Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: A humanitarian's crisis

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Dear Virginia,

I'm 22 and have just returned from Africa, where I worked with a voluntary agency. I feel really depressed. The lives of people there are so desperate and impoverished, and there are so many unhappy people in the camps that I feel guilty returning to my comfortable life and taking up a good job in the City. I'm torn between continuing a successful career and giving up everything to go back and work with these people. What can I do? I find myself crying every night, I'm so confused. Yours sincerely, Geraldine

There cannot be many of us who have seen the wretched lives of people in parts of the world that are not so fortunate as ours, who do not return at least feeling fantastically grateful for how lucky we are. And it's difficult, if we have any sensitivity at all, not to feel guilty. I've seen child beggars in India, child workers in factories, townships in South Africa, and orphanages in eastern Europe, and there is never a time when I don't return feeling quite sickened by my comparative affluence and profligacy. And I speak as someone who has always earned their own living, and who hasn't got a second home and a yacht in the Mediterranean.

So, what do you do about it? My instinct, in your case, is to give these feelings time before you give everything up, and help in the way you have been doing. I'm not suggesting the feelings will go away – they won't. But you might find you can help these people better by working in your City job and giving part of your money to the communities you feel deserving of it.

You might find you could spend all your holidays going back to Africa and helping, but not committing yourself at once. You might find that after a while you could get a job fund-raising or something connected to the financial side of a big charity. I know it probably will not be as instantly rewarding for you as distributing rice to starving villagers or helping them dig wells, but it will be a lot more rewarding for the communities themselves.

Or you could think of retraining as a doctor or teacher so you have a special skill to bring to the communities. You clearly have talents. It's not a question of "Do I indulge these talents or do I go back and help in day-to-day work?" it's a matter of "How can I harness my talents to benefit people less fortunate than myself?" It is for this reason that I think you ought to continue with your career in Britain, for the moment at least. You've given volunteering in Africa a chance; you haven't given banking a chance. You don't know what it's like or how involved you'll get. Without experiencing both, you won't know which you prefer or, indeed, how you could use the money you make from banking to fund part of your life as a volunteer.

You are young, and I imagine you have never before seen such sights as you saw in Africa. They can be upsetting, and I understand how utterly crushed and depressed you feel. But before you plunge in, step back. Be charitable to yourself and don't give yourself this cruel choice between being a saint or a sinner – as you see it. There will, I am sure, be a middle way that will be right for your and your gifts and the people you so desperately want to help.

A compassionate star

You are a very unusual person. Not everyone is capable of such depth of feeling. Most of us, I suspect, would be happy to send a direct debit of possibly £100 a month and never worry very much after that. You have almost been chosen, not in a religious sense, but as a person who could really do some good.

Your family – by which I think you do not mean spouse – must be very proud of you and would hate it if you left forever. Why not ask for a leave of absence from your job, with a firm beginning and ending date, and offer your services to an aid agency (of which there are many) and just go? But please do not go alone. There are a great many possible dangers and in the worst scenario you could end up dead.

Incidentally, huge congratulations to you for feeling the way you do. Don't go on crying at night – rejoice in your own humanity. You are a star. I wish the world had more people like you.

Bob Braithwaite, Oxford

Less romance, still good

How about giving up the City job and doing a socially worthwhile job in the UK? It looks like you have simply developed your social conscience. You do not have to go to Africa to work with desperate people, it is just less romantic doing it on your own doorstep. You would probably feel a whole lot better in yourself if you were a teacher, charity or social worker. It is at least giving something back to society.

Ginnie C, via email

Trading places

I really feel for you. I also spent a year in Africa when I was 22, through what is now called SkillShare Africa. That year changed my life. It led to my returning to Africa for a further seven years and then working for a world development agency for the rest of my working life.

The people of Africa do not want our tears or our pity. They want our understanding, friendship and solidarity, to work with them as they struggle to overcome poverty. Do not think about returning to Africa until you have worked through your feelings. Why not join an Oxfam group to build up your understanding of Africa's rich cultures and their development needs.

The most inspiring thing that my wife and I have done over the past five years since we retired is to campaign for justice in world trade. Lichfield, where we live, has become a Fairtrade city. Fairtrade inspires people. Buying Fairtrade goods directly benefits the world's poor and gives communities hope for a better future.

By all means take that good job in the City – and encourage financiers and business people to invest ethically in Africa. Trust me, you can change your life for the better as well if you direct your compassion and energies in a positive direction.

Michael Hawkes, Lichfield, Staffordshire

Next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I am beside myself because my son of 30 has just moved back home to live with us. He has lost his job and his girlfriend, and now it is clear why: he is an alcoholic. He doesn't get up until 3pm, and although he does a few chores around the house and cooks for us in the evenings, he does not contribute anything. He just sits in his chair, drinking himself dumb with alcohol, which he buys using his dole money. My disabled mother lives with us so he keeps an eye on her, which is a definite help, but he is in complete denial about his problem with drinking. What can we do?

Yours sincerely, Susan

What would you advise Susan to do? Email your dilemmas and comments to dilemmas@independent., or go to /dilemmas.