A career in humanitarian and international development means living away from home, in a variety of countries, through significant local, national, and global events. In this personal essay, Philippa Ramsden reflects upon her experiences and the many changes as she returns to Scotland having worked in six countries over the past 17 years.
I had no idea of the way ahead when I boarded a flight from Edinburgh one blustery afternoon in July 2000. I was clutching a one-way ticket to Kathmandu, a three-year contract with VSO Nepal, and a single suitcase bursting with enthusiasm and trepidation and crammed with what I perceived to be essentials for life and work in the Himalayas. A variety of toiletries, a sturdy pair of hiking books with suitably cosy woollen Scottish knit socks to visit volunteers and partners in remote Himalayan villages, water purification tablets, and 13 CDs. Desert island discs for a land-locked country, perhaps.
I arrived the following damp monsoonal afternoon in the city I would end up living in for approaching six years. I had only visited Asia once before, on the trans-Siberian rail route. This had been a gentle introduction to the new continent, each kilometre on the train taking me further eastwards, faces changing as we trundled through the steppe through Siberia, Mongolia, and southwards to Beijing.
My arrival into Kathmandu was very different. Three flights, via the Gulf, deposited me abruptly into the sub-continental monsoon as the light was fading into evening. Cows along the roadside, muddy tracks, and soft red brickwork painted a welcome scene in muted hues as I drove through the streets with my new colleagues towards what was to become my overseas life in development.
I was completely unaware that the original three-year contract would extend into a 17-year development and humanitarian career spanning work in Nepal, Mongolia, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Rwanda and bringing many lifetimes’ worth of humbling, enriching and challenging experiences and achievements working in communities, with families and schools and government ministries in conflict zones, remote tribal and herding communities and jungle waterway villages generally inaccessible to foreigners.
My return to Scotland in July this year was earlier than I’d planned. And although my rational self was well aware that reverse culture shock is very real, I have still found the changes here to be unsettling and surprising. These do not only relate to differences between Scotland and the countries where I have worked but – more acutely – between the Scotland I left in 2000 and the one I have returned to in 2017.
RETURN TO SCOTLAND
My return 17 years and a few days later than my original departure flew me in over a visibly altered landscape – one of windmill farms standing eerily like triffids, a pair of kelpies, three bridges across the Forth where there had been two, trams and tramlines in Edinburgh where there been planning and fiery budgetary conversations, a living parliament building at Holyrood, where there had been a temporary home at the top of Edinburgh’s Mound for the newly formed Scottish parliament.
Landing in Edinburgh, and attempting to resettle in this different Scotland, has shown that these changes do not have to be visible however, to bring a sense that today’s Scotland has moved on without me.
One of the most tangible differences relates to the revolution of digital communication. The mobile phone was becoming popular and affordable in 2000 when I left Scotland. This was not so in Kathmandu, where sim cards were restricted and expensive. We would mostly use landlines, and would have little credit card sized notebooks to log – in tiny writing – the many numbers we would need. The office I worked from had just acquired a mobile phone which rotated between senior staff, to receive out-of-hours emergency calls from volunteers, and to pass on urgent security updates.
These were the years of the Maoist insurgency in Nepal, and our aim had been to work in the most remote and isolated communities. However, this work became increasingly restricted as the conflict intensified. This on-call mobile phone was originally important so that volunteers or project partners could mobilise medical help if needed, or for us to pass on sad news from home. However, it became progressively more critical to receive calls about security incidents, and to communicate updates with volunteers.
Cows along the roadside, muddy tracks and soft red brickwork painted a welcome scene in muted hues as I drove through the streets with my new colleagues towards what was to become my overseas life in development.
However, particularly for personal calls, we didn’t really need mobile phones to call out, because there were PCO offices everywhere – the Public Call Office. For a few rupees a minute you could make your phone call. Unless that call was overseas, to Scotland, for example, in which case it had to be budgeted for and planned on a monthly basis since a short call to family could easily devour £40 – £50. Phone calls home were always rare and precious.
As the internet became more widely available, the internet phone call arrived. This was a wondrous development in reducing the cost to our operations. But in terms of calling home to Scotland, it made little difference because the dreadful quality of the call rendered the very purpose of the exercise futile.
Of course, this changed rapidly in Kathmandu, as it did in the rest of the world. Soon the mobile phone was as accessible and widely used there as it was in Scotland. In fact, it became quite the vehicle for social mobilisation for the numerous strikes, demonstrations, and even a few riots which took place during those years of the Maoist insurgency which coincided rather too closely with my own time there.
