Laughing and learning the Norwegian-Colombian way

Published: 3 January 2001 0:00 CET

Irma Lubbinge in Geneva

Fun is the key to learning and few people have more enjoyment than those at the Colombian Red Cross who train young volunteer leaders. Their system so impressed the visiting youth director of the Norwegian Red Cross, Havard Hovdhaugen, that the Colombians were invited to Oslo to teach their methods.

"I realised that their way of training youth volunteers was much more efficient and less boring than ours," says Havard. "I wanted my colleague Francisco Afandor to come to Norway and teach us the Colombian way of training."

Francisco, who is the vice-director of the youth department at the Colombian Red Cross Society, says they use games to make the theory more interesting. "After the workshops our volunteers always tell us how much fun they had. More importantly, they have more awareness of issues," he says. The system is paying dividends. The Colombian Red Cross has 81,000 volunteers working on relief programmes, social welfare and community development programmes. Of these, 76,000 are youth workers.

After almost five months in Norway, Francisco is returning to Colombia. During his stay he organised several workshops for youth volunteers and visited schools to raise awareness of the Red Cross as well as Colombia's culture. One of the main themes was humanitarian values. "To introduce this we divide participants into two rooms where they have to read the information on the walls without commenting," Francisco says. "In the first room, they read all kind of news items on disasters, wars and social problems while listening to heavy music. In the other room, they read what the Norwegian Red Cross is doing to address these problems, while nice music plays in the background. It helps focus the mind on humanitarian issues."

To raise awareness of mines, Francisco asks the youngsters to walk with buckets that are speared with needles and filled with water and balloons. As the water drains the youngsters try to prevent the balloons from exploding on the needles. "It's a lot of fun, but when I tell them that many people have to walk like this to prevent land mines from exploding, the room falls silent," says Francisco. His mission is part of an agreement between the youth departments of the Norwegian Red Cross and the Colombian Red Cross.

Volunteers in Norway financially support a social programme for disabled children in Tumaco, in the Colombian capital Bogotá. "By selling food, collecting bottles and even making CDs, our volunteers raise money to pay doctors in Colombia who visit these children and their families," says Havard. Francisco says the programme has already had an impact, with 40 children and their families benefiting: "The doctors check the health of these children and also train their parents, as fathers, especially, tend to reject their disabled children."

The two National Societies also exchange 'friendship boxes'. Children in Norway put in a box items they want to share about their culture with children in Colombia who in turn return it with souvenirs from their country. Whenever a Red Cross worker travels between the countries, he or she brings the box to the respective National Society.

"We support them with money, they support us with their knowledge," concludes Havard. Francisco is also happy with the partnership. "I am sad to leave Norway but happy to go back with a new agreement for further cooperation."