When I was about eleven, my father, foreman of a local building company, suddenly became concerned with my education. He wanted me to go to grammar school which I identified with children from families much wealthier than ours Just before leaving school at 15, my father sent me to the railway station where they had a vacancy for a junior porter. Thanks to the railway’s in-service training system I moved on to becoming a clerk Even though I gained some satisfaction from my job, and despite the fact that if I continued with my in-service training I would clearly continue to get promotion, a higher salary and status, I got more and more the feeling that simply earning my living in this way was not really worthwhile. To my eyes, there was so much poverty and injustice in the world, and only trying to put this state of affairs to rights was ultimately really worthwhile, all the rest was egocentric materialism. Also, I dearly wanted to travel abroad.
One of my close colleagues showed me an article in a national newspaper about voluntary work organizations. There were one or two, which appeared to be simply interested in obtaining cheap labour. These I rejected as too materialistic. I wanted to do something worthwhile, help people in need, without expecting anything in return; which I felt was morally better. The only organization that appeared to me to be morally respectable was the International Voluntary Service. Apart from describing the organization, the article high-lighted particular relief- work projects they were involved in at the time. This was the first time I had ever heard about voluntary work camps. Thus, at the age of 17, I became a contributing member of IVS, making a modest yearly donation. There was no ‘local branch’ nearby, so my only contact was through the IVS newsletter. In the summer of 1961 I did my first camp. Apart from it being an opportunity to ‘do something really useful’ (at last!), it was also especially significant for me in that it was the first time in my life that I went on holiday alone.
At that time the general rule was that volunteers had to do their first camp in their country of origin before being allowed to go on SCI camps abroad, but I wanted to go to other countries and meet different people. In fact, IVS waived the rule and sent me to a poor village in Switzerland (!) where, for nearly a month, I helped with the building of a small road for agricultural purposes.
Andiast in those days really was a poor remote mountain village with, only one car, and very little modern agricultural machinery. Hay mowing was still done by hand. The only water supply was by rudimentary fountains. We did heavy manual work, moving rocks and digging and making a road out along the mountainside.
For the first time in my life I found myself in a real international group of about 10 different nationalities .The work was hard but I enjoyed it. The camp’s purpose was simple and easy to grasp, and our life there was well organized, and we pulled together. Our specific tasks, whether on the site or chores in the camp (cleaning and cooking), were decided upon collectively by discussion at meal times, and in ‘Camp meetings’ once or twice a week in the evening. Not having been able to learn any foreign language at school, I had only the slightest smattering of German and even less French, but I enjoyed getting to know people irrespective of language. To my pleasure we often sang songs particularly at special ‘goodbye’ gatherings. .On such occasions, after a few words from the leader, we sang ‘L’amitié’ – a song on the theme of friendship. I found these moments moving. The camp leader was a seasoned workcamper, who had recently returned from a year’s ‘long-term service’ in India. He immediately impressed me with his calm charisma, and stories of his service in India. Before leaving Andiast I had made up my mind, I too was going to do ‘long term service’.
Back home, I didn’t try to hide my enthusiasm for work-camping I had tasted of something ‘really worthwhile’, which fitted my idealistic bent; and I started to prepare my next move. Already, at that time, long-term projects tended to be ‘development’ type projects requiring volunteers who were qualified in a particular trade or profession – none of which I had to offer. But, now and then, there were ‘disaster relief’ projects, and that’s where I would stand the best chance , having already proved myself as it were, in the heavy manual work I had just done in Andiast.
I had already planned on doing a camp with the IVS during my summer holidays. It was just a few weeks before my 20th birthday when I told my parents that I was resigning from my job, going on my planned workcamp in Germany, and en route I intended to go to the IVS head office in London to apply for long-term service. It was naturally a very emotional moment. My mother was reluctant to see me go, but thought I should do what I wanted to do. My father took the news badly, and predicted that I would soon be coming back home, penniless and jobless. Upon which I showed him the money I had saved. He was visibly impressed, and became less radical in his tone, telling me that I would always be welcome at home.
