Volunteering in developing countries is an adventure from beginning to end

Slovak Jozef Baňás spent 12 months volunteering in Georgia.

Jozef BaňásJozef Baňás (Source: International Center for Peace and Integration (ICPI) Georgia)

Jozef Baňás spent the past 12 months volunteering in Georgia. Benefiting from the organisational support of his sending organisation, ADRA Slovakia, and the SlovakAid grant for volunteers in developing countries, he grabbed the opportunity to make his contribution to the world, while enjoying the beauties of Georgia. What challenges did he have to overcome? And how did pandemic influence his activities?

ADRA Slovakia (AS): Jozef, you have recently returned to Slovakia after a year in Georgia. What were you doing there?

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Jozef Baňás (JB): I was volunteering for an organisation called International Center for Peace and Integration (ICPI) Georgia. This non-profit organisation focuses on projects related to personal development, ecology, peace, migration and working with internally displaced people. ICPI specialises in projects implemented through the Erasmus+ programme, pairing volunteers from countries experiencing a military or political conflict, such as Armenia – Azerbaijan, Armenia – Turkey, Turkey – Greece and Russia – Ukraine. The volunteers are supposed to get to know each other in a peaceful, friendly atmosphere, gain an understanding of the counterparty and learn to cooperate.

AS: Truly beneficial activities, especially these days, when some of these conflicts are intensified. What motivated you to move to a less-developed country and dedicate your time and energy to such long-term volunteering?

My strongest motivation was adventure. Volunteering in developing countries is an adventure from beginning to end. Gradually, my work tasks in Georgia became a bit stereotypical, but the COVID-19 situation brought new challenges. Secondly, I was also motivated by a lack of opportunities to find a satisfying job on the Slovak labour market.

AS: Was this your first volunteering experience?

JB: No. Before Georgia, I spent 10 months in Armenia as a volunteer through the Erasmus+ programme. I also hitch-hiked through Europe, volunteering at hotels, farms etc.

AS: Why did you choose Georgia this time? Was it your dream or a coincidence?

JB: This specific project seemed very interesting to me, but the country as such is definitely worth visiting too. There are beautiful mountains (over 5000m), the Black Sea coast, hospitable locals. In the springtime, you can spend the morning snowboarding in the mountains and finish the day sunbathing or even swimming on the coast with a temperature of 25°C.

AS: So you were obviously not bored during the weekends. What did your usual working day look like, though?

I spent the days at the office communicating via email and searching for partners and beneficiaries for our projects. As I have some experience in video editing and graphic design, I helped my local colleagues with videos and graphics for their project needs.

However, the days of in-the-field activities were never the same. My responsibilities included management, materials logistics, activity preparation, photography, video-making and time management.

AS: How did you get used to the local culture and different working habits?

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JB: As I previously lived in the Caucasus region and the culture of the respective countries is very similar, I was already used to the local specifics. However, time perception was the most challenging for me. In Slovakia, everything has a precise schedule, such as bus timetables. In Georgia, the bus leaves the station when it becomes full.

AS: March 2020 turned everything upside down in Georgia as well. How did the pandemic affect your volunteering activities and life in Tbilisi? Were you considering coming back to Slovakia?

All our project activities were postponed. Life slowed down; suddenly, there was nowhere to hurry to, nothing to be stressed about, fewer responsibilities. I was searching for at least something to do. In March, I considered coming back, but I decided to stay. The numbers of COVID-positive people and the prognosis in Slovakia were much worse than in Georgia, where the numbers of the infected remained low thanks to the strict measures of the Georgian government. They even closed big cities and banned public transportation for some time.

I really wanted to prolong my deployment to be able to devote 12 months to volunteering as initially planned. Unfortunately, it was not possible.

AS: You prefer sharing cheerful stories and observations from Georgia. Can you choose one funny tale?

JB: In August, our holidays had started. I decided to hunt for an adventure in the countryside where tourists didn't go much even before COVID times. When I asked locals for directions or where the nearest store was, they were terrified at first. They thought I was an infected tourist from abroad and asked me when I arrived in Georgia. “A year ago,“ I said. We became best friends immediately.

AS: On the other hand, did you experience feelings of frustration?

JB: Time management was the greatest frustration for me. A half an hour or even an hour-long delay was considered normal. At the office, we officially started working at 11:00, but no one arrived at 11 except me and my German colleague. Others arrived between 11:30 and 12:00. Then we sipped on coffee for at least an hour. As it was already 13:00 at that point, we started thinking about what to eat for lunch and slowly moved to the lunch break, which started at 14:00. Therefore, if I had not worked on the projects by myself, in the morning we wouldn't have progressed with work at all.

AS: How did volunteering in Georgia enrich you?

JB: I've never been a team player, but during my stay in Georgia, I learned how to work in a team, as I was “forced” to engage in teamwork during the whole year. Our organisation was well managed and I genuinely enjoyed cooperating with my colleagues.

AS: In September, your one-year-long deployment came to its end and you returned to Slovakia. What were the first days and weeks back at home like? Where will your next steps take you? Is global volunteering a closed chapter for you?

JB: I spent the first week in self-isolation, and I only reunited with my family after I tested negative for COVID-19. At the moment, I'm not planning any global volunteering or anything that involves international travelling until the COVID situation calms down. Later on, I am hoping for new adventures, and if I bump into an interesting project, I will definitely be open to volunteering again.

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