The time is now: Catherine Mahoney in Ethiopia

Having spent most of her career working in the Third Sector, Catherine Mahoney was always interested in volunteering abroad. But it wasn’t until she’d given up her full-time job – and become a Grandma! – that the time was right for her to volunteer.

What did you do before volunteering with VSO?

Most of my working life has been in the Third Sector, in community development and regeneration. About three and a half years ago I gave up my full-time job as director of a locally based regeneration organisation in Leeds because I wanted to do more hands-on work that interested me. Volunteering abroad was always at the back of my mind. I had worked in Ghana in my 20s, and I went back in 2006 to see if I could cope with life there and found that I still loved it. But you have to wait for the right moment!

What made you decide it was the right moment?

I knew that I was not ready to put my feet up – I still wanted a bit of adventure and challenge. I wanted to give back something to Africa because working in Ghana had given me so much – and at least now I had experience of developing projects and managing organisations to contribute. Filling in the VSO application forms and going to the assessment day felt like big steps, as I knew I would find it hard to leave my grandchildren if I was accepted.

What were your expectations of Ethiopia?

I did not have any very clear expectations of Ethiopia. Like anyone who watched TV in the mid-1980s, I had seen the shocking images of the famine, so I was surprised at how green Southern Ethiopia, where I work, can be. I am disturbed by the poverty – the number of children who sleep on the streets, who are hungry and have no one caring for them. I am also humbled by committed Ethiopians, particularly young people, who search for practical solutions to these problems.

Explain a little about the organisation you work with.

The SHAFON (Southern Nationalities Nations and People’s Region HIV and AIDS Forum of NGOs) is a small NGO with more than 75 member organisations, including associations of people living with HIV and AIDs, youth associations, faith-based and community-based organisations, development associations and international NGOs. SHAFON’s role is to help build capacity in member organisations, to aid communication among them and between NGOs and Government bodies, and to assist with networking and partnership formation.

What is your role?

My title is Fundraising Adviser and I have helped with developing funding proposals and lots of other things as well. I have visited member organisations in different parts of the region, helped develop a directory of member organisations, organised training, written guidelines on monitoring and evaluation, written and edited articles for the quarterly newsletter and website, taken part in experience-sharing trips, drafted and analysed questionnaires… and so it goes on! No two days are ever the same!

What do you feel is your greatest achievement?

I have helped the SHAFON to get resources for more staff to support member organisations – which is where the important work takes place. Some people tell me that just being interested in their work and supportive of them and their users makes a difference to their morale and motivation, and I have helped some small organisations access some additional funding. One example is Fiker Behiwot, which is the only association of orphaned young people and children in Ethiopia, and was set up by seven 17 years-olds – all orphans themselves. The founding members, now aged 22, form the management committee and undertake most of the work. Their participation in the SHAFON has given them a higher profile, introduced them to other organisations and possible funding sources, and helped them access training.

Would you recommend volunteering to others?

I recognise that volunteering in a developing country is not for everyone and it is important to acknowledge that there are challenges – we all miss family and friends, have to adjust to new ways of doing things and do not achieve all that we would like to! In spite of the challenges, it has definitely been an enriching experience for me. I have learned and am learning so much and feel very privileged to work alongside Ethiopian colleagues, and to have been welcomed into people’s lives and homes. It has also been stimulating to be part of the volunteer community, with people of different experiences, ages and countries of origin. I’m sure that some friendships made here with Ethiopians and with volunteers will last for the rest of my life.

How to apply

Interested in volunteering with VSO? Find out what you need to apply and begin your application process now.