As planned, I called in at the IVS office in London, and confirmed my request for a long-term camp in India. They said that, at that time, the only long-term work they could possibly offer me would be in Algeria, on reconstruction work for people who’d lost their homes during the recently terminated War of Independence. They insisted on the fact that the project would involve hard manual work in difficult living conditions, and that I should take time to consider it. I said I was not afraid of manual work, and I was so excited I told them that I was in fact prepared to leave for El Khemis right away, immediately volunteering for a minimum of six months. However, it appeared that, conditions in Algeria would not allow them to send over any more volunteers just then; so they asked me to go to the camp in Germany as planned, until such time as they could send me to Algeria.
Neuenkirchen, where I eventually stayed for over two months, was a surprise in more ways than one. It had been a prisoner-of-war camp, not a concentration camp; but still, the same sort of buildings. We were ten or twelve volunteers simply, but comfortably housed in one of these buildings. Compared with Andiast, where conditions were somewhat primitive, – we had slept on straw mattresses, and did our ablutions in the fountain – here we had proper beds and showers with hot water, and even a record player with a few classical albums – luxury!
Due to chronic understaffing, our job there was to help in the wards, – or sometimes with the potato harvest in the adjacent fields which also belonged to the hospital. Volunteers worked alone most of the time as auxiliaries to the small nursing staff. Only occasionally did I find myself momentarily working with another volunteer. Most of our work was dirty, and in some way or other, hard on one’s nervous system. Though officially called a ‘hospital’ it was much more like a ‘hospice’. There was no emergency service, no operating block.
Apparently there were no permanent doctors on the staff. For several weeks I worked with predominantly geriatric male patients, feeding them, washing them and carrying bedpans. Every day brought me a series of a real shocks, and my near- inexistent command of the language complicated things at times; whether between myself and the patients or with the nursing staff.
The camp leader didn’t live in the same quarters as us. He didn’t participate in the work, didn’t socialize with us and was consequently perceived as a rather distant person. On the 8th November 1962, in his usual formal manner, he informed me that the International Secretariat of SCI had sent the necessary funding for my journey to Tlemcen, and that I should leave as soon as possible.
My rail trip from Bremen to El Khemis took five days. I arrived early on 11th November 1962. The camp at El Khemis was about 50 kilometres southwest of Tlemcen in mountainous terrain, at about 1000 meters above sea level, some 20 kms from the Moroccan border. It was housed in an abandoned Foreign Legion fort on a rocky hilltop overlooking the valley of the Oued Khemis. In fact the whole area was dry and rocky, with profuse outgrowths of formidably prickly cactus.
In The Fort the various dormitories, former stores and munitions bunkers were spartan in their comfort, to say the least, only a few had rough concrete floors , the rest were of mere trodden earth. A matter of weeks before the arrival of the first volunteers, – counter to strict orders from regional French military command -, the departing legionnaires had made a pretty thorough job of sabotaging all basic amenities (drainage, water and electricity supply), and generally wrecking the place. The first SCI volunteers to arrive had had to spend a lot of precious time making The Fort modestly habitable. Though, in the country as a whole people were still celebrating, disorganization was widespread and building supplies of any kind were very hard to obtain, – first of all for the tens of thousands of displaced and homeless, particularly in this border area. In The Fort, smashed doors had been patched up with any old piece of salvaged wood, and most windows were a collage of broken panes and cardboard. Most of us slept on mattresses on the floor. I managed to find a grubby old piece of thin hardboard to put my mattress on.
About a hundred meters away were twenty or thirty bedraggled heaps of coarse hay and branches, draped with motley pieces of rag and ripped tarpaulin. Here and there were a few floppy tents in various stages of collapse. Strung around this primitive huddle were remnants of a coiled barbed-wire fence. On closer scrutiny, one realized that people actually lived there! This was what was left of a ‘camp de regroupement’ – a resettlement camp, from where its inhabitants no longer had anywhere to go back to.
They lived in pitiful squalor, sharing their meagre shelters with a few chickens. Their sheep and goats and the occasional donkey huddled in at night for protection from the jackals. Most women and children went barefoot. Despite the large boulders strewn across the hillside, the ground under the hovels (‘gourbis’) had often been hollowed out to afford more space and headroom. In the face of severe poverty, sickness and malnutrition, the inhabitants were always very hospitable, ever-ready to welcome one in for a glass of mint tea; they were to be the main beneficiaries of the reconstruction effort of the ‘Tlemcen Project’.
The SCI ‘appellation’ for the hillside where they lived was ‘Diar or Dar Mansourah’, and the original village, most of its inhabitants came from, was called ‘Beni Hamou’ .Like many other hamlets and villages in these borderland parts, it had been destroyed by the French army, and its inhabitants had been herded together, and surrounded by barbed-wire for the duration .There were no remains of houses to be seen on the spot, moreover there had been so much devastation ( an estimated 90 % of the villages had been destroyed), ruined houses and villages were such a common sight that I never learned where the original site of Beni Hamou was. Anyway, it was part of the administrative area of El Khemis, all the same.
Thirty seven houses plus a school and a mosque were planned on a site about three kilometres away; other amenities were being considered. When I arrived, there were about forty foreign volunteers based at The Fort – a lot of people, – and the figure rose to around fifty by the beginning of 1963. In fact the Algerian authorities had conferred the overall coordination of the emergency work on SCI for the whole of the Wilaya, involving an estimated population of between 60 and 80,000
In addition to the reconstruction work there were several small teams of SCI volunteers involved in peripatetic medical care, milk distribution, catering for basic educational needs, and in a few places, modest trade training . A few French volunteers had moved out into the surrounding area, in ones and twos, to reopen village schools, start milk distribution centres and dispensaries, or teach trade skills. To our relief they were well received in the villages. There were also a few other SCI volunteers further afield in urban areas working on their own; nurses and teachers, in Tlemcen, Maghnia and even in Oran up on the coast .In early ’63, working from The Fort, a four-man mobile repair team was set up to re-establish essential services in the surrounding area which had been sabotaged; water pumps and electric generators in particular. R.L was a member of the repair team.
Five or six weeks after arriving I went to Algiers with 5 other volunteers from El Khemis to help in a short-term camp aimed at helping re-launch the local Algiers branch of SCI. It involved renovating what had been an A.L.N clandestine medical centre during the hostilities – the Clinique Verneau in the district of Climat de France. We were very warmly received, and along with a few local volunteers finished the work in two and a half weeks.
In El Khemis itself, given the number of satellite projects that sprang from the work going on, in fact, as few as only a third or a even a quarter of the total number of volunteers on the ‘Tlemcen Project’ actually worked on the building of El Fass at any one time. That is, during my 5 months on the building site, no more than about 8 or10 volunteers actually worked on the building itself, -and sometimes as few as 4 or 5, along with a variable number of local men from Dar Mansourah – usually between 4 and 8. They were cheerful, hard-working colleagues; used to hardship, their philosophical – “Inshallah” was forever on their lips. Only a few volunteers – whether local Algerian or foreign – had any building trade skills at all, this was also a factor affecting progress on the site.
The number of menfolk in the country had been seriously depleted during the 6-year war of independence. Survivors in the area, had in many cases spent several years in the wilds with the A.L.N fighting the French .They were now hard-pushed to get crops growing on land that had been left untilled for several years. Food was scarce. The children from Dar Mansourah queued in The Fort courtyard everyday for milk, bread and vitamin distribution. Their fathers who worked with us shared bread and coffee with us mid-morning, and usually had lunch with us back at The Fort (except of course during Ramadan). It was important that people doing such heavy manual work should eat enough.
