I’m writing today with some news: tomorrow, January 29, will be my last official day at RAEBIA, and the last day of my AVID assignment.
You might have seen my post last week, where I acknowledged the halfway mark of my assignment and reflected on what I wish I’d known before I began. And you might now be thinking, wow, the second half of your assignment really went a lot faster than the first half…
Of course, I’m finishing my assignment early. Here’s why.
A counterpart conundrum
If you’re familiar with the AVID program, you’ll be aware of its focus on capacity-building and training, so that local staff at our NGOs can continue the work we’re qualified to do long after our assignments finish and we leave our host countries. I think it’s a really sound model, and was one of the reasons I was attracted to the AVID program in the first place.
And if you read between the lines of my post from last year describing my job you may have guessed that for many months, my job has been more doing than training. I’ve learnt that communications is a reasonably difficult area to work in here, because there’s a disconnect between the expectations of donors and the capacity of implementing NGOs: people understand the value and potential of communications, but lack human resources and financial capacity to invest in it. Which isn’t necessarily a problem, until a bright-eyed AVID volunteer shows up, expecting a communications counterpart and haranguing already-overworked staff into sitting down to training sessions they have interest in but not really much time for.
I have the utmost respect for my colleagues at RAEBIA and the work they produce, and my decision to withdraw my support early was not one made quickly or lightly. In the end, it turned on a question of utility and sustainability: how useful am I really being here, and how will that change between now and September?
The perfectionist thing
Both regular and cursory readers of this blog will likely be aware of my perfectionist tendencies (no joke, I literally just googled “define perfectionist” to make sure I was using the best word). I hate getting things wrong, I’m hard on myself when I fall down, and I’m overly careful and self-examining to the point of forgetting to enjoy the view because I’m always watching where I put my feet.
My assignment was scheduled for 18 months; March 2017 to September 2018. So I must fulfil that. Anything short of that period is failure… right?
Maybe six months ago, I was hiking with a couple of AVID volunteer friends, who got talking about a mate of theirs who had also been on the AVID program. She’d left her assignment early, they said, for a fair reason — but I couldn’t stop myself from instinctively thinking oh, what a shame. Poor thing.
A couple of months later, I was having a beer upstairs at Esplanada with a friend and former colleague from Australia, who was over in Timor for a week of work. I explained to him that things weren’t going particularly well with work, but that I was determined to stick it out.
His reply was swift and abrupt.
“You’re wasting everyone’s time just sitting in that office,” he told me.
“Don’t sell yourself short. You’re capable of contributing more than this.”
Ah, ah, but, but– I started, determined too explain to him that the nature of this program requires humility, requires stepping back; requires me to not be the centre of attention.
My friend already knew that.
What’s the solution then? he asked me; do I just twiddle my thumbs for six more months, waste Australian taxpayers’ money on my DFAT-funded existential crisis, stubbornly scowl my way through, and pat myself on the back in September for succeeding by staying at the same workplace for the entire time I was supposed to?
Somehow, spelled out like that, 18 months didn’t feel like success at all.
An aphorism I wrote in my notebook last week: instead of looking for an answer, look for a path.
What can I do with what’s in front of me?
Fear in fancy dress
In July 2017 I had an informal, three-months-in check-in with AVI,the organisation that manages the contract for the AVID program in Timor-Leste. They asked how work was going, and I bubbled happily about my experience of being welcomed into the office, but mentioned that I’d not yet been assigned a proper counterpart, because the funding to hire my designated staffer had fallen through.
“This is a real problem, Sophie!”
Since July, we’ve had a string of meetings between me, AVI, my boss, and my colleagues; all of us eager to make the assignment work. A particularly long meeting at the end of last year left me satisfied; scaling back my expectations about what I could achieve before the end of my assignment but feeling relieved to be on some kind of track.
But a change in staffing over the Christmas break left my best-laid plan in ruins (why do I still get surprised?!), and revealed to me the truth I’d been dancing around for six months: this assignment isn’t going to work, and I’m blinkering myself because I’m scared of the alternative.
And of course I am — the alternative, to me, is financial insecurity. It’s not knowing what I’ll be doing week-to-week. It’s not having someone to help me go to the police station when my laptop goes missing, or translate at the licensing centre for me. It’s saying goodbye to my wifi connection, my go-to daily Tetun practise partners, to knowing that even if I’m not doing Doing As Much as my perfectionist mind tells me to, I’m still accountable to something; still working towards something.
A wise friend who works down the road is reading Elizabeth Gilbert, and she told me perfectionism is fear in fancy dress. Another thought taken from another clever woman: sometimes you have to put things in the wrong place to know where they go.
To the future
So, where do things go now?
Practically, this year, I’m going to try and stay in Timor-Leste.
I love living in Dili; I’ve invested in learning some of the language and making friends and putting down roots; and I’ve had the good fortune of falling spectacularly in love with a wonderful man here. Dili, for now, is home, and I’ll live in Farol for as much of this year as I can.
I couch those statements in attemptive words because money will determine what I’m really able to do. Dili is an expensive city and I’ve received my last AVID stipend, meaning the money in my bank account will have to last until I can find more work. I’m hopeful, determined and realistic about the prospect of finding work, and from this week on am setting my sights on finding myself something new.
We’ll see how it goes.
We struggle when we resist what is
“You look a lot lighter,” said a friend when I told him the news this week. I joked that my tan had faded after days inside, but he clarified. “It looks like a weight is off.”
“I’m terrified,” I told him, truthfully; I don’t like not coming next, and my stomach is churning at the thought of all the unknowns. But: “I haven’t felt this alive for a while, and that’s a very good thing.”
A roiling stomach and a head full of ideas and a future in my fists is a much better alternative to lethargy and drudgery and sureness and what-comes-next-ness. I’m terrified and joyful and free and I wouldn’t change any of this for anything.