Expanding the Boundaries of Our Capacities through Working toward Experiencing Transformative Learning in Service

Oliver Ngodo

Oliver Ngodo


Oliver Ngodo

Some people would recall that some time they simply become aware that they have gone through a ‘peak’ experience; they have reached an ecstatic moment – no, much more than just a moment, but a permanent state, resulting in greater clarity and understanding. That’s like when your consciousness expanded – and you knew it. You just see yourself as a fresh product! That’s me, coming out of some two years of situations and events that would invariably lead to increased arousal and excitement, even disappointments, therefore, offering stimulant for deep reflection, and potentially prompting change in the totality of my being.

In this period of two years, I was in service as CUSO International volunteer, in the field of international development, called up to serve as Integral Leadership Trainer. As I look back to it all – how it all started, how I was at the beginning of it all – my state of consciousness, what motivated me, as in the goals I sought to achieve – comparing with the reality at the moment, it’s incredible; transcending and including all that one could possibly have reckoned with two years ago. This period of two years, in an attempt to make whatever contributions one could in international development, has ended up triggering an incredible evolutionary leap in my life, my worldview, resulting in great transformative learning, as in experiencing a deep structural shift in the basic premises of my thought, my feelings and my actions. This entails a shift of consciousness that dramatically and permanently alters my way of being in the world. It furthermore involves deep understanding of myself and my self-locations, my relationship with other humans, and with the natural world, my understanding of relations of power in interlocking structures of class, race, and gender and body-awareness and my sense of possibilities for social justice, for peace and for personal joy. It is a total transformation for me, all rounds. This kind of looking back now, therefore, cannot possibly take the form of “What have I achieved?” or “What contributions have I made?” It cannot even be a quantitative kind of “What lessons have I learned?” What one can possibly do in a write up like this can only be some sort of deep reflection on “How have I changed?” together with “What experiences led to these deep changes?”

How I Have Changed

I think the most identifiable fundamental quality that has emerged out of the “Me” that started out on this volunteer experience with CUSO International two years ago is this subtle inner capacity to understand myself, people in general, and the nuances of our, their, behavior configurations. To make a profound sense of it all, I had to consciously develop (out of a quality of mine that people would generally, even if casually, describe as “too critical”, “too idealistic”) an open mind and a genuine desire to learn and expand. Indeed, I came to realize that we all need to explore the unmapped territory of our minds and develop it to the full, if we are each to have the insight to be able to effectively cut through the blinkered thinking in our environments, and make an impact on what is happening to our world’s social, economic and ecological systems.

Resolving the chaos of fixed ideas, which nearly every one of us has, to some extent, to varying degrees, is a gradient process of analysis, of re-discovering objective reality and the honest truth about ourselves. This realization came to me from gradually learning that ego is just like dust in the eyes and without clearing the dust one could not see anything clearly. Right now, I can more clearly comprehend the universal structures that we all share. I can also have a real feel of the dynamics and textures as well as the fundamental developmental differences that end up making us all unique. This leads me to far greater capacity to take multiple perspectives on practically every issue, creating greater capacity for empathy in me, which makes interpersonal relationship in this post-modern world of dizzying complexity easy, even enjoyable.

Then there came a transformation in my motivation. I learned, over time, that before any progress happens on a spiritual path or even a professional line, motivation must be established. An individual can be said to be situated within the wide context of their world and life. This would involve different levels of operation at which learning and change can take place. An individual’s sense of motivation in life is thus intrinsically linked to past and present experiences where they have stretched their capability and made an attempt to make an adventure of their life. Generally, situations or events that lead to increased arousal and excitement, offering stimulant for deep reflection, thus potentially prompting change, are likely to be experienced as stressful and disappointing. If this is viewed so, it may produce adverse somatic and psychological consequences for the individual, making them withdraw to a state of mind and behavior that manifest as sulking. On the other hand, perspective taking will lead the person to revert quickly to the state where they get actively and positively involved, resulting in their not only being unaffected, but may actually thrive and flourish in that particular, otherwise unpleasant situation, which could have been regarded as stressful or disappointing.

Consciously analyzing all events and situations, and actors in them, and trying to state and re-state everything I could imagine of the perspectives of all other stakeholders, made me develop a mental image of what I regarded as model posture, which would manifest in an individual who appears to thrive on stresses and disappointments instead of cringing at them. For such a hypothetical person a seemingly endless series of mishaps, disappointments and calamities may befall them, but they maintain a cheery outlook, a buoyant sense of humor, and an apparently indomitable spirit, which obviously make learning easy and conscious. Meandering through such incidents this way flushes out emotions, bringing only the objective realities into focus. With this, no emotions are bottled up. Instead mental health is greatly promoted.