The slowness in building the new village was particularly due to the irregular supply of essential building materials – most crucially cement – , and a basic lack of modern equipment: our first concrete mixer arrived towards the end of January, more than three months after the first foundations had been made. Transport for the site was a constant problem, to the extent of work being brought to a standstill at times for a few hours or even a day. Given the multiple needs of supplying The Fort, and the volunteers in outlying villages, as well as those of the various healthcare and repair teams, heavy, and at times conflicting, demands were made on any vehicles available.
Once a week the Algerian authorities would lend us a tiny lorry and its driver for the day, – which was insufficient compared with our needs. It often arrived with a load of cement, for which we were, of course, dependent on regional suppliers in Tlemcen who could not keep up with demand. I once rode 5 or 6 kms to and from The Fort on a borrowed donkey to get a bag of cement so that a particular piece of work could be finished properly .Over a period of several months, various vehicles were donated to us from Europe; but they did not last long, either giving up the ghost or proving to be in over-frequent need of repair. For whatever make of vehicle certain spare-parts were impossible to obtain in Algeria.
Two or three times a week we had to go two kms and dig sand from the riverside. New cement blocks were nearly impossible to find; at one stage plans were made for us to make our own, but it never materialized and we continued to use what was most easily available. Boulders from the slopes around the site of the new village were used as basic building material. We manhandled them down to the site, broke them into workable pieces with hammers before they could be masoned into place. A hard, laborious process. A few kilometres away, along the border, were a series of small abandoned forts where- whenever we could- small teams of volunteers would go to demolish the cement and concrete structures, in order to salvage cement blocks and incorporate them into the masonry of the houses. Such pacifistic recycling of military infrastructures was most satisfying for everyone concerned.
Running beside these fortified outposts were multiple minefields: the French army had strung the entire length of the Moroccan border in order to prevent cross-border movement of arms and A.L.N (Algerian Liberation Army) combatants. This several-hundred-kilometre-long structure now formed a lethal legacy. Amongst frequent emergency calls, our medical teams were often called out to administer to the consequences of such casual, blind savagery. Frequently the victim was hard to locate in a life-endangering situation, and morphine had to be administered. Inevitably a rushed evacuation by Land Rover down to the hospital in Tlemcen ensued, ending – more often than not – in an amputation, sometimes in death.
At that altitude, in stony semi-desert terrain, not far from the Sahara, the climate is extreme in its harshness: scorching sunshine, bitter winds, occasionally laden with sand from the desert. Sometimes we would get a mixture of these in rapid succession in the course of just one day. Often, on rainy, blustery days at the worksite, we would huddle together like miserable wet cattle trying to shelter behind half-finished walls, waiting for the bad weather to abate; using pieces of cement bags as raincoats or umbrellas. Now and then, at night, temperatures went down to as little as minus ten centigrade, and we had several heavy falls of snow. Whenever work was held up on the site we would work in The Fort; adapting existing constructions to needs. For example we made a classroom for the children of Dar Mansourah, and their parents. People were very eager to learn, it was most heart-warming to see. Very soon demand was so great we actually had to refuse some children and send them down to El Khemis village school (which worked 2 shifts a day). The parents came to learn how to read and write French in the evenings. The school was run by volunteers. A few Arabic and French lessons were organized in the evenings for the volunteers. I appreciated these a lot.
When I arrived in the camp the atmosphere appeared to be relaxed and convivial, but as time passed the leadership arrangements became vaguer and vaguer, sometimes a little confusing. The campleader- who was on the whole well-liked- was absent for long periods and usually someone or other was co-opted to stand in for him. After the workleader left around New Year, various people were at one time or another in charge of the building site. Sometimes there was nobody, and for the best part of two months there was a tense co-work leadership situation where it very quickly transpired that those two valuable, skilled volunteers could not get along with one another, much to our discomfort. There were a dozen or so nationalities represented. Most English and French-speaking volunteers were very limited in their ability to communicate in each others’ language. At times this state of linguistic inadequacy tended to exacerbate a fairly palpable undercurrent of Franco-British discomfort or malaise; which had, of course, deep historical and cultural roots.
