Sian Whalley

Who am I?

I currently work in the development sector in Australia and have done so for about 5 years now. I am passionately engaged in my work and love contributing to communities in any way I can. I find work in the development sector to be complex but rewarding.
Whilst I work in the local community sector, I have always had goals to some day take my focus internationally and work in an international NGO. I am currently studying my Masters part time in International Development and hope to make the transition to an organisation like WWF once I am finished. When I applied for the program my motivation was to get practical hands on experience in a developing nation and also to work for an organisation with values that aligned with my own. My practical experience in Senegal was more than I could have hoped for. The experience challenged me professionally and I was able to use my existing skills to make a real and valuable contribution as well as get the experience I was after.
 / ©: WWF / Sian Whalley
Conducting the Baobab Project Environmental Community Survey with a female ecoguide from Joal Fadiouth
© WWF / Sian Whalley

A daunting situation...

Travelling to a foreign country can be daunting at the best of times, but working in a foreign country brings a whole new set of considerations to light. When I was recently accepted to participate in the WWF International Youth Volunteer program in Madagascar, I thought all my Christmases had come at once! As a Masters of Development Studies student who currently works in the local sector, I knew that having on the ground experience would be invaluable to my career goals. When I was informed that Madagascar would be my placement country I had images of cute furry Disney animals and tropical paradises consisting of long white beaches and coco trees. What ensued after having these preconceived notions was certainly no fairytale and taught me about resilience, the reality of development work, and to always be prepared for anything.
I took off from Melbourne airport sometime in February (it's now June), having left my job, my apartment, and my life in a whirlwind of three weeks preparation time. I was excited to work for an organisation I had held in high esteem and excited to go to my Disney paradise. Of course I was also nervous to arrive alone as a female traveller in Johannesburg, a city I had only heard very frightening things about. In contrast to Madagascar, I had images of guns, barbed wire fences, and muggings when it came to South Africa. Fortunately I arrived there with no incident and made it to backpackers in one piece. I will say my visions of barbed wire fences were correct, but I did not experience any guns, thank goodness!

Stranded in South Africa...

I had a three day stop planned and then it was off to Madagascar to begin the internship program which would give me my in-country experience and would count towards my studies. Just 24 hours after my arrival I received an email from WWF describing an escalated state of political violence in Madagascar. The email also informed me it would be wise to delay my ticket until further notice. Obviously this put me in a tricky position, I could be stuck in gun happy South Africa or face the perils of civil uprising in Madagascar. After consideration and conference with the other 5 interns I made the decision to delay my ticket by 2 weeks and wait it out (I mean how long could it really go on for?). The story after this played out as follows: the situation in Madagascar went from bad to worse, the US volunteer went ahead to Madagascar with his most poignant facebook status update being: Sawyer wishes the gunfire would stop; the three more conservative or perhaps smarter Europeans cancelled their trip altogether and the Aussie and Canadian went half way. An anthropological study in itself!!!!!

So, stranded in South Africa with a Canadian we both decided to make the best of a bad situation and ventured out into perilous South Africa while we nagged – no, stalked – the WWF to find us a new placement nearby. It took a month for this new placement to be confirmed and during that time I learnt that South Africa is a place of great natural beauty, its biggest danger (for us) being its very exciting night life and bar scene!!!!

A breakthrough... Senegal

The month went by and finally we were informed with great excitement by WWF International that they had found us a placement 'nearby'.
We were also thrilled since finances were running low and the prospect of bartending was fast becoming a reality! As it turned out, my perception of nearby was somewhat different to theirs. We were informed that we would be working for WWF West African Marine Ecoregion (WAMER) Projects in Senegal – a mere 8 hour plane ride from our current location! So off we went, to begin what we had originally made the trek for!!!! I am an imaginative young lady, and for this location had images of rally cars in Dakar and a modern seaside apartment with a cushy office job for three months. Again, not to be!

Of the six volunteers chosen for the original program, just three remained in Africa. I am thankful to report that Sawyer, the American, made it out of Madagascar in one piece to join us in Senegal. As for me, my experience has been interesting but definitely very challenging. As the pioneer volunteers for this region we have been faced with a number of obstacles and never did get that beachside apartment! We are alone in the field working directly with the local community whose primary language is Wolof and secondary language is French.

WWF WAMER

WWF WAMER has over the past 5 years set up 5 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Senegal, with their objectives: to preserve natural biodiversity, to limit certain sectors such as fishing, and to create economic benefits for the community. These MPAs are governed by a Committee of Management made up of primary stakeholders and WWF promotes the program as being a participatory approach to development.

Given that the Senegal office had never hosted volunteers within this programme, our objectives and supervision has been new for all involved, meaning that we have had to be completely autonomous during this process which has been both beneficial and difficult at the same time. I have conducted a situation analysis of the MPA and local perspectives about the environment which involved surveying 85 members of the community and holding a series of meetings with prominent players in the area. The findings were very interesting and lots of new information came to light for the WWF including a real need to create a school-based environmental education program which I am currently drafting the project plan for. Work-wise, things have progressed excellently and our Canada-Aussie team should be proud of our accomplishments in such challenging circumstances.
 / ©: WWF / Sian Whalley
On the rooftop at WWF Dakar-arrived at last........and very excited!
© WWF / Sian Whalley
 / ©: WWF / Sian Whalley
In Senegal the Baobab tree symbolises wisdom, unity and collective thinking. In a meeting with some local elders who are passionately engaged in their local environmental initiaives
© WWF / Sian Whalley

Alice in Wonderland...

So what should you expect from an international volunteer placement with WWF? I can only speak from my experience which obviously has been very unpredictable.
  • Each country differs but you can always expect to be utterly confused, and disheartened at some point, especially if you are in the field full time.
  • You can also expect to meet some inspirational people who will change the way you think forever and who will make a lasting impression about what it really means to be resilient, and to cope with adversity.
  • If you like your creature comforts, be prepared to give them up for a while and I personally think the best approach is to have a wicked sense of humor.
  • Make the assumption that your diet will be simple if not at some point disgusting, grin and bear it as your hosts will have spent a good portion of their income making thisamazing meal for you!
I have likened Senegal to one of my favourite childhood stories. Back in February after a flurry of jabs, and last minute preparation I followed the white rabbit into the rabbit hole to find myself in a land of real life mad hatter tea parties, ten minute greetings and handshakes with every person and running in water (at times) to get dry. My natural curiosity took me to this land and I am sure I have met the Cheshire Cat! This is a place I will never fully understand, but I have grown as a person and have met some lifelong friends as well as gained a real understanding of development work. Like Alice, at times it has been frustrating but the experience has been well worth it!

You ask – do I still want to work in this field? Even more! Thank you WWF!!!!!!

You can expect to meet some inspirational people who will change the way you think forever, and who will make a lasting impression about what it really means to be resilient, and to cope with adversity.

 / ©: WWF / Sian Whalley
At the local port with some fish processing women. The port of Joal Fadiouth is the heart of this small towns commercial activities and the understanding of these people of their relationship with the local environment is integral to WWF's success in the area
© WWF / Sian Whalley

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