CONFLICT IN NEPAL
The armed conflict between the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and the Government of Nepal, was waged from 1996 to 2006 and aimed at overthrowing the Nepalese monarchy and establishing a People’s Republic. The conflict ended with the Comprehensive Peace Accord (2006), following a massive uprising against the monarchy and demands for a new democratic structure, constitution, and peace.
What this meant for my colleagues and I was uncertainty and flux. We had to withdraw gradually from the remoter districts as these became unsafe to work in. Plans would constantly change due to frequent strikes and attacks, and it became more and more difficult to work effectively. Indeed, we were plunged immediately into a communication black hole when King Gyanendra took complete power in February 2005. While we all huddled around radios listening to his speech announcing dissolution of the government, the army were storming all communications providers. He cut all mobile and landline networks, internet providers and took control of the newspapers in an effort to take complete control of political power and information and ultimately resolve the conflict.
We were living and working in an unpredictable and volatile environment. Riots at that time were controlled by curfew, lifted for an hour in the morning and another hour in the afternoon so that people could rush out to get food.
It was several days before we were able to let our families back in Scotland know we were alive and kicking. Although as foreigners we were not specifically targeted, we were living and working in an unpredictable and volatile environment. Riots at that time were controlled by curfew, lifted for an hour in the morning and another hour in the afternoon so that people could rush out to get food. During those morning pauses, we would head to the office, picking up food along the way and be under lockdown until the curfew was lifted later in the day when we could do the same in reverse. In the evening I would switch on the radio to listen to the BBC’s three minute headline slot broadcast at 9 pm on Nepali radio, only to find our precious news replaced by Celine Dion singing “My heart will go on”, and this indeed did go on for many evenings!
CHANGE IN MYANMAR
I was working in Myanmar with Save the Children as the programme’s Education Adviser working with teams in remote areas to develop early learning and development services when the smartphone appeared just a few years ago. This was in great contrast to the Yangon I first arrived in. My seven years in Myanmar started in June 2009, when none of us had any inkling of the sweeping changes which were ahead in the country. This was a Myanmar still very much under military rule, with Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, and all activities of foreigners and Myanmar citizens alike under close scrutiny and monitoring. Internet access was similarly restricted, and many sites would render an angry red “access denied” strip warning the user of their inappropriate surfing.
Settling into Myanmar’s largest city Yangon (formerly Rangoon), we were immediately back to landlines as mobile phones were very rare. Sim cards were restricted but could be obtained, through a highly complex and expensive process. They had newly been reduced in price, from an incredible US$2500 all the way down to US$1500.
Bizarrely, when I left Asia and moved to a new job in Rwanda in 2016, I was taken aback at the number of Nokia-type handsets which were in use – as radios as well as phones. These appeared to co-exist peacefully with the smart phone through some unwritten understanding. Returning to Scotland, the old handset is already an antique and seems to be almost cool in a retro kind of way. Eyebrows are certainly raised on seeing one and heaven help anyone whose phone emits a ringtone!
This was a Myanmar still very much under military rule, with Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, and all activities of foreigners and Myanmar citizens alike under close scrutiny and monitoring.
Another revolution which I find alarming is in television. I was brought up in a home in a remote rural location in Perthshire where there was no TV signal. When I did get a TV many years later, I witnessed the launch of Channel 4 and the introduction of daytime TV.
It was not long before my departure to Kathmandu when Channel 5 had been introduced. The winds of change had already begun to stir, as satellite TV, Sky and squariels arrived. Satellite channels introduced rather exclusive viewing practices with some programmes being available on subscription providing the basis for playground and coffee shop pretentiousness. I witnessed a rapid revolution of TV programming thanks to my annual visits to Scotland and limited viewing. Quite literally overnight, the few channels mushroomed into dozens and then hundreds from one year’s visit to the next.
