Culture Shock

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Culture Shock by Andy Buhler, CUSO, 69-71

A number of our little group of West African volunteers had already decided, by December, that they could not function under conditions in which they found themselves. Despite all of that rigorous psychological testing, and those traumatic deselections made back at Orientation, several discouraged volunteers who got to West Africa should have either been better prepared, or been deselected, earlier. At least two couples became totally traumatized as soon as their plane landed on the tarmac in Nigeria. Some spouses actually broke into tears as soon as the heat and the smells hit them. All of those idealistic plans, made back in the security of Canada, seemed quite untenable here. Frustrations increased and depressions started developing as the months went by. There were breakdowns. There were also volunteers who just threw up their hands, said enough is enough, and went home. Whether it was the heat, the strange illnesses, the limited supplies, the unavoidable delays for everything we requested, the scarcity or absence of supplies that were required for us to function, the apathy -- something, maybe almost everything, was affecting our members. Culture shock, which had started to insinuate itself into our psyches ever since our arrival, grew and became a real force to challenge our health.

It was my understanding at the time that our group’s attrition rate in that first year abroad was 16%, the highest loss CUSO had ever had. Still, there were exceptions. Many rallied and found or created a rewarding niche. Most of those volunteers were people trained to work with people, volunteers who did not require the trappings of Western technology to perform their duties. A few became quite creative. They worked around what most of us perceived as deficiencies. They thrived in their posts. Some even extended for an additional year.

Unfortunately for me, I was one of those who ran into several difficulties. Although I persevered and stayed in Nigeria for my full term, I was not always a happy camper. My posting required me to function in a technology-dependent environment. I needed specialized equipment. I needed laboratory supplies. I needed students who had not materialized because the construction of the training facility in which I was to teach had not yet been started. Perhaps I whined and protested too much. However, what can you expect from one so young, so idealistic, so naive, so far from home? In my relatively recent lab training it had been drilled into me that medical laboratory technology required controlled and standardized techniques, that reliable equipment and supplies were vital, that lives could hang upon the results of my tests. Perhaps, in truth, I should have been one of those deselected at Orientation. Perhaps I really didn’t belong here.

But I stayed. GH, a fellow cooperant from Orientation who was posted to Ghana, helped me maintain both my sanity and my rather cock-eyed outlook on Life, the Universe, and Everything. He had his challenges in Ghana but he attempted to overwhelm them through humour. Although I could not compete with such classics as his Memorandum or his Soccer Success for Volunteers, I was stimulated to try and mimic some of his techniques. I wrote frequent letters. I wrote a few poems and descriptive travel pieces. I wrote more creatively demanding memos to CUSO. I even tried to reach out to volunteers in the field with a nonsense newsletter called the Groundnut Gazette. I found disappointments could be disguised with droll humour. Catastrophes could be captured with light cynicism. Writing cleared the mind.

Despite all my whining, complaining, and general carrying on, I actually really enjoyed Nigeria. There were roads to travel. There were sights to see. There were challenges to surmount. There was this whole different culture to explore and to absorb. Certainly, I had down times. Those can occur in any position, and in any country. Situations continued to surprise me. Small victories arose out of the many large defeats. Days passed. Weeks turned into months. I was still there. Still trying to make a difference.

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