Margie Macdonald

Crossroader 1968, 2006

In was the summer of 1968. I was 21, about to enter fourth year university and I went to Africa. I had wanted to be a CUSO volunteer; my degree in sociology was not going to interest CUSO, but I thought a summer with Operation Crossroads Africa would help my application. But that summer of 1968 also changed my life. My group of 10 North American university students worked with our Nigerian counterparts to build a very short road, by hand, during the rainy season just outside of Lagos, during the Biafran War. We had to learn about each other and learn how to get along., The naïve, insulated Canadians learned about the racial strife in the USA first hand from black and white Americans. Together we felt the bone-warming heat of West Africa and the cooling rain; we experienced the vibrant markets; we saw the rich and the poor. We learned that our road was a means to an end – the opportunity to learn from one another.

Thirty-eight years later, in 2006 I returned to Africa with Canadian Crossroads International – the Canadian child of Operation Crossroads Africa. Those 38 years had included two overseas experiences with CUSO (in Papua New Guinea and Southern Sudan), a Master’s degree, four years working on international development issues in Canada, a short assignment with CESO in Slovakia and 17 years working with community organizations as an employee of Health Canada. Those years included years of volunteering on social justice and political work. And those years included marriage, the adoption of two girls and the sudden death of my husband. Thirty-eight years later my life was at a crossroads – I had quit my government job as it was no longer challenging, I had no family responsibilities and I wanted to get back into development work. I thought that perhaps now I had the experience and the maturity to make a contribution to the work of another organization.

In 2006 with CCI, I was part of a partnership which included the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA), the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia (THANS) and the CCI Atlantic Region. SWAGAA wanted a volunteer who could help them with an evaluation; THANS didn’t have a worker who could be spared for this endeavour and I was chosen. My work with the federal government had given me experience with evaluations – it was an activity which I enjoyed and which I believe is very important for organizations.

I’ll always remember arriving in Manzini, Swaziland – the heat, the smells, the vibrancy – it was like coming home, again. I was in Swaziland from mid April to mid July 2006, living with a Swazi family, travelling each day to work, by car or by the local transit system I loved – the kombi – and creating some tools which could help SWAGAA. The organization had always collected a lot of data – how many people counseled, how many education events held etc, but wanted to know if all that activity was having an impact; my job was to find out those impacts. Used to working in a participatory way, I tried to involve others in the work. Staff at SWAGAA were very busy with their daily work and also their experience was that an evaluation would be done ‘to’ them, and like everyone around the world, they were a bit scared of evaluation. Eventually I was able to involve some staff in the evaluation, but not many and that remains a disappointment for me. The evaluation included data collection from about 250 people – participants in SWAGAA’s counselling and education programs and stakeholders who worked with SWAGAA on public policy development. The evaluation found the SWAGAA indeed was making a difference in the lives of Swazi people, but like all evaluations, also found that there was room to grow – in developing prevention programs and the necessity to link the organization’s work to HIV/AIDS. My final weekend in Swaziland included a day spent on strategic planning with board and staff, to help guide their work for the next three years. It pleases me that Crossroads is now providing financial support for some of the new directions resulting from the evaluation and strategic planning process.

Just a little different from building a road, by hand, in the middle of a rainy season.

But there were similarities. There was a lot of learning on my part about the context in which I was living, about myself, about working cross culturally and about development. There were relationships developed, which though short lived, made a difference to me and I hope to my new friends. There was the recognition that we are all the same around the world – we are looking for happiness, we are trying to make a difference in our own small ways.

Learnings for me in 2006 were more specific. I learned more about partnerships as a strategy for development work. My work with the federal government had included partnership work – specifically between federal government departments and between different levels of government. In Swaziland, I learned again that for partnerships to be effective there need to be trusting relationships spread throughout the organizations involved. The SWAGAA-THANS partnership is new – its only three years old. To me it makes sense for organizations to spend time together, to identify ways they can work together to build their capacities. But this requires time to be together and to learn together and an understanding of each others’ lives. Because I was interested in trying to increase this understanding between SWAGAA and THANS members, I held “the day in the life of a Swazi woman” story contest. Ten SWAGAA staff wrote stories, which were then judged by THANS members in Canada. All SWAGAA participants received prizes for their efforts at helping their partners understand the realities of their lives.

Being in Africa in 1968 and 2006 resulted in changes in my life. As a result of my experience in 1968, my world exploded – the world beyond Canada had finally become real. Atlases didn’t lie – there really were people living in countries all over the world. After 1968, I gave lots of talks about my experiences and I was able to become a CUSO volunteer. After 2006, I gave some talks, I’m involved in some of CCI work and I’ve become active in a grannies group with the Stephen Lewis Foundation. It’s impossible to spend time in Swaziland, with the world’s highest rate of HIV/AIDS and not get involved in AIDS work.

As an “older worker”, I’d recommend this experience to anyone who is looking for challenges, who wants to learn new ideas and new ways of doing things and who wants in some small small way to make the world a better place. What the heck – at any age – working in international development is a life changing experience!!!.

 

Crossroads International gratefully acknowledges the support of: