Capturing VSA’s history on tape

Published on 29th October 2012

As part of this year’s 50th anniversary celebrations VSA has funded a small oral history project to record the experiences of some of our longest-serving former volunteers and staff. Ruth Nichol reports.


John and Di McKinnon on assignment.

On balance, John and Di McKinnon preferred having body lice to having fleas.


“They told me that body lice were easier to deal with because they don’t move very fast, while fleas are a damned nuisance because they’re so quick and hard to catch,” says Jiff Stewart, who interviewed the McKinnons for an oral history project commissioned by VSA as part of this year’s 50th anniversary celebrations.


John and Di were VSA’s first volunteers in Nepal from 1966 to 1969. John worked as a doctor at Khunde Hospital, which was built by VSA’s first president Sir Edmund Hillary,

and Di taught English at nearby Khumjung School. Di in particular has remained very involved with VSA since then. She was Council chair from 1984 to 1989, was a stalwart of the Nelson branch for many years, and has also helped with selection interviews.


John McKinnon doing a check-up for a local child.

Body lice were a fact of life in Nepal. One child who came to the hospital had so many lice that his clothes were moving; they had to be removed and burnt.


But according to Jiff, while life was often tough for the McKinnons and for fellow interviewee Neil Bellingham, who volunteered in Thailand from 1964 to 1966,  none of them complained about the difficulties they faced.


“It was very much frontier stuff,” she says. “It was very, very cold in Nepal and John and Di had no electricity, only a little wood stove. For Neil, Thailand was hot and steamy and the lifestyle was pretty basic. For all of them communication with people at home was almost impossible. But at no stage did any of them say that life was tough.”


The interviews will be added to a small VSA oral history archive that so far includes interviews with seven school leaver volunteers from the 1960s and 1970s carried out in 2005. All those interviewed by Jiff Stewart have been involved with VSA for 25 years or more. As well as the

McKinnons and Neil Bellingham, she interviewed VSA’s current president Gavin Kerr and VSA’s longest serving staff member Carolyn Mark.


For Jiff, who spent a year as a VSA volunteer in Samoa in 1968, one of the interesting things to emerge from the interviews is just how highly regarded VSA volunteers are in their host countries.


“A very strong theme is the critical role that VSA has played in relationship-building in the countries it has worked in. Volunteers are ambassadors for New Zealand and they are well regarded – there is a lot of goodwill towards VSA volunteers.”


It also gave her an insight into how life-changing the experience of volunteering can be. The McKinnons, for example, have maintained close ties with Nepal. John returned there frequently to perform eye operations and Di runs a company that organises tours to Nepal Tibet, India and Japan.


“It was such a gift to listen to these people whose lives were profoundly changed by being a VSA volunteer.”


Jiff is now about to embark on an independent oral history project that will be added to the archive. She has received Ministry of Culture and Heritage funding to interview people who came to New Zealand as the spouses or partners of returning volunteers.


If you are interested in taking part in this project, please contact Jiff Stewart by email or call 04 4757613.


Neil Bellingham, on assignment in Thailand.



* For more information about VSA’s oral history archive, or to listen to the tapes or read the abstracts, contact VSA 04 472 5759, info@vsa.org.nz


This article was originally published in VISTA magazine, October 2012.


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