That certain volunteers didn’t bother to attend meetings shocked me initially; moreover, I quickly observed that most ‘Work’ and ‘Camp’ meetings at El Khemis tended to be the scene of a lot of recriminations, and the general airing of frustrations . One rarely left a meeting with the feeling that issues had really been satisfactorily sorted out (= a symptom, not a cause ). To my mind this clearly indicated that the camp organization was malfunctioning to a certain extent.
A large proportion of the volunteers – me included – had no particular skills. Those that did, one way or another, managed to find themselves a specialist/specialized role = a niche. Usually getting involved in one or other of the several mini or ‘satellite’ projects –when not actually creating one themselves. This involved them moving out, permanently or temporarily from The Fort to an out-lying community. This accentuated the state of flux the camp was frequently in .The building of El Fass was very much the focal point of what was going on in El Khemis, and we were constantly short of skilled volunteers for the worksite, despite frequently reiterated requests to national branches via the International secretariat to recruit volunteers with building skills.
As if there were not sufficient problems to deal with, we were constantly at the mercy of serious health problems; the most discretely debilitating of these was known as ‘la jaunisse ‘or yellow jaundice. This would nowadays be called ‘hepatitis’. Ironically, in fact, at one stage, more than half the nurses and the only doctor were out of action and in the sickbay with this illness. A number of volunteers had to leave the project and were sent home because of the epidemic, contributing in no uncertain way to the high turnover of volunteers. This was surely compounded by the fact that a rather large proportion of volunteers only came for two months service.
The French volunteers were older than most of us, more skilled and included a few seasoned conscientious objectors. Some of them would probably be put in prison for refusing to do military service on returning to France They tended, not surprisingly, to be much more committed to what they were doing than most of the other volunteers. Clearly they had difficulty suffering us younger, more hedonistically-inclined volunteers who were constantly on the look-out for fun and adventure – of which we managed to find plenty. On Saturdays we would frequently go into Tlemçen by Land Rover, eager to visit the souk and do our shopping. Ablution facilities were very primitive in The Fort, and several of us discovered the hammam – a wonderful luxury! I went virtually every week. Parties were quite a common feature at weekends. On Sundays, some of us occasionally enjoyed hiking and potholing, or swimming in the oued.
Even though most local people were clearly very poor, they were extremely hospitable – forever inviting us into their homes. Especially to attend the numerous wedding celebrations that took place during those months. Many young men had been unable to get married at the usual age, because at that time they had been fighting in the maquis; so there was a lot of catching up to do, and it was traditional to invite everyone to the celebrations. Sometimes we were invited to as many as 2 or 3 weddings a week .We partook of simple couscous, mint tea, and, beneath clear frosty skies, joined in exciting dances around fires, accompanied by itinerant musicians, till late in the night. Work on the new village had begun at the beginning of September 1962. On my arrival, there were 3 or 4 partially built houses. By the time I left (20th April 1963) about a dozen had roofs on. The construction of El Fass was finally finished, and officially moved into by 37 families on 10th Oct.1964.
I spent over five, exciting, but difficult, months in El Khemis, and left there rather disappointed with our performance on the building side. It left me with mixed feelings, and beginning to doubt about work-camping. My main misgivings concerned what I saw as a rather amateurish approach, and a crucial lack of focus (hadn’t we-SCI -taken on too many different jobs?). It left me quite bewildered. Having said that, I have come to realize that as a result of the organizational difficulties we experienced, the camp and its satellites often ran itself, creating an opportunity for us, collectively and individually, to learn how to manage ourselves (rather than just being told what to do); from this viewpoint it was a really valuable learning experience.
