Pictured: Brian delivering a talk about his experiences at last year’s Irish Aid Fair. Details of this years fair are here.
Brian Cranmer’s introduction to overseas volunteering came in 1998, when he volunteered in Ethiopia through the De La Salle Christian Brothers. He has since volunteered in countries including Kenya, Paraguay, and Uganda. Here he reflects on the importance of our Coming Home Weekend.
A year ago, almost to the day, I returned home from volunteering in Uganda. I had spent 2 years in the west of the country setting up a child safeguarding programme through the Catholic Diocese of Fort Portal. It was my third ‘long-term’ placement in Africa, having previously worked in Malawi (an AIDs Orphans project) and in Kenya (a street-children’s rehabilitation project). I have spent most of the last 10 years working with vulnerable children in Africa, and have in equal measures experienced some of the happiest and the saddest days of my life. For every healthy, smiling young face I can remember working with, I also recall a sad and lonely pair of eyes, windows on souls that grew old too soon, or never got a chance to live at all.
I had been aware of the work of Comhlamh for many years and I’d heard a lot of good things about the work they do with returned development workers and volunteers, especially their Coming Home Weekends. I was one of these guys who always told people he didn’t need help; none of that psychological support stuff for me; I’m well able to handle myself! But last year I just got tired. Tired of coming home from overseas again, all broke and wounded. I think after a while in life you realise that you just don’t have the resolve that you used to have. Friends have moved on; everything’s changed. But it’s not really about the years; it’s just the mileage.
I felt I should probably just go along to one of these weekends, really just to have a little bit of space and maybe meet a couple of other world-weary travellers who might feel a little like I do. And true enough I did; there were about 7 of us on the weekend, each of us with a lifetime of stories – many healthy smiles, many sad young eyes. And what I realised very quickly was that there was something in the souls of all of the people in that room that was just as lost and lonely as I was.
Grainne and Marie-Therese were the facilitators. And what did they facilitate? No psycho-analytical group therapy! No self-congratulatory pseudo-counselling nonsense! Nothing really … just space. They created this really cool space that we could relax in, befriend one another, talk about the work that mattered to us, to people who actually wanted to hear about it! They just calmly, comfortingly, created a little room for us to get together and find the courage to just be. It was lovely. I should have done it more often in the past. But I’m glad I finally got around to doing it when I did.
One thing I remember was an exercise where we were asked to write down a goal for the next six months; just a few objectives to work towards. Then Comhlamh would post our own letter to us six months later. Which they did! And I’d forgotten all about it. But when I got the letter, opened it, saw my own hand-writing from November 2014, telling myself what I would like to do to get myself back on my feet again here in Ireland after being so detached from it for so long, here in Dublin in May 2015, I just smiled. I ticked off what I’d achieved and took note of what I hadn’t yet. I never would have done this for myself. But that’s what I remember most; that Comhlamh cared enough to do it for me.
It was a great way of grounding myself in my new reality. But of also reaching out into the non-reality, the future, the potential, the road ahead. Just helped me to focus. I’ll always be grateful for that, cos I know that feeling of when you come home from far off places where the world seems to spin around a completely different sun, and the people you meet make you feel like you’ve travelled across time and space and you can never see your home again with the same eyes as you did before. And you don’t want to. Why would you when you’ve seen the things you’ve seen and done the things you’ve done and nobody here can understand you anymore, and you just want to go away again. Anywhere but here. Anywhere but home. Home is somewhere else now.
But it’s not. Home is everywhere. That’s what I learned a year ago, almost to the day.
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