In contrast, I had limited access to television while working overseas, mainly from choice and to a certain extent, taking the easier path. Understanding, let alone organising, TV packages seemed far more trouble than it would be worth as was evident in India when programmes abruptly stopped on my TV. Regular conversations with the landlady proved fruitless, and the TV providers unable to act on my own instruction. Bollywood movies, less than subtle advertising and slapstick comedy provided an energising backdrop rather than inspiring viewing so I found I did not feel compelled to try and restore viewing. I would, however, like to know where to buy those slippers that promised I would grow three inches taller. Television in Myanmar seemed to exist in two forms – very serious and formal news and official broadcasting, alongside Korean soaps and advertising with the lyrics highlighted karaoke style so that you could sing along. Renewal of the viewing packages was a highly complex arrangement which involved paying a shopkeeper in downtown Yangon, who then did the necessary transaction which restored viewing, mostly, but often not for long. Reading was a far more reliable entertainment friend, as evidenced by my overflowing bookshelves and Kindle.
I have now returned to an unrecognisable TV system. Who would ever have thought that you could record television without VHS or Betamax tapes, and even pause live TV, though I am sceptical about that. TV is now available to everyone, all hours of the day and night and most homes seem to have more TVs than residents. I also struggle with the new content of many programmes. Reality TV is a “big thing”, for sure, from competitions and talent shows through to the dizzying number of relationship programmes with less than subtle content. I find the levels of privacy and intimacy uncomfortably intrusive, and the dating and relationship shows seem to have no qualms about intimate scenes at all times of day or night with no need for an imagination or watershed.
This connects with the very different ways that we hear our news these days. When I left Scotland, the BBC and ITV put a little band at the bottom of the screen with their website address for further details or to pick up the stories. I find that we learn headlines and news events nowadays through Facebook feeds, Twitter, and tailored news alerts. I hadn’t realised how much this skews our view of news and current affairs until I saw the Brexit result and realised that dialogue and debate can be limited and narrowly restricted without us realising, through behind the scenes analysis of our search and online reading preferences.
Returning from decades of working overseas, where I was also an outsider no matter how well I was assimilated into my community, I find myself again an outsider.
In my early days overseas, it took effort to get our news. When I did have access to a TV, I could watch the BBC News channel as it played the headlines on an hourly loop. In Nepal, it was important to remember that the headlines came 15 minutes early, due to Nepal’s unusual time difference of 5 hours 45 minutes ahead of GMT. Our most reliable quality news in Nepal came through subscription to the Guardian Weekly, a paper godsend which delivered the top stories, analysis and features directly to our pigeon hole. The only flaw was the erratic postal process which meant that we would have weeks with no news at all, followed by the delivery of a glut of weeklies, which we would devour. Most distressing was receiving the copies in the wrong order and the dilemma this presented. To feed the hunger for news by reading the weekly digest, knowing that there were weeks missing or to continue the wait, knowing that there was news under your nose, ripe for reading?
I realised how much our immediate access to news was limited in September 2001. I was oblivious to the attacks on the twin towers until the following day, as I had been in a very remote village, with no electricity and in the company of volunteers and project partners. There was no unfolding of the story when we saw the news on a grainy TV screen in the corner of a tea shop on our way back to the district centre, as we struggled to absorb the full horror amidst the bustle of the morning. Nepal was in mourning for their royal family, after the shocking massacre only a few weeks previously in June 2001 and this news was very distant for the people around us.
I have also returned to Scotland to find that newspapers have shrunk and many traditional broadsheets are tabloid. However, I realise that I am conditioned to believe that the broadsheet/tabloid divide applies to content as well as size, so I find it difficult to know which ones to trust.
I am striving to adjust to shifts in social behaviours. While single cigarettes continue to be sold at traffic lights in Yangon, along with strands of jasmine, and copies of the latest government legislation, smoking has all but disappeared from public view in Scotland. However, for all our sophisticated developments, there is no easy fix to stop nicotine withdrawal and this has given rise to a new sight on the high streets – the ubiquitous and highly lucrative vape shop. And as these come into view, the cigarette seems to have disappeared, hiding behind little locker doors in shops and supermarkets.
I was also surprised to find that Scotland, the home of whisky, has experienced an apparent takeover by gin, ironically the epitome of exotic and tropical life. Gin is a “thing”, with numerous Scottish gin brands in fruity flavours, mixed with speciality tonics, garnished with seaweed and samphire and served up in newly established gin palaces and pubs. Bombay Sapphire is no longer the exotic gin, Edinburgh Gin is!
Another change which has confounded me, is the sophistication which is rubbish disposal. Recycling is not only a “thing” it is clearly a “good thing”. However, I have found myself unable to throw away a banana peel because the bin only has designated space for plastic, paper, or bottles. I also have had to wander out into the street late at night with a little torch to work out whether it is the blue, brown or black bin which is collected the following morning. And that is assuming I have put the correct type of rubbish in the appropriate bin.