It has taken me more than forty years of thought, conversation and research to gain, what to me is, an adequate understanding of what was, at one and the same time, exciting and complex.
Iran: on loan to another organization.
In spring 1963, the SCI recruited David Palmer and other SCI volunteers to take part in the ‘Dousadj Project’- following an earthquake in Iran the previous year. The first international workcamp ever to take place in Iran, it was run by a new organization called the European Working Group (EWG), founded in June 1962 (it disbanded itself in 1969).
click on the photo
In spring 1963, the SCI recruited myself and four other ‘experienced volunteers’ from El Khemis, Algeria, to take part in the ‘Dousadj Project’- following an earthquake in Iran the previous year. The first international workcamp ever to take place in Iran, it was run by a new organization called the European Working Group (EWG), founded in June 1962 (it disbanded itself in 1969). As it turned out it was such a contrast for myself and the other ex-El Khemis volunteers that we inevitably, frequently compared it (then and later) with what we had experienced in Algeria. Incidentally, the SCI was one of several voluntary aid and development organizations which contributed to the Dousadj project. Apart from recruiting a number of volunteers, the SCI collaborated in organizing our ten day preparatory camp at Villepreux near Paris. There, the work, of painting and decorating a sort of social holiday centre, was not difficult and above all it provided us with a rendezvous point. The preparation we received there involved an impressive series of lectures and briefings about all aspects of Iran and Iranian society including the political situation at that time – and most importantly of course – the planned project itself. The EWG clearly benefited from close contacts with the Iranian authorities, and people from the Iranian Embassy in Paris visited us and gave us simple presents. Various experts flew in especially to talk to us, and the project manager David Mitchnik came over from Teheran.
Dousadj , was one of over three hundred villages that had been wholly or partially destroyed by the earthquake that shook a large area of the Kharagan district in Western Iran on 1st September 1962, killing 13.000 people and leaving 150,000 homeless. An estimated 110 of some 120 houses in this particular village had been totally or partially destroyed.
The volunteers : 28 Europeans, a Japanese and an Australian ( altogether 5 females and 25 males) were recruited for a minimum of 6 months, for the building phase of the completely new village, which had to be finished before the next winter set in (winters on the Iranian plateau can be as cold and snowy as any in Europe). All the volunteers were to be flown from Paris to Teheran and back free of charge by the Dutch Air force. I was in the first group of eleven sent out on 4th May. After being received and entertained for 3 days in Teheran by officials and students (who put us up) involved in the project we were driven out across dusty desert landscapes to Dousadj where, on our arrival, a group of village men gathered to welcome us and kill a sheep to mark the occasion.
Our initial task was to prepare a tent and brick- building campsite, a couple of kilometres from the ruined village, in time for the arrival of the main group of volunteers three weeks later.
When the actual building site eventually got under way, manpower and skills were not lacking. 20-30 villagers a day worked with us, as well as small groups of 5-10 student volunteers from the University and the Polytechnic in Teheran. They usually came for two weeks at a time and were predominately anti-Shah, constantly on their guard in case they were infiltrated by the SAVAK (the Iranian secret police). One day an Iranian of about 40 arrived in the camp on a motorbike saying that he’d heard about the project and kindly he offered to join us. He was welcomed by some European volunteers. Later that afternoon there was a near-fight amongst the Iranian students (some of whom had spent time in prison for political reasons) because they were convinced the man was a SAVAK spy. Unhappily we managed to get him to leave the camp before anyone was injured. To this day we don’t really know whether he was a spy or not …
The house and village plans were based on surveys carried out in the village by a team from the Teheran Institute of Social Studies and Research prior to our arrival. The EWG project manager and a professor of sociology consulted the villagers at every stage in the planning process. The villagers were ‘required’ not only to work on the project in order to qualify for a house but also the EWG paid them a small amount daily to enable them to stay in the village for the summer months rather than having to seek seasonal work in Teheran. This gave them a proprietorial feeling, that what they were doing was building their very own village, and accordingly they were really conscious of the need to maintain a good standard in their work, as well as that of everyone else involved in the project.
