through a hierarchy of village and towns, but rather establishing where one fits horizontally, with the possibility of being related to the other person, or knowing whether one should playfully joke with their “tauvu”). A culture where “I belong, therefore I am” was the motto, rather than “I have”, or “I consume, therefore I am”. I immediately let myself be drawn in, to be warmly embraced in something I didnt know, but something that felt like “home”.

However I also had another identity that I willingly accepted upon undertaking this journey – that of an Australian volunteer. Not quite an expat, obviously not a local. But somewhere in between, thanks to the volunteer label, which meant we possibly cared a bit more than the expats. It was a label I was happy to wear, because without it I wouldn’t have been there. But gee it wore thin, very quickly.  It was the push and pull of it – the pull of the beautiful new culture in which I was immersed, combined with the push of having to deal with the same old conversations about the best places to go to the beach, the best hotels, and the like…I couldn’t escape the fact that “Australia” came with the tag of “Australian volunteer”. I found myself not playing by the rules, whether they be unspoken social rules or overt volunteer policies (but thats a story for another time).

And so it was that I continued to be drawn towards another culture, other ways of being, other ways of seeing and organizing the world and relating with others. Yet I was still an outsider, the “other”. To see the passion of Pacific cultures, and desperately wanting to be a part of that, but still being on the outer. I remember having one Fijian activist look me square in the eye and with a mix of the history of anti-colonial struggle and the love of Pacific pride on her breath ask me what I could possibly know about inequality and struggle coming from my privileged white Australian background.  Maybe I could only ever be the outsider, face pressed up against the glass looking in, but never to be invited inside. Or maybe the spirit of Pasifika could reside within me, journey with me back to Australia to provide new colour to my “home”?

I was to find out the latter sooner that expected. December 5th, 2006; Fiji’s 4th coup. My phone rang, and I thought my friend was calling just to ask me out to lunch. “We have to go to Nadi. We’re being evacuated”, she said. My head was spinning with a mix of thoughts and emotions – “Why do we have to leave our friends and colleagues?” I wondered.  “Ah, my activist friend was right about the privilege white Australian after all.  When the going gets tough, the privileged get going. Shit. I will be Melbourne tomorrow!” Being in Melbourne I felt like an alien. I couldn’t look people in the eye. I felt like a book that had been put back on the wrong shelf. I was no longer a square pegs trying to fit in round holes because the holes had disappeared altogether. How could I feel this way about being “home”? Surely “home” would comfort me during this difficult situation. I couldn’t deal with it. Two weeks after being evacuated I bought a ticket and went back to Fiji. And I will never forget the overwhelming feeling that drenched me when I walked through the front door to where I was staying in Fiji – “I am home”.

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