To such individuals with this ideal posture, the kind of events and situations that would be regarded as threatening or sources of stress by others, are seen as exciting challenges to be met and overcome. These things arouse curiosity in the individuals, making them consciously control the events along paths of happy ending for all, and keeping them busy monitoring the eventual outcomes. This engenders creativity and resourcefulness, creativity being a special kind of thinking that involves originality, aptness and fluency that breaks away from existing patterns and introduces something new and context-specific. Creativity in this way may also be applied to problem solving, in which case it facilitates the generation of a range of possible solutions, in particular to problems that have no single right answer. And many contending issues among individuals in all kinds of relationship hardly ever have single right answers. This offers great opportunities for training in open-mindedness. Alternatively, and most productively, this would be applied to the process of creating – in the sense of realizing a deeply held vision, empowered by a tension-resolution system, which is put in place by the existing reality being differentiated from a desired vision.

From these transformative learning experiences, I have greatly bolstered my capacity for compassion, compassion for all, including myself. This is penetrating insight, which arises from the recognition that we are all parts of an interconnected universe. In this, it becomes clear that we are part of everything and everything is part of us. This realization makes compassion for all a natural spring up. This compassion naturally predisposes us to encounter the world in a more authentic way. In this configuration, one no longer sees oneself as a separate ego competing with others, but as someone who is connected to others. And this makes for acceptance of all, just as they are and just as they act, without harsh judgments. And this includes self-acceptance. It makes us dwell in a state relatively free of tension and fears that have root in our rather natural tendency for destructive judgment, criticism and castigation. This new realization is a revolution coming out of my old self generally regarded as too critical and idealistic, even too judgmental.

Experiences Leading to These Deep Changes

The past decades have seen significant shifts in the profile and role of volunteers assigned to work in developing countries. Volunteers have increased in average age; they now have greater practical experience; they come from the North and now for some reasons more significantly, they also come from the South. There is also a new tendency that is the increasing demand and expectation that a volunteer would be able to assist in strengthening their host organization as an organization. For some organizations, this may be the volunteer’s sole task.

Alternatively it may occur alongside the transfer of technical expertise in a particular development activity. Whatever the case, the issue is how volunteers can be most effective in capacity building, understood in terms of a dedicated process of Organizational Development (OD). This means their being competent to engage in placement and interventions, which look beyond a particular development project or program. The objectives of this include enhancing the organizational capacities of the host. This calls for approaches that would enhance volunteer professionalism and effectiveness at Organizational Development.

In broad terms, organizational development is a conscious process dedicated to improving effectiveness and viability of the organizations. Often the decision to embark on OD should stem from both internal forces and the need to respond to rapidly changing external conditions. For most organizations that desire to embark on OD, external assistance in terms of specialist advisers or consultants is frequently employed to help change happen. For some other organizations, they resort to requesting volunteers for this purpose or as part of some other work of the volunteer. In most cases how advisers go about this task cannot be pre-defined from the start. Selecting an appropriate role and method or methods is part of the process of external engagement or entry, which requires some level of managerial competence on the part of the host organization to, at least, work with the adviser/volunteer to effectively map out the nature and direction of the change to be induced.

The way advisers work may vary, but in all cases, it is vital that the host organization remains in control of, and responsible for its own change. This cannot be given to an outsider, which is what the volunteer is in essence. This factor has high potential for generating tension. If the organization is incapable of functioning as an organization, as in lacking basic structures that define an organization, and the volunteer determines to work to create these structures, but discovers lack of understanding of this need or indifference to it or even that this need is deliberately being sustained for some reasons the organization is not able to disclose, the work of the volunteer along this line may run into difficulties.

The range of interpretation for such situations may indeed be longer, indicating the level of confusion in the signals emanating from the leadership of the organization in question and the resulting stress and disappointment which the volunteer must contend with. This is simply because in all cases, a volunteer’s professionalism stems from two things. First is the insight gained from a sound ‘reading’ of the organization itself and in relation to its environment. Second is the building of a foundation of trust with the host organization. Both of these two factors can be seen to have been injured by the scenario outlined above. The ideal situation is that the outsider’s interests and agenda must be perceived to be aligned with the interests and agenda of the organization itself. This demonstrates the frustration inherent in an atmosphere where the interest and agenda of the organization or of the leadership cannot be ascertained. This does not mean that disagreement cannot or should not arise. Under normal circumstances there may be disagreements, but often, in this case, an outsider’s view can and must be sharper and less constrained by internal power relations or unquestioned conventions. In sum, organizational insight and a relationship of trust are vital pre-conditions for any external change agent to be effective. And when a host organization impedes generation of insight and development of trust by the volunteer, they simply make the work of this volunteer stressful, if not impossible.