I was astonished to learn that the EWG had hired an Iranian building contractor who would provide skilled tradesmen, transport and modern building equipment (i.e. a cement-block-making production line was set up on the building site). We even had the luxury of a lorry and chauffeur, provided by the Iranian Red Crescent, to take us the two kilometres to and from the worksite. Funding did not appear to be an obstacle. After the volunteers had spent the first gruelling three weeks digging foundations, without being forewarned, they saw a team of professional diggers (a subcontractor) arrive and replace them. Only to be invited to find themselves other work on the building site! This started me thinking that, perhaps, after all, volunteers were not absolutely indispensable on the project. Later on, I had a very strong impression that some of the less experienced volunteers’ morale was affected by this.
For most of the camp I worked in a 6-man team – including old ‘Azziz’ the village blacksmith – making the reinforced steel rods which were then fixed into the foundations, walls and roofs. We were at 2300 meters altitude, and the climate was extreme. During our time there, temperatures went up into the upper forties, with mini tornados and dust storms, which were quite common. We all suffered from the heat and dust, as well as frequent gastric problems.
Mitchnik, the project manager, was a very capable organizer, a ‘hands on’ sort of person, who had Kibbutz experience, and had studied community development work in third world countries. He was, in fact, only present about a quarter of the time, so frequently the camp was left to run itself. Rather aloof, and somewhat authoritarian in his manner, he nevertheless made an effort to keep the volunteers informed about developments through camp meetings. A number of volunteers were on their very first workcamp, and some had little or no work experience whatsoever. On Mitchnik’s decision the camp had no leader, just a ‘work leader/coordinator’ who was to liaise with the contractor. Two work leaders went home early on because of ‘personality clashes’ with Mitchnik, and then R.L was appointed to this position for the rest of the camp. Volunteers went on strike on more than one occasion, and malingering was unfortunately relatively common, creating ill feeling in the camp.
Contrasting with this, we found many pleasant ways of spending our leisure time. I often went hiking on free days and in the evenings we would sing around a campfire until late in the night under the wonderful, dark blue, starry sky. A number of volunteers were crazy about animals. At one time the camp pets included a goat, three cats, the same number of dogs, an injured eagle and a stray young camel. An endearing Frenchman, Daniel, collected insects of all kinds, and regularly delighted us by promptly removing intruding scorpions from our shoes and tents…
By the third week in November, despite many difficulties, we had met our deadline: using earthquake-proof techniques, 116 houses, complete with outhouses -plus a school and a hammam, had been built, and a new water supply for the village, was being put in. Clearly an important factor in the success of the reconstruction project had been focus. Three months after the completion of the building of the new village (by then I was back home in Shropshire), in collaboration with F.A.O, the European Working Group started an extensive agricultural and community development programme for Dousadj with specialist volunteers; it was expected to last for at least 7 or 8 years.
The SCI – the EWG: A few thoughts
Unlike the SCI, the EWG had no membership of ordinary volunteers, that is, no subscribing members, with or without voting rights, just a small network of people who were connected with youth work. They were predominantly upper-class young men and women, representing 5 or 6 European countries who were interested in creating a ‘European voluntary work organization’ to help developing countries. The headquarters were in Amsterdam where the ‘Board’ – of a dozen or so dignitaries-, met under the presidency of a crown princess. There were 3 or 4 salaried members of staff in the office, and a salaried International Secretary who became the Project Manager for Dousadj. Volunteers were only part of the EWG for the duration of their contract. The principles and aims of the organization were:
- to encourage young people to take an active part in the more important human issues of their time and do this on a European scale.