I do sense that there is greater familiarity with development and humanitarian work, particularly as travel opportunities broaden and costs become accessible to more people.
While grappling to navigate these new waters, I have found that many folks in Scotland would strive but struggle to understand why I would work in such out of the way places. Initial curiosity would turn to confusion and eyes glaze over as I eagerly describe our strategic approach to engaging children in education, or how to wear a sari. My permanent return has brought an intensification of this sense of alienation and not belonging. My work might have been very different in its setting and context, but the issues and daily routines are remarkably similar.
Furthermore, I find that I no longer have important cultural references as news of local, lower profile and entertainment updates and events have not reached me. I was distraught to learn that Paula Yates had died, many years afterwards. My shock was not only on learning of her untimely death, but of the fact that this did not make the headlines and reach me. Socially, I struggle to understand conversations and am running to catch up with local issues and attitudes. There is no facility to speed-read the local press to gain an insight into the major concerns of a neighbourhood. Returning from decades of working overseas, where I was also an outsider no matter how well I was assimilated into my community, I find myself again an outsider. I had forgotten about TV licences and central heating, and am somewhat confounded by the disappearance of utilities offices in the high street.
Most of us working in international development do so to inspire change – change which will be sustained without our presence.
However, I do sense that there is greater familiarity with development and humanitarian work, particularly as travel opportunities broaden and costs become accessible to more people. The number of departures from Edinburgh airport has increased exponentially, with direct flights to places I have to Google to locate. While my own children went on school exchanges to Germany and the US in the late 90s, I now see that young people are travelling not just further afield, but that the visits have a broader purpose than the original school exchange. On my last flight from Edinburgh on my way to Kigali, I was sitting amongst a large group of school students all wearing identical t-shirts informing everyone in the airport at 4 am on a Friday morning that they were travelling to Kilimanjaro, Tanzania for a school building project.
So, what has changed really? The landscape, yes indeed, but the soil and roots have not and many changes are relatively cosmetic. The ways we communicate and socialise have changed enormously. While I struggle to follow conversations on the bus and am speed-learning the detail of Scottish affairs, I am lulled into a false sense of familiarity by the fact that Ant and Dec appear not to have aged a day in those years, and that a great deal of the soaps seem to have familiar faces and storylines.
Perhaps, most of all, I realise that I have changed. While initially struggling to find my niche, I am coming to realise that the newly returned “me” is probably an intensification of my former self. I have always been driven to work towards reducing inequity and inequality, promoting fairness and justice, eliminating disparity, prejudice, and discrimination. I have spent almost 30 years of my professional life doing so, and a few more in community activism from mother and toddler group days.
I am an ordinary little woman, and as I trundle around town and across country, my international story is invisible. A part of me wants to speak out about the work I have been involved in, the challenges I have seen, and the fact that so much can be achieved in the development and humanitarian sectors.
I overhear conversations on buses and am tempted to intervene. But I can’t quite pluck up the courage and share my stories of sitting in remote classrooms alongside first generational learners, children whose parents and often older siblings did not go to school, witnessing their eagerness to learn; of hearing and learning from teachers about their newfound confidence, skills, creativity and innovative approaches in their teaching; of hearing from parents and community leaders of their optimism about the future of their communities; of the conversations with government and ministry officials which have played a part in legislative and policy reform and the minuscule yet meaningful part that each of us has played in the teams which work to achieve this. I want to tell strangers in the street that when development and humanitarian aid is strategically planned, well managed and operating at different levels (from community through to national government), then it can and does make a real difference. Most of us working in international development do so to inspire change – change which will be sustained without our presence.
The person that I am on return to Scotland is especially fiery, having lived and worked intensely with people and communities who challenge me to step up in every one of those beliefs and values I hold, along with the community of international development and aid workers I work amongst. The Scotland I have returned to is one of challenge, optimism, and rapid change. I am eager to get back on board. This returning Scot and this new Scotland may have a great deal to learn from each other.
Philippa Ramsden graduated as a mature student from the University of Glasgow in French and Russian with a background in community development. She then worked in international development in Scotland prior to embarking on an overseas career in development and humanitarian work in the education sector. Over the past 17 years she has lived and worked in Nepal, Mongolia, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Rwanda as an education specialist before returning to Scotland recently. She tweets from time to time on @feistybluegecko
Feature image: Kigali sunset. © Philippa Ramsden