The blog below is the first in what I hope will become a regular occurrence; a guest blog from a fellow aid worker. If you have a story you want to share, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today is World Thinking Day. That might not mean much to you, unless you are one of over 10 million worldwide members of Girlguiding. You know the guides; girl guides, girl scouts, the Blue Knicker Brigade (no connection to the UN, also of blue knickered-brigade fame) and other less flattering names. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of them? Baking cakes? Sewing? Selling cookies? Other activities involving ovens and a lot of sugar? For me, the first thing that comes to mind is gratitude. Thank you Girlguiding, for being the organisation that gave me the skills I needed to work in humanitarianism.
Here, I am not referring to an ability to cook, clean or sew (although I did make a Victoria sponge on an open fire in Jijiga. Impressive, eh? It didn’t taste so great though) but instead to Girlguiding’s ability to challenge young women and support them to develop their confidence to become whatever they want.
Guiding gets a bad rap in the UK. It’s seen as a bit geeky, or a bit like a younger version of the Women’s Institute (hence all the cake references, I guess…) but for me, it was a haven. To have somewhere to go where I could really be myself was like paradise to an 11-year old, slightly awkward girl. But more than that, the skills I learnt as a Guide and as a leader within the organisation have been invaluable in my current career. On my first ever Guide camp, it rained. I’m from Manchester, so when I say it rained, IT RAINED. The downpour was so heavy and consistent that we had to dig trenches around our tents to stop them from flooding. I remember my slightly panicked Guide leader saying, ‘It’s not always as bad as this! You will try camping again, won’t you?’ But I was already in my element. Little did I know at that point in time that over ten years later, I would be using the same trench building skills to ensure I had a dry bed for the night in Dadaab, or to help Syrian families in Jordan divert floodwater from their tented homes. When I became a leader and started taking my own girls to camp, my default role was First Aider, which included the glamorous task of emptying the chemical toilet. Perhaps it was the nostalgic smell of faeces in the morning that initially spurred my desire to work on water and sanitation projects… It also meant that I became less squeamish and learnt to keep a cool head when girls vomited, accidentally mistook their hand for the wood they were chopping with the axe, or sustained puncture wounds from discarded nails by climbing on the woodpile. On second thoughts, I got a little squeamish on that last one. I learnt I enjoyed being outside, I could cope without a wash every day, I didn’t mind being cold and damp, or hot and bothered if it meant I could do something a bit out of the ordinary.
I also owe to Guiding a skill that I use every day in my role as a Community Mobiliser; facilitation. At 16, my Leader encouraged me to apply to be part of a group of young women that organised a national youth conference. Here, I learnt to facilitate sessions in which participants tackled issues both within and outside of Guiding, shaping the direction of the organisation. At 19, I did this at a World Youth Forum, with participants from all over the world, having my session simultaneously translated into French. Stick that in your mock UN. These incredible experiences made me confident that I didn’t need to know all the answers to be able to bring about a change, that the collective ideas of people could give solutions that I, or – fast-forwarding to my current role – my humanitarian organisation could never think of alone. My experience in Guiding formed my core approach to my work.
Later on, I was selected to work with a group of young women to deliver a short development project in Bangladesh, and then another a year later in Belarus. My experiences in both places remained so vividly in my mind – that poverty shouted at you from every corner in Bangladesh, and that Belarus was a starker side of Europe that I didn’t dream existed – that they made my everyday work in an office seem meaningless, a feeling that stayed with me for nearly ten years. When I decided to act on my feelings and move into the humanitarian sector, Guiding again came to my support and gave me my break. Through contacts, I was able to link up with a charity in Madagascar to develop a hygiene promotion training for – guess who – Guide and Scout leaders. In many countries, Guides are a driving force for development. Margaret Mead once said, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,’ and I think about this every time I think of Guides around the world tackling problems like health, education, the environment and women’s rights and empowerment. Except there’s 10 million of them – 10 million! 64,000 in the UK alone – and if a small group of people can change the world, imagine what 10 million active, engaged and empowered women wearing blue knickers can achieve.
I bet by now you are thinking, ‘well, I went to Guides and the most we did was cook a marshmallow on a tea light.’ I hear that a lot – especially marshmallows and tea lights – but my experience in the organisation is not unique. There is a common thread that runs through mine and my guiding friend’s stories; the support of other women who see your potential and want you to grow, and give their time, their effort and their support for you to do just that.
On World Thinking Day, members of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts take time to think of each other and reflect upon what being a Guide means to them. This Thinking Day, I reflect back on my career in humanitarianism and I see just how much I have to thank Girlguiding for. So thank you to my sisters in Guiding that pushed me, challenged me and believed I could do it; that never told me, ‘you can’t’ or ‘don’t try.’ I owe you my career. I am thinking of you all today – happy Thinking Day.