- to give them the opportunity of sharing the responsibilities of helping people who are less fortunate than themselves.
It also described itself as “non-Governmental, non-denominational and non-political”. With regards to its finances, the EWG was entirely dependent on grants from a variety of organizations, as well as donations from international trusts and philanthropic bodies. Two or three months before volunteers were recruited for Dousadj, the EWG organized a dynamic ‘Youth’ campaign throughout The Netherlands which attracted a lot of attention, involving large numbers of young people. This included street demonstrations a variety of events and extensive media coverage. Young people appeared on national T.V to advertise the events they were organizing to raise money for the project. The original estimated cost of building the new village, and the community development programme was about £100,000. The first £10,000 was given by Oxfam.
The EWG was run as if it was a small company with a ‘hands on’ manager, that is, the Project Manager, who in fact wielded more power than the General Secretary of the organization.
To try and compare the SCI and the EWG on the grounds of my own limited experience as described in the above accounts of El Khemis and Dousadj, would perhaps be unfair; despite the fact that both were ‘reconstruction’ projects with a lot of aspects in common, their specific contexts were quite different. The SCI and the EWG were fundamentally different types of aid organizations, and even though the latter did have a significantly substantial fund-raising capacity, the main difference between them was in terms of project planning and organization…
My experience with the SCI and the EWG has been important, even-fundamental, in a general way, to my becoming who I am today. The S.C.I ideals of pacifism, non-violence and human rights – to which I still adhere – were very much part of the ‘zeitgeist’ of the sixties. I enjoyed a feeling of being outside ‘the system’ …The frequent confrontation of ideas with workcamp mates , measuring oneself intellectually, was – to say the least – stimulating. For example, I remember taking part in a lively informal discussion in El Khemis about the newly invented American Peace Corps, which other countries were beginning to copy. Despite its aim of promoting peace, we were mostly strongly ‘anti ’Peace Corps’ because, to our eyes, of the risk of such organizations being used to serve national, if not imperialist, interests. Later, despite admiring the dynamic efficiency of the E.W.G, the predominance of Dutch people on its Board and their position in the Dutch ‘Establishment’ had made me feel uneasy. At that time in the Dousadj camp it occurred to some of us that the project could be serving Dutch commercial interests (…) and, of course, Western geopolitical strategy (…). This brought home to me the importance of having supranational non-governmental organizations like the S.C.I. After El Khemis and Dousadj I went on to lead a 4- month summer camp, May to September ’64, for the E.W.G in Ibestad, Northern Norway; then did two S.C.I summer camps : Guingamp ’67 (where I met the woman who became my wife) and – as co-leader with my wife – in Belfast (Purdysburn) ’69. Then, professional and family priorities took over completely. Working in workcamps helped me – to a certain extent- sort myself out, finding my way towards a career, and, in a way, to a better understanding of the world… It helped me learn a lot about participating in a group effort with shared aims, the importance of cohesion in a group, and of organization. I suppose it gave me something of a basic political consciousness. Not surprisingly, after workcamping I went on to work in fields in which, ‘team spirit’ is of fundamental importance: social work and teaching. Looking back, workcamping was for me a unique opportunity which enabled me to gain a wealth of experience. It was in many ways a very formative experience for me. Some of the friendships, that took root in those camps, are still alive today.
Of particular significance,- well beyond the scenic beauty of the places, and the richness of their cultural contexts – the villages of El Khemis and Dousadj are in countries where Islam is, at least pre-eminent, if not all important. As such, both camps provided me with firsthand experience of Muslim values through my everyday contacts on the worksites and in the villages. The warmth and simplicity of straightforward hospitality, and fraternal relations was striking. It has remained a glowing reference, contrasting sharply with the colder, more self-centred values of our western society. This is the basis of my continuing interest in the Muslim faith and its culture in general, my constant endeavouring to understand, and striving to keep a balanced view of events, and relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in the world.