Volunteers, therefore, can at times face a particularly awkward situation as potential agents of OD. They are often referred to as ‘outsiders inside’ the host organization. The appropriate choice of their OD role and type of intervention must therefore deal with a number of contradictions and dilemmas that ‘non-employee’ advisers or consultants, who are simply outsiders, seldom face. Consequently, alignment of host and adviser’s agenda and interests cannot simply be assumed; they have to be carefully explored and negotiated. And that is why it can be undermining the work of the volunteer, if the host organization cannot or will not make itself understood as to what its interests and agenda are.

Systematically determining the interests and agenda of an organization for this purpose is done through a process usually termed “reading” the host organization and environment. Reading requires building up a reasonable, accurate and dynamic picture of what is going on inside the host and then relating this to what is happening outside the environment of the organization. This comparison feeds into one part of forming an accurate judgment of what change is desirable and possible. Basically, organizational reading is a form of diagnosis. It normally takes the form of asking the right questions and searching for and testing satisfactory answers. In almost all cases, these aids to capacity diagnosis are based on the principles of participatory self-assessment. In other words, the task of an adviser is to help the organization think critically about itself in a systematic way. This underlines the cooperative nature of the exercise. An important part of reading is to find out the host organization’s real expectations of the volunteer. This factor of expectations of the volunteer on the part of the host organization is a critical factor in ensuring harmony between the volunteer and the host. It is well known that the aid system generates all sorts of reasons for host organizations to say one thing about their motives for requesting a volunteer, and actually mean something else that only appears to the volunteer over time, while they undertake the reading process. Typical is the expectation that a volunteer will either bring or at least provide easier access to funds. A common result, when reality varies, is friction, impatience and frustration that adversely affect the volunteers and their work.

When faced with these sorts of situations, volunteers can react in various ways. Some request re-assignment. Others have chosen to terminate their placement prematurely. Yet many choose to continue in the placement, but in anguish and frustration, which makes the volunteer experience very harrowing. However in all cases it is more rewarding to view things in perspective, to work to develop consciousness and to learn and grow from these experiences. Volunteers should look beyond the host organization for motivation while planning to volunteer and while on placement. The impacts of their work on people in the environment and in the wider society as well as the capacity they are developing in themselves in their placement should offer far greater joy to them and make them persevere no matter the discouragements that may emanate from the host organization.


Without the very active support received from CUSO International, VSO International and One Sky, the kind of growth being described here would have been impossible to achieve.

Volunteering with CUSO International leads to explosion in the repertoire of knowledge and experience that the volunteers have to draw from for the rest of their lives. The placement invariably exposes the volunteer to growth opportunities around the world. I greatly appreciate this.

VSO’s organizational capacity is proverbial. They gave us effective cover in all respects – equipping us with the state of the art training to boost our professional standing, very closely supervising us to ensure we are moving in the right direction, very actively concerned about our personal security almost to the extent of sacrificing their own personal security and so much more.

One Sky has been the initiator that drew me to volunteering in the first place. I deeply appreciate their effort in persevering and finally making it possible for me to be called up by CUSO International. I particularly appreciate the sacrifices of Mike Simpson and Gail Hochachka in arranging to fly me over a very long haul from Malaysia to Canada and then to Nigeria, at a time CUSO International was not yet ready for that. One Sky also conditioned the atmosphere that spurred us to creativity and self-determination, by staying mostly out of events at the work environment. This made us learn to swim or sink, and swim we did. As we leave, these circumstances and events will continue to be greatly cherished in the deepest recesses of my memory. Great thanks to all.

Very special thanks are due to Dr. Russ Volckmann, my mentor par excellence. He served as the link between all other organizations and individuals involved in this outing, on the one hand and me, on the other hand. His intervention became a game-changer for me as it was never in my plan to return to Nigeria in the next ten years. However, bracing up for this volunteer opportunity has clearly demonstrated that it is not after all a bad idea returning home at this point in time. Being in contact with Russ has been immense blessings for me. I forever remain grateful.

 About the Author

Dr. Oliver Ngodo, PhD is a Nigerian, on CUSO International placement as the Leading From Within Program Director. He is Associate Editor & Bureau Chief for Sub-Saharan Africa, Integral Leadership Review.