'It can be fraught with danger'

Shane Irwin, 45, is a volunteer theatre practitioner in Papua New Guinea for VSO, the international development charity that works through volunteers

What do you actually do?

I train local theatre troupes, teachers and trainers to use theatre skills to educate people in Papua New Guinea's remote rural communities about HIV and Aids.

My job is to pass on my skills and work with local teachers, teaching them how to use drama techniques and write scripts to raise awareness about sensitive issues. The theatre troupes come from local villages – a year ago, most of them hadn't thought about theatre. Now, they're developing dialogue and using traditional dance to tell others about HIV and Aids.

What's the schedule like?

We travel between villages, normally for three weeks at a time, visiting 10 to 15 villages on a tour. To get to the remote areas, we either have to cross the shark-infested Pacific in a speedboat, or take a tiny one-engine plane. It's fraught with danger and peril.

Once we arrive at a village, we try not to just go in and tell people what to do – it's participatory. We might perform a short play based on local culture, showing behaviour that leads to HIV, then ask the audience to intervene by putting their hands up to say what's wrong with that behaviour. We usually visit a village three or four times, answering any questions, addressing myths, and holding forums.

Why do you love what you do?

Twenty years ago, I got involved in theatre, and it was like a door opening for me. So, to see theatre working at this level is incredible. Papua New Guinea is so culturally diverse – there are 800 languages – and has a very verbal, visual culture, which is why theatre works so well here. It's such a rich experience, and as an outsider, to be invited into people's homes and communities is huge. It's also amazing to see the work of my local colleagues, who work tirelessly to spread knowledge in their society.

What's not great about it?

Physically, the touring is very hard. We often walk for six or seven hours between villages, through rough, mountainous terrain. It's unbelievably beautiful but very draining. Sometimes it can be hard to go to a new place and see people living there under the hardest conditions. Papua New Guinea is part of the Commonwealth, but I don't see many signs of our government helping them, and it makes me feel let down. The people living in these remote areas are our brothers, and we should be doing more for them.

What skills do you need to be an overseas volunteer?

You need people skills, because coming in from the outside, you need to immerse yourself in the culture – my teeth are wrecked now, because I chew betel nut all day like the locals. You also need tolerance, patience, determination, and the ability to adapt to new, strange situations. And you need skills you can offer to share with people – mine is education and theatre.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted your job?

If you're able to give your time, then do it. But you'll need to commit to it and give it your best. VSO volunteering assignments usually last one or two years, which is a long time to be away from home, so you need the support of your family. Before I came out to Papua New Guinea, I was teaching, snowed under with paperwork, and I wanted to find a way to put something back into the world.

It has been rewarding on so many levels. You don't necessarily have to have a defined set of professional skills to volunteer. Growing up in a society such as the UK means that you probably have a surprisingly wide range of skills already. Even playing the guitar, say, or coaching soccer, can be really helpful.

What's the salary and career path like?

You'll get a modest living allowance, with enough money to cover bills, food and clothes, but I'm coming back home absolutely broke. VSO has various programmes – the two-year programme is for professionals such as doctors or managers, but there are also shorter assignments.

Volunteering teaches you valuable career skills, but I don't think you should be looking to bolster your CV through volunteering – the main reason you should get involved is because you want to help.

For information on volunteering abroad, visit www.vso.org.uk

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